This is the 300th post on this blog. A landmark for me, which I decided to celebrate with a film about 300-something.
The 300 Spartans is based on a real-life incident, the Battle of Thermopylae in about 480 BC, when a handful of Spartan warriors led by King Leonidas, faced up to the invading army of the Persian king Xerxes. The film begins just as the vast armies of Xerxes (David Farrar) are pouring into Greece.
Xerxes is seated on a canopied throne on a hill, surrounded by his advisers and bodyguards when a Spartan spy, Agathon (John Crawford) is brought before him.
Xerxes’s men report that they’re spent two days torturing Agathon in an attempt to make him speak, but he’s not broken yet.
Xerxes orders the beheading of the man, then calls aside the executioner and whispers a command to him. The axe falls lightly, nicking the side of Agathon’s neck but otherwise leaving him untouched. Xerxes wants the Spartan to return and let his people know how powerful Xerxes is.
Agathon, on his way out of the Persian camp, comes across a familiar face – a Spartan named Grellas, who’s obviously turned traitor. Grellas tries to deny it, but Agathon flings him aside and swiftly rides off to report matters to the Spartans.
Grellas isn’t the only Spartan in the Persian army. Among Xerxes’s important advisers is Demeratus (Ivan Triesault), an ex-king of Sparta. Demeratus has been trying to convince Xerxes that taking on the Spartans is a bad idea, but Xerxes isn’t listening.
He also isn’t ready to pay any attention right now to the commander of his personal bodyguard (known as the ‘Immortals’), Hydarnes (Donald Houston).
… mostly because he’s more interested in a recent ally, the Queen of Halicarnassus, Artemisia (Anne Wakefield). Artemisia has come to join Xerxes at his camp, and after having informed him of the naval fleet that she’s got ready to assist him in his conquest of Greece, she proceeds to enjoy herself at Xerxes’s camp. Ahem.
Meanwhile, the Greeks are in council at Corinth, trying to decide how to deal with the looming threat of a brutal Persian invasion. There’s much bickering and exchange of insults, with the Athenians accusing the Spartans of being as concerned about their religion (perhaps more?) as the security of Greece. Ten years ago, when Xerxes had attacked, the Spartans had been too busy celebrating a festival to join in repelling the invaders.
Some of the representatives of the Greek states feel that Xerxes is a problem each state must tackle independently, since they are, after all, independent states.
Finally, though, the representative of Athens, Themistocles (Ralph Richardson, in his last role) pronounces the decision for Athens: Athens will fight Xerxes. And Athens will welcome the help of any Greek state which agrees to fight alongside. Some of the representatives present begin to pledge their allegiance to Athens.
When the Spartan representative, Leonidas (Richard Egan) is asked whether Sparta will join the fight, he says that he cannot take the decision without the consent of the council of Sparta. But he knows his people, and he thinks he speaks for Sparta: yes. “Sparta will fight. Whether others will follow or not.”
Later, before Leonidas leaves for Sparta to inform the Spartan council, he discusses a military strategy that the Greeks can possibly adopt to fight the Persian armies. Leonidas emphasises the fact that if Xerxes and his troops are able to break through into Thessaly, it’ll be easy for them to sweep across Greece and subjugate the entire land by force of numbers. Between the two of them, Leonidas and Themistocles must fix on a location where they can stop the Persians from getting to Thessaly.
They fix on the mountain pass of Thermopylae. This is a very narrow neck of land, narrow enough to be held by a strong Greek force. If they can hold back Xerxes at Thermopylae, it is their best chance of sending the Persians back home.
So Leonidas and Themistocles come to a decision: Leonidas will bring the Spartan army to Thermopylae, while Themistocles will bring Athens’s navy into the bay beside Thermopylae. Caught between the Spartan army and the Athenian ships, the Persians will be forced to retreat.
