The 300 Spartans (1962)

 

 

 

Director:    Rudolph Mate.

Starring:    Richard Egan (King Leonidas),  Ralph Richardson (Themistocles of Athens),  Diane Baker (Ellas),  Barry Coe (Phylon),  David Farrar (Xerxes),  Donald Houston (Hydarnes),  Anna Synodinou (Gorgo),  Kieron Moore (Ephialtes),  John Crawford (Agathon the Spartan Spy),  Robert Brown (Pentheus),  Anne Wakefield (Artemisa).

 A good film about the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) that was followed by the battle of the Greek Spartans against the Persians at Thermopylae (480-479).  The battle became celebrated in history and literature as an example of heroic resistance against great odds.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

There is a " . . . lonely pillar in a desolate pass some 200 miles north of modern Athens.  Across the hush of 24 centuries, this is the story of a turning point in history  --  of a blazing day when 300 Greek warriors fought here to hold with their lives their freedom and ours." 

"In the year 480 B.C., King Xerxes of Persia set in motion his enormous slave empire to crush the small group of independent Greek states, the only stronghold of freedom still remaining in the then known world." 

At last Persian troops are on European soil.  Mardonius tells Xerxes that it will take about seven days and seven nights before all the troops have crossed over.  Xerxes is out for revenge for his father's defeat at the hands of the Greeks.  He says ten years ago his father sent a mere wave of troops and they were defeated at Marathon.  But now, he is "leading an ocean".  The Persians bring a captured spy who was counting the number of Persian troops.  Xerxes speaks to the man asking him if it is true the Spartans are the best warriors the Greeks have.  The many only replies that Xerxes will find out soon enough for himself. Xerxes is going to have the man's head cut off until someone whispers something into his ear.  He has the execution called off. 

He wants the man to travel to the Greek assembly at Corinth and tell them what he has seen here.  The fellow, named Agathon, is given a horse and told to go.  Just as he starts out, a Greek named Grellus jumps out at him.  Agathon doesn't like him, because, although the fellow says he is here with Demaratus, Agathon knows he is here with Xerxes.  Demaratus was once a king in Sparta before being exiled.  Grellus asks Agathon to tell his son Phylon not to judge his father before he has heard all the facts.  Agathon just uses his horse whip to slash Grellus across his face.  The spy leaves for Corinth (on Pelopponnesus between Sparta also on Pelopponnesus and Athens on Attica). 

At night Xerxes has an elaborate dinner and speaks with Demaratus, who tells him the Spartans will fight, even if they are ruled by two kings now.  Demaratus says the man who kicked him out of Sparta is just an usurper, but the second king Leonidas is a true Spartan king.  Leonidas could defeat anyone put up against him.  Xerxes says that Demaratus was a Spartan king and yet he doesn't look tough at all.  Demaratus says he has never met the man he couldn't beat.  So Xerxes has Demaratus fight a good Persian fighter.  Demaratus ends up stabbing the younger man and he goes down.  Xerxes is shocked. 

At this time Artemisia of Helicarnassus (an ancient Greek city on the southwest coast of Caria, Anatolia (Asia Minor)), enters the room to the great pleasure of the king.  Artemisia makes a joke about Demaratus no longer being a king and Demaratus walks away from her and the king.  Xerxes tells Artemisia that above anything else, he doesn't want the Greeks at Corinth to unite.  

At Corinth, Themistocles of Athens, speaks out for unity in their approach to the invading Persians.  Another speaker says the Athenian is just scared for his own city's fate and wants to drag the other states with her into a hopeless war.  Themistocles says Athens has a strong navy, but Sparta has the best army.  So they call on King Leonidas of Sparta to say what Sparta will do.  He says Sparta will fight.  Themistocles is so happy to hear this that he places the Athenian fleet under Spartan command.  All the delegates are exited by the words of Themistocles. 

In private Themistocles speaks with Leonidas.  Together they pick out a place where the massive army of Persia will be less decisive.  Rather than fight the Persians on open ground, they will fight them at the Pass of Thermopylae in coastal northeast Greece.  Themistocles will sail in north of the Persians to protect the Spartan's flank.  They will met again at the Bay of Locris.  When Leonidas and Themistocles part, Agathon grabs the Spartan king.  He tells him that the Persian army is larger than a man could imagine and at night there are more campfires is one huge space than there are stars in the sky. 

