300

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.

 

 

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Troy

Next up in our Heroic Age cycle is Troy, an interpretation of Homer’s classic epic poem “The Iliad”. We’re watching these as a bit of background leading up to the Roman invasion of Britain.

During a diplomatic trip to Sparta, while his brother Hector (Eric Bana) is busy with negotiations, Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) falls in love with Spartan queen Helen (Diane Kruger), and they decide to run away together.

Her husband Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), king of Sparta, is understandably pissed off, so he recruits his scheming and powerful brother, King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) of Thessaly. Agamemnon’s had his eye on Troy for a long time, so he brings along his army and his best warriors, including Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Odysseus (Sean Bean).

There’s the usual buff manly men…

The dialogue is so-so, and there’s some improbable stuff like everyone stopping in the middle of a battle to watch a significant personal duel. But the one-on-one fighting is actually really exciting. Achilles’ fighting style and spear-throwing is especially cool.

A lot of reviewers got down on this film because it completely removes the Greek deities from the story, except for a brief appearance from Achilles’ mother Thetis.

But it’s fine by me. Epic stories like The Iliad tend to be a bit inscrutable for modern audiences, because we can’t really grasp what motivates the characters, nor are we meant to.

When someone announces that they’ve received a message from the gods and everyone has to get in a boat and sail around the world, never seeing their families again, people just do it, instead of firing him, or inching away from him as quickly as possible.

Or, when someone’s brother leaves his partner, kidnaps a rival’s wife and sneaks her into the country, they don’t punch him in the face and turn the boat around, because they don’t want to spurn a gift of the gods, and it’s all been prophesied anyway.


Doooooooomed.

So, by removing the immortal elements, divine intervention and prophecies, the film is able to show much more reasonably why such an event might have occurred — in this case it’s the usual suspects: greed, jealousy, pride.

Despite this excoriation, when the film isn’t showing battle scenes, it’s subtly about the struggle of belief; characters are astonished when Achilles removes the head of a statue of Apollo and isn’t immediately struck dead, and the Trojan council members who rely on interpretation of symbols instead of military strategy only hurry along the city’s doom.

Yet in the end, Paris takes up a bow and strikes Achilles in the heel with an arrow, preventing his escape and ultimately killing him. Was it random luck that Paris, admittedly skilled, was able to strike the impervious-by-legend warrior? Or was it the will of Apollo, the god of archery, having his revenge in the end?

As far as epic war movies go, I thought this film was satisfactory, mostly because it shows people involved who were not kick-ass warriors (Paris), or who were insubordinate and in it for personal glory (Achilles), or who willingly followed what they knew to be flawed orders out of a sense of duty, knowing it would result in their death (Hector).

Wow, though, Paris is pretty awful. He’s a lame fighter even in The Iliad, but at least he has the excuse of being personally selected by the gods to be a patsy.

“‘Are you too cowardly to stand up to the brave man whom you wronged? You would soon find out the kind of fighter he is whose lovely wife you stole. Your lyre would not help you at all, nor Aphrodite’s gifts … But the Trojans are too soft. Otherwise you would have been stoned to death long ago for the evil you have done.” (Hector 1 to Paris. Homer, Iliad 3.45).” (via)

In the film, without the divine pot-stirrers, he’s merely short-sighted, selfishly stupid, and a total wimp.

“You left me for THIS?” Menaleus bellows, as Paris scrambles away and literally hides behind his older brother’s legs during a duel. Menaleus has a valid point.

(For some reason, the film chose to ignore the story of Paris’ birth. He was prophesied to be the downfall of Troy, and so was “exposed” — left out in the wilderness to die. He survived by suckling on a she-bear for nine days before being rescued.)

Troy also shows how the war affects the women of the city, though in this case they’re all wives or partners of fighters who end up dying, and all the ladies do is take turns having sex, getting kidnapped, nobly mourning, and fleeing the city.

And speak of Trojan women, this film also leaves out the character Cassandra, a sister to Hector and Paris. In her original story, she’s blessed by Apollo with the gift of foresight, but when she spurns his advances, he curses her so no one will believe her prophecies.

In this immortal-free version of the story, this is perhaps a good thing. She’d either be River Tam or Bertha Mason Rochester, and either one would have meant a very different film.

Finally, Sean Bean plays Odysseus, so when he comes up with the idea for the Trojan Horse, I couldn’t help but picture him in his Lord of the Rings role.