Between cinema and history, the movie 300 has found its fans but also its detractors. In this Hollywood blockbuster, Leonidas and his 300 spartans bodybuilders face in the famous battle of Thermopylae in Xerxes and Persians straight out of hell. The film takes many liberties with the story, which is not surprising for a fiction. More disturbing are the scriptwriting choices of director Zack Snyder in favor of not very subtle ideological propaganda. Small decryption.
The 300 film in a few words
The film is an adaptation of the comic book "300" by Frank Miller . The action takes place in 480 BC Leonidas I, King of Sparta, faces with the help of his 300 men, the immense army of Xerxes I, emperor of the Persian Empire. First, the film immerses us in the world of Sparta in the 5th century BC. Some institutions and practices are mentioned, such as agôgê or the practice of eugenics. We see how the military education is transmitted to Leonidas, future king of the Lacedaemonian city.
The film ignores the king's youth and really begins when a Persian emissary goes to Sparta, with the aim of demanding the submission of the city to Xerxes I. Leonidas refuses, war is declared. Leonidas then gathered 300 of his bravest soldiers and set off to meet the Persian emperor. Bloody battles will follow where crimson blood splashes over the camera, where only the buzz of flies animates the battlefield, where decomposing bodies litter the ground. Leonidas dies with honor in combat.
The film ends with the Battle of Plataea, where the Spartans are led by Leonidas' successor. A war film, therefore, which aims to be realistic. But does he succeed?
The historical fact: the battle of Thermophylae
In 490 BC, during the First Persian War, Xerxes suffered a defeat against the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon. He will decide to take his revenge and end it once and for all with the Greeks. It was then that the Second Median War broke out, in which a coalition of Greek cities opposed the Achaemenid empire of Xerxes I. In 480 BC, takes place the Battle of Thermopylae. The army of Xerxes was then made up of about 600,000 men against 7,000 Greeks, including our famous 300 spartans. Herodotus speaks of three million Persians against 4,000 men from the Peloponnese (L'Enquête, VII, 228). The two armed clash violently. Xerxes uses a trick and bypasses the opposing army in order to take it from the rear.
On this subject Herodotus wrote "Xerxes wondered how to get out of this embarrassment when a Malian, Ephialte son of Eurydemos, came to find him (...) he showed him the path which by the mountain joined the Thermopylae" (The Inquiry , VII, 213). Panicked, the Greek soldiers flee the battlefield. Only the 300 Spartans, commanded by Leonidas, as well as 700 Thebans, decide to fight to the end, in order to allow the other Greeks to organize their defenses. Xerxes eliminates this resistance and heads for Athens, which he sacks. The Second Median War ended with a victory for the allied Greek cities, during the battles of Salamis and Plataea, in -480 and -479 respectively.
The 300: Interpretations and Reinterpretations
We can quite conceive of this film as simple entertainment, like the blockbuster that it is. But, when we compare recent history and the film itself, the reinterpretations are so numerous, and what more is in the service of a "camp", that one is forced to imagine that "300 ”Goes beyond the simple“ film-spectacle ”. It suffices to put the two main characters face to face as well as two of the most important institutions, to understand the message behind the film.
In reality. Born in -540 and died in -480 during the Battle of Thermopylae, he is one of the most famous kings of Sparta. When he learns that Xerxes intends to take Sparta, Leonidas leaves to consult the oracle of Delphi which gives him an ambiguous answer: "either Sparta will lose its king during the battle, or Sparta will fall into the hands of the invader" . Leonidas then takes the decision to send diplomats near Xerxes who refuses to receive them and to propose to Sparta to submit. He died in action under uncertain conditions.
In the movie. Leonidas at about thirty years old during the Battle of Thermopylae. When he receives a Persian emissary asking him to give "land and water" to Xerxes as a token of submission, Leonidas refuses and immediately kills him. It was he who then made the decision to go to war. He then consults the ephors who forbid him to do so. But Leonidas goes to war where he is killed, after having injured Xerxes.
Reinterpretation. The Leonidas in the film and the Leonidas in history are radically different.
In fact, during the Battle of Thermopylae, the King of Sparta was around 60 years old. In the film, he's 30, he's in his prime.