While Leonidas is still at Corinth, Agathon, the spy who had been released by Xerxes, arrives. He reports the Persians’ strength to Leonidas, and also tells him about Grellas, the Spartan who has defected to the Persian camp. Through their conversation, it emerges that Grellas has a son, a young man named Phyllon (Barry Coe), who is still in Sparta. Perhaps they should keep a closer watch on Phyllon…
Back in Sparta, it’s a red letter day (or rather, a red cloak day) for Phyllon: he is being officially named a Spartan warrior, and is being ceremonially given a Spartan shield and a red war cloak. Since Phyllon’s own mother is dead, this important ritual is being performed by Leonidas’s wife, Queen Gorgo (Anna Synodinou), who pronounces the traditional blessing as she gives Phyllon the shield: “With this, or on this.”
Either come home victorious with this shield, or come home dead on it. There is no room for cowards in Sparta.
One would have thought Phyllon would be less keen to lay down his life at the moment. He is wildly in love with his childhood sweetheart Ellas (Diane Baker), who is Gorgo’s niece. Phyllon has even spoken to Ellas’s father, who has consented to their match. Both Phyllon and Ellas are now looking forward to getting married and living happily ever after.
When Leonidas arrives back home in Sparta, his reunion with his wife Gorgo is short but affectionate. He tells Gorgo about the upcoming Thermopylae campaign. She proudly tells him of the progress their little son has been making in his military training, and then she shares a prophecy the Spartan high priest has made by reading the entrails of a sacrificed lamb: “…you will be the Spartan king best remembered to man.”
Leonidas, in turn, tells Gorgo the news: the Spartan council has decided that yes, Sparta must lead the Greek armies into battle against the Persians. But only after the upcoming festival – an important one – is over. Leonidas tries to reason with the council, but they’re adamant.
After having had the Spartans’ piety jeered at in Corinth, Leonidas isn’t ready to accept this. So he takes the only way out. The one wing of Spartan soldiers exempt from the rule of the council is Leonidas’s personal bodyguard, 300 men.
Leonidas is ready to march – he cannot delay any longer—when Agathon speaks up against Phyllon, who has come, armoured and clad in his war cloak, ready to go into battle. Phyllon’s father, Grellas, is a traitor, says Agathon. Phyllon’s loyalty is suspect. He cannot be trusted to stay faithful in battle.
Leonidas’s decision is fair. Phyllon is a free-born man and not responsible for his father’s actions, so he shouldn’t be punished. But he cannot be allowed to be part of the Spartan forces either.
Desolate and depressed, he goes off into the countryside, while Leonidas and his 300 men set out for Thermopylae.
But all is not lost for Phyllon, because he has a faithful sweetheart, who gets his shield back and brings it to him, encouraging him to go to Thermopylae. She, too, will come with him.
This, of course, is just the start. On the way to Thermopylae, Leonidas finds unexpected help: an old friend, a commander of the Thespian army, comes offering help. He has 700 men eager to fight alongside the Spartans (Leonidas wisely doesn’t mention how many Spartans he has right now).
And so they go, to Thermopylae, where Xerxes waits. The odds are ridiculous. Is there any chance that the Spartans will win? Or even be able to hold back the Persians until the rest of the Spartan army comes along? Or will it be an utter massacre?
If you know your history, you’ll probably know what happened. Actually, you don’t even need to know history. Try mathematics. 300 (and perhaps another 1,000, including Thespians, Thebans and lesser Greek armies) against Xerxes’s approximately 100,000 – 3,00,000 odd? Did Leonidas ever have a chance?
What I liked about this film:
The costumes and the landscape, which recreate the scene very well. The 300 Spartans was filmed in Greece, with a large cast drawn from Greek actors and a crew too that included Greeks , so there’s enough of an authentic feel to it all. Doesn’t this look like something out of one of those ancient Greek friezes you see in museums?
Hydarnes: “…when we attack today, our arrows will blot out the sun!”
Leonidas (with a wry smile): “Then we will fight in the shade.”
Hydarnes: “But this slaughter is useless! Surrender your arms, and my king will spare you and your Spartans… what shall I tell him?”
Leonidas: “Molon labe… Come and take them!”
This was rather stirring (look at the trivia section below, and you’ll see why). On the other hand, some of the dialogue is over the top propaganda-ish (this was made during the Cold War, remember?) and made me squirm with all its chest-thumping stress on duty, honour, valour and whatnot.
