Time: Around 2 hours.
Movie Rating: R – contains graphic violence, blood and nudity (not for the young).
A robust and highly stylized re-telling of the famous Battle of Themopylae and the honor and heroics of the Spartan warriors who ultimately suffer a bloody slaughter at the hands of the massive Persian army. It’s a motivating movie that reminds the viewer of how the underdog may lose, but through sheer brawn, bravery, and pride is not defeated and so sets the stage for victory in the end, toughing the hearts of people for centuries to come.
The themes of “The 300” reminded me of a recent movie, “The Last Samurai” starring Tom Cruise. Like the brave and out-numbered Spartans facing the massive killing machine of the Persian army who preserved honor and achieved (ultimately) victory, the last samurai and his men were greatly out-gunned by a modernized imperial army and so defeated, and yet in defeat conquered the new Japanese war machine which adopted the samurai ethic. “The 300” to the best of my knowledge, is the first modern movie of the Battle of Thermopylae, and though fictionalized is dedicated to the themes of honor that motivate soldiers to defend what they love.
First, the cinematography and graphics were incredible in this movie. It appears much of this was done with green screen technology, so most of the desert scenes, mountains, bluffs, oceans, animals, massive armies etc. were are all created by a computer. The amazing quality of the computer animation took the viewer away to another time and another world - incredible. The colors were dark and grainy with only touches of color which set the mood for the carnage to follow. The well-known military historian Victor Davis Hanson was consulted on the movie to help inject a history lesson for the viewer. In turn, a comic book writer and illustrator was employed to craft scenes and how they would look/play out when you blended history with legend. Finally, directors and producers put the final touches on the scenes created by live actors and off-site sets with computer animation to come up with the final product. As is true for most movies these days, the director took much artistic interpretation and stretched events for the sake of story-telling. There is an obvious deviation from the real Battle of Thermopylae in “The 300”, but that’s OK as you at least get the picture for what might have happened and the impact of the Spartan last stand on their fellow Greeks.
<< MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD! >>
This is the story. The Spartan city-state was unique. Although there were many Greek city-states, few had standing armies as the Spartans did. Boys were taken away from their mother’s side when they were very little and spent years in warrior training to be a lean, mean fighting machines. They were taught to fight, use their wits, stand their ground, and stay in prime physical, mental, and spiritual health. “The 300” reveals the Spartan warrior culture to us by showing the military training of Leonidas, who would become king of Sparta and lead his troops to their final stand against the Persians at Thermopylae.
The action goes into high gear when King Leonidas, constrained by law and custom against rallying the entire Spartan army against the invading Persians, has three hundred of his best men suit up as a personal “personal body guard” for a “stroll” to the Hot Gates (i.e., Thermopylae). [Chick talk: When I refer to the Spartan army suiting up – I mean simply a leather loin cloth, a scarlet red robe tied around their shoulders with a bronze clasp holding it in place, a deadly sharp spear in one hand, a bronze shield in the other, and a helmet. Oh, and maybe a pair of leather sandals as well. The traditional Greek warrior with their finest on display. Nothing else. Very spartan. Although historically this isn’t accurate – Spartan warriors usually had no foot gear but did have more body armor covering themselves – the director must have decided less is more. Guys couldn’t care less what they had on, but the women in the audience were pleased at this minimalist fashion twist that exposed the Spartan warrior in all his glory.]
Once the Spartans and some of their fellow Greeks from neighboring city-states establish their defenses at the opening the narrow seaside canyon of Thermopylae, through which the Persian army must pass to invade Greece, we get to see a surreal stylization of the Persian host. First there is a flotilla transporting the invaders stretching to the horizon. Then there is the landing of thousands of military units from all corners of the Persian empire, all with strange uniforms and bizarre weapons. Plus there are giant beasts of war, including a dinosaurian rhinoceros and magnificent elephants, used like ancient versions of mechanized infantry. Leading this otherworldly war machine is a ten-foot-tall Xerxes, self-styled god and emperor of the world, borne across the battlefield in a great pyramid by dozens of slaves. Not what history holds is true, but quite an eyeful.
We watch Leonidas outwit the Persians with his tactics, as his Spartans repel wave after wave of Persian attacks in battle scenes that are interesting to watch. We watch Xerxes move from contempt to admiration of his enemy as he tries to cajole Leonidas with everything a god-emperor can command, including the Spartan king’s own glory as ruler of Europe. But Leonidas will have none of it, even in the face of certain death, because that glory would cost him his honor. And so comes the final stand. The Persian commands, “Spartans, put down your swords.” King Leonidas of the Spartans replied with venom in his voice and eyes, “Come get them”. (According to military historian Victor David Hansen, these quotes are historically accurate.) And the last battle is on, with all but one of the Spartans falling in battle to buy the rest of the Greek city-states time to muster a defense against the Persians.
The lone Spartan warrior who survived had been sent ordered back to Sparta by Leonidas to tell the city leaders of the desperate battle being fought so that they would release the full weight of Spartan military might to defend Greece. Through we learn about the three hundred warriors who would become legend.
<< END OF SPOILERS >>
There is no doubt that this movie is geared toward teenaged boys and guys of all generations. It’s loaded with military preparation, battle scenes, blood, gore and all the usual carnage that ensues in war (and some sex scenes to boot). It’s not for the faint of heart.
