Film Review 2017 - #18 300

300 (2006)

I was going to start by apologising for the late arrival of this final review, but then I thought: hang on, this film was based on an incident at Thermopylae that may have taken place in (approximately) 480 BCE - what's a few days here and there after two and a half millennia?

Not only that: this review actually starts in the Museum of Archaeology in Athens, a couple of years ago, when the film sprang to mind as I beheld a graphic of the actual battle upon which the film was based.

An actual battle?  Well, yes.  300 the film, all weird sepia-tinting and stylised cartoon violence and Jason-Statham-esque homo-erotic musculature, presents itself as mythological, a presentation that reinforces the belief somewhere in the backrooms of your mind that, yes, that battle, the one where 300 Spartans hold back the entire might of the Persian army, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, that's obviously preposterous so presumably the whole thing is actually a bit of a fairy tale, a myth, like all that other stuff about the Greek gods and Troy and Achilles and that what you're watching when you watch the lovely mad silly bonkers film 300 is a mythological rendering of an actual myth.

But you're not. You're watching a film - not a very good film, to be sure, but a fun film, a film that keeps you entertained, a film with drama and action and goodies and baddies - you're watching a film based on something that actually happened.

Look, there on the wall, there's the map of the battle: the mountain, the sea, the pass, the hot gates - three of them - the little lines that show where people were fighting on each of those few days.

And look, here, just to the left, a display cabinet.  What are those things?  Peer closely.  Bloody hell - they're arrow heads.

Bloody hell.  These are the bronze arrow heads retrieved from Kolonos Hill, the hill behind the third and final gate, the hill where the remaining Spartans made their final stand.  Look.  Tiny bronze arrow heads, dozens of them.  Fired by Persians, in 480 BCE, towards the last few dozen Spartans, standing on a hill, knowing they were about to die.

This really happened.  Remember that scene at the end of 300, where the sky turns black and arrows in uncountable number rain down upon the last of the 300?  That really happened.

I fired up the Quattro and set off.  (It may have been a small Fiat - but we're allowed this sort of licence when we're in the realm of the mythological.)  Thermopylae is a couple of hundred kilometres from Athens - further if you take the slow route through Sparta itself, and then via the beach at Pylos and the oracle at Delphi and up over the mountains that, all those centuries ago, formed the impenetrable backdrop to that impossible battle. 300?  Against - against how many?  Ten thousand?  A hundred thousand?  A million?

Scholars now agree that there were probably between 100,000 and 150,000 Persians; and that although there were a few hundred other Greeks present, there really were only 300 Spartans.

They held this giant army at bay for a week.

The sea has receded since then, so there's a bit more room for manoeuvre these days, but the constricting physical geography of the place remains evident.  It smells bad, too: the gates are hot because of the hot springs (hence Thermopylae) which are sulphurous, so it reeks of rotting eggs.  

There's no evidence of the gates themselves, and there's a refugee facility in the woods by the springs, and there's a rather incongruous and relatively recent memorial thing by the main road where coaches stop from time to time to enable the camera-laden humans to take a couple of snaps.

But look over there, set back a little from the new road, nudged up against the underside of the mountain, a mound, perhaps thirty metres in diameter and four or five metres high and covered in shrubs and boulders and small trees.  There's a small sign: Kolonos Hill.  This is Kolonos Hill, where the arrow heads came from, site of the last stand of the Spartans.  Here, right here.

And, this being Greece, there is no barrier, no fence, no official guidance, just the small sign.  You can just... walk onto the hill, and climb it, and stand at the top and gaze across the bay and that tiny strip of land and wonder:

What is heroism?

300 the film tries, of course, to tackle that question; but not really.  300 the film is trapped inside a whole bunch of tropes and assumptions (about masculinity, about violence, about power) from which it cannot possibly escape.  And neither should it.  It has plenty to do, and plenty to offer, exactly as it is - stylised, fun, engaging, mythological.

But the reality from which it sprang - an actual battle, in an actual place, with actual men actually choosing to face certain death in defence of something they treasured - that still begs some big questions. And if 300 does no more than make sure those questions stay in play, it'll have played an important role in the bigger scheme of things.


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