King Xerxes (David Farrar), the ruler of Persia, is leading his armies across the ancient world, conquering every nation that he comes to. Xerxes is quick to proclaim that his vision is to have “one world ruled by one master” but really, he’s mostly just trying to prove that he’s as fearsome a conqueror as his father was. Like most authoritarians, he’s really just dealing with his own psychological issues.
When Xerxes sets his eyes on Greece, he assumes that he’ll easily be able to conquer the country. Greece, after all, is divided into several city states and everyone knows that the cities are rarely willing to work together. However, 300 Spartan warriors — led by King Leonidis (Richard Egan) — are willing to stand their ground and hold off Xerxes’s forces for as long as possible. Despite the fact that they’re outnumbered and have no way of knowing if reinforcements will ever arrive, the 300 Spartans are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their freedom. They know that they probably won’t survive the battle but none of them are going to surrender. Better to die than be enslaved.
If the plot of 1962’s The 300 Spartans sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s based on the same historical events that inspired 300. The 300 Spartans essentially tells the same story and even has many of the same themes as Zack Snyder’s later film. The main difference, of course, is that The 300 Spartans tells it story in a much less stylized manner. Indeed, while 300 tended to kind of take place in a dream-world, one that was designed to highlight the legendary elements of the story, The 300 Spartans very much takes place in the real world, with the actors playing the ancient warrions standing on the same ground that Leonidis and his 300 Spartans once stood upon. It’s a choice that works well, giving The 300 Spartans a far more authentic feel than a lot of the other historical epics that came out in the 50s and 60s.
The 300 Spartans has everything that you might expect from a film like this: dancing, harems, swords, armor, a lot of talk of omens and honor, and of course several speeches about the importance of freedom. That said, even if some elements of the story are predictable, the film is well-acted with Richard Egan giving a strong performance as Leonidis while David Farrar turns Xerxes into a villain who you’ll enjoy rooting against. Anne Wakefield is also well-cast as Artemesia, Xerxes’s consort and his main advisor. Perhaps best of all is Ralph Richardson, playing the general Themistocles with the grim determination of a warrior who has learned better than to depend on omens and prophecy.
At the end of the film, the narrator grandly declares that the actions of the 300 Spartans were more than an example of Greek bravery. They were also, “a stirring example to free people throughout the world of what a few brave men can accomplish once they refuse to submit to tyranny!” Maybe a few years ago, I would have said that the narration went a bit overboard but, after the past few years, I’m now more convinced than ever that a lot of people would be fine living in an authoritarian state as long as their side was the one with all of the authority. At a time like this, any film that celebrates freedom is to be appreciated.