On Monday night in Hollywood I attended an advance screening of the entertaining new Zack Snyder movie 300, starring Gerard Butler as Leonidas, king of Sparta. This past October, I had seen an earlier version when screenwriter Kurt Johnstad asked me to take a look at an advance copy of the film. He drove down to my farm, I liked what I saw, and I then wrote an introduction to the book accompanying the film. So I am not a disinterested observer.
In truth, I think that many critics will dislike this final version of the film for a variety of reasons, even aside from its unabashed defense of the Spartan notion of martial excellence and the superiority of a free Hellas over a subservient Persian East. At earlier prescreenings, for example, some Europeans bristled at such Western chauvinism, came to the silly conclusion that the movie was a George Bush/Iraq allegory, and were appalled that the Persians appeared bent on conquest and weaker, man for man, than the free Spartans guarding the pass.
300 is certainly violent, with beheadings and lopped limbs aplenty. The characters are one-dimensional, with little complexity and no self-doubt or evolution in their thinking. And of course this is not the true story of Thermopylae, but an adaptation from a comic book by Frank Miller that is itself an adaptation from secondary books and films about the battle. While there are plenty of direct quotations from Plutarch and Herodotus, we are nevertheless a long way from the last stand of the Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans in the late summer of 480 B.C. If you want to see what happened at Thermopylae, this movie won’t necessarily help you do it.
But the impressionism of 300 is Hellenic in spirit: its buff bare chests are reminiscent of the heroic nudity of warriors on Attic vase paintings. Even in its surrealism—a rhinoceros, futuristic swords, and an effeminate, Mr. Clean-esque Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) who gets his ear flicked by a Spartan spear cast—it is not all that different from some of Euripides’ wilder takes, like Helen or Iphigeneia at Taurus, in their strange deviation from the party line of the Homeric epics. Like the highly formalist Attic tragedy—with its set length, three actors, music, iambic and choral meters, and so forth—300 consciously abandons realist portrayal.
The movie does demonstrate real affinity with Herodotus in two areas. First, it captures the martial ethos of the Spartan state, the notion that the sum total of a man’s life, the ultimate arbiter of all success or failure, is how well he fought on the battlefield, especially when it becomes clear at last that bravery cannot prevent defeat. And second, the Greeks, if we can believe Simonides, Aeschylus, and Herodotus, saw Thermopylae as a “clash of civilizations” that set Eastern centralism and collective serfdom against the idea of the free citizen of an autonomous polis. That comes through in the movie, especially in the fine performances of Butler and Lena Headey (Gorgo). If the Spartans seem too cocky and self-assured in their belief that they are the more effective warriors of a superior culture, blame Herodotus, not Zack Snyder.
The cinematography, acting, and special effects are often stunning. And the Spartans’ mood of defiance is chilling, especially when we remember that their gallant last stand ended in the greatest defeat in the history of Greek city-states—until Alexander ended them altogether, 140 years later, at Chaironeia.