My goal with this blog is to explore the relationship between film and history, to look at film the way a historian does and not the way a member of the general audience or a fan does. In doing so, I hope to illuminate some of the concerns historians have about the way that cinema, one of the most important art forms of our society produces, treats the human past. Whenever I get into a discussion about a historical film with someone, perhaps one of my students, a friend, or a casual acquaintance, usually the first question I get asked is “is the film historically accurate?” I have a lot of thoughts about the issue of historically accurate films, but I’ll leave most of them for another day. Instead, since this is the first question I’m usually asked, I’m going to start this blog by picking a film and just asking, does the film get the basic facts right?
The film I’m going to tackle is 300 (2006, dir. Zack Snyder). First off, let me say that I hated this film with a passion. I thought it was badly written, badly directed, badly acted, and just generally badly done. I loathed the voice-over narration with a passion and kept waiting for the narrator to get killed, only to be deeply disappointed to learn that he was the only one of the 300 to survive. But just because I hate this movie doesn’t mean there might not be some merit in it. And yes, before you ask, I do know that the movie is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. But my purpose is to evaluate the movie as history, not as an adaption of a literary work. While the movie owes a great deal to its source material, it must rise or fall on its own merits. And m. any of those who have seen the movie have not read the graphic novel. Because of this, they will tend to assume that the movie is based directed on the historical event.
The Historical Battle of Thermopylae Let’s start with a brief recap of the known facts about the battle of Thermopylae. In 480, during the 3rd Persian War, the Persians under the direction of King Xerxes invaded Greece. To avoid a repeat of earlier Persian mistakes in the 1st and 2nd Persian Wars, Xerxes sent an army overland through Thrace and Macedon into Thessaly, while sending a fleet to follow along the coastline. Xerxes’ army may have numbered between 300,00 and 500,000 soldiers (although many modern historians put the number rather lower), and given the poor farmland of much of Greece, the fleet played a vital role of carrying provisions for the army.
At Thermopylae, a force of 5-7,000 men drawn from various Greek communities encountered Xerxes’ army. Under the leadership of the Spartan king Leonidas, who reportedly had heard a prophecy that either he would die or Sparta would be conquered, the Greeks took up a position between the shore of the Gulf of Malia and a high cliff, a spot known as Thermopylae, “the Hot Gates”, due to some hot springs in the area.
Classical Greeks fought in a formation known as a phalanx, in which the soldiers were, by the standards of the day, heavily armored. In particular each man carried a large heavy shield that covered the left half of his body and the right half of the man to his left. This necessitated a very tight formation, because if the men allowed any space between themselves, they would find the right half of their body vulnerable. These hoplite warriors were armed with a long spear that gave them considerable reach. While extremely effective, the hoplite phalanx was vulnerable to attack from behind, because it could not quickly re-orient itself. (But see Update.)
In contrast, the Persian troops typically used lighter shields and shorter spears. Because of the mis-match between the Greek and Persian troops, the Persians were unable to make serious headway and suffered significant casualties, because the geographical factors effectively neutralized the enormous Persian advantage of numbers.
For the first two days, the Greeks effectively held off the Spartans, but on the second day, the Persians received a report from a local man named Ephialtes that there was a mountain path around the cliffs. Ephialtes was reportedly motivated by a desire for a reward, although in subsequent years, his name became synonymous with traitors. With Ephialtes’ assistance, Persian forces made their way around Thermopylae on the third day, overcoming the Phocian troops who guarded that route.
Leonidas received advance warning of this and ordered the non-Spartan troops with withdraw. He seems to have decided that the Spartans would act as a rearguard to allow the other troops time to retreat in safety. However, not all the Greek troops chose to depart. At the end, Leonidas’ forces numbered about 300 Spartan elite troops, between 7-900 other Spartan troops, 400 Thebans, and 400 Thespians. In the battle that followed, Leonidas was killed by arrows, and the Greek troops defended his body, eventually withdrawing to a nearby hill. The Theban troops chose to surrender, while the rest of the Greeks were slaughtered, because now they were being attacked from both sides.
Xerxes’ march down into Greece continued. Athens was sacked, but the Athenian admiral Themistocles was able to lure the Persian navy into an ambush and destroyed much of it. Having lost the ability to resupply his troops, and fearing that the Greeks would blockade the Hellespont and thereby trap his army, Xerxes chose to retreat back toward Thrace. Much of his army died on the way, due to starvation and illness, and the next year, a coalition of Greek forces defeated the last of the Persian army at the battle of Plataea, and a Greek naval force destroyed the remnants of Xerxes’ navy, thus ending Persian efforts to conquer Greece.
Thermopylae in 300 Ok, if you’ve stayed with me so far (I know, historical explanations can get a little long-winded, but the background is necessary to explain what the movie gets wrong), then you may have noticed that the summary I’ve just offered doesn’t really match with the movie on a few points, like the fact that the Spartans weren’t the only Greeks fighting at Thermopylae. Presumably depicting close to 2,000 Greeks defying the Persians is less dramatic than 300 Spartans doing so. (And it would render the movie title a little inappropriate.) But in some ways that’s a small sin (unless you’re a Theban or a Thespian, I suppose); it allows the action to focus on the Spartans who are the center of the story without distracting the viewer with little things like all the other people who contributed to the battle. And the movie does have a line acknowledging the Phocian defeat and a brief scene with the other Greeks leaving, although it treats them more as cowards than as engaging in a strategic withdrawal.
