300: a film more historically accurate than it’s given credit for

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Zack Snyder’s hugely successful movie 300 is often sneered at for its treatment of history – but there’s an argument it got things closer than it’s given credit for.

Is 300 the most accurate historical film ever? No, it is not. But that’s clearly not the end of the article. I promise you that whilst 300 is not the most accurate historical film, it is certainly a better depiction of life in ancient Greece than you might think.  But to see how and why we need to look at current thinking of historical film accuracy.

There is a meme that did the rounds a few months ago amongst history fans taking the form of a conversation. It read:

History professor: Do you like history films?

Student: Yes

Professor: Would you like not to?

While funny, it does highlight a key point and problem with our approach to historical films: we like to pick them apart, point out all the inaccuracies and bemoan any deviation from the actual events, no matter how necessary it is for the plot or aesthetic.  After all, people change and our approach to the past does too.  And when we look at history films, oftentimes we fixate on the chronology and what items look like, with someone generally piping up something along the lines of “he wasn’t there, they did not wear that, she was four years old at the time and not a full grown woman!” (I’m looking at you, Braveheart).

One thing we neglect therefore is the psyche, the atmosphere and identity of the people the film portrays; how did they act, think and feel? What would they think of their portrayal on the screen? Would they recognise themselves (albeit likely taller and with better teeth)? And I’m going for it: it’s in this area that Zack Snyder’s 300 really excels.

Addressing the inevitable elephant in the room, 300 is in no way how ancient Sparta looked, or how the Spartans themselves looked either.  The Persians, for the purpose of clarity, were not deformed giants, and the sky was not permanently amber and cloudy. It’s a comic book: a stylistic choice to highlight atmosphere, dread and contrast.

But show this film to an audience of Spartans? I’d reckon they’d be really quite happy with it.  Perhaps even cheering along and commenting “yes, exactly”. It’s not how they looked, but maybe how they saw themselves.  300 shows the events and people as the Greeks arguably saw it – idealised and perfected – but they would recognise it.

A quick detour into Greek historical recording, then. To simplify and condense hundreds of volumes of academic tones, the Greeks viewed historical recording very differently from us.  Today, we try and be as accurate as we can, look at what events have happened and record them as precisely as we can.  Not so the ancient Greeks.  For them, it was the essence that was central, a view of history that expressed the ideals.  I believe it was Thucydides who goes as far to start a key text by essentially saying, ‘I was not there but I think this was said, and if it wasn’t then it should have been.’

It is dramatised history, but gives an idea of what people felt, and what permeated their psyche.

Going back to Zack Snyder’s film, then, 300 follows the Greco-Persian wars, from around 499-449BC, when Persia tried to incorporate the Greek states, or poleis, into the Persian empire.  One of our key sources for this time period is Herodotus, a Greek historian and near contemporary.  His account of the wars is also the basis of 300, and there we come to our first surprise.  The two are very similar, to the point that key events and quotes from the film are lifted directly from Herodotus. Over a million Persian troops (Herodotus VII 186), the attack of the Immortals (Herodotus VII 211), “our arrows will blot out the sun” and “we shall fight in the shade,” (Herodotus VII. 226).  As a timeline of the events to the prelude, battle and immediate aftermath, 300 does not actually veer far from the source.  Whether that source is correct is another question entirely, and one I certainly cannot answer.

The other issue where 300 is accurate is in its portrayal is the most problematic: the depiction of the Greeks and the Persians.  There are some clear racist tones that can be read in this depiction, and that needs acknowledging. The ancient Greeks were not themselves the most tolerant. Our word ‘barbarian’ comes from the Greek word barbaros, meaning someone who does not speak Greek.  To the ancient Greeks, if you did not speak Greek then you were not civilised.  You made a sound like ‘bar bar bar’, hence the onomatopoeic origins of the word barbaros and then barbarian.  How we see barbarians – wild, violent, savage – is how the Greeks saw anyone who was not Greek.

Secondly, for Greeks the most perfect beauty in the world was the human (male) body. Nothing was more stunning than the naked form. Think of your visit to a museum with Graeco-Roman statues on display (most Greek statues, we have are Roman marble copies of now lost Greek ones. The Greeks would make theirs in bronze, which can be handily melted down to make weapons).  You might notice a plethora of fine young men with toned abs and very little clothing.   One woman, Phryne, was acquitted because she was so beautiful that she must have been blessed by Aphrodite, and no one wanted to annoy the Goddess. When the Greeks occupied the Holy Land, they were mortified at the idea of circumcision, of changing the male form.

300 plays with this – a mass of oiled, toned men standing in the modern-socially-acceptable-equivalent-of nude against people hidden under cloth, bodies altered and contorted.  The betrayer is physically imperfect, the opposing warriors are hidden or grotesque.  Nature versus modification – the blessed bodies of the Gods against the monstrosities of man.  While the real Greek armies were like every army, protected by armour, this idealised version is Spartan propaganda for the war.  Leonidas would have loved it.  It is not how he was, but how he saw himself, his men, and his enemy in his mind.

So 300 is not an accurate film, as that is not how the Battle of Thermopylae played out, but it is arguably the film that the ancient Greeks would have made 2500 years ago if they had the technology equipment, a massive budget, and a Spartan Gerald Butler with polished abs.

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