Friday, March 23, 2007

300 (2007)

Freedom Comes at the Highest Cost of Blood

Zack Snyder - Director
Kurt Johnstad - Screenwriter
Michael Gordon - Screenwriter
Zack Snyder - Screenwriter
Frank Miller - Author
Gerard Butler - King Leonidas
Lena Headey - Queen Gorgo
David Wenham - Dilios
Andrew Tiernan - Ephialtes (nightmare)
Rodrigo Santoro - Xerxes I
Dominic West - Theron

Historical Connection

300 is the movie version of Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, which is a fairly accurate retelling of the Battle of Thermophylae (ther-MO-pih-lee), a key event in the defense of Greece from invading Persians, although the movie borrows freely from fantasy genre pictures, with epic sized computer generated monsters and grotesque villains.

It is 480 BC when the Persians make this third attempt to conquer the Greeks, although this is the first campaign by Xerxes I, son of Darius I. The invasions came across the straits at Hellespont, just south of Istanbul, where Xerxes and his fleet of some 600 ships formed a land bridge for his troops that some estimate at 4-5 million, half of which provided logistical support. By land and by sea Xerxes forces moved South and converged on Athens.

Xerxes sent messengers ahead to tell the Greek cities to give him "earth and water" as a sign of their submission and pledge to pay tribute. But, clearly the Athenians and Spartans (former enemies) held the messengers accountable, and throw them into pits and wells, telling them to dig out the earth and water for themselves.

In the face of the encroaching army, King Leonidas of Sparta, rallies a small army of 300 highly trained men (who had sons to carry on their name), and with 700 volunteer and conscripted thespians set up their ranks at the narrow Thermophylae pass. They know however that they will only be able to slow down Xerxes advancing hordes. Although Leonidas and his troops die, they take a tremendous toll on Xerxes' army. One report suggests that in the first skirmish 10,000 of Xerxes forces died but only 3 Greeks. The delay and infliction on Xerxes forces provides enough time for the Athenians to put together a navy that will effectively stop Xerxes' European expansion off the island of Salamis. Then, the Greek states are able to put together an army that easily defeats Xerxes remaining land troops at Plataea (where the movie ends).

In Miller's book and the movie, the names of the main combatants, Leonidas, his wife Gorgo (not in the novel), and Xerxes, and the names of the conquered armies that Xerxes uses, such as the Immortals, are accurate. The movie is also accurate regarding the dress, manner of combat, fighting techniques, and troop numbers; even spoken lines are lifted from historical records.

One snippet of historical dialogue occurs when the emissary of Xerxes threatens the captain of Leonidas' force. The emissary says that unless the Spartans surrender, Persian arrows would be so numerous as to blot out the sun. The Spartan captain responds, "So much the better, we shall fight in the shade." Today that is the motto taken by the Greek 20th Armored Division.

It was against Spartan Law to surrender. If a Spartan warrior returned from battle without his shield, it is assumed he surrendered, and the penalty was death. Thus, the Spartan rallying cry: "Never Surrender, Never Retreat."

Today, a monument stone sits on a hill at Thermopylae where the majority of the Spartans died in the last hailstorm of Persian arrows (many which have been found at the site). One translation of the ancient Greek epitaph is: "Stranger, bear this message to the Spartans, that we lie here obedient to their laws."

Biblical References

In Daniel 11:2-3 we read the beginning of one of Daniel's visions:
Three kings of Persia are yet to come; and a fourth shall acquire the greatest riches of all. Strengthened by his riches, he shall rouse all the kingdom of Greece. But a powerful king shall appear and rule with great might, doing as he pleases.
In this passage, during the time of Cyrus the Great (559 BC-530 BC), reference is made of Dairus I (36 years, 522 BC - 486 BC), Xerxes I (20 years, 486 BC - 465 BC), and Alexander the Great (330 BC - 323 BC).

There are elements of the film (and graphic novel) that parallel Biblical themes:
  • Xerxes temptation of Leonidas is similar to Satan's temptation of Christ in the wilderness.
  • Leonidas is also a Christ figure in that he altruistically dies at the hand of evil for the future hope of the world.
  • One of Leonidas' last requests, like Christ's, is that he and his men be remembered as fulfilling the law, and bringing hope.
  • The movie also explicitly illustrates the grotesqueness of evil through many explicit images that could have been lifted from The Damned in Michelagnelo's Last Judgement above the altar of the Sistine chapel. (The pope looks at this stuff at Mass.)
Milestone of Western Civilization

Today the Battle of Thermopylae is pivotal to Western Civilization and its embrace of law, order, and democracy. While the battle was short, it accomplished four strategic goals:
  1. It imparted a significant physical and emotional toll on Xerxes' armies.
  2. It slowed down Xerxes army from reaching Athens (which had been evacuated).
  3. It demonstrated to Greece that Xerxes was a serious threat. Some reports have it that the Olympic games were in progress and no one wanted to stop them to fight a war.
  4. It gave the recently bonded together Greek states time to mount their army and navy for the final battles.
Thus, the 1,000 that died at Themoplyae, was a just sacrifice, for it allowed the Greeks to defeat the Persians, and allowed democracy to spread into Europe. Had Persians overrun Greek society, Western Civilization would be more likely modeled after the tyranny of the Medes and Persians. (e.g. Iran doesn't like the movie's implication about this. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the "Republic" of Iran is, by the way, the political descendant of Xerxes.)

