Stunning to look at, and a tech triumph, the pic is hampered by over-the-top perfs, less than ideal dialogue, and while true to its source material (Frank Miller’s graphic novel), needlessly distorts history. Still, any film based on the August, 480 BC Battle of Thermopylae is bound to be exciting and compelling for the red-blooded male demo it is clearly intended to impress.
In its opening sequences, the movie establishes the warrior tradition of Sparta, including the induction of all able-bodied seven-year-old boys into a rigorous training academy. We meet King Leonidas first in flashback as a teenager (Tyler Neitzel), when he is tested in a brutal survival modality, featuring combat against a giant CGI wolf. He passes this test, and we rejoin him as a grown man (Gerard Butler), who gets wind of an imminent threat from Xerxes the “god-king” of Persia, replete with 200,000 men and 700 warships.
A messenger (Peter Mensah) arrives in Sparta with a small contingent, and arrogantly demands that Sparta surrender to Xerxes. Of course, that goes completely against the grain, and Leonidas not only refuses, he kills the messenger and company, and prepares to face the Persians.
Setting off with only 300 Spartans, and accompanied by a few other Hellenic groups, they devise a brilliant plan to defeat the materially superior Persians. They will rebuild a wall at Thermopylae (meaning Hot Gates), a narrow valley adjacent to the sea. Holding this position, any attacker could not pass to the seaward side, and although going inland was possible, an army the size of Xerxes’ could not risk such a large detour. Thus, Xerxes’ much greater numbers would be of no advantage, and, indeed, given the supply requirements, could prove to be its undoing.
Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) realizes that delay will be playing into Leonidas’ hands, so he draws him out, and offers him great rewards if he would only surrender and kneel before him. Naturally, the Spartan refuses. The best description of the ludicrous costuming of Xerxes comes from Christian Science Monitor movie critic Peter Rainer: “Xerxes may think he’s a man-god but, with his nose and ear ringlets, shaved head, and jewels, he resembles a transgendered cross between Tina Turner and Sabu.”
In one of the film’s weakest contrivances, Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) must make nice with council member Theron (Dominic West) to get approval for more soldiers to be sent to help her husband, as the entire enterprise is presented as being unauthorized. In real life, Leonidas was ordered to engage in the mission, as it was designed—if nothing else—to buy time for the Athenians to build lots more ships, and confront the Persians by sea.
Related to this is the bizarre treatment given to the ephors, the highest Spartan magistrates, who were co-equal with the king in managing the state. Sorry, Mr. Miller, but they weren’t a group of leprous and lecherous old men, who attended to a fetching young and scantily-clad female oracle.
As it happens, the Spartans would have succeeded but for their betrayal by a fellow Greek named Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), who told the Persians about a goat path that went around the Greek position, and led behind their lines. Here again, Miller adds a needless dimension to history by giving the traitor a back story of being a hunchback. Riffing on the all-too-true Spartan practice of killing deformed infants, Miller has Ephialtes removed from Sparta by his parents to avoid being murdered. In reality, Ephialtes just did it for the money.
Once Leonidas hears of the betrayal, he knows they are doomed, and the 300 fight it out to the last man. As to the aftermath, Miller does stay true to the historical record. The heroic Spartan force provides a crucial delay to the Persians, and a year later, the Persians are defeated at Salamis in a naval battle, leading to further defeats that finally result in Xerxes’ retreat, his personal decline into harem intrigues, and the eventual fall of the Persian empire.
Finally, we should address the popular calumny of the ancient Greeks being rampant homosexuals and pedophiles, although except for a quick reference to Athenians as “boy-lovers,” this is, thankfully, not portrayed in the movie. It is well-established, from many sources, that such a person was called kinaithos, which means “causer of shame” in both modern and ancient Greek. Moreover, in Athens, and most other Greek city-states, he would not be allowed to take part in public affairs, and if he were blatant in his behavior, would be disenfranchised, exiled, or executed.
To be sure, the warrior culture was necessary for survival, the manly virtues (aretes) were highly regarded, and young men were mentored by older ones, no doubt providing an environment for those so inclined to act on their fantasies. Still, according to many sources including Xenophon, Plutarch, and Plato, under no circumstances was intimate touching allowed.
The Greek ideal was a non-physical, purely pedagogical relationship, even if a small number strayed from this ideal. It is nothing less than an attempted deconstruction of Western Civilization by various vile and nihilistic forces that accounts for this perverse rewriting of history.
And, how ironic that those who would most prattle on about gay rights would take the opposite tack to defame an entire culture.