A Critical View of Miller's Blockbuster '300' The movie version of Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 opened Friday to mixed reviews and then dominated at the box office, taking in $70 million over the weekend. Syndicated columnist Victor Davis Hanson offers his take on the stylized account of the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held a narrow mountain pass against invading Persians in 480 B.C.

A Critical View of Miller's Blockbuster '300'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The movie version of Frank Miller's graphic novel "300" opened on Friday to -well, let's be kind - mixed reviews, and then dominated at the box office, taking in a spectacular $70 million over the weekend. For those who went to see "Wild Hogs" instead, "300" is a stylized account of the Battle of Thermopylae, where those 300 Spartans held a narrow mountain pass in Northern Greece against a gigantic army of invading Persians in 480 B.C., where nothing less than the survival of Western civilization was at stake.

In this scene, a menacing Persian officer threatens a Spartan detachment.

(Soundbite of movie, "300")

Unidentified Man #1: Go now. Run along and tell your Xerxes he faces free men here, not slaves.

Unidentified Man #2: No, not slaves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: Your women will be slaves. By noon this day, you will be dead men. A thousand nations of the Persian Empire descend upon you. Our arrows will blot out the sun.

Unidentified Man #1: Then we will fight in the shade.

CONAN: If you saw the picture, if you have questions about it, particularly about its fidelity to history, give us a call. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail: talk@npr.org.

Classicist, historian, and syndicated columnist Victor Davis Hanson attended the premier of "300" in Hollywood. He joins us now by phone from his home in Fresno, California. Victor, nice to talk to you.

Mr. VICTOR DAVIS HANSON (Historian, Syndicated Columnist): Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: So what did you think?

Mr. HANSON: Well, I think within the ground rules of the stylized adaptation of a graphic novel - which was itself derived from secondary sources - it was very interesting. I liked it. But it was not - it's not meant to be a reconstruction of the text of Herodotus and the 300 at Thermopylae.

CONAN: And Herodotus, of course, the great classical historian. He's our best source - or is he our only source on Thermopylae?

Mr. HANSON: No, he's not our only one. We have a later Greek historian from the Roman period, Diodorus. We have some scraps of poetry from Simonides. We have a life or two of Plutarch that gives information. So we can reconstruct pretty well what happened.

CONAN: So it's curious. Some people find out that we know pretty much what happened in 480 B.C. in ancient Greece, but, of course, there are many later periods of history where things aren't so clear.

Mr. HANSON: Yeah. That's what's interesting about the classical world. We know almost more in certain periods, long periods, than we do anything in the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, or even the 16th or 17th century.

CONAN: So the idea of this, of course, the battle of Thermopylae, this is about the second Persian invasion of Greece.

Mr. HANSON: It is. It's the August 480 incident where roughly 250,000 combatants by land and sea came to northern Greece and they were stopped for three days by a contingent of Greeks. And we should remember there was initially 7,000 or 8,000 Greeks who went up to the pass to provide a guard so that the Greeks to the rear could mobilize their defenses. And then once the pass was turned through the treachery of Ephialtes, then about 700, maybe 800, stayed.

Actually, if we count the 400 Thebans who may have stayed under coercion, there was 1,400. So it's more than just 300 Spartans. There were Thespians, Thebans and Spartans.

CONAN: But to simplify the story, it's just the Spartans in this picture.

Mr. HANSON: And that's true of the ancient world, too. The ancients sort of shorted the Thespians and the Thebans and concentrated on a Spartan king with his retainers. That was very unusual that he be so far from home.

CONAN: And one of the curiosities about this conflict is the difference in philosophies, the differences in civilization that are at battle here in this little tiny part of northern Greece. And the curiosity, of course, is you end up having Sparta representing Western civilization.

Mr. HANSON: We do. When we concentrate on the 300 Spartans - although we should remember there was about 16 or 17 states who probably had contingents in that war that fought - but Sparta symbolized Greek courage. And it's not our take on that fight but the Greeks themselves, mainly through Herodotus' account, that this was a small culture that was free, where free men had a concept of citizenry. They were fighting for freedom and they were being imposed by an imperial sort of autocratic society that had to whip their soldiers against men who freely chose to fight.

So there were all these contrasts and bipolarities that were pointed out by Herodotus. And they come through in the film adaptation pretty well.

CONAN: There's a scene in the graphic novel, "300" - from which the movie is taken - in which one of the Spartans after an exhortation by Leonidas, the king of the Spartans, says we're going to stand. And one of the soldiers says we're with you all the way to the death.

And he turns to him and snarls and says, this is not a Democracy like in Athens. I didn't ask.

