Ten years ago, three simple words re-ignited a lesson in history and jump started a movement.
With those words, Sparta and King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), leaped from the pages of our history books and into pop culture history. They created a modern day fascination of Greek history and Spartan warrior culture, inspired a new workout trend and gave us a new Halloween costume that has been used ever since. It invigorated a new sense of appreciation for defending and fighting for one’s own while also introducing us to the talents of director Zach Snyder.
But most interestingly, 300, while thrilling us with dramatic fight scenes and iconic lines, discreetly taught us a lesson in how defiance against tyranny and oppression can unite factions to overcome, a lesson that holds extreme importance in today’s America.
The story of Leonidas and the brave 300 is one that dates back to 480 BC, when Greece was a divided country comprised of a city-state, and the Persian empire looked to take advantage of this separation and conquer the nation. The first attempt occurred in 490 BC during the Battle of Marathon, a story which was told at the start of the Snyder produced 300: Rise of an Empire in 2014, where King Darius and his Persian army were defeated by a unified Greek force and Xerxes’ was defeated by Themistocles at the naval battle of Salamis.
But it was the second Greco-Persian battle for Greece in 480 BC in which Snyder changed the game.
The story is well known. King Leonidas, rather than submit to King Xerxes (son of Darius), chose to fight for his country and a free Greece. So he took 300 Spartan warriors with him to Thermopylae (known as the Hot Gates) to meet and thwart the Persian advance.
In the movie, Leonidas’ 300 is accompanied by a small detachment of Greeks who believe in his mission. In reality, the force is made up of 6,000 to 7,000 hoplites, mostly Thespians and Thebans, and 300 Spartans. But the movie centered its focus around the 300 who fought and died rather than retreat when they were betrayed and ultimately surrounded by the Persian army.
The inspiration for 300 came from the brilliant mind of Frank Miller (Daredevil, Ronin, Batman: The Dark Knight, Sin City) who, along with Lynn Varley, created the graphic novel “300” in 1998. Originally published as a monthly, five-issue comic book series, the novel depicts the two days in which Leonidas and his army battled and held the significantly larger Persian force until they were finally overwhelmed on the third day and massacred.
Miller’s creation was adapted to the screen in almost exact form by Snyder, taking many of the iconic lines from the novel to the silver screen, all the way down to Captain Dilios’ speech at the end of the movie.
300 has achieved cult classic status. It motivated many to get back into the gym due to the physiques of the Spartans. It launched a fitness craze that included “The 300 workout” and eventually the Spartan Race. I remember walking out of the movie so hyped that I didn’t even realize it was raining; I was just waiting for a fight, looking to lock umbrellas like a shield to form a phalanx. It was that type of excitement that the movie created, like a testosterone injection which made guys quote Leonidas repeatedly and had them acting like they were Spartans.
The movie also introduced us to Lena Headley, who played Queen Gorgo, wife of King Leonidas. Ironic that we are celebrating the movie’s anniversary during Women’s History Month as we have to pay tribute to Queen Gorgo and Headley, who showed us how much respect, power and influence women in a warrior-based society like Sparta wielded.
When questioned by the Persian messenger (Peter Mensah, of “Spartacus” fame) about how “…she could speak among men,” Queen Gorgo broke it down by stating, “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men.”
Headley doesn’t play and with her fierce independence, loyalty and fearlessness, she gave us one of the most memorable lines in the movie. No wonder she became Cersei Lannister in The Game of Thrones.
300 gave us so many memorable scenes, from the training of a young Leonidas, “what is your profession?“, and the first battle scene in which we learned about the deadly killing machine known as the Spartan Phalanx and how to satisfy a thirst.
While the movie is a combination of historical fact, heroic admiration, poetic license, artistic mastery and glorified battles, it should also be recognized as a lesson in the fight for freedom. Like Gladiator and Braveheart, this movie was a manifestation of the constant fight for liberty and freedom.
Some, like Leonidas, are willing to fight, die and become martyrs to unite those which are separated in order to overcome in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s a fight that transcends time and culture, one that can be both violent and non-violent. One in which we continue to see in many forms on the silver screen in movies such as Birth of a Nation.
History has a way of teaching us through repetition. Through the Battle of Thermopylae and 300, we learn a lesson that can be applied to our current political and social environment in America. No one wants to die, but we all must eventually take a stand when our rights and homes are threatened by tyranny and those who seek to oppress.
Many might think that’s reaching way beyond the scope and purpose of the movie, but I would argue that by not learning history and recognizing the lessons it teaches, you’re bound to miss the signs when they occur again.
Read books like “The Histories” by Herodotus, which details the Greco-Persian wars. Immerse yourself in novels such as “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield for vivid storytelling of what it must been like for the brave Greeks in the phalanx.
Read so that every time the movie airs and you cheer as the Spartans clash again and again over three days, you will remember who and what they were fighting for; then open your eyes and recognize how a similar struggle has reappeared in Trump’s America.
And if you doubt you can be a factor in the fight for equality because some are deemed too powerful, remember this.
Even a God King can bleed.