In its depiction of this event there are many things that were good. First, The visual style was wonderful; the movie is shot on a lot and the backgrounds and sets digitally painted in giving the whole picture a dreamlike atmosphere that resembles the graphic novel. Video ramping and color wash are employed to heighten the action sequences. Costume design and armory, though not authentic, are certainly a wonder to behold. Further, seeing a depiction of how ancient warfare might have been was quite exciting. There are few movies that actually depict this type of warfare (more's the pity) and for some time I've wanted a "opening 15 minutes of Private Ryan" that concerns itself with ancient warfare. This is pretty close. The historical inaccuracies aside, the fight scenes and the graphic nature of the battle contribute to the depiction of the horror and glory that was ancient warfare. Additionally, the epic struggle between obviously good men and definitively evil forces was certainly stirring. The Spartan men and women are beautiful physically and spiritually. They are noble, rugged, and ripped with muscles (even the lead feminine star, Lena Heady). Xerxes and the Persians are monstrous, orc-like, covered with piercing and warped in body and mind. They are obviously tortured, inhuman creatures about whom no one can have an illusion about their badness. Finally, the overall spectacle was impressive. If one goes to see a movie for spectacle, this would be it. It is nonstop, overwhelming, seductive spectacle of the most glamorous kind; the type Saint Augustine used to say was the pride of the arena.
And therein lies my discontent. I care less about the historical inaccuracies, nude scenes, graphic violence or even bad acting and story plot than I do about the spectacle element. Certainly I'm in agreement with Victor Hanson that the leonization of Leonidas and the 300 is a time honore tradition dating back to Herodotus. What the Spartans did at Thermoplyae was impressive and should give great encouragement to anyone else fighting in a conflict that seems unwinnable. Moreover, the movie has hints of a Western vs. Muslim conflict wherein the Spartans are the Westerners and the Persians are the Muslims ("submission" becoming the ubiquitous word from the mouths of the Persians seems no little coincidence). It’s quite encouraging to think that anything out of Hollywood might suggest such a theme.
Nevertheless, I don’t know if it does. The acting in the movie is not great; once or twice Gerard Butler sounds more like Sean Connery than Leonidas. There are many unnecessary scenes (like a video ramped sex scene? Why?) and some downright silly historical inaccuracies; such as a rhinoceros and elephants at Thermoplyae. Please. But the thing that gets me most is that the Persians are unsubtle inhuman monstrosities not of mind but of body. They are orcs, not men. Like Peter Jackson’s rendition of the Lord of the Rings, this rendition of the truly monstrous philosophy of submission which infected the Persian empire saps the power of this philosophy completely from the characters. They are orcs and act with orcish natures. As such they are no more threatening than a lion or a bear or a shark. Were they men they would be far more threatening because the possibility of other men being infected with the same mental disease would be far greater. The opposition which Leonidas and his men would be facing would not just be the physical struggle of bronze on bronze but the mental struggle that what they had to offer as a free people was ridiculous, miniscule, transient, futile.
This flaw in the movie is most pronounced in the character of Ephialtes. Historically, Ephialtes of Trachis was a man who chose to betray the Spartans for a reason unknown to history. Greed? Lust? Revenge? Or did he just see the future in which the massive empire which enjoyed plumbing, mail service, secure government, medicine, possibilities of wealth, and advanced culture would dominate the backwater slums of the Greeks? What was freedom (a concept feared by the Spartans as they owned one of the largest slave populations in Greece at the time) compared to this physical luxury and advancement? Surely the fleetingness of giving obeisance to a god-king was a small price to pay for being able to enjoy the greatest of modern inventions? Greeks were fools to resist the coming age. The movie depicts Ephialtes as a misshapen beast who betrays the Spartans because Leonidas, quite understandably, rejects him as a warrior. The misshapen Ephialtes then turns to the fleshpots of Xerxes and the promise of physical pleasure. His motives are so simple and mundane as to be almost laughable. The name Ephialtes means "nightmare" and the real nightmare is not that one man will give in to his passions but that the promise of freedom will seem paltry compared to what the simplicity of submission has to offer.
This oversimplification seems a terrible disservice both to history and to the present situation. If the movie seeks to lionize the historical event it does a poor job through its abridgement of the characters and their motives. If the movie seeks to tell an inspiring story to modern viewers it fails through its oversimplification. Our current enemies are men, not ogres. Their seemingly pristine message of submission is highly attractive compared to the tangled and exhausting mental journey necessary for autonomous men. Their viciousness and callous murders seem more horrific because of the human greatness which they deny. If they were a hurricane, or a shark, or a bear they would not be so terrifying. But like Leonidas facing the actual Persian hordes, the West faces an enemy that operates with human cunning, human complexity and human sorrow. The movie fails to show this complexity. There are no moments when one feels sorrow for Leonidas, affection for his wife and son, understanding for his enemies. There are no moments of tension in the movie or uncertainty about the situation. There are no moments of crisis when the possibility of total failure becomes a reality.
And as such, the spectacle of the whole thing disturbs me. Is this what the West stands for? Is this what is put forth as being attractive? Is this what encourages young men in the West today? 300 still reigns at the box office and perhaps it might effect some sort of dim recognition of honor and glory in the minds of its audience. I only hope that, under cover of the aspis of spectacle, a hidden, somewhat insidious enemy doesn’t creep in to the gates.