CAPSULE: This film shows us why they did not let Robert E. Howard write history books and why they did not allow Frank Frazetta to illustrate them. This is a macho, violent, and very bloody re- telling of the previously-true story of the Battle of Thermopylae. It is overblown with hyperbole that needed computer animation to visualize. This is actually a very bad telling of the story, but it is just the kind of thing to get some of the teenage audience interested in history. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
What the Battle of the Alamo was for Texas history the Battle of Thermopylae was for ancient Greece. This was a time when there was just barely was a Greece. It was more a collection of city- states constantly at war with each other. Meanwhile in Persia, King Xerxes had inherited the Persian Empire from his father. Some of his holdings were in what is now called Turkey and the Athenians had captured and burned Sardis, part of the empire. Xerxes swore revenge and wanted to add Greece to his holdings. He brought what was then the largest army that had ever existed and invaded Greece. Suddenly the warring city-states of Greece had a common enemy. But they did not have the unity to fight it together.
Sparta was the most warlike of the states. The King of Sparta was Leonidas. He took his personal guard of 300 soldiers and decided to face the Persians at the only place where that was possible. Whoever entered Greece had to pass through the natural bottleneck at Thermopylae. There cliffs of stone almost fell off into the sea. There was a narrow pass between rock and water. (That is not how they showed it in the film.) With a team of three hundred Spartans blocking the pass (and a few thousand other defenders from other cities like Thespiae who usually are not mentioned) the Persians could not proceed. They would have to kill the 300 men blocking their way. But the Spartans were probably the best fighting men in the world. Xerxes had quantity but the Spartans had quality.
One of those great films I remember from my youth is Rudolph Maté's THE 300 SPARTANS. In this film Richard Egan played the mighty Leonidas. Probably inspired by the same film I saw, Frank Miller and Lynn Varley adapted the story of the battle to graphic novel form. Now a film has been made from the graphic novel and along the line a very great deal has been changed. The story has become a giant graphic novel for the screen. Somewhere along the way the story seems to have been heavily influenced by stories of Conan the Barbarian. Xerxes (played by Rodrigo Santoro) has become a giant and a sorcerer and wears about three times too much jewelry and far too many piercings. Leonidas is a barrel- chested and bloody fighter (Gerard Butler looking in this a lot like Brian Blessed).
The graphic adaptation combines animation and live-action, making this a sort of a SIN CITY-STATE. The historian Herodotus, who first told the story of the battle, no doubt exaggerated somewhat to make it a better story, but even he would have been dumbfounded to see the images so distorted for excessive dramatic effect. For example Xerxes martials into the battle huge elephants and a rhinoceros used like tanks. (I do not remember anybody in history ever using a rhinoceros in battle.) The treacherous Greek, Ephialtes, is reduced here to looking like Quasimodo with a sword.
Because the filmmakers can completely control the images we see, frequently scenes do not make sense. We see people leaving long dramatic shadows on the floor of a temple, for example, with no light source behind them. The script is amateurish and cribs dialog from better films such as GOLDFINGER ("Choose your next words carefully. They may be your last.") There are barrels of blood spilled in this film and rolling heads. Director Zack Snyder takes out all the stops including several he desperately needed.
How does one rate a film like this? The history is terrible. The visual images are done sloppily so that they do not make sense. Little care was taken to avoid showing things like smallpox vaccinations. What we have is a vulgar and over- dramatic retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. But as vulgar and over-dramatic retellings of history go, this one is not bad. It is definitely a leader in the vulgar and over-dramatic retellings of history field. It is an entertaining comic book for the screen. It may lose points for inaccuracies, but it is entertaining in a very-Grand Guignol sort of manner. And if I had seen this film as a kid, I might have had much the same reaction I have now as an adult. It would have been, "This can't be history. This can't be what it was like. Now I want to read about it and find out what it really was like and how much of this is really true." Hey, bad history films can do some good. I rate 300 a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Hey kid, do you want to read about some *real* heroes? This is Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae. It is where the film 300 started: http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Herother.html
One historian's take on the errors: http://www.thestar.com/artsentertainment/article/190493
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0416449/fullcredits
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper