October 13, 2006


History and the Movie “300” (Victor Davis Hanson, 10/11/06, Private Papers: Adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming book trailer published by Black Horse Comics, Inc. to accompany Director Zack Snyder’s new film “300”)

Recently, a variety of Hollywood films — from Troy to Alexander the Great — has treated a variety of themes from classical Greek literature and theater. But 300 is unique, a sui generis in both spirit and methodology. The script is not an attempt in typical Hollywood fashion to recreate the past as a costume drama. Instead it is based on Frank Miller’s (of Sin City fame) comic book graphics and captions. Miller’s illustrated novelette of the battle adapts themes loosely from the well-known story of the Greek defense, but with deference made to the tastes of contemporary popular culture.

So the film is indeed inspired by the comic book; and in some sense its muscular warriors, virtual reality sets, and computer-generated landscapes recall the look and feel of Robert Rodriquez’s screen version of Sin City. Yet the collaboration of Director Zack Snyder and screenwriters Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon is much more of a hybrid, since the script, dialogue, cinematography, and acting all recall scenes of the battle right from Herodotus’s account.

300, of course, makes plenty of allowance for popular tastes, changing and expanding the story to meet the protocols of the comic book genre. The film was not shot on location outdoors, but in a studio using the so-called “digital backlot” technique of sometimes placing the actors against blue screens. The resulting realism is not that of the sun-soaked cliffs above the blue Aegean — Thermopylae remains spectacularly beautiful today — but of the eerie etchings of the comic book.

The Spartans fight bare-chested without armor, in the “heroic nude” manner that ancient Greek vase-painters portrayed Greek hoplites, their muscles bulging as if they were contemporary comic book action heroes. Again, following the Miller comic, artistic license is made with the original story — the traitor Ephialtes is as deformed in body as he is in character; King Xerxes is not bearded and perched on a distant throne, but bald, huge, perhaps sexually ambiguous, and often right on the battlefield. The Persians bring with them exotic beasts like a rhinoceros and elephant, and the leader of the Immortals fights Leonidas in a duel (which the Greeks knew as monomachia). Shields are metal rather than wood with bronze veneers, and swords sometimes look futuristic rather than ancient.

Again, purists must remember that 300 seeks to bring a comic book, not Herodotus, to the screen. Yet, despite the need to adhere to the conventions of Frank Miller’s graphics and plot — every bit as formalized as the protocols of classical Athenian drama or Japanese Kabuki theater — the main story from our ancient Greek historians is still there: Leonidas, against domestic opposition, insists on sending an immediate advance party northward on a suicide mission to rouse the Greeks and allow them time to unite a defense. Once at Thermopylae, he adopts the defenses to the narrow pass between high cliffs and the sea far below. The Greeks fight both en masse in the phalanx and at times range beyond as solo warriors. They are finally betrayed by Ephialtes, forcing Leonidas to dismiss his allies — and leaving his own 300 to the fate of dying under a sea of arrows.

But most importantly, 300 preserves the spirit of the Thermopylae story.

The stamp of approval doesn't get much more authoritative for rightwing whackos.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 13, 2006 1:34 PM

I love it how a conservative who believes in witch-burning, open borders, prohibition, and a nation for Hezbollah can refer to "rightwing wackos"...!

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 13, 2006 2:41 PM

You forgot trains.

Posted by: jdkelly at October 13, 2006 2:46 PM

I look forward to seeing it. Liked Sin City too.

Posted by: JAB at October 13, 2006 3:09 PM

and the government mandating of wearing helmets when indoors in case of falls [living-room helmet man]

Posted by: Palmcroft at October 13, 2006 4:07 PM

Although he is spot on about Eric and Julia Roberts.


Posted by: jefferson park at October 13, 2006 4:42 PM

That should be Dark Horse Comics, not Black Horse Comics.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at October 13, 2006 5:06 PM

Helmets are superfluous in well-padded houses.

Posted by: oj at October 13, 2006 5:38 PM

There's nothing more conservative than that old-time religion.

Posted by: oj at October 13, 2006 5:39 PM

OJ lives in a padded room? Who'd a thunk it? :)

Posted by: jdkelly at October 13, 2006 5:53 PM

The "right-wing wacko" line in relation to the Spartans is most inscrutable.

I shall essay to devine the thinking behind it, knowing that only its author could confirm or deny the accuracy of my surmise.

The Spartans were not only the most remarkable paragons of military virtue is human history, they were also the settler nation, par excellance.

Trekkers-forth they were, in the late pre-history of Greece. They completely subjugated the indiginious occupants of the land they took and held, keeping their Helot serfs in a perpetual state of war subject to killed at the will of their overlords. Their almost bizarre super-militarism was part of a program of Ubermenschlichkeit. Not just power, but power and ruthlessness marked every aspect of their culture.

If one holds that these are "right-wing wacko" characteristics, perhaps related to opposition to unrestricted immigration, the connection makes sense.

This is all set out in Plutarch, for all that you must look at the history from the perspective of a folk of the wagon train.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 13, 2006 7:15 PM

Lou: I think he's referring to fans of Victor Davis Hanson: i.e., the average National Review/Weekly Standard reader. You know, those wacko rightwingers, as opposed to the traditional center of the sensible conservative movement, which is wherever OJ is.

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 14, 2006 3:12 AM