What I didn’t like:
The scripting. Though it does stay fairly true to the actual course of events of the Battle of Thermopylae, after a while The 300 Spartans starts to become just a series of not-very-well-orchestrated scenes of battle. I hasten to add that that isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just that I’d have liked to see some more of what the men behind the warriors were. I’d liked to have seen their personal feelings, their reactions, their fears as they go into what will almost certainly be their last battle.
As it is, the personal lives of only two men are touched upon: Leonidas and Phyllon. Of those two, Leonidas’s is not much more than a fleeting glimpse. And Phyllon and Ellas are rather too boring to constitute an interesting couple – plus, the acting of the two is uninspired.
Two little bits of trivia:
The 300 Spartans was the film that comic book artist and writer Frank Miller saw as a child, which later inspired him to create the graphic novel 300 – on which the 2006 Gerard Butler-starrer film 300 was based.
Remember that dialogue I’ve quoted above, in which Leonidas tells Hydarnes “Come and get them”? That’s the sentence – Molon labe – engraved below the statue of Leonidas at the Leonidas Monument at Thermopylae. Have a look at the statue:
Doesn’t look much like Richard Egan, I think. That bare chest and the massive pecs remind me not of Mr Egan, but of someone else, and much more recent… Mr Butler?
When I review an old film that’s been remade (or has inspired a remake), I’m tempted to do a comparison between the original and the remake. In this case, 300 was not precisely a remake of The 300 Spartans – the inspiration happened in a more roundabout sort of way. But here’s my two cents, anyway.
300 is, as I’d mentioned earlier, the result of Frank Miller having watched The 300 Spartans as a child. Miller also went on to produce this film, and it has the ‘noir’ graphic novel feel to it, all right: very smart, stylish, bloody. The screen is tinted in brooding browns and yellows, lots of shadow and darkness to portray the grim harshness of Sparta. And when the battle starts, there’s blood and gore aplenty. Capes swish in slow motion, Leonidas and his men swirl around slowly, plunging their lances into attacking Persian soldiers, slashing with their swords, sending blood spewing and cut limbs flying in all directions (you can even hear the blood spurting). It’s very graphic.
Where all of this wins is in that it establishes the horror of war, and the hardiness of the Spartans. In fact, the first few scenes of the film – which show Leonidas grow from a newborn to a boy, and his training as a Spartan warrior – offer a good, concise explanation of the Spartan code of conduct. In comparison, The 300 Spartans is a little wishy-washy. Yes, the Spartans are brave warriors there too, but not in the ruthless, proud way that they’re shown in 300.
Somewhere, though, the darkness of 300 changes into farce. Almost everybody here who is wicked – from Xerxes and his greatest fighters, to the Spartans who turn traitor – is in some way abnormal. Xerxes is a weird giant who is inexplicably clad in chains, with face piercings and gold eyeshadow which make him look villainous but not exactly a warrior.
His elite bodyguard, the ‘Immortals’, wear silver masks, because each of them has a deformed face. Also in the Persian army is a monstrous giant with massive fangs and bubbling flesh (the bubbling, sore-riddled flesh, by the way, seems to be a popular element of makeup for anybody who’s not an honourable Spartan).
There are a couple of redeeming factors – for instance, the action switches between the battlefield and Sparta, where Gorgo is trying to have help sent to Leonidas – and is facing resistance. That helps relieve the unrelenting battle scenes somewhat. Also, Gorgo’s relationship with her husband is more tenderly depicted in 300 than in The 300 Spartans: their parting, as he’s leaving for the battle, is understated but poignant.
Which is the better film? It’s hard to say. 300 looks more stylish, and conveys the harshness of Spartan life better. But it goes overboard in that; at some point it becomes just too unnecessarily violent. The 300 Spartans is more old-fashioned in that way: cleaner, quieter, less of everything.
If you want a film that’s a good historic account of what happened at the Battle of Thermopylae, watch The 300 Spartans. If you want to watch fantasy (and that too with lots of violence thrown in), go for 300. Of course, you could also watch it just for the sight of all those men – Gerard Butler in particular – traipsing around in just enough to show off all those beautifully honed male bodies.