As I have said before, movies about the past are very often movies about the present. Screenwriters and directors often shape their stories about the past to reflect the concerns and interests of the present, either consciously or unconsciously. The 300 Spartans (1962, dir. Rudolph Maté) is a good example of this principle.
Maté made his film at the height of the Cold War. In October of that year, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world pretty much literally to the brink of nuclear war. The United States and Western Europe were deeply at odds with the Soviet Union and the states of Communist Eastern Europe, and many in the West saw the Communists as being hell-bent on conquering the West and exporting Communism around the planet. There was a sense that the Soviets possessed a nameless vast throng of troops willing to do anything for their ruthless masters.
That made the Persians an ideal stand-in for the Soviets. Xerxes (David Farrar), with his army that Herodotus claims was 2.5 million men (and which modern historians have estimated to be a more plausible 200,000) suggested the immense Soviet army. And Xerxes was launching an unprovoked invasion of Greece, exactly as Americans expected the Soviets would do to Europe.
In contrast, the Greeks are disunited at the start of the movie, with the Spartans, Athenians, Corinthians and others arguing and refusing to acknowledge the threat Xerxes poses. Leonidas (Richard Egan) and Themistocles (Ralph Richardson) are capable of seeing the situation and rising above their traditional rivalries. But back in Sparta, the ephors resist his effort to raise the Spartan army. This would seem to parallel the political debates in Europe about following the American lead, and the debates within America about being “strong on defense”. Indeed, less than a year after the film was released, France took its initial steps at withdrawing from NATO.
The McCarthite Red Scare imagined a fifth column of Communists within the United States betraying the country, just the way that the villainous Ephialtes (Kieron Moore) betrays the Spartans by showing Xerxes how to get his troops around the Spartan position.
There is constant talk in the film about how Greece needs to unify and become one people in order to deal with the threat. Themistocles dreams of a united Greece, and Leonidas seems to think it is a reasonable idea as well. While their city-states are opposed to each other, the two men show no sign of hostility. The film assumes that the unification of Greece was an obvious, almost foregone, conclusion, if only the various city-states could see it.
In reality, however, unification was far from obvious to the ancient Greeks. Ancient Greek culture was built around shared cultural identity, not political unity. The topography of Greece made political unification from within almost impossible; no Greek city-state could build up a large enough territory to truly subjugate its neighbors, because travel by land was difficult and Greece was resource-poor compared to the great territorial states of the Ancient world, such as Egypt or Persia.
Instead, the Greeks found their unity in a shared language, the worship of common gods, the celebration of the Olympic Games, and other similar cultural features. It would be as if all English-speaking, Christian countries were one people, regardless of what government they had. So the idea of all Greek city-states achieving some sort of political union was simply alien to the way Greeks understood their society. The film makes little sense within an historical Greek context.
But as a coded plea to American society (or perhaps Western society more broadly) to unify against the Soviet threat, the film makes a good deal of sense. It highlights the need for the Republicans and Democrats to work together to oppose the Communist threat, and for the various Western countries to work more closely together. The epilogue describes Thermopylae as “a stirring example to free people throughout the world about what a few brave men can accomplish once they refuse to submit to tyranny.” Given that non-Communist society was frequently referred to as “the Free World” in this period, the message is obvious. We can end Communism’s threat if we just stay together. It will require bravery and sacrifice, but it will work.
Unlike 300, The 300 Spartans at least acknowledges that Thermopylae didn’t stop the Persians. Themistocles discusses his plans for winning the naval battle at Salamis, although the film doesn’t show Salamis at all (perhaps because of the challenges of depicting Greek naval combat with the film technology of the time).
The 300 Spartans offers a nice object lesson that historical movies are frequently coded messages about the period in which they were made. It was as much about the Soviet threat as science fiction films of the period such as Invaders from Mars were.
Want to Know More?
The 300 Spartans is available at Amazon.
Our best source for the Persian Wars is Herodotus’ The Histories, Revised (Penguin Classics).There’s also a version, Herodotus: The Persian War (Translations from Greek and Roman Authors), that’s only the sections about the Persian Wars with scholarly explanations added.
Philip Souza’s book on the The Greek and Persian Wars 499-386 BCis a good introduction to the subject.