I was among the 90 percent male audience at a 9:00 p.m. showing of 300 over the weekend. Some of the guys there were younger men and a few looked a little geeky and there were one or two older ones I might have pegged for still being in residence at their mom’s house, but most appeared middle-aged and normal — a category I hope the others thought that I fell into. Having read Steven Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire” and Frank Miller’s graphic novel that the movie was based on I’d been eagerly awaiting the release of the latest movie version of the Battle of Thermopylae (I even rented 1961’s The 300 Spartans, made when Hollywood thought “epic” also had to mean “plodding”). Here’s my brief review of the movie and some thoughts that have occurred to me since it ended.
Overall the movie was very good. The look of the film was definitely unique and strongly resembled Miller’s book, which was the intention. The “graphic novel” artistic treatment (and it is artistic) mitigated the gruesomeness of the ultra-violence to some extent, and while it was bloody (and came close to over-using the slow-motion) I felt it was a believable rendition of what hand-to-hand combat in close confines with sharp-edged weapons would be like. It’s definitely not a date movie unless your girlfriend also happens to like field-dressing roadkill, but there is a discernible plot and some inspiring and intense performances that makes this a good story. Additionally, it is a thought-provoking examination of duty, honor and patriotism that’s short on speeches and long on demonstration.
I was disappointed with the gratuitous scenes with naked women; the scenes fit within the story but appeared to be driven more by a marketing formula for the target audience than from story-telling license. The scenes between King Leonidas and his wife, and in the seductive blandishments offered by King Xerxes to the traitor Ephialtes, easily could have been shot with a bit more discretion. Not that this is a movie for younger teen males anyway, but the nudity definitely would be a distraction from the more laudable themes in the film. Otherwise “300” is an inspiring and entertaining movie for action film fans and those who will draw some conservative political allegories from the story.
While much is made of the battle being between a small group of free men and an invading slave army of a couple hundred thousand, I thought there was little effort to frame the historical significance of the effects on Western Civilization if the fledgling Greek city-state democracies had been absorbed the Persian empire. Ironically, Spartan society was probably less “free” than the Persians; while it is portrayed as an egalitarian meritocracy, it was also rigid in its laws and cruel — some might say eminently practical — in its single-minded warrior ethos. At the same time it made a religion out of exalting honor, duty and courage and “300” makes that point with all the subtlety of a Spartan xiphos.
King Leonidas is the standard-bearer and champion of this creed, even to the point where he breaks the rigid letter of the law in order to ultimately defend its spirit, standing firm against the alternating threats and flattering of his foreign enemy and standing in disgust at the treacherous collaboration of his own Council of Elders that sought accommodation and surrender to the apparently overwhelming enemy (based on the portrayal of Council, duty and honor weren’t universally revered in Spartan culture as the politicians manipulated events for their personal gain and grudges regardless of the cost to their country). For Leonidas, while freedom may be ripped from a Spartan’s dead fingers, it must never be willingly released due to fear, complacency or indolence.
The movie also helped me see another important point. The Spartan warriors are all very fit and well-muscled, conditioned to their “Spartan” existence of war and striving. While my own body bears little resemblance to theirs, I know that I was born with the same number of muscles in my body as they had; the difference is in how they developed what they were given. Similarly, I think we all start with the same capacity for faith, duty and honor within us and these, too, can be trained, exercised and built up to astonishing and awe-inspiring levels. When we do, even just a handful can change history.