Title: The Greeks at War, From Athens to Alexander
Authors: Philip de Souza, Waldemar Heckel, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
Publisher: Osprey Publishing, Military History Books
Date Published: August 2004
Paperback; 288 pages;
An extract from 'The Greeks at war on screen'
From its earliest conception, cinema has been fascinated with history, particularly the military achievements of classical
antiquity. Even in its silent, pioneering period (1907–1928), film was able to capture massive and spectacular events in
outdoor locations, as hundreds of armoured extras swarmed over gigantic sets and began to fill the screen with recreations of
epic battles and great disasters.
Roman history naturally offered itself as a vehicle to filmmakers, with its narrative stories of Christian heroism and
larger-than-life characters (Caligula and Nero being especially popular) who were so well known to cinema audiences, that
they could fully appreciate a director’s skill in adapting Roman history to an exciting new visual medium. During Hollywood’s
Golden Age (1930–1964), and with movies like Quo Vadis (1951; director Mervyn LeRoy), The Robe (1953; director Henry Koster)
and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964; director Anthony Mann), bloody battles, the fall of cities, the decimation of tribes,
and the deeds of great generals became the standard fare of Hollywood big-budget filmmaking. The re-emergence of the ‘sword
and sandal epic’ with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) has clearly heralded a new age of epic films.
However, while Rome has most frequently featured in the cinema in historical narratives, Greece is more likely to be a
setting for mythological narratives, for instance in the popular ‘peplum films’ of the 1950s and 1960s, featuring heroes like
Hercules, Perseus and Jason, or in adaptations of ancient Athenian drama or Homeric and Hellenistic epics. While cinematic
retellings of Homeric stories have been created for the screen (both big and small) – Helen of Troy (1956; director Robert
Wise and 2003; director John Kent Harrison), The Odyssey (1997; director Andrei Konchalovsky) and, most recently, Troy (2004;
director Wolfgang Petersen) – these films fall more easily into the genre of fantasy movies than historical dramas.
The battle and fight sequences of these fantasy films, often with their reliance on animated action, while containing the
essence of realism, are properly regarded as fantastically heroic as is fitting for Homeric re-workings. The films of master
-animator Ray Harryhausen – Jason and the Argonauts (1963; director John Chaffey) and The Clash of the Titans (1981; director
Desmond Davis) – are perfect realisations of the cinematic blend of ‘real’ and ‘fantastical’.
There are surprisingly few filmic accounts of ancient Greek military history, despite the obvious dramatic and visual
potential for the subject. There are, however, two films set during the Persian invasions of Greece, 490–479 BC. One, the
decidedly B-movie Italian-made peplum-film, The Giant of Marathon (1959; director Jacques Tourneur) sees American muscleman
Steve Reeves as Pheidippides running the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens on the orders of Miltiades, as the Persian forces
conquer Athens by sea and land. Of course, the story as recounted by Herodotus (Histories 6.105) sees Pheidippides collapse
and die after his marathon feat, but in the film Steve Reeves (short of breath, admittedly) lives to get the girl – a beauty
named Andromeda – and see the repulsion of enemy forces from the Greek homeland.
The film is a light confection of romance, muscles, and a bizarrely contorted version of history. Nevertheless, the naval
battle sequence, with underwater photography, at the climax of the film is engaging. It shows a Persian ship with a jaw-like
prow mash and pound any Greek ships that come within its grip.
Far more worthy of note is The 300 Spartans (1962; director Rudolph Mate), a film portraying an unforgettable battle during
the Persian Wars – the heroic Spartan defence of the pass of Thermopylae and the eventual annihilation of the small Spartan
force by the Persians in 480 BC. The concentration on this one heroic event – the remarkable climax of the film – enabled
Mate to focus his script and his directing skills on a character-led story, which operates around three main players:
Themistocles, the cunning Athenian admiral-politician (Ralph Richardson); Xerxes, the megalomaniac Persian King (David
Farrar); and Leonidas, the heroic king of Sparta (Richard Egan).
The script by George St. George, draws heavily and faithfully on Herodotus’ outline of events, and some character’s lines are
even lifted straight from the pages of the Histories itself. The battle scenes are thrilling: towards the beginning of the
film, for instance, the Persian general Hydarnes warns Leonidas that Persian arrows will ‘blot out the sun’, and, indeed,
this is exactly what Mate delivers for his audience. When Leonidas falls in his heroic watch over Thermopylae, his Spartan
fighters are surrounded by so many Persian archers – part of antiquity’s largest-ever army – that their arrows actually do
blot out the sun as the red-cloaked Spartans die in droves.
The visual impact of the movie is tremendous. Filmed in CinemaScope, with a reliance on panning shots to capture the sweep of
the scenery, the screen is populated by hundreds of extras, recruited in the main from the Greek National Army. Mate
skilfully uses the camera to highlight the regimental and disciplined nature of the Spartan war machine: he shoots his lens
at a sharp angle of the soldiers in battle formation, highlighting the line of spears and swords. In action, Mate creates one
of the most authentic battle scenes ever put on the screen. The battle comes in three parts, beginning with the Spartans
encircling the Persians with a ring of fire; next they encroach towards Xerxes’ troops with a phalanx of hoplites, before
finally breaking through the Persian defence.
The design contrast between the humble red-cloaked Spartans and the elaborate robes of Xerxes’ ‘Immortals’ (his bodyguard) is
particularly noticeable. The other Persian troops are less splendid, as they carry wicker shields and wear distinctive
conical helmets, but their black robes create a striking contrast to the red cloaks of Leonidas and his men. Certainly, the
ancient Greek contempt for Persian decadence and their love of luxury is particularly evident in the film: Xerxes is a
cowardly tyrant (David Farrar’s precise English accent is used to great effect to contrast with Richard Egan’s wholesome
American speech). Moreover, he is ill-disciplined and lascivious, and he is depicted debauching the beautiful female admiral,
Artemisia of Halicarnassus (one of only a handful of female characters in the film).
Xerxes’ campaign tent (later captured after Marathon) is an amazing concoction of elaborate embroidered hangings and
tasselled silk swathes. Within its confines he sits on a marble throne and listens to the frantic acclamation of his rule by
his troops. The king’s costumes too – from his high mitra (crown) to his curled-toed boots – become symbols for Persian
Sitting on his throne, Xerxes pronounces that upon capturing his Spartan foes he will place them in cages and exhibit them
all over his empire. Mate does not let the irony pass his audience by: we understands that even though the Spartans lose the
battle, the Greeks ultimately win the war and that Xerxes’ threats are hollow indeed. The 300 Spartans enables the cinema
audience to revel in hindsight, knowing that the legendary Lacedaemonian sacrifice was not performed in vain.