Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
–Simonides of Ceos (Epitaph on the burial mound of the Spartans.)
There are few turning points in history as improbably and dramatic as the Persian Wars of the early fifth century BC, and none of the events of those wars is more dramatic and improbable than the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. It might be interesting to see a move that told the story of that battle in an impartial and fair-minded way, with strict attention to historical accuracy.
300 has no intention of being that movie. Based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, it avoids any pretense of realism, aiming for mythic power instead. To a large extent it succeeds, overwhelming the audience with amazing glorious images, graphic non-stop violence and most of the great lines from Herodotus.
It would be easy to condemn this movie for being historically inaccurate, violent, silly and politically incorrect. It glorifies the Spartans, who really weren’t terribly nice people. It dresses the Spartan hoplites in ridiculous scanty uniforms designed to show off the amount of time they have spent pumping iron. The Spartan king Leonidas shows an anachronistic awareness that he is fighting to save Western Civilization, which from his perspective hadn’t actually been invented yet. And it takes the usual Hollywood convention that unattractive people are bad to absurd extremes.
Yet it tells a thrilling story and is fun to watch. In the early days of the movies filmmakers routinely pulled out all the stops trying to awe and thrill the audience. Today American filmmakers tend to hold back a bit, perhaps wondering what the critics will say. In doing this they lose the opportunity achieve true mythic resonance. Even though I have reservations about the message (if there is a message) I think director Zack Snyder deserves praise for having the nerve to try this.