Xerxes is flirting with Artemisia while dancing girls dance for them.  Hydarnes comes in to say that the Greeks have abandoned the whole of Thessaly (between Macedonia to the north and central Greece to the south).  Xerxes said he already knew that Thessaly would be abandoned.  Hydarnes tells Xerxes that he must send some cavalry to the Pass of Thermopylae to secure that narrow corridor.  The king gets angry at Hydarnes and tells him that he will leave the pass to the Greeks so they can come out and fight on the plains of Thessaly.  He tells Hydarnes to go. 

On their way to Sparta, Leonidas and Agathon stop for a rest.  There Agathon tells him about the traitor who is with the Persians:  Grellus.  He also says that the man's son Phylon should be questioned. 

Phylon has a serious girlfriend, Ellas, the niece of King Leonidas.  He is going to ask Leonidas for his permission to marry her.  Ellas says that she will talk to her aunt, Queen Gorgo, about getting married.  The couple seems very happy.

The Spartans prepare for war.  Queen Gorgo speaks the laws sacred to a Spartan warrior to Phylon.  She then gives Phylon a shield where are written the words "With this or on this."  This means to come back victorious from battle or come back on top of the shield dead. 

The Spartan council of elders are speaking with King Leotychides.  Some of them suggest that Spartan troops should not tread north of Corinth.  Leonidas arrives and gives an impassioned call for a united Greek effort so that they can avoid being forced into slavery by the Persians. 

Leonidas comes home and sees his wife.  He talks to her of heading north to fight at the Pass of Thermopylae. 

The next morning Leonidas is itching to get started on his way to Themopylae.  A messenger comes and tells him he must go the the Council because the prediction of the Oracle at Delphi has just come in.  The priestess says that either Spartan fights and is defeated or one of the Spartan Kings dies.  Now the Council has to decide what to do. 

Leonidas appoints Pentheus, son of Sallus and father of Ellas, his second in command.  He asks permission for Phylon and his daughter Ellas to come to speak to Leonidas.  Permission granted.  The couple comes in and Phylon asks that Leonidas act in his father's place and give him permission to marry.  Leonidas has Agathon tell Phylon where his father is.  Agathon says he is with the Persion King and the ex-king Demaratus.  Phylon can't believe it.  Agathon assures him it is true.  So Phylon asks permission to fight in the front ranks against the Persians so that he might wipe out this family disgrace.  Leonidas says he can't put him in the front ranks and possibly hurt morale because of what his father has done.  In fact, he asks Phylon to give up his red war cloak. 

Ellas tells her aunt that she can't find Phylon anywhere and is very worried about him.  Leonidas comes in to say that the Council has given permission for the troops to go, but not until after the sacred festival of Carnea.  But he will march with his personal body guard today.  The Queen knows that this means that her husband will only have 300 men with him.  She wants him to wait and lead the whole army, but the king says that marching even today may too late. 

Ellas finds Phylon to give him his shield.  She tells him to follow Sparta's soldiers as they go marching by and prove to Leonidas that he can and will fight for Sparta and Greece. The men halt at the Bay of Locris to wait to meet Themistocles.  Themistocles is rowed to shore to meet with Leonidas.  Meanwhile, Phylon and Ellas stop to rest at the Bay.  Phylon spears a fish for supper.  Themistocles says he has 271ships lying in the straits.  The Persians have 1,200 ships. 

Demophalus comes in and greets Leonidas.  He has brought his warriors of Thespiae to join him.  He has about 700 volunteers.  They will join the Spartans soon.  In the morning the mean arrive at Themopylae.  Standing behind a low wall, Leonidas looks out and sees the Persians at camp in the distance.  He tells his men:  "From this wall, we do not retreat."  Phylon brings Ellas to a goat herder's cabin.  The wife puts her to bed and takes care of her.  A man is staying with the family by the name of Ephialtes, who is not very bright.  Phylon asks the goat herder about the Persians and the old man takes Phylon to a viewing point where he can see the vast Persian camp.  The herder says more troops are still coming.  He also tells Phylon that there is an old goat track that winds through the mountains and it comes down beyond the pass.  Ephialtes overhears the farmer's remarks.  He smiles when he hears the goat herder tell Phylon that King Xerxes would pay a heap of gold to know about the old goat path. 

