Of Spartans and Shi’ites

May 02, 2007

Multiple Pages

The Battle of Thermopylae, the subject of Zack Snyder’s animated 300, was memorialized by the Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories.  Herodotus’ purpose in writing about these events was to preserve the kleos (fame) of heroes.  What a testament to his efforts it is that over 2,000 years later Mr. Snyder portrays these heroes on the big screen.

The Battle of Thermopylae is perhaps the most famous battle of the Persian Wars, which were a defining moment in Greek History and Western Civilization.  Any film about this subject matter is going to be a daunting task, and unfortunately Mr. Snyder’s opus falls short.

Both directed and co-written by Mr. Snyder, 300 is based upon the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller, which in turn is derived from Herodotus.  Gerard Butler (Beowulf & Grendel, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) plays Leonidas; Lena Headey (The Remains of the Day) plays Queen Gorgo; and the Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro plays Xerxes.

Snyder utilizes computer-generated imagery and as a result, the film is long on cartoon carnage, and short on epic empathy.  The movie is fast paced, and technically well executed, but the characters often feel lifeless, and the context and significance of the Battle of Thermopylae are underdeveloped. The historical inaccuracies are too many to list.  Such oversights do not necessarily mar a film, but historical rendering is at its best when it takes plausible liberties with the grey areas between known facts, not liberties with the facts themselves.

Gratuitous political correctness and historical revisionism detract from the plot and its seriousness.  In a few scenes, the equality of Spartan women is celebrated, and Queen Gorgo takes on a political role unheard of in Spartan, or in any ancient, society.  The film also implies that the Spartans are fighting for the abstract ideas of freedom and reason, or to rid the world of mysticism, when in fact they were fighting for something more visceral and real:  the defense of their homelands from foreign invaders.

The Persians were invading Greece, and the Greeks required time to evacuate, mobilize, and prepare for the coming battles.  Realizing that it would be a suicide mission, in 480 B.C. King Leonidas, one of the dual-kings of Sparta, agreed to block the pass at Thermopylae with 300 of his bravest men.   In one of the most famous land stands in history, King Leonidas with his soldiers held the pass for three days against the Persians until, finally, they were cut down to the man. 

This delay of the Persian army allowed the other Greeks time to regroup, which ultimately lead to Greek victories at Salamis and Plataea, where the Persians were thoroughly defeated and expelled from Greece.  Reflecting upon the ultimate sacrifice of Leonidas and his men, Herodotus said that he memorized all 300 names because they deserved to be remembered.  This sentence alone better underscores the momentousness of these events than any bricolage of million-dollar special effects that we see in Mr. Snyder’s film.

In the past few weeks, debates surrounding the film have shifted to politics. Critics have recently interpreted the film as an analogy of the Bush administration, where G.W. Bush is Xerxes (minus the body piercings), defeated by a small band of guerrilla fighters.  (A few Bush cheerleaders have somehow tried to spin the opposite interpretation.)  Mr. Snyder denies this intent, although he probably well knows this buzz will help to sell tickets.
Despite his purpose, such an analogy may be fecund.  Like the Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, the Greeks were a very tribal, ethnocentric people who did not take kindly to foreigners invading their ancestral lands.  Like the Persian army, the U.S. military is a multicultural, multi-ethnic and international force, held together not by blood but money.  As in Herodotus, the modern-day events tell of a large empire trying to subjugate a small country, regardless of the will of its people. 

Xerxes, who wanted to “bring all mankind under [his] yoke,” was outraged when storm destroyed his bridges across the Hellespont.  Showing hubris, he demanded that the Hellespont be given 300 lashes - an offense to the gods.  One must wonder whether our current Jacobin transformation of the Middle East to liberal democracy is also a type of hubris; and if so, shall we suffer the same fate as did Xerxes?


Matthew A. Roberts contributes to various publications and beckons from Kansas City, Missouri.   

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