Color me a sucker for any ancient epic battle where a bunch of guys with spears and shields fend off a vengeful horde. Frank Miller’s 300 found it’s way into my eager hands. The art is classic miller in it’s iconographic depiction of Leonidas, and the elite Greek 300. The comic presents few problems even as an historically inaccurate piece of graphic art. It is simply a stylistic presentation from Miller’s and Varley’s imagination of the Battle at the “hot gates”. Sure there’s machismo, oversimplification, and graphic violence. There is also inexplicable stylistic choices for Xerxes gold thong and body piercings, but hey, it’s his comic. I can roll with it.
The movie as an adaption of the comic succeeds visually, but fails in the tone where expansions go astray, and current events color our interpretation of the film.
The Battle of Thermopylae (as every one knows by now) was the standoff between a small band of Greeks and perhaps as many as 500,000 Persians. Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the prime historical source of data for Thermopylae was notoriously an exaggerator of troop numbers. It is more likely that the maximum number of troops present was more likely between 150,000-175,000.
The small band of Greeks is also of course badly misrepresented. While there were only 300 Spartans, or Spartiate peers as they were known. There were several hundred spearmen, shield bearers and other personell brought from Sparta. These men were made up of Helots, (Messenian slaves) and Parachoi, or non-citizen Spartans. In addition to these were the various other polis that joined with the Spartans Thespians, Phoicans and so on so that the total number at the pass was actually more like 7000.
So 300 even as the title of a comic or a movie sounds cool, but is really a bunch of bollocks.
The site of the battle was elected by the Spartans led by their co-king Leonidas. The pass of Thermopylae or the “hot gates” was chosen as a choke point to take advantage of their phalanx and hoplite tactics. In this way the two Persian advantages could not be utilized. The cavalry and archery. The Greeks would force the Persians into attacking on foot in a narrow point where a Phalanx wall of heavily armed infantry could grind the Persians into hamburger. It has been said by some sources that the narrow pass held a phalanx wall 6 deep all bearing 8 foot ash spears. When used against the Persians lighter armor, wicker shields, and little javelins they were slaughtered. This much is accurate. The comic and the film to a certain extent do some homage to the phalanx wall, but fail to stick to the theme. This is one thing that will always drive me crazy. Seeing men drop spears to fight with swords makes no sense. Why would anyone drop a weapon that has 8 feet of effective reach to close with a short sword, (Xiphos) that has two feet of reach. The best advantage any Greek Hoplite had was to stay inside the phalanx wall for protection. The use of the shield in combination with an overhand thrust across the top of the shield wall was the most deadly tactic. In this way the hoplite would remain safe, and still manage to annihilate the enemy. I know sword fighting seems sexier to Hollywood, but it is really quite stupid. The Spartan aphorism exists for a reason, “Your shield is not for you, it is for the man on your left”.
The side trip in the film for Gorgo, (Leonidas’s wife) and the Spartan assembly is really distaracting and not part of the comic either. Spartan women held the most rights of any women in the ancient world. They could own property, move freely without their father or husband. But still they were not allowed to speak at the peers mess, or assembly and so the thought of Gorgo addressing the assembly is quite stupid. And therefore the intrigue spent getting the audience there is wasted. Better to show Spartan women doing their exotic dancing, no kidding- that is historically accurate. Topless Greek women hopping around. Athenian women were soooo jealous.
Next, I know a lot of blokes who will cringe at this, but the selection of the 300 by Leonidas may actually have been 300 homosexual pairs. The agoge (Spartan military school) was an indoctrination into pederasty where a teenage boy was paired with an older more experienced Spartan for initiation. So those men were really, really, close. That never made it into the comic or the film either. I’m sure 17 year old boys would not pay $8.00 to see 300 gay men cuddle under red cloaks before being annihilated. But it is an important part of the story.
Last is the part that Dr. Joseph Natoli cannot beat out of me. Based on “Hauntings”:http://www.amazon.com/Hauntings-Popular-American-1990-1992-Postmodern/dp/0791421546/ref=sr_1_1/102-2950103-6508150?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1173721626&sr=8-1 his 1994 book on postmodern film criticism. I think Hollywood tends to make films from what our culture fears. I think the message is really quite plain. We as a culture are terrified of Iraqi/Iranians (Persians) who might be able to blow us up, either individually, or en masse. We feel we have to say it is a valiant cause to fight them. Is it a glorious fight in Iraq where young men fight for freedom? If that were only the case. The army wouldn’t have any trouble meeting recruitment numbers with young men hot with anger at the Persians threatening to make slaves of us all.
Americans have grown too savvy to buy into this. Even the 17 year old video game/comic book culture of America is too hooked into all the different narratives our culture to be duped by the “prepare for glory” speech. They know it is not glory. They know it is a hot ticket to Baghdad with a rifle and a belly full of hope. Hope that your number isn’t up when the bomb goes off. For the men and women there now, the one thing that is still true is: “Your shield is not for you, it is for the man on your left.”