I watched the much anticipated 300 at a sold out local IMAX theater. While some critics are, to put it mildly, less than enthused about this latest Frank Miller film that portrays the Battle of Thermopylae, the positive reaction of the audience was unqualified. Of course, this may be an example of self-selection bias or it could also be that Miller has succeeded in tapping a touchstone narrative and executed it well enough that 300 attracts or repels on a visceral level.
300 is frequently described in the media as being presented in a “mythic” rather than a historical narrative. This is accurate. The military virtues of the Greek phalanx are extolled by Leonidas more frequently than they are seen on the screen, which is given over to supernal imagery of sword brawls between sculpted Spartan hoplites and ornately grotesque and lavishly costumed Persian slave-warriors. A good thing too as a realistic depiction of a phalanx in action would resemble a relentless, implacable,meat grinder chewing up tightly packed human bodies. Historical military realism takes a hit for a more elegantly bloodthirsty choreography. Likewise, the Persians represent in their physical forms, classical Greek and Roman anxieties about ” the East” – corrupt, fabulously wealthy, exotic, mysterious, inscrutable, irrationally despotic, seductive. Powerful yet contemptible. A view that still held sway as much in the time of Marc Antony and Pompey’s Eastern warlordships as it did hundreds of years earlier during the apogee of Persian dominance. Miller draws on this latent symbolism from antiquity to create a jarring visual juxtaposition to the austere sacrifice of the Spartans.
Furthermore, the characters in 300 are uncompromising in the same sense that a character in a novel by Dostoyevsky is not just a character, but an archetype. Theron is the Unspartan antipode to Leonidas. Xerxes is all saturnalian hubris. Leonidas is duty and sacrifice. Queen Gorgo is unbroken will personified. Daxos the Arcadian, far from the “coward” that some critics have alleged, is the reasonable, unheroic, everyman, who shrinks from the suicidal stand demanded of him by the Spartan King, Leonidas. This kind of un-nuanced use of characters can be or inspiring or maddening depending upon one’s worldview.
Such profound themes tend to engage viewers to bring their own values forward or even project them and contemporary concerns on to what, after all, is only a movie based on a comic book that paid homage to a passage of ancient history. The Spartans at Thermopylae in real life only very indirectly gave their lives for freedom, as we moderns understand that concept, when they died to a man under the arrows of the Great King’s army. However, had the Persians passed unmolested that day, then that long, slow, evolution toward liberty might not have come to pass. History gives no guarantees; we are the fortunate heirs of a thousand slender chances.
In the scheme of things, I think it is fair to say that Leonidas earned his cinematic tribute.