Mr. HANSON: Well I mean it's an autocracy, but not quite an autocracy. Because it's, in some ways - a famous Athenian, Critias, once said Sparta was the freest and the most unfree of city-states.

If you were a citizen, then you were almost equal in every possible sense to every other citizen. The rub was that there was too many people who didn't qualify.

But in the movie, at least those lines from Herodotus or incidents like throwing Persian diplomats from the well, they seem fantastic. But actually a lot of them come right out of the pages of either Plutarch or Herodotus.

CONAN: So the - there is one considerable departure from the graphic novel, and that's additional scenes in Sparta where there's a lot of internal politics. And indeed some of the people are bribed by the Persians. Of course, Persian bribery a feature of the Greek world for quite a few hundred years.

Mr. HANSON: Well that's - actually, Neal, that's from the text of Herodotus, too. There's mention of the diplomatic scene of throwing people down the well or the dates have been conflated. And there's also rumors, allegations of everybody being bribed from Euripides, Domesticles, to the people back in Sparta.

What is different I think is that it's very stylized. Soldiers fight without armor. They use swords that are much different than the Greeks actually used. There's a rhinoceros. There's elephants. And Frank Miller's graphic novel is trained to - it's sort of Kabuki theater, maybe fifth century classical Athenian drama that took the Trojan epic saga and then reworked it according to the taste of the fifth century.

CONAN: But it's the Greek - ancient Greek equivalent of The Alamo, if you will.

Mr. HANSON: It is. And we should remember that because it is a glorious defeat. It's the worst defeat in the history of the Greek collective experience. It was not a victory. It was a terrible defeat.

CONAN: And of course the Persians eventually, through the treachery of the goat herder who you mentioned earlier, then proceeded to continue their march south. They were, of course, defeated eventually, in the great naval battle at Salamis, and then about a year later a massive battle at Plataea.

Mr. HANSON: They were. And there was argument later, the degree to which the last span of the Spartans and Thespians had given Domesticles time - three or four crucial days - to evacuate Athens and turn the war into a sea battle in the confined harbors in a bay at Salamis. So it was like an Alamo in the sense that it galvanized Greek popular thought that they could resist these people and that they were not supermen. That was what the legacy of the Thermopylae was in ancient times.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on this conversation. Robert joins us. Robert calling from New York City.

ROBERT (Caller): Yes. Hello. I had a comment about the movie itself and sort of how we might judge the movie not basically on whether or not the story - the graphic novel or the movie - is historically accurate but just on how the movie is stylized and sort of enjoying it for the visual spectacle.

I sort of - I remember you made a comment earlier that it was sort of similar to a Kabuki play, that the stylization is not really - it's not depicting history but the - in as much as the movie with its sort of staged poses and its sort of non-realistic acting, non-realistic dialog.

I mean, it's really meant to sort of depict a graphic novel that sort of…

Mr. HANSON: It is. Absolutely. It's a mix between a video game or it's a popular culture of the United States, or a graphic novel or a comic book. But that is sort of in tune with the Greeks. Their vase painting showed (unintelligible) soldiers without armor and buff and muscular, just like the film does. And then as I said, Sophocles or especially Euripides took license with myth in a way that would not be realistic at all.

And we should remember that Greek tragic drama itself had men acting as women. It had - it was only a thousand or so, 1,600 lines at the most, three characters. There were all sorts of stylized rules for dramatic presentation in the way that this modern adaptation of this incident reflects popular taste in America.

CONAN: There's an interesting part - there's a pretty interesting explanation in both the novel and the movie of the phalanx warfare and the role of each individual in this very tight group of warriors and why this particular guy was not able to participate in the battle derived, I would think at least in part, Victor, from your book, "The Western Way of War." But interestingly, then throughout the rest of the movie the Spartans often do not fight in phalanx formation.

Mr. HANSON: They don't. And there's some historical support that on the third day the Spartans ranged out further from the middle gate at Thermopylae when they knew they were trapped.

But the filmmaker - and I talked with Zach Snyder and Frank Miller, the graphic novelist. They had the same problems of portrayal that ancient vase painters did. And even historians. And that is it's very hard to talk about a phalanx -the anonymous warriors - without specializing or giving privilege to particular warriors. Or on a vase painting, how do you show a phalanx rather than an individual warrior? So they realized that. They made the phalanx in an initial scene, showed how it worked, and then they realized that there were limitations in showing war through a phalanx. It's pretty boring to see two squares just hit each other.

CONAN: Militarily effective maybe, but not dramatically effective.

Mr. HANSON: Yes.