The herder goes to tell Leonidas about that other pass that leads through the mountains.  Hearing this, Leonidas has all the Phocian troops taken to it to block it off.  The goat herder will lead the way.  Meanwhile, Leonidas and his men keep building up the middle gate of the pass. 

Xerxes says the Spartans at the pass are mad!  He hopes their whole army shows up soon, because he would like to wipe out the entire Spartan army here and now.  Whiles he talks, the dead body of his brother Cyrus is brought and laid down on the ground before the king.  He demands to know what happened to his brother and is told that he went on patrol with a small group of men and they were suddenly attacked by the wild Spartans.  He was killed in the fight.  Xerxes orders that the surviving members of the patrol be buried with his brother.  He also says that tomorrow they will take the pass and then march on.  The men are granted permission to party with the women, but tomorrow the women must be killed.  He wants his men to be hungry to get at the plentiful women of Athens and Sparta. 

The Spartans can see by all the activity in the Persian camp that they are preparing to attack next morning.  They have to buy themselves time to finish working on the walls, therefore, Leonidas tells Agathaon to get him 30 good swimmers.  The king wants to go after Xerxes in his fancy tent. 

The goat herder takes Phylon down to the Spartan camp.  There the Spartan grabs pieces of uniform and equipment until he has a complete uniform.  He then intermixes with the 30 volunteers going on the raid.  The raiders can hear the Persian men and women whooping it up.  The Spartans come ashore and walk up the steps to the tent of Xerxes.  They kill the guards there.  They go into the tent only to learn that Xerxes has gone to visit the queen.  So the raiders torch many tents before they leave.

Xerxes is busy kissing the queen when a messenger arrives to tell him and the queen that the king's camp is burning.  The Spartans rush back into the water.  One of the Spartans, Pentheus, is wounded with an arrow and goes down.  Phylon comes back for him and has to fight off a number of Persians to save the man.  He is soon joined by Leonidas to fend off the enemy.  After they have killed their pursuers, the men grab Pentheus and join with the other Spartans. 

Back at camp Leonidas has "that young fool" fighting beside him brought to him.  He is surprised to see that it is Phylon, but he sternly tells him that he disobeyed his orders.  The penalty for that is death, but the catch is that Phylon will meet death fighting alongside the 300 Spartans. 

Xerxes is furious about the raid.  He demands that by tomorrow noon all the Spartans be dead or his advisors will be all killed.  The Persians start killing the women. 

Ellas comes to greet her man as he works on his equipment.  She has had time to think now and time to see how happy the old goat herder couple is.  Now she talks to Phylon of peace and living together in harmony leading a simpler life.  This upsets Phylon who knows he must fight and die.  Ellas is afraid because she saw how vast the Persian army is.  Below them by the bay, they see a messenger racing on a horse to bring a message to Leonidas from Sparta.  The message says that the Spartan troops are not coming.  The Council has decided to fortify the Isthmus of Corinth and not to go beyond it.  Leonidas tells his men that they will stay here and fight to victory or die.

The Persians start their attack.  The Spartans will go out alone to face the first attack, holding the other troops in reserve.  Leonidas says the Persians will fake an infantry attack and use the cavalry instead.  A little while later the cavalry rides forward to the attack.  The first row of Spartans lays down under their shields as the horses jump over them.  Then the first row gets up and surrounds the horsemen.  When the cavalry threat is reduced the Spartans then hold off the advancing infantry.  They actually push a lot of the Persians into the bay beside them. 

Xerxes sees his men being slaughtered like sheep.  The Persians retreat.  Hydarnes comes to speak with Leonidas.  They meet in the open field.  Leonidas makes it plain that his men mean to fight regardless of the enemy's threats.  A chariot attack is launched but it is foiled by archers and men throwing javelins.  Xerxes sees his forces running back from the battle once again.  Hydarnes advises that Xerxes now send in his Immortals, his personal body guard. They will match the strength of the Spartan soldiers.

