(1962) In 480 BC, Persian King Xerxes (David Farrar), vowing to avenge his father Darius I's defeat, leads his army of some quarter million soldiers on his way to Greece in order to create "one world, one master." A captured Spartan spy, Agathon, after refusing to talk while tortured, bravely says to Xerxes: "You are the master of slavery. You know nothing of freedom." The Persian king releases Agathon, instructing him to return to Sparta: "Tell them what you've seen here."
In Xerxes court the king entertains Demaratus, a former king of Sparta from whom the throne has been usurped, and Artemisa (Anne Wakefield), the queen of Helicarnassian, who becomes his mistress.
The Athenian politician with a dream of "one free, united Greece," Themistocles (Sir Ralph Richardson), fearful of the rising danger of a "tide of tyranny," orates against an opponent, who argues against being drawn "into a hopeless war," by saying that the Persians' "power lies in their unity." Present during the debate, King Leonides (Richard Egan) of Sparta answers Themistocles: "Sparta will fight whether others follow or not."
The two men plan for Leonides with his soldiers to meet the Persians at the pass of Thermophlae while Themistocles with his "wooden wall" of Athenian ships will confront the larger Persian fleet at Salamis. Oracles and omens, victory or death, inform this CinemaScope picture, filmed in Greece with Greeks in the cast, directed by Rudolph Maté (co-written, based on original material, and produced with George St George), a respectable movie of courageous selfless sacrifice, a reminder that freedom isn't free, notwithstanding some corniness and silly costumes.
Stymied by his own council, voting to put off sending the army until after a religious festival, Leonides decides not to delay, taking only his personal bodyguard of 300 red-cloaked Spartans. He bids farewell to his wife and queen Gorgo (Anna Synodinou).
A romantic subplot involves Gorgo's niece Ellas (Diane Baker) and her sweetheart Phylon (Barry Cole), who after receiving a shield from his queen - admonishing the young warrior, "with this or on this" - is ordered to surrender his war cloak because of his father Grellas's disgrace of having been seen inside the enemy's camp. The pair of lovers departs Sparta as outcasts, hoping to redeem honor, before coming upon the goatherd Samos and his wife Toris with their traitorous servant Ephiades.
At the pass Leonides commands his men: "From this wall we do not retreat." Looking toward the Spartan defense, Xerxes tells Hydarnes (Donald Houston) that no prisoners are to be taken, and that after one night the soldiers' wives are to be massacred.
Initially anticipating each Persian maneuver - first cavalry, followed by chariots, and then Xerxes's bodyguard of "Immortals" - the Spartans humiliate the enemy. When Hydarnes offers the Spartan king a chance to surrender before "Our arrows will blot out the sun," Leonides defiantly replies: "Then we will fight in the shade."
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