Spartan epic is last hope for sword and sandal movies

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'Go tell the Spartans, passer-by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.'

So reads the epigram carved into a commemorative stone, appropriately spartan, on a Greek hill. The tale behind it thrilled generations of schoolchildren educated in the classics. Hollywood is now praying it can breathe new life into the genre of the ancient historical epic with the help of a British-led cast.

The Battle of Thermopylae is regarded as one of history's pivotal moments, a doomed yet heroic last stand in 480BC with nothing less than Western civilisation at stake. Led by King Leonidas, an elite force of 300 Spartans, backed by around 7,000 Greeks, was vastly outnumbered by King Xerxes' invading Persian army, which has been estimated at between 80,000 and more than a million. For three days the Spartans stood firm at the 'Hot Gates', the main pass into central Greece, and inflicted appalling losses before being outflanked and killed. The sacrifice inspired all of Greece to unite and drive out the Persians and is therefore seen as enabling the seeds of Western democracy to flourish.

The story has faded from the school curriculum along with Greek and Latin, but a dark and violent £30m film dramatisation, named 300, receives its world premiere next month at the Berlin Film Festival. British actors take leading parts, with Gerard Butler, who played the title role in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera, as Leonidas, rising star Lena Headey as his wife, Queen Gorgo, and Dominic West as the warrior Theron. But cinema-goers will also be assailed by computer-generated special effects featuring monsters, battlefield carnage and superhuman acrobatics - this is no literal interpretation.

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