Victor Davis Hanson

Crowds are flocking to see the film "300" about the ancient Spartans' last stand at the pass at Thermopylae against an invading Persian army. Yet many critics, in panning "300," have alleged that the film is essentially historically inaccurate. Are they right?

Here are some answers. But first two qualifiers. I wrote an introduction to a book about the making of "300" after being shown a rough cut of the movie in October. And, second, remember that "300" does not claim to follow exactly ancient accounts of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Instead, it is an impressionistic take on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, intended to entertain and shock first, and instruct second.

Indeed, at the real battle, there weren't rhinoceroses or elephants in the Persian army. Their king, Xerxes, was bearded and sat on a throne high above the battle; he wasn't, as in the movie, bald and sexually ambiguous, and he didn't prance around the killing field. And neither the traitor Ephialtes nor the Spartan overseers, the Ephors, were grotesquely deformed.

When the Greeks were surrounded on the battle's last day, there were 700 Thespians and another 400 Thebans who fought alongside the 300 Spartans under King Leonidas. But these non-Spartans are scarcely prominent in the movie.

Still, the main story line mostly conveys the message of Thermopylae.

A small contingent of Greeks at Thermopylae (which translates to "The Hot Gates") really did block the enormous Persian army for three days before being betrayed. The defenders claimed their fight was for the survival of a free people against subjugation by the Persian Empire.

Many of the film's corniest lines - such as the Spartan dare, "Come and take them," when ordered by the Persians to hand over their weapons, or the Spartans' flippant reply, "Then we will fight in the shade," when warned that Persian arrows will blot out the sun - actually come from ancient accounts by Herodotus and Plutarch.

The warriors of "300" look like comic-book heroes because they are based on Frank Miller's drawings that emphasized bare torsos, futuristic swords and staged fight scenes. In other words, director Zack Snyder tells the story not in a realistic fashion - like the mostly failed attempts to recapture the ancient world in recent films such as "Troy" or "Alexander" - but in the surreal manner of a comic book or video game.

The Greeks themselves often embraced such impressionistic adaptation. Ancient vase painters sometimes did not portray soldiers accurately in their bulky armor. Instead, they used "heroic nudity" to show the contours of the human body.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.