Sunday 5 August 2012

Film: 300 (2007)

I don't usually watch historical epics (the last one I can recall being Troy, several years ago), but when I realised that I'd recorded 300 sometime around last Christmas and it was still sitting on my PVR memory, I decided to look through it and see if it was worth watching.

As I expect most readers will be aware, the film concerns the Greek legend of the three hundred Spartans who fought the massed hordes of the invading Persians to a standstill in the Battle of Thermopylae, over 2,500 years ago. The battle certainly happened in the location attributed to it although the situation was, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather more complicated than that portrayed in the comic series by Frank Miller on which the film was based. As recounted by Herodotus, the Greek historian and main source of information on the battle who was born shortly after it happened, there were many more Greeks involved, somewhere in the region of 4,000, from a variety of Greek city-states. When a secret path around the narrow pass the Greeks were successfully holding was revealed to the Persians by a traitor, Leonidas, the Spartan king, did order the majority of his army to retreat, but that still left nearly 1,500 Greeks (including the 300 Spartans) to form a rearguard to enable the others to get away. Almost all of the Greeks in the rearguard were killed, including Leonidas.

From the historical point of view, the film therefore simplifies the tale to emphasise the glory of the self-sacrificing Spartans. It also shifts elements of the story around, putting in incidents which occurred on other occasions. Some of the bizarre menagerie of creatures in the Persian army also owe more to fantasy than reality. Despite this, overall it is probably at least as true to the accepted historical account as any Hollywood historical movie ever is (the notorious U-571 of 2000, in which the warship which captured a U-boat mysteriously changes from British to American, springs to mind). Herodotus' story may itself have exaggerated the achievement of the Greeks, of course. Early historians were often more concerned with telling a good tale (especially one which boosted the grandeur of their own people) than being strictly accurate, and even if that didn't apply in this case, Herodotus was relying on tales which had been told for decades, and maybe grown in the telling.

Setting the historical debate aside and judging it purely as a movie, was 300 worth watching? Well, just about. It is a very violent film, with lots of fighting, hacking, thrusting and spraying of blood, repeated in slow-mo action replays just in case the viewer missed the finer points the first time around. The characters are two-dimensional caricatures declaiming portentously as if they want to sound as epic as possible, with the notable exception of Lena Headey (currently gracing the small screen as Queen Cersei in Game of Thrones - which may alone be enough to persuade some people to watch). She has a strong part as Leonidas' wife in the scenes in Sparta which are interleaved with the battles, providing some contrast, not so say relief from the constant slaughter. The film has a voice-over, describing and explaining what is going on, which seems rather odd until it turns out at the end to have been the account of the one of the survivors; a trick which works rather well. So, if you like lots of gory hand-to-hand fighting, lots of heroically muscled Spartans wearing not a lot, or Lena Headey wearing not a lot, then you might well enjoy this film.

Incidentally I recently tried to watch another 2007 epic with rather less association with reality, Beowulf. This uses "motion capture", effectively taking real actors and sort of "cartoonising" them (if there is such a word). Now I like watching real actors and can happily watch cartoons and computer-generated alien characters such as those in Avatar. But something about the appearance of the motion capture characters put me off completely - I found it very creepy and the film thereby unwatchable. So I only saw the first few minutes.


Pro από Συμβασιλεύουσα said...

The Hellenic army had between 10-50.000 hoplites with 1000 staying until the end . There where 300 Elit Spartans breed for battle and 700 Thespians who were citizens-hoplites . I my shelf find the Thespians more heroic , because they stayd there because they choose it and not by law or culture .
I did not like the film (i am greek) as an historical representation because it was not .
The most important (for me that is) scene of the film is when his wife tells him "with your shield or on it" : Η ΤΑΝ Η ΕΠΙ ΤΑΣ : I TAN I EPI TAS . victory or death .

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for your comment.

What I find amazing about the battle, considering how long ago it took place, is that the exact site is known and recognisable, with archaelogical research discovering large quantities of arrows where the Greeks must have made their final stand.

We know less than this about battles in England which took place only a few centuries ago.

Pro από Συμβασιλεύουσα said...

Thank you for your reply sir . I follow your research about amunition and asault rifles .

Thermopylae (Thermopylais) Is a very comon battle place throu our history . Another great invasion and battle was played exactly the same way 200years after the persian wars when a Gaule hord of more the 200.000 warriors faught there the defending greek city states . The Greeks were again betrayd and flanked from the same mountain road . So i guess the place must be full of historical artifacts from many periods .

Anthony G Williams said...

That's interesting - they should have done something about that mountain road in the previous 200 years...!

Pro από Συμβασιλεύουσα said...

Good thinking . Even better they should have been expecting the manouever and ambush the gaules . Anyway in the end the gaules had the same fate as the persians . A small remnant of that horde escaped into Asia minor and setled there peacefully . Not far from the lands that my ancistors lived . Maybe a have a Celt in my family tree ..............Haha.

Anthony G Williams said...

More than likely - it is amazing just how mixed bloodlines tend to be. We are all mixtures from all over the place.

Pro από Συμβασιλεύουσα said...

Fact . Another fact is that the native geens prevail . Otherwise we would never be diferent at all in the first place ( since we have common ancestors the first 2 men or the first 2 monkey-men) .
Thank you for your time sir . Sorry for the bad english .

Anthony G Williams said...

You don't need to apologise. Your English is infinitely better than my Greek :)