300 is another of the Anglofilmia movies that touches on several familiar concepts: natives fighting invading forces, the appeal of a glorious death in battle at the peak of one’s life, and the resulting immortality in story form throughout history (see also: Troy).
I’m sure by now you’ve seen the film, and if not, you’re at least vaguely familiar with the story, if for no other reason than its advertising was ubiquitous when it was released in 2007.
But just in case: 300 is based on a Frank Miller/Lynn Varley comic of the same name, which tells the story of the baddest-ass group of fighters in history, in their baddest-ass epic battle, shown in bad-ass stylized form. It’s an eye-melting spectacle of battle glory and sweaty, ripped abs and lots of men yelling. And then everyone dies. (Except one guy, who’s the one telling the story.)
All caught up? Good. Since we’re all familiar with the story, a bit of context is also necessary.
2007 was a great year for stylized (or at least stylish) movies. For indie hipster color, we had Juno, Superbad, Lars and the Real Girl, Dan in Real Life, and Hairspray (does that count as indie?). On the other end of the tones spectrum, repping for washed-out cool, we had Sweeney Todd, the Orphanage, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and There Will Be Blood.
Blockbuster comics movies seemed to be nearing the end of their run (though in retrospect we know better), with X-Men: the Last Stand in 2006 and Spider-Man 3 standing in stark contrast to 2007′s Persepolis. It was as if filmmakers realized a comic page made a pretty sweet-lookin’ storyboard without any meddling, and Frank Miller’s oeuvre was still ripe for the picking.
As it turned out, 300 became a blockbuster in its own right, raking in over $200 million at the box office. Comics movies are still going strong.
The movie currently sits at a 60% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to a 90% user rating. It makes sense that there’s such a huge gap. The film turned out to be one of those that you either love or you hate. People get into the flashy stylishness, the deliberately over the top battle scenes, the comic panel framing, and the rigorous training undertaken by the actors, or they loathe the historical inaccuracies, the portrayal of Persians and the disabled, and the posturing.
In short, 300 doesn’t try to be anything but itself, which is to say it doesn’t let truth (or historical accuracy) get in the way of a story, and there’s a lot of very shiny battle scenes, and it matches the comic very, very closely. Ultimately, war stories are written by the people who won, and we can’t help but project our contemporary sensibilities onto the stories. Whether you can accept those elements will determine your feelings on the film.
So what of the actual Battle of Thermopylae? Learning about the actual event, it’s such a cool story that it doesn’t actually need much (any?) embellishment to be downright fascinating. But while 300 throws in some magic, demons and depicts Xerxes as “an angry bald giant“, as far as the general sketch of events goes, 300 doesn’t actually deviate all that much.
The primary source for information on the wars is Herodotus, and other accounts line up with his telling. The Persian Wars took place between 500 and 479 BC. Wikipedia tells us it was “fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece.”
Persia was mounting its second invasion of Greece, who mostly agreed they weren’t keen on the idea. The armies launched a two-pronged defense, blocking the army at the pass of Thermopylae and the navy at the Straights of Artemisium.
Around 7,000 Greeks (Herodotus says 4,200) held off approximately 100,000 to 300,000 Persian soldiers for three days of battle, with Spartan king Leonidas at the pass itself, a strategic stronghold.
Two days in, a local named Ephialtes revealed the location of a small path that bypassed the Greeks and allowed the Persian army to flank them. Leonidas saw what was happening and sent most of the Greek army away, leading around 1,400 in the last stand.
The Greek navy withdrew after learning of the defeat, and the Persian army captured Athens. But several months later, the Greeks attacked and defeated them, causing Xerxes to withdraw his army from Greece, and the following year he gave up his quest for Greece after a massive defeat at the Battle of Plataea.
(300 begins at the beginning of the Battle of Plataea, at which the story of the Battle of Thermpylae is told in order to rouse the troops, with all its attendant exaggerations.)
After Plataea (479 BC), the Greek city states went on the offensive, Best estimates put a peace accord some time around 466 BC. Herodotus wrote his Greek histories around 440–430 BC, ensuring Leonidas and his soldiers a place in legend.
Funnily, the film begat a legacy all its own, in the form of memes derived from the over the top line deliveries from the film trailers, like “THIS IS SPARTA!” and “TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELL.”
As for me, I know what I’m being next Halloween.
Support Anglofilmia by purchasing 300 on DVD or Bluray, or the Frank Miller and Lynn Varley graphic novel on which it’s based, through our Amazon Affiliate links.