Not since ancient times has a movie so polarized critical opinion.
Is the movie racist? Was it boo’ed in Germany? Did the London Metro really give it 1 star?
It seems that the Spartans continue to confound today’s commentators as much as they did their contemporary Greek states. I saw the movie last night in a packed cinema along with my brother and here I am going to review the film, script and the personality of the Spartans. Because never have I read more stupid and ill informed reviews than those of this film.
Style is something that cinematically speaking is like marmite; you either love it or hate it.
Stylish laiden movies have spawned entire themes of film making. Movements that we today totally take for granted and therefore totally forget the risks these films were taking at the time. Film noir is one such style. The Film Noir style is, these days, only shown as a caricature of itself. A piss take. Older film noirs like The Third Man, Maltese Falcon and such like are now lauded as classics of a lost genre. A stylistic phase that is now out of fashion and no longer valid as a future medium. In effect judged as too stylish. But then film is like fashion in more ways than one; they both come back around again. Consider that the sword and sandaled genre was deader than dead and then consider that it came back with a bang. Super hero comic adaptations, WW2 movies, monster flicks, etc.
It is a new version of the noir.
Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize moral ambiguity and sexual motivation. Hollywood’s classic film noir period is generally regarded as stretching from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography, while many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Depression.
Film noir, after it dropped out of fashion last rotation, went to the comics. Where the large shades of black lend themselves well to the comic structure of heavy print, short prose and larger than life action. The comic has embraced this genre because of the dark underbelly it presents. The narration fits the simplistic depiction of good and evil and the ability to amp up characters.
Frank Miller is considered the one of the most popular and successful of these writers. This combination has led to the production of a new cinema style; noir movie comics. Sin City is the leading example. High tech replaces true shadows, colours that exist only in the mind, impossible film shots generated through computer and violence expanded and written large on the screen. Consider Sin City; nothing much happens and a lot of people get dead. Yet still it is considered a great film. A comic book story, its characters painted so large and in black and white that the movie didn’t even attempt to add depth. Instead it relied on its actors to carry the story unspoken through looks, smiles and sexual tension…
Ah! truly then the noir is back! Sexual tension is the core to all good noirs.
And so we come to 300. An adaption of a comic noir that is itself adapted from a real historical event. This story is not a myth. This actually happened.
On paper the Spartans are perfect for the noir movie comic treatment. Colorful, amazing, larger than life, anachronistic, laconic, brave, violent and most immortally kick-ass. What better story could their be than the stand of king Leonidas and his 300 against over 250,000?
Sadly, the majority of the reviews have totally missed the point.
Let us consider this film. The whole story is told as a flashback. This is used as a device to setup the over the top’ness found in the story. The narrator is Aristodemus, who (in RL) was the last survivor of the 300 and sent back to report on the Spartans and what they died for. In the film this was portrayed as a political maneuver on the part of the king to galvanize his resigned nation to action and to inspire them and this inspiration is what Aristodemus is doing as the film opens to the Spartan army about to fight the Battle of Plataea.
In reality Aristodemus did survive until Plataea but he was considered a coward for leaving the 300 and his manically fevered fighting conduct only isolated him further.
So, who were the Spartans?
The Spartans were Dorian, that is made up from one of the principle Greek tribes of the BCE era. Their domination of the Greek world (before Alexander) was a short lived but they were for 30 or so years the most powerful force in the ancient world. Their society was based on a mixed combination of democracy and a strange dual kingship. Considered barbaric and basic by their contemporaries, their lives were totally focused on war, and from age 7 to 60 a Spartan man could easily be called to battle. The Spartans killed any of their young that didn’t meet their biological requirements. This is a primitive form of Eugenics found in many small nation clans such as the ninja’s of Iga who did exactly the same. This program of indoctrination and harsh training bred a large a very skilled army of professional soldiers that really stood out in combat.
Back then the middle-class professional soldier was the norm and mercenary troops plied their skills up and down the Greek peninsula fighting for city states alongside the citizens themselves. Since a professional soldier had to supply his own armor and weapons battles were often more a case of working out who was on which side (especially when they often switched mid-battle). In contrast Sparta provided all its warriors with their equipment and thus the Spartan battle formation really stood out and this means that their appearances on the battlefield are well recorded.
The Spartan fighting man in the film is shown almost how he looked in life except for a few things. Firstly the Hoplite warrior was, for his time, very heavy infantry.