For instance, all those important battle preparation scenes where walls were created to keep out the enemy – the walls were constructed from pebbles, rocks and boulders and of course, mortar was made up of dead human heads, legs, arms, torso and bodies. It’s interesting to see army men being beheaded with sharp swords and watching a human body stand alone for a moment before it realizes it’s died and falls to the ground headless. This chop-chop process happens so often that you become numb. Instead of being repulsed, it becomes slightly amazing over time. Same with seeing man after man speared in the head, torso and heart. You start focusing on wanting the Spartans to win more than the carnage and death to be found everywhere. Fortunately, strong gal that I am, I appreciate history, military battles and the process of war so, I handled it with a certain level of understanding and respect even if I was a wee bit grossed out now and then.
Although many of the battle scenes in this movie were fantastical for making the viewer sit up and take notice and feel the shock and awe…which by the way, you can’t help but do in “The 300”…the movie didn’t do much for educating the viewer on the real history of the aspirations, envy, rivalry and eventual irritant to war that occurred for over two centuries in this region. It did not inform the viewer about any important historical issues from this region and era such as; who were the great generals of antiquity, what battles had geographical and intrinsic strategic value, what infantry tactics were used, what were the rules of war in this time, how were bodies of the dead handled, what communities were nearly erased off the planet, which became those that future nations would envy for centuries, and how did all these battles affect art, poetry, playwrights and philosophers of the times, etc. So…for those history buffs who crave more than two hours of battle bliss, consider getting the dozen or so books out on The Battle of Thermopylae and others on the history of the Peloponnesian Wars and other Greek tragedies that can be found at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Walden and other book stops.
One thing that’s important to clear up is the title of this movie, “The 300”. Historically, it’s actually off. A quick snap shot of history shows the movie took the high drama route here rather than shooting for accuracy. Victor Davis Hanson notes much about The Battle of Thermopylae in his book, “Ripples of Battle” and some other books he has on Greek military and battle history. When the Spartan offensive was discovered, everyone did not leave and only 300 men were left behind as this movie seems to imply. Rather, many Thespians and Thebans stayed along with about 300 Spartans. Some did leave, but not everyone. History is accurate in that most scholars and documents seem to support that all that had remained were annihilated at the end of the battle. Of the 1,400 Greeks who stayed behind with King Leonidas, the Thespian dead was estimated to be 50% of the casualties.
VDH notes in his book that this is a remarkable proportion because when we remember that they composed only about 10% of the original Greek force of about 7,000 hoplites. Sparta lost about 4% of its landowning citizens at this battle. The Thespians and Thebans provided a larger contribution and smaller resources in their sacrifice, but history loves a good story. In the end, the Thespiaes lost most of their own and several generations ceased to exist not many years after this battle and one other a year later. “A single afternoon can doom an entire people,” VDH notes so profoundly. History enjoys recalling the bravery, brawn and manliness of 300 Spartans. Unfortunately, history seems to often forget or be remiss when it comes to twice that number of Thespians died that same day in history. So, VDH, military historian and professor of the classics feels “The 300” should be more accurately, “The 700”.
On a side note….an Iranian official recently lashed out at this movie in press conferences shown on cable t.v. and noted in newspapers for insulting the Persian civilization. Javad Shamgadri, an art advisor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accused the new movie of being “part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological war aimed at Iranian culture.” Shamgadri was quoted to say, “following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Hollywood and cultural authorities in the U.S. initiated studies to figure out how to attack Iranian culture. Certainly, the recent movie is a product of such studies”. Who knew a war that was over a millennium old before the Prophet Mohammad was even born would eventually cause modern day Iran to believe it and we are part of a sinister plot to take them down. Since they deny the holocaust, I’m sure they’ll find a way to re-write history regarding the Spartans too. Can’t have a handful of thugs in loin clothes make them look bad. No, they do that so well all by themselves. I think everyone should see this movie just to spite Ammy at a minimum (you think he would be happy they made the military leader of the Persian army, Xerxes look twice the size of the average man and about 10 feet tall – still not good enough! That’s not God-like enough for them!).
In the end, Victor Davis Hanson says it well in his book, “Between War & Peace”, he notes, “Isn’t going into battle just a bad idea? Every war is a bad idea. When are there ever attractive options in risking soldiers in times of national crisis…Preemption may be saner than reaction… we need not embrace the idea of collective punishment and war to accept the truth that sometimes entire peoples can go off the deep end and require military defeat to be brought back out of their trance…”. Well said Mr. Hanson, well said. It appears the Spartans, Thebans and Thespians, those before them and those after them, have had to make the same difficult choice for the survival of their citizens and their nation.
I recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys military history and/or war movies. It is definitely a motivating story that reminds humans that 1) sometimes we fight when we don’t want to 2) that someone who fights for the good of others can sometimes do amazing things that were never planned or intended from the start, 3) that sometimes we can’t choose the path of least resistance, it’s just not an option and 4) the final ending may not always be perfect or what we would like, but it’s the process of getting there that can make the difference.
The Spartan nation lived to fight another battle in the future by loosing some of their brightest and best at The Battle of Thermopylae. Hopefully, movie viewers will take the message from this movie of more than blood and gore. It’s a movie of pride, respect and dignity for one’s self, one’s family, one’s community and one’s nation.
Enjoy! I give this movie 4 out of 5 loin cloths (it’s not my fault they are wearing so little).
Signed, Bridget Dupont-Tingley, Editor L.A.W.