The Battle of Thermopylae is still studied as a model of training, equipment, defense, and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. It is from this battle that modern warriors, when asked to surrender their weapons respond: "Come and get them."

In these ways, 300 reminds us that fighting tyranny in defense of democracy and freedom has a 2,500 year history of bloody conflict. The wars we fight today are nothing new, and the messages this film brings are uncanny in their connections to the current debate about America's involvement in the lands of ancient Persia. Indeed the political macerations in the film seem frightful contemporary.

The Evil of Tyranny

The physical goal of the film's protagonist and antagonist is make clear in this dialogue as Xerxes tries to persuade Leonidas to surrender.

XERXES: There will be no glory in your sacrifice. I will erase even the memory of Sparta from the histories. The world will never know you existed, at all.

Leonidas ponders that for a moment, then...

LEONIDAS: The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many, and before this battle was over that even a god-king can bleed.
Trial Moral Premise

There are four characters on both sides of 300's moral premise.

King Leonidas, his captain, Queen Gorgo, and her political counselor all demonstrate selfless service to others and a generous giving of themselves for the safety of their country, which are virtues that lead honor, glory, remembrance, liberty, and hope.

On the other side of the equation we have Xerxes, his emissaries, and messengers, and Theron (the oily politician), Ephialtes (the hunchback traitor), and the Ephors (keepers of the Oracle). The vices each of these example are self-centeredness, service to themselves alone, taking from others, and vainglory that leads to enslavement, infamy, dishonor, and dread. Thus one way to articulate what this movie is really about could be this trail moral premise:

Vainglory in service of self leads to enslavement; but
Humility in service of others leads to freedom.

By the way, the glory that Ephialtes gains is that today his name means "nightmare", for it was his treachery at night that brought a quick end to the Spartans at Thermopylae.

Moment of Grace

As we center in on the film's real moral premise, we also are drawn to the central Moment of Grace. It's about half-way through the movie, as we might expect, and it comes after Leonidas meets with the Ephors, whom Miller portrays as lecherous lepers that control Sparta by interpreting the hallucinated mumblings of a drugged slave girl they claim is a divine oracle.

The King, attempting to follow Spartan law, must consult with them (and the Oracle) before taking any action, but he doesn't buy into their superstitions, lust, or greed. They first demand he give them gold, and, then their interpretation of the oracles mumblings tell Leonidas not to fight, to do nothing.

Thus, this good king, who has sworn to protect the country and up-hold the law is now prevented by the law to defend his country. As his political enemy, Theron, later tells Queen Gorgo, "This isn't about war, it's about politics." In the historical record, Leonidas compromises with the Ephors, but in the movie he defies them, and in the novel the gold is paid by Xerxes to compromise their influence.

Leonidas returns to his home and bed, but can't sleep or welcome his wife's embrace. He finds himself enslaved by political compromise. The queen interrogates him:

QG: Has the oracle robbed you of your desires as well?
KL: It would take more than the words of a drunken adolescent girl to rob me of my desire for you.
QG: Then why so distant?
KL: Because it seems that though a slave, captured by lecherous old men, the oracle's words can set fire to all that I love.
QG: And that is why my king loses sleep and is forced from the warmth of his bed?
KL: Then what must a king do to save his world, when the very laws he has sworn to protect force him to do nothing.
(The Queen's next line triggers the moment of grace, that the King embraces in several ways.)
QG: It is not a question about what a Spartan citizen should do, or a husband, or a king. Instead ask yourself, my dearest love, what should a free man do?
That's it!

He gets the truth of the moral premise, and after a moment of assimilation he again is a freeman and falls into her arms and they make love. It is what a free man is able to do. He is able to give of himself to his wife in love. Not just through sex, even as it is tender and respectful as sex between a married couple should be; but through the courage of facing death as they both seek freedom for their country.

(BTW: This sex scene should be read as a model of martial intimacy; it was romantic, sexy, chaste, good, true, and beautiful. It would be interesting to compare Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body with the sexual love we see in this movie. I suspect we'd find a good alignment.)

Before this Moment of Grace the King frets at fulfilling his duty because he has politically compromised his values. The law intruded on his ability to do what he feels is his ultimate responsibility of defending his country, and so he turns to a higher standard. Not what a politician or king would do, but what would a free man would do.

For King Leonidas, everything hinges on that moment in the story. And consistently we see that our other characters have similar Moments of Grace when they accept or reject this true moral premise:

Moral compromise, even if politically expedient,
leads to enslavement and dread; but

Executing justice, even if politically suicidal,
leads to liberty, and hope.
The Queens Lesson

Now, how the queen learns the moral premise, in her personal dealings, is even more dramatic than how the King has learned it.

