Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Recently I saw 300 with a couple of fellow-professors, a historian and a theology professor. My interest in it was two-fold: as a person who teaches Greek and ancient culture as part of my discipline, I was intrigued by the historical story that lies behind the film. However, as a devotee of comic books, I was also intrigued by the fact that the movie is based on a graphic novel retelling of the event. That's appropriate, I think, because comic books have always been in the business of myth-making and 300 is as much myth as history.

Visually the film captures the essence of the graphic novel. The movie is stunning to watch. There are heavy doses of gratuitous sexuality and loads of violence (both of the gratuitous and non-gratuitous nature). In fact, one scene was so gratuitously violent that my friend David and I found it immensely laughable -- that of the decapitated head rotating through the air in slow motion.

From a historical viewpoint, I found the movie fascinating. It tells the true story of how 300 Spartans went to battle against virtually the entire Persian army and were nearly victorious in doing so. The event in question, The Battle of Thermopylae ("Hot Gates"), took place in 480 BC. Because of the sacrifice of these 300 men along with some other Greeks, the Spartan army eventually defeated the Persians the next year in the Battle of Plataea. The Persian army was led by Xerxes who, depending on how you structure your biblical chronology, may be the same Xerxes who married Esther.

The account of this battle occurs in the writings of the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus in book 7 of his History. You can read Herodotus's account on-line at http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Herother.html. For a movie based on a graphic novel, it is fairly faithful to the recorded events, even to the point of including some of the actual recorded dialogue. One of the great lines in the movie comes straight out of Herodotus who records that the Spartan warrior Dieneces responded to a report that the Persian army was so massive its arrows would blot out the sun by saying, "If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade." The film also captures the essence of Spartan culture. They were so militaristic and single-minded in their devotion to warfare that the other Greeks thought Spartans were strange.

However, 300 is also a graphic novel and graphic novels and comic books are in the business of myth. This movie tries to stay faithful to both of its sources: Greek history and contemporary mythology. To this end, the movie is very much a cross between an epic historical tale and Lord of the Rings. The mythological elements mainly serve to heighten the drama and visual sense of the film. For instance, the Immortals, the elite fighting unit of the Persian army, were real, but I'm pretty sure they didn't look like Ninja. Likewise, I have a hunch that the ancient Spartans did not customarily go into battle wearing little else besides a cape and a leather speedo. But I quibble.

But all in all, my historian and theologian friends and I had a rousing good time. I have to add that, if you can pull it off like I did, 300 is a very interesting movie to watch when you are sitting between a historian and a pacifist.


At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Patrick Mead said...

Duncan was taken to see 300 last weekend by his sergeant. It was a required outing for all the Marines in the Delayed Entry Pool. He was so-so about the film, but admitted there were tons of OO-rahs! from his section during the movie.

According to some sources, the USMC has always considered itself the Spartans of the armed forces.

Duncan would have liked it better, he said, had he not read "Gates of Fire" first. He loves that book!


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