Where to begin...I suppose I should start by saying that as a historian I enjoy watching films about the great events of the past. Provided that a director takes care with his subject, films dealing with historical fiction can be interesting, enlightening, and great fun. With new cgi technology and advances in green and blue screen filming, depiction of battles and episodes of ancient warfare that previously would have required hiring and outfitting thousands of extras can now be created without too much trouble and at considerably less cost. Bravo, I applaud making movies more realistic and more fun to watch. But then along comes 300.
The most important thing to remember about 300 is that it is a close adaptation of a graphic novel (read: comic book.) To claim that this movie is based on a true story when in fact it is based on a comic book famous for its inaccuracies is like saying that Star Wars is an accurate depiction of NASA. Not only does the film have a distinct (and admittedly cool) comic book "feel" to it, but it also has roughly the same level of historical accuracy. Having seen a sampling of what the producers feel are their most important and attractive scenes, I can confidently declare that anyone even remotely interested in the historical event on which the movie is ostensibly based should look elsewhere. Even those people who are interested in depictions of ancient warfare in general should beware. From watching the film's numerous trailers it seems obvious that the overriding goal of director Zack Snyder is to stick as closely as possible to his comic book inspiration. In this he has achieved extraordinary success.
The real event on which the comic book 300 was based was a battle between a coalition of Greek states and the numerically superior forces of the invading Persian empire. The battle occurred in 480 BC at a mountain pass in northern Greece known as Thermopylae (literally "hot gates") for its nearby natural hot springs and its frequent use for defense. With the ocean on one side and a steep mountain on the other, the site was ideal for a defending force to occupy. Over the course of three days the Greeks turned back all Persian assaults until a rogue Greek lead a Persian force over a hidden mountain path to the Greek rear area. Once the Greeks' commander, the Spartan king Leonidas learned of this treachery, he ordered most of the allied Greeks to retreat, and remained behind with his Spartans and a few other contingents to cover the allies' retreat. With enemies to the front and rear the Spartans (and two or three other national contingents) fought valiantly but were ultimately overwhelmed and slaughtered. Such was the historical battle of Thermopylae. The film 300 takes a different look at these events.
During the invasion of Greece, the Persians were lead by their emperor, Xerxes (pronounced "Zerk-zees"). Though the movie depicts Xerxes as a pierced, Pharaonic Egyptian skinhead in bondage gear, the historical king as seen in ancient statues and carvings is long-haired, bearded and robed in the traditional Middle Eastern style of royalty at the time. Flights of fancy like the depiction of Xerxes in 300 serves to heighten the otherworldliness of the Persians and to give the less-astute viewer an immediate and easy frame of reference as to who the "bad guy" is. For the historian, or the viewer who expects a shred of realism in so compelling a storyline, 300's outlandish and grotesque portrayal of the Persians serves only to inflame today's views of cultural and racial differences. In reality, the Persians were one of the most civilized and tolerant peoples of the ancient world. From a viewing of 300, however, one would think that the Persians were nothing more than a seething mass of Lord of the Rings rejects who loved nothing more than to run full-tilt into a Spartan spear.
In this film, history and realism are hopelessly obscured beneath the flaming arrows, stampeding elephants, and hordes of Orcs....I mean Persians, that very effectively create not just a dramatic film, but a stark racial and cultural "they" to oppose the heroic, bodybuilding Spartan protagonists. The Persian army in 300 has been turned into a bad episode of the Toxic Crusaders. From the trailers one would have to assume that the entire ancient Near East was one huge leper colony from which Xerxes drew his monstrous troopers. Where the deformed, beast-like monkey-people of Frank Miller's imagination do not put in an appearance the slack is taken up by any number of outlandishly costumed contingents.
Sadly, for so well-funded and elaborate a movie, it is obvious that no one on the set of 300 ever consulted even the simplest archaeological picture book to verify any of their creations for Persian or Greek armor. Persian helmets of the fifth century were for the most part little more than conical caps, much less the grimacing, full-faced silver obscenities or the be-tasseled Arab-esque helms in 300 . Strangely enough, Herodotus, our main ancient source for the battle, recognizes the heavier and better quality arms and armor of the Greeks as one of the decisive factors of Greek dominance in battle. The Spartans in 300, however, have chosen not to wear the crucial bronze breastplate worn by most phalanx armies around the time of the battle. Instead they sport their famous red cloaks, which, ironically, were always cast aside before any battle so that no enemy could catch hold of it in the thick of things. Ingeniously, the props team of 300 have also managed to overcome the difficulties posed by a realistic Greek Corinthian helmet. Instead of revealing as little of a soldier's face to the enemy as possible, the Greek helmets of 300 discard that pesky bit of realism for an open and easy view of the actor inside each helmet.