My wife, Pam, would have me mention at this point, perhaps something significant. It is after his Moment of Grace that the King essentially renounces his political position (as King) to go on a "stroll" with his bodyguard (of 300). Where before the Moment of Grace he tries to listen to and show respect to the politicians, now he is simply nice but rebellious. To underscore that he is no longer King he turns to leave his wife and go to war, but she calls after him: "Spartan!"

Notice she does not call him "king" or "husband." Further reinforcing this moment, we recall the writing of a first century historian (not in the movie or novel), Plutarch, who "mentions in his Sayings of Spartan Women that, after encouraging him"...Gorgo asks Leonidas what she should do on his departure, to which he replies, "Marry a good man, and have good children." (

Back to the story, the battle is being waged, and Gorgo seeks to persuade the Spartan council to mass the entire army to defend their land. Her political foe is Theron, who she goes to to convince to be on her side. But he isn't interested, and informers her that the issue is not one of war but one of politics. What he means by that is, political power for himself, and he intends to grab it, now that the King has left.

As misogynist villains seem to want, and it is beyond my understanding, he asks her for sex. He reasons to her that if she loves her husband so much, she will be willing to compromise her values to gain political advantage to help her husband. In desperation, and because she has been told that Theron's political support is crucial, she pulls off her dress and bravery offers herself to him. As he begins to rape her he says with disdain and malevolence: "This will not be over quickly, and you will not enjoy it."

Is it a necessary scene? You bet it is. Because it shows us that the Queen has compromised her values, especially to be politically expedient. What happens soon, however, even more so elucidates the moral premise.

She is given opportunity to address the council, even as Theron hideously looks on.
QUEEN GORGO: I'm not here to represent Leonidas. His actions speak louder than my words ever could. I'm hear for all those voices that could never be heard. Mothers, daughters, fathers, sons. 300 families that bleed for our rights, and for the very principles this room was built upon. We are at war, gentlemen. We must send the entire Spartan army to air our King in the preservation of liberty, send it for justice. send it for law and order. Send it for reason. But most importantly, send it for hope. Hope that the king and his men have not been wasted in the pages of history. That their courage bonds us together. That we are made stronger by their actions. That your choices today reflect their bravery.
It's a moving speech that gets a positive reaction from the members (especially with Tyler Bates' original music — it must have sounded great in the council chamber.)

But oily snake that he is, Theron turns on the Queen, and in front of all, accuses her of adultery with her chaste and proper counselor who stands nearby. She angrily denies his accusations. He pours it on and tells the council that she even threw herself at him, Theron, to win his approval. He calls her a whore, and dismisses her as worthless, just as King Leonidas who has broken the law by going to war without their approval, is worthless. (Sound familiar?).

Enraged, and about ready to flee -- her attempts at political compromise having tapped and enslaved her -- she seizes upon the truth of the moral premise, and executes justice -- and righteous justice it is, as her husband awaits his certain death. She sees a saber in the sheath of someone near her. It takes but a moment to decide. She deftly grabs the deadly tool, turns to her accuser, and, as he raped her, now she sticks her weapon into him, deep, sure, strong and fatal. And as she turns the now-scarlet blade she reprises his venomous words: "This will not be over quickly, and you will not enjoy it."

No sooner does she back away, than a pile of gold coins cascade from Theron's robes. A council member picks up a coin and looks at the face pressed into its side. It is the image of Xerxes. Theron was a traitor. (Do you suppose there were 30 pieces of gold here?)

Miles away, as King Leonidas prepares to be buried under the darkening sky of arrows that will doom him and his loyally troops, he cries, "My Queen! My wife! My love!"

In such ways the characters of this movie have either rejected or embraced the truth of the moral premise, and because of their egotism or humility reap the natural results of this moral truth:

Moral compromise, even if politically expedient,
leads to enslavement and dread; but

Executing justice, even if politically suicidal,
leads to liberty, and hope.


ITBlair said...

There is some truth here. The survival of Greece meant that Western Civilization would occur. However, it must be remembered that the Spartan's were major Slaveholders (as were all people of that time). They enslaved fellow Greeks, which was frowned upon among the Greeks. Killing a slave marked a Spartan's transition to manhood. My sense of the movie's fighting scenes were that they were not very accurate. The Greeks wore Armour and fought in Ranks and made extensive use of long spears. There was a lot of individual fights by semi-naked men with swords. Finally, the Jews loveed Xerces. As I recall he release them from their Baboloyian Capitivity and allowed them to return to Jerusalem. I gather for the time he was an englightened ruler.

Anonymous said...

Cyrus the Great released the Jews from their captivity. Xerxes married Esther in his time. If this movie/graphic novel was enjoyed by this article's readers, I highly recommend Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire, which IMHO is vastly superior to Miller's hacked version.