"KUNCH" "GGAKK" "HURKK" "GYAA" — Frank Miller's bestselling graphic novel 300 (1998) retold one of the great stories of history — the Spartan stand at Thermopylae (480 BC). And now the big screen version!
Those who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s may be familiar with the Classics Illustrated series of comic-book or graphic novel adaptations of the world's great literature – guilty pleasures for some even today. Newer graphic novels, however, are not really "comic books" in the popular sense, but works of superior imagination and talent that seek a "mature audience" through more intricate story telling and visual design. 300 the movie, employing both live action and technical enhancements, faithfully reproduces the images and tone of Miller's art and narrative.
Victor Davis Hanson, the author of The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (1989), in a review of the movie, held that "300 preserves the spirit of Thermopylae." Further, he admonished reviewers, "If critics think that 300 reduces and simplifies the meaning of Thermopylae into freedom versus democracy, they should read carefully ancient accounts and then blame Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus," (www.victorhanson.com, 4/23/07). When asked about his reaction to the film, historian Paul Cartledge answered that he was "Very pleased, if only because it gives us a chance to show why what we as classicists do still matters today. 300 is squarely based on a work of history, the Histories of Herodotus, which was the first work of proper history ever written" (USA Today, March 7, 2007). Does the film really deserve such a defense or is this battle history really closer to the adolescent interest in the role-playing game "Dungeons and Dragons" or the fantasy world of superheroes than to world of Greek and Persian warfare?
The film, as well as the graphic novel, reduce the story to its base elements and then gloss the tale with fantastic images of people, animals, and weapons. Xerxes did not present himself as an androgynous figure adorned with gold chains and body piercing. This Great King did not send a rhinoceros or war elephants against the Spartan phalanx. His elite troops, the Immortals, were not uniformed or armed as Japanese ninjas. No Persian units were equipped with incendiary hand grenades. It [End Page 631] is unlikely that one of the Asian slave soldiers was a grotesque Goliath-like monster. Despite their life-long training for combat, the Spartan hoplites were probably not, in physique, candidates for the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding championship.
Those demanding rigorous attention to historical reality and detail will need to go to Cartledge's Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed History (2006). For a well-researched historical novel (no illustrations), see Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae (1998).
300 is not academic history but it is history of a sort: it is history informed by popular culture, as Cartledge states. The creators get the basic story right and the major historical figures are present, King Leonidas, of course, the oracle at Delphi, and the traitor Ephialtes (presented as a hideous dwarf), among them. The author and filmmaker quote the Spartans' famous reply to the Persian threat to cloud the sky with arrows: "Then we shall fight in the shade." They relay the famous inscription that says to visitors to the battlefield, "Go, tell the Spartans, Stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie." Book and film conclude with the opening of the Battle of Plataea (479 BC), reminding the audience of the ultimate defeat of the Persian army. This is a tribute to the glory won by Leonidas and his men at the "Hot Gates." This is the epic story of the defense of Western freedom against the forces of Eastern despotism.
Since today's students are more likely to look at the graphic novel or see the movie than to read Herodotus, the story of the three hundred Greeks and their allies, as told by Miller and Snyder...