The film shows a Persian emissary who offers Leonidas the opportunity to submit. We will rather speak of reinterpretation. It was first Leonidas who sent diplomats. Xerxes refused to receive them, thereby placing himself in a dominant position.
In the film, Leonidas makes the decision to go to war. In historical reality, Xerxes is already at the gates of the city and plans to invade it.
In a scene from the film, Leonidas manages to injure Xerxes with a lance throw. No historical account reports this event which seems improbable.
Conclusion. We can clearly see that the director decided to idealize Leonidas and make him a hero, a demigod. He is the strong man. As a result, Zack Snyder readjustes historical facts, sometimes even to the point of opposing them to reality (episode of diplomats). Leonidas becomes the symbol of the man who gives himself for his homeland, of warrior courage, of the man who does not submit. All of this is partly true, but not totally so. If we want to push the reasoning to the extreme, the Leonidas of the film embodies the pro-American values which justify all wars against the “invader”. As a result, the film only partially shows the unequal society that reigned in Sparta, although the latter call themselves homoioi. Leonidas is a hero, he defends his homeland to the point of offering his life for her. It does not matter if the State of which he is the king is profoundly unequal or even barbaric (we practice eugenics, we kill the disabled, we develop a superior “race” theory ...). In the film Leonidas speaks on behalf of his homeland, which for a Greek makes no sense.
In reality. Born in -519 and died in -465, he is the son of Darius I and reigned over the Persian Empire from -485 until his death. In -480, he collided with the Greeks during the Battle of Thermopylae which lasted seven days. He loses 20,000 of his men, relatively little seen from his army of nearly 600,000 soldiers. Little is known about him, some historians emit the thesis of the assassination.
In the movie. Xerxes is described as a strange being, demigod, adorned with jewels and fantasies. Made up, tall, slender, he is the caricature of the homosexual from the Orient. The actor who plays his role is dull. He is a character who plays with his appearance and speaks little.
Reinterpretation. Xerxes I, the big gap.
The actor who plays Xerxes is tall, dull-skinned and clearly looks like a mysterious cross between an Asian and a Middle Easterner. The few engravings of the Persian emperor that have come down to us show a bearded man, physically closer to a Mediterranean than to an Asian or an Arab.
The Xerxes in the film is mannered, clearly homosexual. Historical sources in no way specify this homosexual and feminine behavior of the Persian emperor.
In the film, Xerxes is injured by Leonidas. No historian has mentioned this event which, if it were true, would have had a much greater impact.
Conclusion. The director clearly made the choice to oppose Xerxes to Leonidas. The differences are glaring and almost become gross. Leonidas is manly, fights on the battlefield, weapon in hand. Xerxes is feminine, weak, half-mad, you never see him with a gun in his hand. Everything ridicules him. From the way he walks to the way he expresses himself or stands, nothing shows him off. He is never seen making decisions, while Herodotus' account clearly emphasizes his power of command. The fact that the actor is duller than reality, is certainly not a trivial choice. If we follow the logic we adopted to analyze Leonidas, in the film Xerxes symbolizes the current Middle East in opposition to Leonidas who symbolizes the United States. As a result, Xerxes is ridiculed, painted in the guise of a mystical madman.
In this logic, the film ends naturally with the Greek victory of Plataea, where the Persian adversary is crushed. The scene has no interest for the film as such because it is supposed to transcribe the battle of Thermopylae and more particularly the episode of these famous 300 Spartans. But the final scene, which lasts two minutes, takes on its full meaning when viewed from a more current angle of ideological propaganda.
In reality. The ephors have considerable power that places them on a par with the king, or even above in some cases. Five in number, they are elected by the people in plebiscites and change every year. Their primary mission is to control the people, as much from a political point of view as in mores. Thus, the ephors are very concerned with the appearance of men and according to Aristotle quoted by Plutarch "the ephors make order by the herald to shave the mustache ". They intervene in virtually all areas and have the power to sentence anyone to death for disobedience, even the king.
