300 is a 2007 American epic historical action film based on the 1998 comic series of the same name by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. 300 depicts one of the greatest last stands in world history – where 300 Spartans (and about 6700 Greeks) fought a million Persians (about 100,000-150,000 by modern estimates) at the Battle of Thermopylae.
The plot revolves around King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), who leads 300 Spartans into battle against the Persian “God-King” Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his invading army of more than 300,000 soldiers (a million or whatever when the story is being told). As the battle rages, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) attempts to rally support in Sparta for her husband. The story is framed by a voice-over narrative by the Spartan soldier Dilios (David Wenham). Through this narrative technique, various fantastical creatures are introduced, placing 300 within the genre of historical fantasy. And fantasy it is, not only for showing six-pack abs on every Spartan but also for depicting the Persians – who were the greatest empire of that age – as in-bred, alien creatures with womanly attributes. The racist depiction of Persians has been condemned by Historians and Iranians alike but hey, it’s a just a Hollywood action-fantasy-historical drama right?
300 is faithful to Miller’s plots and drawings. “300,” reflects the book almost panel-by-panel. It leans so heavily on CGI that many shots are entirely computer-created. The movie involves a legendary last stand by 300 death-obsessed Spartans against a teeming horde of Persians. So brave and strong are the Spartans that they skewer, eviscerate, behead and otherwise inconvenience tens of thousands of Persians before finally falling to the weight of overwhelming numbers. The lesson is that the Spartans are free, and the Persians are slaves, although the Spartan idea of freedom is not appetizing (read Agoge).
Aside from the six-pack abs, the movie presents other scenes of impossibility. Look at the long- shots of the massed Persians. There are so many they would have presented a logistical nightmare: How to feed and water them? Consider the slave-borne chariot that Xerxes pulls up in. It is larger that the imperial throne in the Forbidden City, with a wide staircase leading up to Xerxes. Impressive, but how could such a monstrosity be lugged all the way from Persia to Greece? I am not expected to apply such logic, I know, but the movie flaunts its preposterous effects.
And what about Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) himself? He stands around eight feet tall – which sounds improbable. He towers over Leonidas (Butler), so we know his body isn’t really there. But what of his face? I am just about prepared to believe that the ancient Persians went in for the piercing of ears, cheeks, eyebrows, noses, lips and chins. The Spartans travel light. They come bare-chested, dressed in sandals, bikini briefs and capes. They carry swords and shields. At the right time, they produce helmets which must have been concealed in their loincloths. Also apples. And from the looks of them, protein shakes. They are very athletic, able to construct a towering wall of thousands of dead Persians in hours, even after going to all the trouble of butchering them. When they go into battle, their pep talks sound like the screams of drunken sports fans swarming onto the field.
Anyways, once we are done discussing the oddities in the movie – let’s come back to the racism. Spartans as we all know were tough warriors, probably the greatest of their time but they created no real empire outside of their city-state. Persia under Xerxes, was a super-power, a vast empire that stretched from the outskirts of modern day India to Turkey and Egypt. An empire, which had many magnificent cities and works of art – truly a cultural sight to behold in that day and age. So it feels rather odd that they are reduced to grotesque monsters and demons. However, the movie accentuates the skills of the Spartans while playing down those of the Persians. Even a shower of tens of thousands of arrows, that literally blot out the sun, can’t kill a single Spartan with just one shield each.
The film is framed as a saga related by the storyteller Dilios. It is this mythic conviction that underpins the film’s failings and informs its successes. Chief among the latter stand the Spartans themselves, Butler and co. sporting as much muscle as a bouncers’ convention and offering a convincing portrayal of a Spartan crack troop. Fighting in nothing more than underwear, helmet and shield, there are more six-packs on show than at a male strip club, but they largely manage to convey hard-assedness rather than homoeroticism. The Spartan battle formations and fighting styles are entirely accurate, and some of the battle choreography ranks among the finest committed to film.
Zack Snyder makes us believe that these Spartans really could dispatch 100 inferior men apiece, and still have the energy to run a marathon afterwards. Crucially, Butler convinces as a leader of men, bellowing orders, wisecracking or bolstering confidence as the occasion demands, leading from the front and laying out several battalions’ worth of the enemy. Leonidas — noble, stubborn and deadly when roused — may be not be complex, but Butler has the conviction and charisma needed to carry it off.
So the movie begins, with a retelling of Leonidas’s upbringing and his participation in the Spartan Agoge. Once he manages to survive the wolf and the winter cold, he is shown teaching his own son (who appears more like a normal boy than the young Leonidas). Xerxes, on the other hand, commands a vast force and moreover has at his disposal a number of gigantic beasts (elephants which are 3 times bigger than a normal elephant and trained battle rhinos), real and legendary, along with weird claw-handed giants whose job is to decapitate underperforming generals. He arrogantly sends word to Sparta, demanding of Leonidas some token form of submission: a tribute of earth and water. Leonidas refuses, kicks the Persians’ emissary into a well, and slaughters the rest of the messenger’s entourage too, apparently reckoning that, in the richness and fullness of time, their non-reappearance back in the Persian camp will tell Xerxes all he needs to know.
Yet a corrupt cadre of Spartan priests (the Ephors), given to slobbering loathsomely over beautiful dancing girls, tries to tell Leonidas that the time is not propitious for Sparta to go to war. These hideous misshapen old men (a wonder how they work for Sparta as we were shown earlier, misshapen or weak children were thrown off the rock in Sparta) – are in the pocket of Sparta’s most duplicitous and corrupt politician Theron, played by Dominic West.
Leonidas ignores the wishes of the Ephors who demand that Sparta not go to war during the festival of the Carnia but Leonidas, finds a loophole (post an extremely raunchy love making session with his queen) and takes 300 soldiers as his personal bodyguard towards the pass of Thermopylae. What follows is a visual treat for any action movie lover – wave after wave of Persian soldiers are slaughtered against the Spartan phalanx. As all seems lost for Xerxes, a Greek called Ephialtes – a disformed, hunchback – tells him a way to outflank the Spartans and hit them from behind (something we can tell, Xerxes preferred, considering the way he is portrayed in the film).
So the Spartans are finally surrounded and massacred, but not before Leonidas has made the God King “bleed” with a spear throw which just misses Xerxes’s heart (historically no record of that happening but many other things didn’t happen either). And thus, the movie ends, with all of Sparta going to war against the Persians and giving thanks to Leonidas and the brave 300 (ignoring the other 7000 who fought with them), for allowing them all to assemble at the battlefield of Plataea. The difference between the Spartans and the Persians throughout the movie couldn’t be more stark – literally a game of shirts vs. skins. Leonidas and his 300, probably just came out of Gold’s gym before they fought the Persians. Plus with ripped muscles, enhanced by CGI, they look like gods in comparison to the boy-loving Athenians or the disfigured Persians.
The action sequences are brilliant but the dialogues are cringy and the depiction of the Persians is downright racist and false. The movie however, has become a cult film due to how it made millions of men feel about their bodies – even the fit ones. When you see the perfection of Leonidas and his 300 – it’s hard not to renew your gym membership or take out those rusty 20 pound dumbbells, lying unused in your cupboard.
Watch 300 for the mindless slaughter of men and recreate one of the most famous last stands in history. Just remember that it is a work of fiction based on a true story and you’ll enjoy it a lot.