300, on the surface, is a muscled up, no nonsense, punch you in the nose, energy filled, masculine head-trip. But the movie is based on Greek history and as such it borrows from the heart and learning that was so important in Greek oral storytelling.
So there is real depth to a seemingly shallow and muscle-bound story. The fighting and killing are blended with heroism and sacrifice, the sex and politics teach us about desire and greed, the grotesque and evil mask lessons about isolation and power. 300 uses the story in the same way the Greeks did, the producers just told it with a high budget Hollywood film rather than a dude speaking to a large crowd.
The depth in this action film can’t be embodied any better than in the hunchbacked frame of the goat farmer, Ephialtes of Trachis, who betrayed the Greek army to the Persians by showing the Persians a path that lead to the rear of the Spartan army. Ephialtes is cloaked in history and has changed over time and is now too poetic to be true. 300 adds to the mythology, making him a sympathetic hunchback, a throwaway child from Sparta who escaped infanticide only because his parents fled the city, unable to fulfill his dream of becoming a Spartan warrior because of his imperfections.
The backstory works well and creates powerful contrasts between Leonidas and Ephialtes during their conversation on the mountainside. Leonidas is a specimen, the best of the best in physique and skill. Ephialtes is a grotesque monster, crippled and hideous in ability and form. Leonidas is compassionate and understanding of the hunchback who begs to become a part of the Spartan army. He feels no revulsion, unlike his captain, and does not belittle the clearly inferior farmer. As he asks Ephialtes to raise his shield and observes his pathetic attempt to lift it to proper height, he does not chastise or rub salt in the wound. He explains, kindly, how a phalanx works, and how a unit is only as strong as the individual member. He even pats him on his back, breaking the separation his captain would like him to maintain, and apologizes that not all men could be soldiers.
Yet this message is a cold one. It is the logic that begot infanticide, rigid and unfeeling. His words do not care for the person even if his tone does, and his lack of egalitarianism leaves Ephialtes in tears and in a rage. A mindset that eventually makes Ephialtes reveal the secret goat path to Xerxes which leads to the death of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans.
Greek poetry and their fascination with fate are deep at work in this story, but the lesson is not obvious. The movie’s heroes are mythic in their ability. The Spartans are history’s superheroes, unable to be killed by normal means. And the reason they are this way is through their elitist selection and training. Only the best are allowed to live and only those best are allowed to raise a spear and shield.
Yet this governing principle that draws us into these warriors’ world is also one that is untenable in modern culture, beyond disagreeable in its elitism and disregard for humanity. It hobbles Ephialtes, the embodiment of a ‘have not.’ And if the attempted murder of him while he was a defenseless infant wasn’t enough to show him how little he mattered in the Spartan world, Leonidas telling him he could not use him as he offered his life to the Spartan cause certainly hammered the point home. “Not all of us were meant to be soldiers,” he told him with genuine regret in his voice.
At that point, I think most viewers would nod along and agree with Leonidas, our warrior king. The phalanx needs all men to be strong, Ephialtes cannot possibly be a soldier. And as Ephialtes takes his secret to Xerxes and tells him where the goat path is for the promise of women and gold and a uniform, he becomes the bad guy, despised for his weakness in form, desire, and morality.
But that means we root for a philosophy that fundamentally disagrees with our views on equality and living out your dream. We don’t believe in telling a child what they can and cannot do, and we certainly don’t believe in appraising a child’s worth before deciding whether we should allow it to live. We hate the ‘haves,’ the one percent, that so greedily hold on to all which they believe is theres as the ninety-nine wonder how they can have so much and do so little, how they could possibly sit on their mountaintop and so coldly tell us that they are sorry, but not all were meant to have money.
300 is deep in philosophy, but that philosophy is clearly from another age, where the individual was as good as their ability to contribute to the unit. And a life was determined before choices were made. And yet the movie is able to take us back to that time for a while. Where it was possible to have people like Spartans, who were the elite of the elite, better than everyone else at what they did because they were more committed to their craft than the other people who practiced it. And it makes us hate the underdog who betrays the one percent, who brings them their comeuppance for their callous disregard for human life and one human life in particular.
At the end of the film, as Leonidas stares down Xerxes and Ephialtes with the dome of shields and spears behind him, we feel sorrow for these bygone relics of Sparta. And as Leonidas points to Ephialtes with his spear and tells him, “May you live forever.” We hope he does, and that they are miserable years full of regret and shame.
Ephialtes may have died, but his philosophy did not, and the Spartan philosophy may have been slaughtered with the 300 men who guarded the Heart Gates. 300 will always be an action-packed adrenaline ride of mythic heroes from antiquity, but it will also always be a strange jaunt through a world I do not understand that causes me to align with an unfamiliar ideology.
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