In the movie. The ephors are perched on top of a mountain, reclusive and far from the preoccupations of Spartan society. Of monstrous appearance, they are qualified as “mystical patients” and make decisions by consulting an oracle. They are qualified as being the “high priest of the gods” and come to terms with the enemy. Elected for life, they have no age.
Reinterpretation. The ephors of 300, an intriguing storytelling.
No sources mention the monstrous appearance of the ephors who were citizens of the city. On the contrary, guarantors of good behavior, they force society to look good.
In the film, the ephors are elected for life. In fact, plebiscites were held every year, the Ephors could not be reelected.
In the film the ephors consult and interpret the words of an oracle. In reality, the ephors are related to politicians and not to religious.
In 300, the Ephors let Leonidas go to war despite being opposed to it. In reality, their considerable power enabled them to prevent the king from going against their decisions and even from sentencing him to death.
Conclusion. The director has clearly reinterpreted the past and even worse, he endowed the ephors with peculiarities that they never possessed. Making them monstrous brings them closer to the enemy and denounces a society that is corrupting itself from within. The director develops a sort of apple worm theory. All this once again serves the Leonidas of the film who has nothing to do with the ephors and goes to war despite their refusal. Like the United States, Leonidas (Sparta) goes to war in the name of humanity  (Greece) without worrying about anyone's opinion. Likewise, the United States goes to war on behalf of humanity (the West) as we will see below.
In reality. It is difficult to precisely date the appearance of the institution. Before the 4th century, allusions to it were rare  or even non-existent. In addition to learning to fight, "no less care was taken in teaching them poetry and song than in teaching them correctness and purity of language ". We learn more about total obedience than outright violence. Asceticism was in force, but the young Spartans still had servants. The "educational pederasty" was in force. Finally, the kryptie appears as the “crown” of Spartan education. We do not know exactly what it is exactly, the young Spartan would be left to himself for a whole year, wandering in the mountains to test his sense of survival.
In the movie. The child is sent there from the age of seven, it is specified that he will not see his family again. The narrator briefly explains to us what the agôgè consists of "with a stick and a whip the boy was punished so that he would not learn to show either suffering or pity". We see children fighting and even killing each other, being whipped, being deprived of food. It is also said that the institution is over three hundred years old.
Reinterpretation. Between anhistorism and deformation
The biggest mistake, and not the least, consists in the appearance of agôgè. The director inscribes it in the 8th century BC. In reality the institution, as it is presented in the film, takes its final form around the 4th century BC.
The agôgè is described in the film as a kind of arena where violence and death dominate. It is true that we learned to fight but not only. The film completely obscures the educational side of the institution.
In the film, the young Spartan goes for an initiation around the age of ten. In fact, kryptia (initiation) was accessible around the age of twenty. It was part of the educational process of the senior citizen.
Conclusion. Here the lack of historical precision is striking. But to serve his thesis, the director had to make this historical transfer. Indeed, the agôgè symbolizes the professional army, powerful soldiers trained to kill. The order which reigns there gives a strong vision of the State. This vision is reinforced when the director shows the opposing army, disorganized and unprofessional. In the film, the most “shameful” and “useless” aspects of historical reality, namely pederasty and education, are totally erased in favor of a virile and warlike image of Sparta. Once again, the film of one of the most important Spartan institutions gives us a false vision.
The film 300, agent of history
The historical context
The film was released on screens in 2007. The shooting took place over two years, from 2005 to 2006. Since 2003, the United States has entered the war against Iraq. So the military has been on the ground for more than four years, waging a frenzied war. The recent attacks of 2001 plunged the Western world, and more particularly the United States, in a state of tension towards the countries of the Middle East.
The choices made by the director of 300 clearly serve and justify the cause defended by the North American state. From there to what 300 becomes a militant film, there is only one step to take. It is not by chance that the director attributes spectacular weapons to Xerxes (elephant, rhinoceros ...). It is well known that the Persians were not the Carthaginians, Xerxes is not Hannibal, he did not use elephants and other gigantic animals when he fought battle. But if we “have fun” by bringing together film and historical context, one element is obvious. The United States has indeed engaged in Iraq on the pretext that in Iraq there are weapons of mass destruction. Would 300 elephants and rhinos be a crass way to symbolize these “coveted” weapons?
