“E tan, e epi tan”

“Come home with your shield or on it.”

Gerard Butler 300lPlutarch attributes this quote to a Spartan mother speaking to her son in his Moralia from the section called Sayings of Spartan Women. The meaning is that if he were to come home from battle without his shield, then he would have discarded it as he fled in cowardice. Spartan shields were large enough that they could be used as stretchers for the wounded or dead.

The movie 300 is about the Battle of Thermopylae, which occurred in 480 BC. While this movie is based on a thrilling comic book version of history and its intent was never to be directly historical, I hope it prompts viewers to learn more about the ancient world. I took the movie for what it is: “barbarians at the gate” bloody battle gory escapist fun.

I have a keen interest in barbarians and for me this is pretty much defined as anything pre-Christian or anything non-Christian in the time of early Christianity. In storytelling barbarians are the subversive ones, the ones who are outside of civilization and often turn out to be not as barbaric as originally painted to be. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t buy into “noble savage” romanticism. I just have a fundamental problem with authority.

In the Classical Greek world, the Spartans were singular in the organization of their society and culture and I would make comparisons to how they were discussed to how the Romans often pointed out how different the Celts were. In fact, we often romanticize Spartans similarly to how we romanticize the Scots on the fringe of the civilized world.

So it seems fitting that a Scotman was cast in the role of the Spartan King Leonidas and I should admit now that I’m also a Gerry Butler fan. I would have seen 300 for the barbarian spectacle alone, but put Butler in the mix in that kind of physical shape and I was eager to see this movie. I think he did a great job in this role. I can think of few other actors who would have made the kind of physical commitment Butler did, could exude his level of charisma and intensity and could also have carried off that apple scene. (Christian Bale, perhaps)

Still, there are a few points I want to make about the movie. Spoilers ensure. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know.

  • In the prologue of the story when a young Leonidas is being taken off to fight the wolf we see his mother having to be restrained with worry for him. This serves the literary purposes of setting up Leonidas as a feeling individual, but also sets up the storyline of Ephialtes who later betrays Leonidas. Historically, I think the stereotypical Spartan mother would have shoved her son out the door and told him to stop whining. Gorgo does sum this notion up nicely with her line that only Spartan women are mothers to real men. When you think of Spartan women, think of the fierceness of Klingon females, or perhaps the desire to breed warriors found in Andromeda’s Nietzscheans.
  • Spartan women possessed a kind of freedom that few women in the Classical world enjoyed, so I find it kind of annoying that the screenwriters trotted out the old plot device of the queen having to whore herself out to the villain in order to help her husband. Spartan women owned up to 40% of land in Sparta and the divorce laws were the same for men and women. Theron accuses Gorgo of adultery, when its generally accepted that the “communal ethos” of Spartan society meant that they didn’t share the modern sense of monogamy and fidelity we claim to prize today. Even though this plot element seems cliche to me, at least Gorgo got to actually kill the villain herself, with a sword mind you, and no tears afterward. I also didn’t particularly care for the insults hurled at other men at the expense of Spartan women. Stelios taunts one of his fellow warriors by calling him a woman. Leonidas tells Xerxes that he could have beaten the Persians easily with a command of Spartan women. Spartan women were in fact trained in light combat, and so I don’t think the sentiments quite fit the backdrop of the story.
  • Spartan males were required to serve in the military from age 21 to 60. They could briefly have been released from that duty if elected to office. After age 60 a male could permanently be released from military service and might serve in the assembly or apella. I’m assuming this means that Theron, a man much younger than 60, was one of the few elected to office at a younger age. I think it would have been fitting for more aspersions to be cast on his cowardice.

Overall the 300 movie is a great fantasy escape based loosely on history. I don’t really understand the criticisms of its violence. This is a movie about ancient warfare for adults with an R rating. Blood and dismemberment were a real factor in fighting with swords. I’m glad they didn’t sugarcoat it.

The deformed character of Ephialtes reminded me too much of LOTR’s Gollam to the point that I expected him to mutter “Precious” a few times. I think it was weak writing to cast the deformed as the bad guys though, but it does point to the dangers of a preoccupation with physical perfection.

All that being said, Gerard Butler and his costar Michael Fassbender look particularly fantastic in their leather speedos. The “female gaze” is just as prominent in this movie as the “male gaze” is, which is quite refreshing. Go see the movie and enjoy a little bit of fantasy.