The short news is: 300 is a must-see. Like the other Frank Miller-based visual banquet, Sin City, it left me queasy with its philosophy of humanity. Nonetheless, this mythologization of the true story of how three hundred Spartans held off the entire Persian army for two days is a rousing crowdpleaser and an undeniably masterful piece of filmmaking.

300 takes some telling liberties with the true tale. I happen to be a bit of a Greek history buff, so I couldn’t help but notice that the Spartan society, which was built on slavery, in this movie is portrayed as the champion of freedom. The Spartans enslaved the native peoples who lived on the Southern Peloponnese, the Helots:

These Helots are the single most important human fact about ancient Sparta. …[T]he Helots provided the Spartans with the economic basis of their unique lifestyle. They vastly outnumbered the full Spartan citizens… The Spartans were exceptionally successful masters, keeping the Helots in subjection for more than three centuries. But they did so at considerable cost. The threat of Helot revolt… was almost constant, and the Spartans responded by turning themselves into a permanently armed camp, Fortress Sparta.

–Paul Cartledge, The Spartans

It was not other Spartan boys that Spartan boys were encouraged, as a rite of passage, to murder: it was Helots.

The true 300 Spartans were nobly defending a lifestyle of slavery, and their alliance with Athens, the birthplace of democracy, was one of necessity. It was the superior naval power of Athens that had been responsible for defeating the Persian King Darius (Xerxes’ father) at Marathon. It is not unfair to say that the Greek defense against the Persian invaders was a triumph of Western Civilization, as we have come to know it, over Eastern Civilization. But to credit the ideals and values of Western Civilization for the victory instead of a combination of luck, home-terrain advantage and leadership is to take an indefensible position.

Other historical innaccuracies are more easily forgiven. The Spartans had two kings; ephors were appointed officials and not leprous mountain-dwellers; Ephialtes was not a rejected Spartan, nor was he a hunchback (though his name means ‘nightmare’). These choices are clearly made with full knowledge of the actual history. Miller and the filmmakers have chosen to mythologize a story that was already larger than life. The best lines, in the movie, all have a historical basis:

“Come back with your shield, or on it.”

“Our arrows will blot out the sun.”
“Then we will fight in the shade.”

“Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, by Spartan law, we lie.”

There is something to the ‘laconic’ style that lends it to modern action films. There is a direct line from Spartan wit to Schwartzenegger dispatching a crocodile while saying, “You’re luggage.”

And it is the present day for which the movie 300 was made. All the talk of war, reinforcements, freedom, barbarian hordes has led to speculation about whether the King Leonidas represents George W. Bush or perhaps Saddam Hussein. The correspondences are not exact for either. Read as a text of Western democratic superiority, 300 might be said to encourage the Iraq War and the current ‘surge’ of reinforcements. But the small Spartan force defending its homeland might just as easily be seen to represent the Iraqi insurgents.

In the end, I think the most profit will be had in simply enjoying 300 as an epic tale, regardless of historical innaccuracies or present day resonances. This new brand of filmmaking, a sort of live-action animation, one that uses the advances in visual effects to tell stories that heretofore had to be told in the medium of ink on paper, is thrilling even in its infancy. Go, tell your friends: see this film.

Making 300
What is 300 trying to say?

Historian Victor Davis Hanson defends the historical innaccuracies