PlotA Spartan orator named Dilios narrates of the young Leonidas undergoing his childhood training, explaining the rigors of Spartan life. Leonidas is cast out into the wild, and survives the harsh winter to return to his home, when he is crowned King. Dilios then tells the story of the Persian messengers arriving at Sparta and demanding Sparta's submission to King Xerxes. Outraged and offended at their behavior, King Leonidas kicks the messenger into a pit; the other messengers suffer the same fate. Resolving to face the Persians, Leonidas visits the Oracle, proposing a strategy to repel the numerically superior enemy, and offers the priests a customary payment in gold. The priests, called Ephors, having already been bribed by Xerxes, interpret the Oracle's message to mean that Sparta should not go to war, so as to not interrupt the sacred Carneian festival.
Despite the warning, Leonidas gathers 300 of his best soldiers to fight the Persians, selecting only those who have already sired male children, so that their family name can continue even after their death. As they march north, they are joined by a group of Arcadians and other Greeks. Arriving at the narrow cliffs of Thermopylae (referred to as the "Hot Gates"), in sight of the Persian army, they build a wall to contain the Persians' advance immediately in front of their position. Ephialtes, a hunchbacked Spartan whose parents had fled to save him from customary infanticide, approaches Leonidas, requesting to redeem his father's name in battle, and warning him about a secret goat path that the Persians could use to outflank them, and surround them. Leonidas turns him away because he is unable to properly hold the shield, and would therefore create a weak spot in the phalanx. Xerxes encourages Leonidas to surrender
Before the battle starts, the Persians ask that the 300 drop their arms. Leonidas responds; "Persians! Come and get them!" The Spartans use the phalanx formation, the narrow terrain, and their fighting skill with shield, spear and sword, to effectively fight off numerically superior waves of attackers, driving the regular Persian infantry off a cliff, and withstanding a cavalry charge without any losses. Xerxes, impressed after the two armies' first engagement, personally approaches Leonidas, and attempts to bribe him with wealth and power in exchange for his surrender. The Spartan king declines, saying that he will instead make the "God King" bleed. The Spartans then face the Immortals, losing a few of their number to the Persian elite guards but still defeating them, with Leonidas personally killing the Uber-Immortal. The Spartans prevail over other types of troops from the vast reaches of the Persian empire, including Mongolian barbarians and their rhinos, soldiers with explosive grenades, and Indian war elephants. However, their last victory is overshadowed by the death of Captain Artemis' eldest son, Astinos. Two days after the fighting begins, an embittered Ephialtes reveals the location of the goat path to Xerxes, having been promised a lucrative and powerful position in the Persian Empire.
Back in Sparta, Queen Gorgo, upon the advice of a loyal councilman, attempts to enlist the influential Theron to help her persuade the Spartan council to send reinforcements to Leonidas. Theron agrees to help, but demands that Gorgo submit sexually to him; Gorgo reluctantly consents to his advances. Meanwhile, the Greeks realize that Ephialtes has betrayed them, and the Arcadians decide to retreat in the face of certain death. The Spartans refuse to follow, obedient to their law. Leonidas orders only one man, Dilios, to retreat and use his rhetorical skills to tell the story of the 300 to the Spartan people, ensuring that they be remembered. Dilios reluctantly leaves with the Arcadians. At Sparta, Queen Gorgo appears in front of the council, but is not supported by Theron, who furthermore accuses her of adultery. The Queen, enraged at this betrayal, snatches a sword from a nearby soldier and kills Theron. When Persian coins fall from his purse, the Council denounces him as a traitor and unites against Persia.
At Thermopylae, the Persians have surrounded the 300 on all sides. Xerxes's General demands their surrender, saying that Leonidas may keep his title as King of Sparta and become warlord of all Greece, answerable only to Xerxes. Ephialtes begs him to do so as well; Leonidas quips back "may you live forever" (the ultimate Spartan insult, as they wish to die in battle). After feigning submission, Leonidas orders his man to cut down the General, causing Xerxes to order his troops to attack. The remaining Spartans are killed in the hail of arrows; Leonidas finally falls, but not before delivering on his promise to "make the 'God King' bleed", wounding him on the cheek with a thrown spear. The Persian king is visibly shaken at this reminder of his own mortality. Dilios eventually returns to Sparta, and inspires the council with the bravery of the 300.
Dilios finishes his tale on a new battlefield, surrounded by raptly listening soldiers. He concludes that the Persian army, who lost countless numbers defeating a mere 300 Spartans a year earlier, must now be terrified to face 10,000 Spartans and 30,000 Greeks from the other city-states. The roused Greek host charges the Persian army, beginning the Battle of Plataea.
The 300 is a story of incredible accomplishment, that transpires as a result of a society that reveres a courageous and selfless attitude towards the defense of the community or state, demonstrated by a rigorous physical training that seems almost inhuman to us today, but must be understood in the context of the era. Male babies are even rooted out, if they are deemed to be too small or deformed, to properly defend the state. The main protagonist, King Leonidas is a product of this ,societal attitude.
