Herodotus, the Greek historian who left us an account of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians, has been called both the Father of History and the Father of Lies. His book, The Histories, contains some tall tales, and some of the true ones are exaggerated. Modern historians, for example, often question the numbers he gives for the Persian army. It may not, in fact have numbered the millions Herodotus claims, but it was certainly a mighty host, and without a doubt the Greeks were heavily outnumbered and facing very long odds.
Nowhere were the Greeks more heavily outnumbered than in the pass at Thermopylae, where a force of three hundred Spartan soldiers under King Leonidas blocked the entire Persian horde, fighting off repeated assaults until they were finally betrayed, outflanked, and overwhelmed. 300, directed by Zack Snyder, uses state of the art technology to tell the story of the battle of Thermopylae in a way that old Herodotus himself might have approved. 300 grossly exaggerates the details, glorifies both the men who fought to save Western civilization and their martial virtues, and is hugely entertaining to boot.
300 is based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, and employs the visual style of a graphic novel or video game. Snyderís depiction of ancient warfare isnít even close to accurate in its details, but up on the big screen, it rocks. (Literally. The soundtrack combines classical and heavy metal music.) The Spartan costumes come awfully close to the heroic nudity depicted in ancient Greek art. Xerxes, the Persian King, appears to be at least seven feet tall, has the physique of a bodybuilder, and is decked out in gold chains and a lot of body piercings. He rides on a portable throne large enough to be a float in a Macyís parade and which looks like a prop left over from the movie Dune. The Persians employ giant rhinos, ancient high explosives, and other weapons that have no basis in historical fact.
The plot, or what there is of it, is pretty straightforward. The Persians send an emissary demanding Sparta submit to Persian rule. Leonidas refuses, shoves the emissary down a well, and gathers a force of three hundred picked men to block the Hot Gates, the pass at Thermopylae through which Xerxes must march his whole force. Much of the rest of the movie is taken up with fantastically rendered, but engrossing, battle scenes.
Leonidas is able to take only three hundred men because the Ephors, a group of priests whom he must consult, have forbidden him to go to war. (They turn out to be corrupt, having been bought off by the Persians.) 300 has sparked a good deal of controversy, because many people have taken it as a political commentary on the current War on Terror. In fact, Millerís graphic novel was written in 1998, and there is no way he could have known what the world situation would be in 2007. But when Leonidas asks himself what he must do to save his people if the law has forbidden him to do so, one cannot help but think of the endless carping and criticism about Americaís war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq. When Leonidas is criticized for waging an illegal, though clearly justified war, the parallel to Iraq is nearly inescapable. When a slimy Spartan politician (Dominic West) moves to keep the Spartan council from voting to send Leonidas reinforcements, even though Leonidas is fighting for the freedom of all Greece and in danger of losing, many will think of the reluctance of the present Congress to fund the surge. 300 is meant as entertainment and not political commentary, but for some people, it seems to have touched a nerve.
The acting in 300 is quite good, and at times excellent, especially Gerard Butler, who plays Leonidas. He makes a commanding King, and a convincing leader of men. Butler has what it takes to be a major star. With any luck, this will be his breakthrough movie. Lena Heady, as the Spartan Queen Gorgo, looks lean and mean enough to wield a spear herself, and has nearly as much screen presence as Butler. Her character has a larger part in the movie than in the graphic novel, showing fire and grit as she tries to rally the Spartan council to support the troops.
With itís over the top visuals, surreal scenery, and bizarre creatures, 300 canít be taken as an accurate history of the Persian Wars or the battle of Thermopylae, and it never pretends to be. But as a war movie it works. The pounding soundtrack, the arresting imagery, the vivid and beautifully realized battle scenes, and the fiery performances all combine to sweep the audience along. But the movie does, in fact, get some things right. The Spartan defense of Thermopylae was one of historyís truly heroic last stands. The Spartans never faced giant rhinos, but they did face overwhelming odds, and their own deaths, without flinching. And if at times 300 seems to be commenting on current events, itís only because its message that freedom carries a price in blood is always and eternally true.