Shortly before this film arrived, I had been pointed to this particularly scourifying critique of Frank Miller’s 300 (2006). One of its main objections to Miller’s representation of Thermopylae is that it eradicates the contributions of other Greeks to the conflict and also conveniently ignores the failure of the Spartans to participate in the battle of Marathon ten years previously. Essentially, it’s a rant against Miller’s revisionist and glorificatory representation of Spartan militarism (of which, incidentally, the Spartans themselves would have thoroughly approved). “Gosh,” I thought, “I wonder whether The 300 Spartans, from which 300 descends, has these same kinds of problems with history; I shall pay close attention and see how it goes.”
Frankly, I need not have paid close attention. Unlike its modern counterpart, The 300 Spartans goes out of its way to emphasise the importance of the national war effort made to repulse the Persians, and how the combined powers of Sparta and Athens are necessary to combat the threat. It’s not easy, of course – there are isolationists among the Spartan governing council, for instance, who hold off the departure of the main Spartan force - but in the end plucky Spartan courage and Athenian seamanship win the day. We know they win the day, because the film is carefully book-ended with a historical voiceover that shows us the famous inscription in honour of those who fell at the battle in situ and gravely explains the importance of this event for World History. Just in case we were in any doubt.
The rhetoric of the film is not without its problems, of course. The constant emphasis on how the Greeks are all about FREEDOM conveniently ignores the Spartan helot situation, and that the Athenians and citizens of other Greek cities kept slaves. The representation of Spartan battle gear owes far more to the stereotype of the Roman centurion than historical reconstruction. Most head-desking-ly, the location chosen to represent Thermopylae is somewhat lacking in terms of geographical appropriateness; when Leonidas gathers his ‘best swimmers’ to invade the Persian camp and try to kill the king, it is a bit of an anticlimax to discover that all they need to do to get there is paddle around the edge of a lake.
But this emphasis on freedom and cooperation between Plucky Free People against a tyrannical and repressive dictatorship is not surprising, given the production date. America is in the grip of the Cold War and starting to get caught up in Vietnam – I did wonder whether the emphasis on the valour of military service for the common good and the shame of not fighting was somehow related to the draft, but I don’t know the history of the period well enough to know whether this sort of subliminal propaganda would have been needed at that point in the conflict. That said, the Spartans don’t need a country drafting young men as an excuse to promote the military ideal – and within the context of the Cold War, they are the perfect way to demonstrate how valuable freedom is. While the final scene, when the remaining Spartans are javellined down by the Persian army, is a bit preposterous in reality terms (each javelin seems to hit a vital organ with remarkable ease given the Spartans’ previous invincibility to such attacks), the final image of the men who have given up their lives to save the rest of Greece is particularly forceful.
I’d also like to say a quick word about the representation of women in the film (which, sadly, doesn’t pass the Bechdel test – we do get two women talking to each other, but alas, it is about a man). There is a well-formed stereotype of the Spartan Woman in the ancient world, starting with an obsession that as girls they wore ‘thigh-skimming skirts’ in order to do exercise, just like the boys (shock! horror!). Thankfully, The 300 Spartans doesn’t go into that territory, but it does buy into the representation of Spartan women as capable and willing to give as good as they get – it makes a refreshing change to the love interest subplot that when we first see the courting couple, she ends up tripping him over and proving her own physical capability. Equally, when the treacherous Ephialtes attempts to have his way with her, she competently fights him off (moral – never underestimate a Spartan woman). The love story plot is salvaged by Leonidas sending the young hero Phylon back as a messenger to report the fate of the remaining Spartans – a slightly soppy cop-out, but handled without too much schmaltz, and Phylon isn’t happy about it, although one suspects his betrothed is. While the general portrayal of femininity is still pretty conservative, there are some nice touches that bring in some of the historical anecdotes about Spartan women.
In fact, the whole film tries terribly hard to be Strictly Historical and thus presumably Educational – which only makes things like the choice of shooting location and the undercurrent of Cold War rhetoric even stranger than they were to begin with.