Frank Miller’s bold and bloody reinvention of the Battle of Thermopylae hits British cinema screens this week, fresh from two record-breaking weekends at the American box office. Certificate 15 (‘R’-rated in America) this is a violent and at times sexy film aimed at a youth market. From its takings, the producers did not mistake their fan base.
The film is an unrelenting, two hour epic remythologising the historical record. Frank Miller’s graphic style is brought to vivid life thanks to groundbreaking use of blue screen technology, supplemented by influences from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. For those whose stance is instinctively ironic and cynical, the straightforward heroism celebrated here will be disconcerting. For those who know the value of sacrifice and the price of freedom, the experience is thrilling. This is a modern film that reconnects with the essence of Western civilisation.
For what makes this film exceptional are the classical foundations upon which it draws – the American scholar, Victor Davis Hanson, was a consultant – and the resonance they evidently have with a fresh generation of westerners, officially unschooled in Herodotus and Homer. If our education system has given up on the value of a classical education, the runaway success of 300 proves that the values of the mass of the West remain those of Ancient Greece, even in the Age of Barbie. Freedom, Beauty, Excellence and Reason are all celebrated here—four exceptional touchstones of the West that come to us from tiny Greece, thanks to the resistance of the Spartans.
One of Miller’s sources was an essay by William Golding, ‘The Hot Gates’ – a literal translation of Thermopylae. Golding reminds us of simple historical fact: ‘A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like’. When the freedoms to write what we like and go where we like are once more under threat, it is no surprise that Thermopylae should return to inspire us. The West, for all our forgetfulness, is one civilisation, stretching back two and a half thousand years to the shining example of Greece. The last time the Spartan epic was re-enacted, it served to stiffen sinews in the Cold War.
300 reminds us too that for all the current misperception of America as global bully, the West is in truth the eternal underdog. In a world always ready to fall back into tyranny and superstition, only the Greeks and their inheritors know the value and the power of individual human beings. When we are set free, we can bring down giants, but we always play David to the world’s Goliath. Refusing to kneel before the Persian horde, Gerard Butler’s Leonidas and his buffed-up men are an army of Michelangelo’s Davids. They are simultaneously the progenitors and inheritors of the best of the West. Their reception in 2007 is proof that ordinary westerners retain a sense of their civilisation and its essential values. Our elite gatekeepers may find the unofficial western motto—freedom or death; war is not the worst of evils—hard to grasp. 300 shows that everyone else gets it. There is hope for us yet.