Leonidas know they will be facing Persia's best fighters.  He says:  "If we beat them back, fear will grip the others."  He sets a trap.  Phylon will pretend that he is dead and stay put.  After the Immortals pass him by he is to set fire to the hay thrown on the ground for this purpose.  As the Immortals march past Phylon he moves too early and gets jabbed with a Persian spear.  This delays Phylon as he struggles with the pain to light the fire.  He finally gets the torches and throws them in different directions.  The fire takes off.  The Spartans now push the Persians backward into the approaching fire.  Many of the soldiers catch fire.  And Xerxes is stymied once again.  He tells Hydarnes to get out of his sight:  "Go!" 

Leonidas tells Pentheus that he believes they can hold the pass.  Ephialtes sees Ellas alone in the mountains.  He tells her he is going down into the valley and he wants her to go with him.  Ellas pushes the man down and starts running.  By the time the guy gets up and collects his sense Ellas is already out of sight. 

Artemisia tells Xerxes that his fleet did no better than his soldiers today and she lost three of her own ships.  She tells him that another defeat for his troops and the troops will turn on him and destroy him.  Xerxes blames it all on Hydarnes.  She suggests that Xerxes go back to Persia, thereby denying Sparta its victory.  Xerxes does not follow this advice.  He grabs Artemisia tight and says that many say because that Artemisia is half-Greek, she deliberately feeds bad advise to Xerxes. 

While the dancing girls perform for them, Xerxes starts kissing Artemisia.  Hydarnes rushes in to say that he brings victory to Xerxes.  He claps his hands and two men bring in Ephialtes.  Xerxes hears about the old goat path.  He now tells Hydarnes to take half of the Immortals and use the goat path to get behind the Spartans, while the king commands from this side.  Artemisia looks concerned about this for the Greeks, not the Persians, and suggests to Xerxes that it may be a trap.  She urges him to use Grellus to help guide the troops.  Xerxes has Grellus go with the Immortals. 

Once in the mountains Grellus peels off.  He finds Ellas and the two are taken to King Leonidas to warn him.  Ellas tells the king that the Persians are coming through the mountains.  Phylon's father, Grellus, also tells Leonidas that the Persians broke through their Phocian guard.  Leonidas, knowing that he will die here, tells Ellas to tell his wife to take good care of their son.  Ellas leaves.  After she has gone, he tells Phylon to leave.  Phylon wants to stay, but Leonidas tells him he wants Phylon to obey orders.  Now Leonidas tells the leader of the Thespians to take his men out and go home.  But the leader says he and his men are staying to fight.   He asks:  "Where do we fight?"

The Immortals finally reach the hill above the Thepians.  They descend upon them and the fight is on.  Themistocles leaves with his fleet.  He offers to take the Spartans out, but Leonidas and his men will stay and die.  Xerxes's men go to the attack again.  Word arrives that the Thespians are now cut off by the Immortals. 

Leonidas and his men leave the confines of the pass to the attack.  They form into a pyramid and advance.  They bust through the first line of Persians.  But soon the Persians surround the entire pyramid and Spartans start going down.  Leonidas is killed.  The men pick up his body and the whole pyramid retreats.  As they retreat, they see the other half of the Immortals coming at them.  Now they form a circular formation. 

Xerxes sends a final offer to the Spartans.  Give them the body of Leonidas and the Spartans may depart.  The Spartans say they will stay with their king.  The messenger says:  "Your position is hopeless.  In a few moments you will be dead."  The leader of the remaining Spartans replies:  "But Greece will live."  Xerxes says he will waste no more of their men.  "Finish them with arrows."  Slowly the number of Spartan men standing whittles down to the last man and then he goes down. 

The words on today's monument to those brave Spartans are:  "Oh, stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here obedient to their words." 

"This last message of the fallen heroes rallied Greece to victory, first at Salamis, as predicted, and then at Plataea.  But it was more than a victory for Greece.  It was a stirring example to free people throughout the world of what a few brave men can accomplish once they refuse to submit to tyranny."

 

Spoiler warning.  Good movie.  It tells a lot about Spartan society with its strange Stoic values and practices.  It also tells the story of the disunity of the Greeks.  They did attain a bit of unity through the efforts of Sparta and Athens in their struggles against the Persians.  And then there is the story of the 300 men of Leonidas's body guard.  The Spartans basically abandoned these men to their fate, when the Council turned on Leonidas and decided to fortify Corinth, but not go beyond it.  300 Spartans is a bit misleading as other and more numerous groups were also there and in greater numbers than the Spartans.  On the other hand, everyone looked to the Spartans to lead the fighting. 