I can overlook the exclusive focus on the Spartans during the fight scenes. What I can’t overlook is the fact that the movie’s depiction of warfare doesn’t make sense on its own terms. Part way through the film, Leonidas (Gerard Butler) encounters Ephialtes (who in a bit of creative liberty is a horribly deformed Spartan). Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) wants to fight with his brother Spartans, but Leonidas explains to him that his deformities mean that he cannot fight in a phalanx; he cannot hold his shield up the way hoplite warfare requires. “We fight as a single, impenetrable unit; that is the source of our strength.” So the movie emphasizes the historical fact of the hoplite system as the basis of the warfare it will supposedly show us. This is a crucial scene, because Leonidas’ rejection of Ephialtes provides the motive for Ephialtes to show the Persians the way around Thermopylae. However, when the movie actually gets to the fighting, something different happens.
The first fight begins with something resembling a hoplite phalanx, but partway through, the Spartans abandon their phalanx formation and begin to fight as individuals with what appear to be yards of space between the individual soldiers. They briefly reform into a phalanx to push some Persian soldiers off a cliff, but after that, it’s essentially solo fights for the rest of the film. In other words, having told us that hoplite warfare is critical what the Spartans do, the film almost immediately abandons hoplite warfare for a series of showy solo fights, because apparently that’s more macho than having unit cohesion. And Lord knows fan-boys like pretending they’re macho.
Also, as a side note, ignoring the phalanx means that Leonidas has been a complete dick to Ephialtes. He’s lied to the man about how Spartans fight for no apparent reason. Serves him right that Ephialtes betrays him. Having a glaring contradiction at the heart of the movie is bad enough, but it’s actually much worse than it looks. Remember that the reason the Spartans couldn’t hold off the Persians when they attacked from the rear is that a phalanx can’t defend its rear because it can’t re-orient itself quickly. So once the Persians got behind the Spartan position, the historical Leonidas realized that the cause was lost.
But these cinematic Spartans don’t need to fight in a phalanx because they’re super-warriors who are essentially immune to harm. So there’s no logical reason why they can’t just keep fighting when they get encircled. But once the Persians encircle them, apparently Xerxes finds the Magic Spartan Off Switch and the Spartans just become incapable of resisting any longer, considerately abandoning all pretense at tactics so the Persians can decapitate them. Instead of valiantly fighting to delay the Persians, Leonidas intentionally gets his men slaughtered for nothing more than a literal long-shot chance at killing Xerxes. He’s not a great leader; he’s an idiot who gets his men killed for nothing.
Also, the hoplite weapon system relied on spears as the primary weapon. Swords were generally resorted to only after spears broke. Spartans were, however, well-known for using swords as the battle wore on. In the movie however, the Spartans mostly fight with their swords, which I suppose makes more sense if they’re fighting out of formation, but it’s still essentially wrong. The film’s fight choreographers chose to base their depiction of the Spartan fighting style on eskrima, a Filipino martial arts style, which might look cool on-screen, but is utterly inappropriate historically.
I can forgive a lot of small historical errors, but being internally inconsistent is another things completely. A movie that can’t make sense on its own terms and follow its own rules is a bad movie. Having departed significantly from the historical facts of the battle, 300 resorts to making up its own battle, and in the process produces a battle that looks cool but is completely incoherent and irrational, even by its own rules. This isn’t the historical battle of Thermopylae; it’s an incoherent fantasy fight cloaked in a thin veneer of historical detail.
Last week, I had a chance to hear part of a lecture by a scholar who knows a great deal more about classical Greek warfare than I do. According to him, there is evidence that a hoplite phalanx could reverse its facing fairly quickly. It was a difficult maneuver to pull off, since it required the rear ranks of the phalanx to essentially march through the forward ranks and turn about. The Spartans were the only Greeks who were particularly adept at it, because it required more practice than most city-states gave their citizen armies. However, at Thermopylae, this still wouldn’t have helped very much, since the Persians were able to attack from both sides of the phalanx, which could not easily have fought facing in both directions.
He also dropped a few other interesting tidbits. Evidently, there is debate about whether phalanxes fought with their spears over-handed or underhanded. Greek art, such as painting on pottery, is fairly consistent about showing hoplites using spears overhanded, but experiments with reconstructing hoplite warfare have tended to suggest that fighting underhanded, with the spear about hip level, makes more sense ergonomically. If that’s true, then the question becomes why the paintings are all wrong. There is also a discussion of whether hoplites may occasionally have fought with more space between them; it makes it easier to drag those who have fallen back to safety and makes it easier to use a sword after the spears are broken.
Want to Learn More?
300is available in multiple formats through Amazon.
Our best source for the Persian Wars is Herodotus’ The Histories, Revised (Penguin Classics).There’s also a version, Herodotus: The Persian War (Translations from Greek and Roman Authors), that’s only the sections about the Persian Wars with scholarly explanations added.
Philip Souza’s book on the The Greek and Persian Wars 499-386 BCis a good introduction to the subject.