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Go Stranger and tell the Spartans: faithful, here we fell
on 3 November 2005
The narrow pass of Thermopalyae is long gone, with centuries of sendiment building a large plain. The location of the statue of King Leonidas of Sparta set up along the highway does provide a sense of how narrow the geography was in 480 B.C. when a small force of Spartans and other Greek warriors held up the advance of King Xerxes and his Persian army (the parallels to the Alamo are palatable). When I visited Greece last week I was glad we were able to stop at the monument for a few minutes, not so much because of what I had read in the history books about the Battle of Thermopalyae but because of the 1962 film "The 300 Spartans."
Granted the acting in this film from director Rudolph Maté is wooden, on a par with the Trojan Horse and the ships that turned out to the wooden walls of Athens that defeated Xerxes at Salamis. But there is still something substantial to the battle sequences, as when Xerxes sends his Immortals against the Spartans and when the Spartans make a final valiant charge to kill the Persian monarch. The basic political history of the times is covered in the film; Greece was debating whether or not to send soldiers that far north to stop the invaders and the Spartans decided not to send troops until a religious festival was over. Consequently, King Leonidas (Richard Eagan) left with his personal bodyguard of 300 soldiers. There is a trivial romantic subplot involving a young Spartan soldier and the girl he tried to leave behind, as well as an exiled Spartan King, Demaratus (Ivan Triesault) who tries to educate Xerxes (David Farrar) about the worth of these 300 soldiers. In the end, the Spartans are betrayed by a Greek traitor who tells the Persians of a pass through the mountains where they can attack from the rear. Leonidas learns of the treachery in time to evacuate the rest of the Greek army, but the Spartans will never retreat.
This was one of the last films directed by Maté, a respected cinematographer ("Pride of the Yankees," "Lady From Shanghai") who directed movies as different as "D.O.A." and "When Worlds Collide." The battle sequences are the best part of "The 300 Spartans," making excellent cinematic use of the contrast between the Spartans in their gold armor and red cloaks versus the black draped Persians with their wicker armor. Eagan does not do much with the role of Leonidas, but he certainly gives the character the requisite sense of honor and nobility. But perhaps the most memorable part of this film, which is one of the most cherished from my youth, is the marching music of the Spartans written by Manos Hadjidakis. Clearly I am not alone in that regard. "The 300 Spartans" is not a great film, but it has its moments and the tale is worth the telling. Recently Frank Miller ("Batman: The Dark Night") did his own graphic novel version of this story, which has inspired Hollywood to tell this story on film again. About time.