The choice to fight in the Pass of Thermopylae proved to be a good one.  It limited the number of Persian troops actually facing the Spartans at any given point in time.  The beater shields of the Spartans also helped them fend off the Persians with their much weaker shields.  When Leonidas chose to leave the confines of the pass and take the attack to the Persians, he was killed and the Spartans forced to retreat.  It was a virtual suicide attack since the Spartans lost so many men. 

The acting was alright, but I can't think of anyone who stood out.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historical Background:

 

553 BC --  Cyrus II, the Great, of Persia (to -529) conquers Lydia, the Medes, and Babylonia, transforming Persia into a vast empire.

529  --  Cyrus II is succeeded by his son Cambyses II (to 522), who conquers Egypt and has himself crowned Pharaoh.

522  --  Darius I (to 485) divides the Persian empire into 20 provinces (satrapies) and introduces far-reaching reforms including a common currency, regular taxes and a standing army.

500  --  GREEK CLASSICAL PERIOD (500-323)

492-490  --  Darius I demands tribute of earth and water from Greece. First Persian  invasion of Greece.

490  --  Battle of Marathon.  A Persian force sails for Attica, landing in the bay near the town of Marathon. The Athenians, joined by a small force from Plataea, march to Marathon. There they are able to block the two exits from the plain of Marathon. There was a stalemate lasting for five days.  The Athenians attack the Persians and despite the numerical advantage of the Persians, the more heavily armed hoplites route the wings of the Persian infantry and then turn in on the center of the Persian line. Persian army defeated by Greeks under Miltiades at Marathon.

488 --  Miltiades, in disgrace, dead.

485  --  Darius I, of Persia, dead; Persian decline begins.

485 --  Xerxes I, king of Persia (to 465)

480-479 --second Persian invasion of Greece (480479 BC)  Spartans under King Leonidas defeated by Persians at Thermopylae.

Modern Greek Thermopílai is a narrow pass on the east coast of central Greece about 85 miles northwest of Athens. In antiquity its cliffs were by the sea.

In August 480 BC, during the second Persian invasion of Greece, a small Greek force under the Spartan king Leonidas defended Attica and Boeotia against the southward advance of Xerxes' Persian army. Meanwhile the Greek fleet at nearby Cape Artemesium fought off the Persian navy.

Leonidas' troops hold the pass for three days until the Persians, guided along another mountain pass by the Greek traitor Ephialtes, outflanks them. Leonidas fights a rearguard action to delay the Persians with 300 Spartans, their helots, and 1,100 Boeotians, all of whom die in battle.

480  --  Athens is burned by Xerxes I, the Acropolis destroyed.

480  --  Athenians destroy Persian fleet at Battle of Salamis.

479   --  Persians capture and destroy Babylon.

479  --  Greeks under the Spartan general, Pausanias, defeat Persians at Plataea.

477 to -449 --  Cimon, son of Miltiades, campaigns against the Persians.

466 --  Cimon destroys the Persian army and navy at the Battle of the Eurymedon.

461-429 --  Pericles dominant in Athenian politics; the "Periclean Age."

458 --  Aeschylus, Oresteia

c. 450-420 --  Herodotus composes his Histories about the Persian War.

449   --  Persians, finally defeated at Salamis in Cyprus, recognize in the Peace of Callias the independence of the Greek cities.

447  --  Parthenon begun in Athens.

441 --  Sophocles, Antigone.

431-404 --  Peloponnesian War (Athens and allies vs. Sparta and allies)

429 --  Pericles dies

c. 428 --  Sophocles, Oedipus Rex.

c. 424-400 --  Thucydides composes his History of the Peloponnesian War.

423 --  Aristophanes, Clouds.

c. 405  --  Euripides, Bacchae.

404  -- Athens loses Peloponnesian War to Sparta.

399 --  trial and death of Socrates.

399-347   --  Plato writes his philosophical dialogues .

384 --  Aristotle born. Would become tutor to Alexander the Great of Macedonia. 

 

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