300 is billed as the next Braveheart or Gladiator. I’m not entirely sure that it lives up to that billing, but I did think it was a good film.
300 is based on Frank Miller’s comic book and graphic novel of the same name, which came out in the late 1990s and which depict the Battle of Thermopylae, in which King Leonidas and a detachment of 300 Spartan soldiers held an army of over a million Persians at bay for several days.
The movie begins with a depiction of Leonidas’s growing up years in Sparta. As king, his reign is untroubled until a Persian messenger shows up at his gate demanding tribute for King Xerxes. Not only does Leonidas not deliver the tribute, he pushes the messenger down into a deep pit at the front of the city. Leonidas then goes to seek the blessing of the oracle in order to go to war against the Persians. The Ephors, the priests who serve the oracle, interpret the oracle’s message to mean that Leonidas is not to go to war. However, the Ephors have been bribed by Xerxes. (This was not clear to me when I saw the movie, but it was clear that at the very least the Ephors hoped, for some reason or another, to profit from Sparta’s downfall.)
Leonidas then took a detachment of 300 Spartan soldiers to defend the Thermopylae (Hot Gates) mountain pass. His plan was to funnel the Persian army into this pass and build a wall to hold them there. As Leonidas and the Spartans were preparing for the fight, Ephialtes (a hunchbacked Spartan whose parents fled the city to save him from customary infanticide) appeared, warned Leonidas of an obscure goat-path that the Persians might be able to find, and asked if he could fight with the Spartans to redeem his father’s name. Leonidas refused, because Ephialtes could not hold a shield up all the way.
The Spartans and Greeks held the Persians at bay for several days while suffering minimal losses. But then Ephialtes went to Xerxes and told him of the goat-path, for which Xerxes promised to reward him handsomely. When the Greeks and Arcadians found that they had been betrayed, they got out, leaving Leonidas and the 300 Spartans to fight to their deaths. Leonidas asked his friend Dilios to return to Sparta and use his rhetorical gifts to tell the people about the 300 Spartans who fought to the death for their city. Reluctantly, Dilios left also.
Meanwhile, back in Sparta, Queen Gorgo tried to persuade the Council to send the army to help Leonidas. But the Council was not about to go against the Ephors. Upon the advice of a councilman, Gorgo attempted to enlist the help of the influential Theron. But Theron had his price–Gorgo would have to sleep with him. Reluctantly, she agreed.
The next day, Gorgo made her speech to the Council. Theron denounced her as an adulteress. As Gorgo was being led out of the Council chamber, she grabbed a sword and killed Theron. His coat fell open and Persian coins fell out onto the ground. Then the Council knew that Theron had been bribed. They denounced him as a traitor and agreed unanimously to send out the army.
Eventually, Dilios returned to Sparta and told the people all about the battle. The next year, the entire Spartan army set out, together with the armies from several other Greek city-states. In the final scene, we see them massed on a hillside overlooking the Persian army. The movie does not show any of the battle that follows; if you know your world history, you know how this turns out.
What I liked about the movie: I liked the story. The idea that a detachment of 300 soldiers could hold an army of millions at bay makes for a very compelling story.
I also liked some of the cinematographic artwork. In the scene where the oracle dances, there are curvy lines in the background which complement the lines and movement of the oracle’s dress and body. In a subsequent scene, Leonidas is making out with his wife, and we see a similar pattern of lines and movement. This serves as a nice counterpoint to the scene with the oracle. I guess there is some symbolism here: Leonidas is going to let his wife be his oracle.
I also liked the cinematographic effect of the Persian messengers falling into the pit. I thought that was a nice touch.
What I did not like: In the early part of the battle, it seemed as if everything was coming just too easily for the Spartans. Millions of Persians were going up against the Spartans–and were no match for them. At first I thought this was going to be a story of how Spartan technological superiority overwhelmed the Persians–not much of a story.
I also was not too crazy about the Spartans representing themselves as the defenders of freedom, duty, and loyalty against the forces of mysticism and tradition. I don’t think this is entirely accurate in light of the historical record. Even in the movie we see some aspects of Spartan culture that are quite unsavory; namely their policy of customary infanticide and murder of anyone who is physically deformed.
I am not too crazy about the character of Leonidas. I don’t think he holds quite the same force as William Wallace in Braveheart or Maximus in Gladiator. Early on in the movie we see him ruthlessly push a Persian messenger into a pit, who had not done anything to warrant such aggression. The only reason we are given to like Leonidas (I believe) is his expert swordmanship and tactical knowledge. It is hard for me to believe that this character can stand before Xerxes and making speeches about how the world will know that his army fought as free men against tyranny and mysticism.
One redeeming feature of Leonidas is his treatment of the hunchback Ephialtes. He was perfectly willing to allow Ephialtes the opportunity to serve in a supporting role; he just couldn’t use Ephialtes as a fighter because of his physical limitations.
Speaking of this, let me note Xerxes’ words to Ephialtes. In receiving Ephialtes into his service, Xerxes said, “Leonidas was unkind to you. He required that you stand. But I am kind. I only require that you kneel.” This reminds me of a quote from The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Ellsworth Toohey, a famous writer, philanthropist, and architectural critic, is looking at the city of New York by night and he says:
Look at it. A sublime achievement, isn’t it? A heroic achievement. Think of the thousands who worked to create this and of the millions who profit by it. And it is said that but for the spirit of a dozen men, here and there down the ages, but for a dozen men–less, perhaps–none of this would have been possible. And that might be true. If so, there are…two possible attitudes to take. We can say that these twelve were great benefactors, that we are all fed by the overflow of the magnificent wealth of their spirit, and that we are glad to accept it in gratitude and brotherhood. Or, we can say that by the splendor of their achievement which we can neither equal nor keep, these twelve have shown us what we are, that we do not want the free gifts of their grandeur, that a cave by an oozing swamp and a fire of sticks rubbed together are preferable to skyscrapers and neon lights–if the cave and the sticks are the limit of our own creative capacities. Of the two attitudes…, which would you call the truly humanitarian one? Because, you see, I’m a humanitarian.
Ellsworth Toohey is basically wondering which attitude is kinder to people: to enjoy the achievements of civilization while honoring the twelve men whose achievement made it all possible, or to reject the achievements of these twelve because the rest of the human race cannot hope to equal them, and in so doing to allow room for the rest of humanity to have the honor due to the twelve men whose achievements would have made civilization possible. He is basically saying to the rest of humanity: You cannot hope to equal the achievements of these twelve men. But don’t worry about it. You don’t even have to try. Once I have gotten them out of the way, all their honor and prestige will fall to you.
In a similar fashion, Xerxes is basically saying to Ephialtes: You can’t stand. You are not fit for it. So I won’t even ask that for you. Kneeling is all you’re good for, and it’s something you can do, so that’s all I’ll ask of you.
Is this really kindness? Or is kindness to want what is truly best for the other person, to believe that they are capable of doing anything you ask of them until they prove otherwise, and to hold them to that? Leonidas was willing to believe that Ephialtes could stand, and he held him to that expectation, until he showed otherwise. Is that unkind? An interesting question.