CONAN: Now Robert, thanks very much for the call. We're speaking with Victor Davis Hanson about the movie, "300," which took in $70 million as the top-grossing movie over the weekend.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail from Aaron(ph) in Davis, California. I understood that the many armies who accompanied the Spartans to the hot gates - that's what Thermopylae means - mostly elected to pull out after a few days at the behest of the Spartan king. Some few of these other warriors chose to stay with the Spartans for the last stand. But at the end it was really mostly the Spartan phalanx and retainers who stayed.

Mr. HANSON: Actually, that's not quite true. There were 300 Spartans and maybe 200 Helot retainers or servants. But there were 700 Thespians. And that's from a little town in Boeotia near Thebes. And there were 400 Thebans who stayed.

So out of the 1,500 or 1,600 who stayed for that final last stand, at least 1,100 of them were probably not Spartans. But there's some controversy over whether Thebans were forced to stay.

And the Thespians were from a tiny town. And in comparative terms they suffered much more than the Spartans because their town was overrun. They were wiped out at Thermopylae and it took literally a century for that little town to recover.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Joseph. Joseph with us from Spokane in Washington.

JOSEPH (Caller): Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOSEPH: You know, I guess the thing that stands out the most for me - and I have not seen the movie yet but I know the story - is that the Persians were depicted as rather ugly monster-like creatures while the Spartans were depicted as glistening model-like, you know, warriors.

And I was just wondering what your take was on that? It kind of almost appears that it was more of a (unintelligible) in propaganda than anything, given our time.

CONAN: One big difference between the Greeks and the Persians - at least in this movie - is the Greeks have much better dentists, Victor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSON: Well there's some Medes and the Immortals who are pretty well built. I think what we could say is that the Spartans seem much more familiar to an American audience because they're buff. They look like sort of Schwarzenegger in his prime.

And the easterners are in robes. They have pierced bodies. They're no more - they're just as buff and they're just as muscular. But they seem more foreign to us. And that may be an overreaction a little bit on the part of the filmmakers or part of the stylization we talked about. But it's also reflected in Herodotus' own view.

If you think that that portrayal's ethnocentric, you ought to go back to Herodotus and say why does he say that the Persians had to whip their men and the Spartans fought freely? Or why did they have all of this motley mongrel assorted group of different subject peoples who were fighting, whereas the Greeks came on their own free will and were uniform?

CONAN: Well isn't this the origin of the phrase, history's written by the winners?

Mr. HANSON: I think so. Absolutely. We don't have a Persian account of this. And that explains a lot.

CONAN: Here's - thanks very much for the call, by the way.

JOSEPH: Thank you.

CONAN: And here's an e-mail from Frank. I enjoyed the movie. But a black Persian ruler? Come on. They could have stuck with the real history a little bit more.

Mr. HANSON: Well we don't know - I don't know that you would say that the actor - I think he was from South Brazil - who played Xerxes was black. But there were a lot of people from Ethiopia and Africa and Egypt that were in the Persian Empire. So they're - I don't think it's historically inaccurate to say that some people from the Persian realms in Africa couldn't have attained high positions.

But mostly people looked in the Persian army as present day Iranians or people from the Middle East.

CONAN: Let's talk with Brian, Brian with us from Louisville in Kentucky.

BRIAN (Caller): Hello, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BRIAN: I wanted to talk a little bit more about the source material, the graphic novel or the series that was based on, "300," and Frank Miller's admitted right-wing stance on a lot of things these days. And it kind of carried over into the movie. Basically, you know, we're going to enslaved, you know, fighting for freedom…

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. HANSON: What he did was if you go to Plutarch's - he has a text called the "Moralia" and he has two funny little treatises. One's called "Saying of the Spartan Women" and the other is "Saying of the Spartans."

And they were just little tiny quotations. And he's called through those and used them, and Herodotus' text and Plutarch's life of people like Domesticles and Aristides.

And to be frank, if you want to portray an ethnocentric take on the battle. It wouldn't - you don't have to invent things. You have plenty of ancient material to use at your disposal.

CONAN: I think in some sense Brian was talking about the more modern context. As I think John Wayne remade The Alamo during the Vietnam War era, this movie was movie was made in the era in which we now are.

Mr. HANSON: I think absolutely. And I think that the movie does not take the stance that you could take, that there were tens of thousands of subject Persian Medes, Babylonians, Lydians who didn't really want to fight and were forced to and their death was great tragedy.

You could do that as well. But this was just a particular take that reflects, I think, the world view of the Greeks at the time.

CONAN: Victor Davis Hanson, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. HANSON: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist, historian and syndicated columnist, and author of the book, "A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and the Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War." Of course, after the defeated the Persians, the Peloponnesian War broke out not too many years afterwards.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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