" ... fills a much-needed gap between gay porn and recruitment film"

Bryant Frazer


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

300 is a film adaptation of Frank Miller's epic graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, which in turn is adapted from two sources: "The Histories" of Herodotus and the Special 1999 Swimsuit Edition of "Muscle & Fitness" magazine.

There are two key words or phrases in that summary paragraph above:

  • graphic novel
  • epic

Your enjoyment of this film will depend in large measure on how well you understand and accept the nature of those two concepts.


300 brave Spartans and some of their allies fought to the death at Thermopylae against a mammoth invading army from Persia that included at least tens of thousands of soldiers, perhaps far more. In a sense, the combatants were cheated by history. While their counterparts in the Trojan War had Homer to tell their tale and to apotheosize them, the 300 had their tale written by Herodotus, a man who attempted to write an objective appraisal. He failed, of course, because he had to rely on second and third hand accounts, and because he was both gullible and partisan, but at least he was trying to write objective history and not an epic poem. He told stories of men using training and  strategy to fight against other men.

What Frank Miller has done with his story is to provide the Spartans at last with their long-unwritten epic. He has done for them what Homer did for Achilles and Odysseus,  portraying them as possessing superhuman qualities to defeat monsters, ogres, giants, gods, elephants, and magicians. Xerxes himself is about eight feet tall! Miller has created the battle of Thermopylae as it would have been written by Homer. It bears the exact same resemblance to the truth as do The Iliad and The Odyssey.

There's really no effort at realism. For example, the Spartans go into battle wearing only their ancient Speedos, uncrested helmets, and stylized capes, like cartoon superheroes. The real Spartans wore crested helmets and they fought in tunics and upper-body armor. As for wearing floor-length capes for close combat, the less said about that, the better. The Spartans may have had a military culture, but they were not stupid. Their cloaks were worn off-duty and in peacetime, not for battle. They were the equivalent of the U.S. Navy's dress whites.

But why worry about details like that? Hell, they didn't even bother to get the pronunciation of "Leonidas" correct! (They couldn't find one Greek guy somewhere?)

The bottom line is that Frank Miller was not trying to recreate Spartan life, but to re-imagine it. Here is a fascinating article/interview in which Miller's motivations and strategies are discussed in depth.

If you are interested in the real Battle of Thermopylae, here is a three-part documentary from the History Channel.

Graphic Novel

If you aren't aware of the term, "graphic novel" is now the official euphemism for "self-contained comic book." "Oh, mom, I'm not reading comic books. They're illustrated novels." "OK, Chipper, but put down War and Peace for a minute and come eat your borscht." I wonder if there is a graphic novel version of Finnegan's Wake. Maybe I could finally understand that sucker!

It's important to realize that this film is very much of a comic book in terms of nuance and character development. Graphic novelists are not like real novelists, who generally have to deal with reality and the complexity of human thoughts and emotions.

Except maybe Dickens.

He would have made a good graphic novelist.

Furthermore, 300 is not a comic book from the Stan Lee school, with shades of gray, complex philosophical concepts, clay-footed heroes, and noble baddies. Although the imagery is sexy and grotesque in ways inconceivable in the fifties, at its heart this is a simple comic book from the pre-Marvel era, when the baddies were all bad, and the good guys thought about nothing but truth, justice, and the Spartan way.

Not only do the characters lack dimension, but even the images are  removed from reality - and deliberately so. The young Leonidas doesn't battle a real wolf, for example, but a cartoon wolf which lacks only a stovepipe hat to be a Disney character.

Video Game

One more key descriptor is required to sum up the movie correctly. The actual battle, which is essentially act two of a three-act play, is laid out precisely like a video game. The Spartans assemble in a narrow corridor which negates the Persians' superior numbers. They face wave after wave of foes of increasing difficulty. First they face the ordinary pawns. Disposing of them, they must then face the archers, then the elite bodyguards, the giants, the rhinos, the magicians, the elephants, etc, until they come close enough to be able to throw a spear at Xerxes himself. This will translate perfectly to a video game, with each succeeding wave of Persians representing a higher skill level.

So. Is the movie any good?

Yes, you will find it outstanding as long as you know and accept what I have written above. Do you want to see a perfect transposition of a  comic book to film? Go see it. Don't expect complex characterizations or historical accuracy. First, a bunch of men make stirring operatic speeches about why they must go into battle. That's followed by about an hour of actual fighting in gloriously gory and overwrought detail, during which the buff Spartans, clad only in their ancient underpants, make homoerotic (spear and sword) thrusts into their enemies. That in turn is followed by the stirring concluding speeches.

