Based on Frank Miller’s Graphic Novel
300 isn’t just a terrific action movie, it’s a masterful retelling of how a handful of Greeks went toe to toe with the Persian Empire in a narrow mountain pass on the shores of the Aegean more than two thousand years ago. They didn’t win. Outnumbered and in danger of being outflanked, the larger part of the army was sent home, culminating in the famous last stand by Leonidas and his tiny party of Spartans. Yet, for all that, some attribute the heroic morale generated by the Battle of Thermopylae as being instrumental towards Greece going on to win the war. Indeed, 300 is the ultimate David and Goliath story. Except for, you know, David and Goliath …
Granted, 300 does take artistic license with a few things, but that’s okay. Following history to the letter doesn’t always make the best entertainment. Just look at Braveheart. In the case of 300, the main historical inconsistency probably lies in the film title itself, as the 300 Spartans present at the battle were actually accompanied by up to 7,000 other Greeks. Heck, Herodotus, our ancient source for the battle, inflates the Persian numbers at one million when the actual figure was probably closer to two or three hundred thousand, so 300 isn’t doing anything new by embellishing. That being said, the rigorous and disciplinarian Spartan lifestyle is well depicted, including but not limited to males being bred for war from youth.
What 300 does particularly well is set the stakes so high, as indeed they were for the real defenders at Thermopylae. The audience is made to understand that the Greeks are not only fighting for their lives but for their very future as a civilization. That’s all whilst keeping tabs on a backstabbing, double-dealing politician at home who may help open the floodgates that bit sooner – the perfect sub-plot to keep things interesting.
The fighting is, of course, bloodily gratifying and everything you’d expect from a big blockbuster like 300, with the Spartans and their ‘brave amateur’ allies piling up enemy corpses in every way possible at that harrowing coastal pass. There’s nothing quite like seeing a bronzed and muscled Gerard Butler hack his way through hapless Persians en masse, making even real Spartans beam with pride in two-thousand-year-old graves. One great moment in 300 is the wall of corpses built to temporarily bar the way and crush a Persian embassy, though it’s not quite as iconic as the throwing the messenger down the pit scene.
300 also throws in some light fantasy for good measure. The Persians are not only flesh and blood warriors, but have monstrous and near-mythical creatures in their ranks, the elite Immortals not least. They are also aided by magic and the dark arts. The hunchbacked Greek who betrays the Spartans, Ephialtes, appears as a disfigured mutant or orc-like something from The Lord of the Rings. There’s even a glimpse of the Greek Oracle in all her trans-human glory. 300 could just have played it real without the fantasy, but it all adds an interesting layer on top which isn’t overdone. The very human characters and struggles remain primary, however.
It’s always a good sign when the baddest thing that can be said about a film has nothing to do with the ratings, and that’s certainly the case here. Upon its release, 300 took some flak for its alleged ‘East versus West’ theme, sparking an outcry in Iran in particular over its demon-like portrayal of their ancestors, the ancient Persians. However, to make that accusation would be to impose politics on cinema. It’s a mere coincidence that 300 released at a time of heightened U.S.-Iran tensions. The word ‘Iran’ is of course never actually mentioned, being substituted for the more antiquated and historical ‘Persia’. 300 is just telling a story where one side was clearly the aggressor. Nothing wrong with that.
One particular Spartan delivers a memorable line in response to the Persian boast that their arrows will blot out the sun. “Then we will fight in the shade.” But in spite of that quip, one thing that 300 emphatically doesn’t do is fight in the shade. Instead, its positive attributes are out there plain to see in open daylight, no two ways about it. And it’s well worth watching fifteen years on.Watch 300