In any case, even if the connection may seem dubious at times, too many elements bring the film closer to reality to be ignored and considered harmless. In addition, another element supports this reflection, the political position of the director. Indeed, Zack Snyder claims to be part of the American “conservative right”.
When the past serves the present
As we have just seen, the cuts made in history are flagrant and serve to justify a current ideology. Leonidas symbolizes the axis of good. Xerxes that of evil. Leonidas symbolizes the United States, Xerxes the Middle East. All the director's work consisted, on the one hand, in making Leonidas more heroic than he was by passing him off as the man who decided the events. The director also resorted to victimization, while insisting that Xerxes is an invader. But the director knows little to be less that Sparta, like almost all civilizations, was also made by the conquests. On the other hand, the director clearly Arabized Xerxes so that the viewer could identify him more easily with an inhabitant of the Middle East. The fact of making Xerxes - in coarse and caricatural features - homosexual, contributes to the fact that the axis of the good must fight all the deviances, moral, religious, spiritual ...
The idea behind the film is clearly political and ideological. In this case, the reinterpretation of history would serve to legitimize acts of the present. Hence, interpreted history can dangerously serve ideological causes.
The film received a more than mixed reception within the critics. The newspaper Liberation went so far as to say of the film that "300 is an atrocious propaganda film whose extreme right-wing ideology makes you want to vomit ".
From an international relations point of view, the film did not at all please the Iranians, who denounce the caricature made of Xerxes and the approach of "falsifying history to serve as psychological pressure on the Iranian state" . 300 has even been denounced to the UN by Iran, which accuses it of demonizing the Iranian culture and nation. Others in the West will even go so far as to say that it is a fascist film.
Cinema and history
To use the title of Marc Ferro's work, 300 reveals the powerful links between cinema and history. The filmic transposition of a historical fact cannot be neutral. During the production, the filmmaker voluntarily selects the facts and features that feed his demonstration and therefore leaves others aside without having to justify his choice. Thus, similar cases of recovery of great historical tragedies of the past and put at the service of American society have already been observed. Producers and directors empty them of anything that could go against society. This was the case for The Ten Commandments by Cécil B. de Mille (1956) who then began to sing about the liberation of the Jews, or even the famous Ben Hur by William Wyler (1959) which glorified the birth of Christianity. 300 is in line with those films where the historical fact becomes a pretext for the ideology it defends.
Going back to the history of American cinema, a film tradition centered on the period of Antiquity or the Roman Empire, developed in the aftermath of World War II and the onset of the Cold War. The traditions of Antiquity, of the Empire, of the wars for power, are all criteria which formed the archetype of the American state.
Thus, cinema and history form a couple that must be handled and above all observed with great caution. As with all other forms of expression, the film's main risk lies in the fact that it takes hold of the story and above all reshapes it as it pleases. As proof, when we think of Richelieu or Mazarin, don't Alexandre Dumas and his Three Musketeers burst into our thoughts. Likewise, when an Englishman mentions Joan of Arc, what Joan is he talking about? That of historians or that of Shakespeare ?
Bibliography on Leonidas and the 300 Spartans
- CHRIESTIEN Jacqueline and Le TALLEC Yohann, Léonidas: Histoire et myth d'un sacrifice, Paris, Ellipses, 2013
- FERRO Marc, Cinema and History, Paris, History Folio, 1993
- KAPLAN Michel, Le Monde Grec, ancient history, Paris, Bréal, 2010
- LEVY Edmond, Sparte: social and political history until the Roman conquest, Paris, Seuil, 2003
 MILLER Frank, 300, Dark Horse Comics, 1998, 5 volumes
 PLUTARQUE, Cleomena, 9.3
 JEANGENE VILEMER Jean-Baptiste, War in the name of humanity - Kill or let die, Paris, PUF, 2012, 624 p.
 LEVY Edmond, Sparte, Paris, Seuil, 2003, p.51-52
 PLUTARQUE, Lyc., 21.1
 BERNIER Bruno, “This is merdaaaaa! », Liberation, March 21, 2007
 SHAKESPEARE William, King Henry IV, 1588-1590