Based on the true story of the tiny force of Greek warriors led by Sparta’s King Leonidas that held off the Persian invasion at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., the 1962 The 300 Spartans was Frank Miller’s inspiration to create the graphic novel 300 (which Zach Snyder subsequently adapted into a hit 2006 movie). Made toward the end of a costume epic boom, it’s a budget version of an ancient world epic, small by Hollywood standards (a cast of hundreds rather than thousands) but lavish compared to the cheap sword-and-sandal knock-offs pouring out of the Italian film industry. This was shot in Greece, appropriately enough, not Italy, but given the credit for “original story material” to a quartet of Italian screenwriters, it’s probably safe to assume this was initially developed as another Italian production before producing partners Rudolph Maté (who also directs) and George St. George (screenwriter) brought it to 20th Century Fox.
The historical background is quickly sketched in via introductory crawls and stentorian narration while we watch the march of the Persian army through the ancient world. The production doesn’t have the resources to show the scope of the invasion force so instead we get shot after shot of marching columns and discussions of the enormous size of the army to get the point across. It isn’t until King Xerxes (David Farrar, sounding a lot like Ian McKellan) lets a captured Spartan spy go free (so he can spread the word of impending doom) that we get to Greece, where the heads of the free city states debate the response to the upcoming assault. Richard Egan, who was strictly second-tier leading man material but had credentials swinging swords and wearing togas in such period pieces as Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) and Esther and the King (1960), stars as King Leonidas of Sparta, but he’s largely silent during the debate. It’s Themistocles of Athens (Sir Ralph Richardson) who dominates the scene, and for good reason. The great British actor is almost unrecognizable behind his stage beard but his voice is unmistakable and delivers his lines like tactical weapons, punctuating his points with wary glances and cagey pauses. You can believe that his silver-tongued speech and cutting asides really does sway the assembly. The stiff, stalwart Egan is really little more than a prop in his presentation, a fact that becomes evident in the next scene.