Regardless of the ridiculous apparel on both sides of the conflict, one would expect to see the ancient Greek phalanx properly represented. Here again 300 fails to deliver. On a few occasions the Spartans are seen in the proper compact formation with their shields locked, however, this formation, so crucial to the survival of the otherwise slow-moving and vulnerable hoplite, is discarded later on for the dance-like martial arts moves so familiar to modern cinema-goers. Nevermind the fact that the Spartans never would have fought in such a manner, it looks better on celluloid. Similarly, Persian methods of fighting are not to be left out in the cold light of realism. Horsemen throughout the movie are seen using stirrups, which in the Greece of 480 BC were still at least 800-1,000 years before their time. The use of war elephants by the Persians is also an amusing bit of fiction, as the first documented use of elephants by the Persians against Greeks occurred at the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. The ancient authorities on the battle of Thermopylae would have had a field day with their accounts if the Persians had challenged the Greeks with elephants, much less armored rhinos (the depiction of which should tax the suspended disbelief of even the least history-minded teenager.)
Notice that I used the term "Greeks" in the above sentence instead of "Spartans." As the title of the film suggests, 300 doesn't seem to be interested in the fact that the Greeks fighting the historical battle of Thermopylae were not all Spartans. In fact, the 300 Spartans of history made up barely 4% of the total Greek force present at the battle. Our most reliable ancient source lists 7,200 Greek soldiers for certain and another thousand as likely in facing the Persians at Thermopylae. That only 300 of more than 8,000 hoplites are celebrated as heroes is a travesty and has been a failing of history for many years. The fact that the commander of the entire force was the Spartan king Leonidas and that his men (along with some other overlooked groups) sacrificed themselves by staying behind to hold off the Persians has swayed many over the years into concluding that a mere 300 men held back Xerxes' myriads. Such was not the case.
The last nit-picking I will do with this sad perversion of history has to do with a quote of Leonidas', famous even in the ancient world. As reported by Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus, Leonidas said to his soldiers "Breakfast well for we shall dine in Hades." The implications of this statement is that Leonidas knew that he and his men must die that day and that he had resigned himself to the fact. It also illustrated the indomitable Spartan determination never to relent in battle but to die fighting. In the film 300, Leonidas, played by an overtop and surely perpetually hoarse Gerard Butler exclaims "Tonight we dine in Hell!" Many people will overlook this phrase entirely or simply equate it with the true ancient form, but to do so is a grave mistake. The Christian Hell and the Greek Hades are in no ways complimentary ideas, and for a Spartan king to shout about Hell to his soldiers implies a notion of Christian morality and thought unknown to the Spartans. Worse still, a soldier fighting Middle Easterners shouting about Christian Hell can be easily be misunderstood by world audiences, just as the original quote apparently was by the makers of 300.
I close with my comment on the use of the word Hell 480 years before the Christian era because it is emblematic of the mistakes, misunderstandings, and inaccuracies that riddle 300 from top to bottom. Regardless of the label "fiction" on any creative work, a responsibility exists to the men and women being portrayed. That responsibility should not be shrugged off at the first inconvenience, or at the first suggestion that a Japanese martial arts move would look "cooler" than a historically believable spear thrust. Any director, producer, or writer who cares so little for the believable details of their story should not be permitted to pollute the perceptions of the public with it. After seeing 300 will anyone stop and think to themselves, "Wow, Zack Snyder and Frank Miller really took the time to get to know this story. They really worked to make me believe that I was present at the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC. They understood to perfection what that battle really meant to those who lived and to those who died. They made a movie that paid compliment to the heroism of both sides, that showed the battle with realism, and that didn't leave me with a grossly distorted understanding of not only a single historic event, but of an entire civilization." For someone who has studied the battle of Thermopylae for years, I have to say that 300, despite its moving story, astounding action sequences, and amazing blood spurts, may be the worst thing to happen to history in a long time.