There is an old, long forgotten movie called The 300 Spartans (1962). If you were like me with a dad with a love of history, one of the stories you grew up hearing was that to the eponymous band of Greek soldiers who stood up to the horde of the Persian Empire. “Horde,” if you believe the ancient sources, is not exaggeration. Their army numbered in the hundreds of thousands, whereas the Spartans could only muster the stated total. I will get more into this later. The reason I bring up the 1962 film now is because when I heard about the release of 300 (2006), I thought they were going to do a remake of the predecessor. Instead, it is the Zach Snyder version of Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the events which took place at the pass of Thermopylae in Northern Greece in 480 BC. The two could not be more different from each other, laughably so. At the time, I also did not know any better about Zach Snyder. Despite being out of phase with what I expected, I thought his direction and filming style to be a fun and stylistic, if gory, take on the classic tale. Had I known he would go on to make every movie in basically the same way, I might have thought otherwise. Anyway, on with the review.
While 300 focuses on the famous battle at Thermopylae, in order to get there we start roughly a year after it. Gathered for the soon-to-happen final battle against the hated Persians, a Spartan warrior named Dilios (David Wenham) tells of the exploits of his former king. Despite being royalty, he went through the same brutally rigorous training as any other boy among their people. The last test involves killing a giant wolf by luring it into a narrow pass and spearing it. This allows him to go on to become the great King Leonidas I (Gerard Butler). One day, a messenger (Peter Mensah) comes with an overture from the Persian emperor, Xerxes I (Rodrigo Santoro), offering either the riches of joining the Persians, or death and slavery for his people. Leonidas does not take kindly to ultimatums, and kicks the messenger and his attendants into a seemingly bottomless well (how this functions as a proper source of water, I do not know), screaming the famous line, “This is Sparta.” There are those among the Spartans who think this madness, and are not eager to let the Spartan army march out to meet the Persians. As we find out when Leonidas goes to consult the oracle seeking the blessings of the gods for his campaign, those who oppose him are being paid off by the Persians. The official reason cited is that going to fight would be in opposition of the Carneia, a festival held to honor the Greek god Apollos. As such, Leonidas cannot legally send the whole of his fighting men to take on the Persians as he wishes. Still, he senses the need for action, and comes up with a clever work around: he will take his closest friends and body guards, the title number, and essentially go for a long walk. Should he die at the hands of a foreign power, Spartan law dictates that the entire state must go to war. Basically, he is going to pick a fight. His goal is to make to the narrow straits at Thermopylae, through which the Persians must pass. If he can line up his battle-hardened, well-trained men between the rocky walls, the thousands-upon-thousands of Persians will count as nothing. Along the way, Leonidas and his men witness the barbarity of invading forces, and recruit willing volunteers among the devastated cities, namely a few thousand Arcadians, to join their ranks. Meanwhile, in Sparta, Leonidas’ wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) desperately tries to get the elected council to support her husband by taking up arms as a people. She has a few willing ears, but one of the councilors, Theron (Dominic West), proves slippery. While Leonidas fiercely braves days of ruthless, hand-to-hand combat, beating back all the assaults of the enemy, Theron keeps playing coy. It is only when Gorgo agrees to give up her body for Theron’s sexual pleasure, in exchange for him agreeing to support war, does anything of importance happen. This is not the only bit of treachery taking place. Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), a Spartan by birth but rejected to be a warrior by Leonidas due to his physical deformities, turns against his homeland. With promises of riches and a uniform, Ephialtes shows the Persians a way around the Spartan position. The Arcadians are easily routed, leaving the Spartans, a tiny band, surrounded by the enemy. Xerxes gives Leonidas one last chance to surrender. Instead, Leonidas takes up a spear, throws it, and almost puts it through the emperor’s skull. In response, every last Spartan is killed in a hail of arrows. Back in Sparta, before news reaches them of Leonidas fate, Gorgo appears before the council to make her appeal, fully expecting Theron’s support. Instead, at the conclusion of her speech, he denounces the queen and tells of her infidelities. In turn, Gorgo takes a sword and murders Theron. When his body hits the ground, there spills out Persian coins, showing that he, too, was in the pocket of the enemy. This is enough for Sparta to go to war, which is how we get back to the beginning of the movie. Dilios, who had been sent back by Leonidas before the final battle, uses the memory of their fallen cry as they launch themselves, now as a much larger force, at the Persians.
Never mind the historical accuracy of 300. Did Spartan warriors go into battle barechested? No, because body armor existed at that time. In any case, the film deals with events that happened thousands of years ago, and outside of the lack of breastplates, there is not a lot we have to corroborate what did or did not happen. This can be said about Leonidas kicking the Persian messenger into the absurdly deep well. I can say with a degree of certainty that this did not take place. Regardless, what I would like to focus on with the Spartan king is his character. One might accuse me of a slight bit of hypocrisy by not being critical of somebody who disobeys religious custom. Yes, Catholicism is full of rituals intended to elevate one’s spirit to God, and I try to strictly observe them. However, Faith is not about blind obedience to the precepts of men. Leonidas acts as he does because he perceives the need of his people to be greater than whatever lies the Greek version of clergy at that time feed him. It helps, too, that they were on the Persian payroll. In the Bible, David performs a similar act of religious defiance when he enters the sanctuary to consume the showbread of offering, which was meant to be eaten by the priestly cast. Sometimes, the Catholic Church does not get it right, and there have been moments in history when it has admitted to this being the case. Most recently, Pope Francis issued an official apology to the native peoples of Canada for the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations. At the same time, such failings are not the result of incorrect teaching. Based on whatever principles set down by the Greek pantheon of gods at the time, I am sure it did not involve accepting bribes. God’s Church is informed by Divine instruction, handed on through the centuries, and at every turn informed by God’s love. When misconduct happens, that is not God’s love at work in the Church. The converse of this can be said about Leonidas’ actions, that he did what he did out of love of his culture and people, which he felt threatened.
There is good reason for 300 to be rated R. There is a good deal of nudity and violence in it. The violence is understandable. As for the nudity, I suppose a case could be made for a husband and wife like Leonidas and Gorgo to have sex before he goes to war. What is not needed is the graphicness of it, or of the scenes in the oracle. Still, if it is action you want, you will get your fill in this one. I would not call this a recommendation necessarily, but it could be worse.