What it does right, I think, is to capture the general spirit of the Battle of Thermopylae, giving just due to men who were willing to march to their certain death rather than submit to a foreign power. That is stirring, of course, but what really makes the film worth watching is the imagery, which forms its own sort of Homeric poetry by faithfully rendering Frank Miller's storyboards. You go to this movie to engage your senses, not your mind, and you should do so in a theater, not wait for the DVD. Preferably an IMAX theater. Go for it. This is the Ben-Hur of your era, and you want to say you were there. These images say it far better than I could:





DVD Graphic Novel  


61 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
53 Metacritic.com (of 100)


8.4 IMDB summary (of 10)
7.0 IMDB Top 100 Voters (of 10)


Box Office Mojo. It was budgeted at $60 million for production, and had an opening weekend of $70 million. It will gross more than $200 million in the USA.


  • Lena Headey shows her breasts before and during an evening sex scene.
  • Kelly Craig shows her breasts while writhing around in a prophetic trance.
  • Several women show their breasts in an orgy scene within the Persian camp.
  • Gerald Butler shows his bum just before the sex scene.

"Molon labe"

The battle of Thermopylae is certainly a fascinating subject. You have learned in your schoolbooks that Herodotus was the father of history, but that is misleading. He wrote about Thermopylae four decades after the events happened. (Herodotus was about four years old when the battle took place.) If he was the first objective historian, then who did he get his accounts from? Well, either there were plenty of objective accounts before him, or he had to rely on non-objective people. He wrote the "history" by listening to old men tell war stories.  You know how that goes. Worse yet, they were not even the right men, since the heroes all died.

As for his role as the man who created objective history, well, even if Herodotus tried and succeeded partially, he didn't have much impact. Even two millennia after his day there was very little in the way of objective history being written! The "father of history" himself is properly classified somewhere between a historian, a cheerleader, and an epic poet. Herodotus incorporated fewer obvious myths into his yarns than can be found in the Iliad, so that made him a historian in comparison to the Homeric tradition, but not a very good one. He estimated the size of the Persian attack force at 5.2 million people, including non-combatants. Modern military historians have a good laugh over that number. (In addition to the logistical problems with feeding a force that size with the resources available in the ancient world, mathematicians have estimated the entire population of the world to be about 100 million people at the time which would include about 25 million adult males - all of whom seem to have gathered to battle the 300 Spartans that day!) Hans Delbrueck wrote in "Stories of the Art of War" (p. 106) that the correct number for the Persian attack force that day may have been as low as 15,000-20,000. That is the low end among historians, but you get an idea of the range involved, from fifteen thousand to several million.

Even the most ardent supporters of Herodotus can offer no more passionate defense than to say "Herodotus, by his day's standards, was fairly accurate in his accounts." (Quote from Wikipedia.) That faint praise is roughly tantamount to a future pop historian saying that Carrot Top was fairly funny by the standard of other prop comedians of his day.

According to Herodotus, the only reason the 300 Spartans (and their 7,000 allies) lost to the Persians at all is because they were betrayed by a traitor! "Geez, if not for that guy, we'd have kicked all five million of their asses!"

Some modern historians have come up with a logical explanation for the numbers offered by Herodotus. Suppose that a future historian read that there were a billion people in China in our time. If he makes only a tiny slip, he might conclude that the country was home to 1,000,000,000,000 people. Why? Because that is what a billion means in most languages, and used to mean in Great Britain. What Americans call a billion is called a milliard by the rest of the world. Herodotus ran into a similar confusion. The current scholarly consensus is that Herodotus, who spoke no Persian, probably confused the Persian terms for chiliarchy (1,000) and myriarchy (10,000).(1) Dividing the Herodotus estimates by ten should give a reasonable number.

Oh, well, the exaggerations don't really matter, do they? However large the Persian force really was in September of 480 BC, it was far larger than the number of defenders, and the defense by the Greeks was still a memorable demonstration of bravery which inspired the tales of glory which have come done to us.



Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is certainly an impressive genre film, but it leaves me with the nagging feeling that it could have been so much more with just a little less spectacle and a little more humanity.

The film didn't really meet with my taste. It is obviously aimed at a target audience no older than about 24, and its R-rating guarantees that it will set the all-time record for sneak-ins by teen boys. I was impressed by the stylized imagery, of course. Who could not be? In fact, I liked the film a great deal and bought into it completely until the battle actually began, after which it seemed like really nothing more than swords and spears plunging into things. After about thirty minutes of that, the novelty of the visuals had worn off and I was drifting off, ready for the wrap-up. Unfortunately, the film's version of the battle is probably longer than the Spartans actually lasted on the battlefield.  On the other hand, there is so much slo-mo that the actual battle footage is probably only ten minutes long in real time. There are times when the images move so slowly that you wonder why they didn't just hire Ken Burns to photograph the comic book.

As I mentioned, watching the battle itself is exactly like watching a real expert play a video game on an extremely large screen.  Personally, I love video games when I am controlling the action, but have never found video gaming to be a good spectator sport.