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I've just finished watching The 300 Spartans [DVD] , a movie about the battle of Thermopylae. It has a fantastic tagline: "Thermopylae... Mighty battle epic of a handful of men forming the invincible "flying wedge" against a killer horde five million strong!"
I can imagine Frank Miller watching this as a child and zooming about the room pretending to be an invincible "flying wedge." Miller, who would later go on to write the comic 300, was apparently heavily influenced by this movie.
It's a classic "good" versus "evil" epic - with not-so-subtle Cold War undertones (there's a lot of talk, for example, of the Spartans fighting for "freedom" from King Xerxes's Eastern "slave empire.")
The movie sees brave Spartan King Leonidas lead his band of 300 Spartan warriors up into the narrow pass at Thermopylae, where wicked King Xerxes throws wave after wave of Persian barbarians at them, all promptly cut down by noble Spartans like the dogs they are.
Goateed King Xerxes becomes a cartoon villain, then - and I have a sneaky suspicion that the film-makers invented atrocities to make him seem even more despicable. At one point in the movie, he orders all of the prostitutes in his camp to be "destroyed," because then the Persians will fight even harder in order to get at the Greek women. I had a poke around the Googles and the internets, and I couldn't find any reference to the real King Xerxes having done this (please correct me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can find any information on this).
Meanwhile, the Spartans become complete paragons of virtue. No mention is made of the apalling helot system of slavery upon which Spartan society was based. But then, it might have befuddled the poor audience if Leonidas had given a rousing speech calling on the Spartiates to fight for "Freedom! For the freedom to keep our slaves and beat them into submission! SPAARTAAA!!!"
We shouldn't be surprised at all this. The battle of Thermopylae must be one of the founding myths of Western Civilization. Furthermore, this was a film made by Hollywood in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Ruskies were busy sipping rum and cokes in Havana. The 300 Spartans was hardly going to portray the Persian Wars as anything but an epic tussle between good and evil.
Once you get past this, there is a fun movie underneath. There are some cracking performances by British stage actors David Farrar as Xerxes and Ralph Richardson as crafty Athenian politician Themistocles. The action is a bit hit and miss (if you'll excuse me) but the scenes of hundreds of Persian soldiers marching into battle are nicely done.
There are some wonderfully anachronistic lines ("they fight like machines!" gasps one Persian general as he watches his men cut down by the unstoppable Spartan terminators). Despite its problems, it's not a bad movie. True: it's not a fair representation of the Persians (nor of the Spartans, for that matter) but it's action-packed enough, and well made. And I did like the "flying wedge" at the end (although it was more of a "floating square," drifting unsteadily towards the worried-looking Persian King).
Rating: 7 out of 10