The word hoplite (Greek ???????, hoplit?s) derives from hoplon (?????, plural hopla, ????) meaning an item of armor or equipment and consequently the entire equipment of the hoplite (but not specifically the circular shield, which is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a hoplon, though it was in fact called an aspis). These soldiers probably first appeared in the late seventh century B.C. They were a citizen-militia, and so were armed as spearmen, and assumed a phalanx formation, which are relatively easy to equip and maintain; they were primarily drawn from the middle class, who could afford the cost of the armaments. Almost all the famous men of ancient Greece, even philosophers and playwrights, fought as hoplites at some point in their lives.
Socrates for one.
One of the main things the film changes is that the Spartans don’t wear armour. In real life the Spartans were used to acting as shock troops and of course wore heavy breastplates to prevent, you know, death from sharp objects…
Anyway, it is a fact that on the march to battle they did not. The armour was so heavy that it was only put on just before the battle started. The other thing that is missing is that the Phalanx relies on much longer spears than those shown on screen. This is a more forgivable error since a movie depicting a battle as a simple push and stab would have been very boring and looked slightly silly to modern eyes.
The scenes in Sparta and in the homelife of the king build the tension well as he wrestles with his decision to go to a war he may lose. However in reality Leonidas sent the 300 because it was all he thought he needed to hold the pass and the political shenanigans depicted is not actually accurate. The scene with the Oracle pronouncing that Sparta should not go to war actually went something like this:
O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.
He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions,
Strive as they may; he is mighty as Jove; there is naught that shall stay him,
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.
Which is not exactly “stay at home” message given in the movie. Still I noticed people being stirred by that scene of titillation followed by the sex scene between the king and queen that quite set the mood and raised the blood in time for it being let loose in the battle.
This sort of cinematic and classic emotional cross over technique is used in almost all movies. But never the less, even though I was aware of the technique, I was titillated along with everyone else.
The basic premise setting up the battle of September 480 BCE is not quite correct. The Persian empire was not totally made up of slaves and the Spartans were not totally freedom loving Democrats, but the basic fact is that their way of life was directly threatened by Xerxes invasion.
The fact that the Spartans had slaves themselves is neither here nor there. Ancient peoples cannot be judged by modern standards. To do so is a total waste of time and something we should not encourage the future generation to do to us! Nevertheless the comic sensibilities is clearly drawn into black and white by the King asking the Thespians what their professions were and receiving “Potter and sculptor” as the replies!
Once in place the events of the first day and the subsequent end of the great warriors (thus giving away nothing you don’t already know) is almost accurate and mixed in with the Queen’s political struggles back home. However, while the depiction of the Medes (ancient Iranian people) is correct in their attire and martial prowess, the depiction of monsters is frankly silly. One could be forgiven for thinking that you were watching Lord of the Rings at one point, with the hero battling a giant Troll…
…I mean Maniac one-on-one. The shots echo the Aragon-versus-Troll battle (at the end of the Return of the King) almost frame by frame. Moreover the depiction of Xerxes himself is also almost funny as he appears as a giant 7ft tall androgynous fruitcake rather than the land hungry, irate bastard he was said to have been.
I was put in mind of the main antagonist in the movie Stargate.
Oh, and there were no Oliphants… I mean Elephants, in the real battle.
This apart the story of the battle is almost correct. The real Immortals actually wore scale mail-like plate amour and carried wicker shields and bows. They were more suited to desert warfare where there is space to move and retreat they faired no better that the Medes against the Phalanx, something Xerxes should have seen coming. In the movie they are a cross between samurai, ninja’s and Stormtroopers.
However by far the worst departure from the real story is the character of the traitor; Ephialtes. Here he suffers from the same treatment that Shakespeare meters out to Richard the III is that he is a hideous hunchback. Again clearly delimitating between the perfect Spartans and their adversaries.
The name Ephialtes is the archetypical word for traitor in the Greek language, much in the same way one might call someone a “Judas” or “Quisling”. I suspect that he was not a popular chap with the Greeks and legend has it he moved abroad soon after the battle. The aftermath of the battle is handled quite correctly: The Spartans died to a man with their king’s corpse being mutilated by the Persians as a warning.
This did not have the required effect and soon both the film and the real history pass on to the Battle of Plataea. This took place in 479 BC between an alliance of the Greek city-states of Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Megara and others against the Persians and with it the Persians were expelled from Greece forever.
In other words, the sacrifice of the 300 worked.
The film’s director stated in an interview that “The events are 90 percent accurate. It’s just in the visualization that it’s crazy… I’ve shown this movie to world-class historians who have said it’s amazing. They can’t believe it’s as accurate as it is…