We see a man who assembles a tiny force of men, who all certainly know they are marching to their death, but who seem to actually relish the opportunity to serve their state, even at the cost of their lives. This extreme discipline of selflessness is further demonstrated in the actual physical tactics they use of each covering the man next to themselves with their shield, and expecting the man beside them to do the same. Certainly, an incredible physical discipline, when one considers the horror of a brutal physical attack. So, we see the attitude reflected not only in the emotional level, but at the physical level as well. The result of this ultimate sacrifice is that the Spartans, and indeed, all Greece, are inspired to rally and eventually defeat the Persian invaders.
The Persians are an army of mercenaries tempted by the lure of money, and terrified by the threat of punishment, if they fail. The Spartans are an army of heroes, willing to sacrifice everything for the honor and glory of Sparta. Money is no match for idealistic courage. The main theme is that the combination of discipline, selflessness, and courage can accomplish incredible feats when all are practiced in consort, and at the highest level.
Betrayal is another theme that runs through the film. We see the traitorous councilman, Theron, in the beginning, seeming to have schemed with the messenger already. He reappears, once, where he lies to the Queen about his support for her efforts with the council, and again, at the meeting where he once more betrays her confidence. As well, the priests who guard the Oracle, betray the Spartans with a false message not to attack, after having accepted Persian money. The final treachery is that of the hunchback Spartan, Ephialtes who informs the Persians of the goat path leading to the back of the defenders.
Another theme of this film is that there is a cost to freedom, a high one. But the capacity of the man it creates, is high. Clearly evidenced by the incredible victory the Spartans achieve in holding the millions off for so long.
Synopsis & Commentary
We see the brutal training regimen of the Spartans in the first scenes of the film. It is clearly unlike any in history in its rigorous discipline. The young king is even thrown to the wilds to survive a winter; if he survives he will be king. The scene where he confronts the wolf, indicates the success of this training, where the narrator refers to the boy's feelings as not fear,but” a heightened sense of things”. This can be understood as the heightened consciousness one has when he has perfected all the skills required for the effort.
The scene cuts to the narrator who is inspiring his troops with stories of the late king, and he compares the Persian army to the wolf he faced as a youth. Even the picture of the wolf caught between narrow cliff walls, is prescient of the hot gates. He further says that the king has brought this on himself, not as a condemnation, but rather as a testament to his courage, by pushing the Persian messenger into the pit and refusing to negotiate.
It is interesting to note that Leonidas speaks of Respect and Honor as the highest of ideals, but crosses his own rule by not respecting the age old custom of not harming the messenger. This can be seen as a betrayal of his own principals of respect for law and custom, and is echoed in the betrayal of Ephialtes that leads ultimately to Leonidas’ death. At the point of making this decision, he looks at his wife, the queen, who just perceptibly nods her head. This shows that strength was not only the preserve of men in ancient Sparta. Throughout the film we see her contribution as the solid support for the right thing according to Spartan law.
It is the Queen who asks him,” What would a free man do?” when he is perplexed at the false message from the Oracle. It is this message, that the free can overcome the enslaved, that becomes a rallying cry for the king. This also shows that they are moving toward greater individuality -- beyond the influence of the beliefs of the herd. Leonidas values the ideal of freedom above adherence to superstitious tradition. That is the source of his strength. Freedom is an important Greek value (later a global value). It would lead to worldwide democracy 2000 years later, another value they cherished in its infancy.
The King cleverly finds a way around the edict of not sending troops by assembling the 300 ”personal body guards”. This reflects back on his training for resourcefulness we see in the beginning, and allows the great event to take place. Again,the queen’s strength is shown, when on departure she stiffens his courage by telling him to come back with his shield or upon it! They have physical and psychological strength. Such strength accomplishes.
The king’s wife speaks to the counsel to show the need for sacrifice to bring about freedom, substantiating the effort of her husband. The freedom of women, their power, and their say , is another ideal just beginning to emerge. Not only will Athena be the goddess of all Greeks, who will lead the way for compassion and democracy, and of the emerging woman’s role in society.
The Spartans are met on their way to the Hot Gates by another Greek army, The Arcadians. It is a direct life response to the king’s willingness to go to battle and defend his state’s freedom, despite how little men he has at his command. Life cooperates and brings more troops, to his effort with few troops. Greeks who join them on their way to the Hot Gates, serve as a foil to illustrate the difference between ordinary soldiers of the day, who most likely had regular jobs when not at war, and the Spartans who are bred, raised and trained for war. They are the first to cry “We are doomed” when the size of the Persian force is revealed. This is contrasted by the smile of one of the Spartans who relishes the chance for a “Beautiful Death”.
At home in Sparta we see the queen stating to a councilman, that “Freedom isn’t free. It comes with the highest cost”. This statement reflects one of the central messages of the film.
The scene with Ephialtes is especially telling. His pleading to avenge his father's name seems so reasonable, and its denial is so cruel, until we understand that the whole value of the Spartan method will fall if a man can not hold his arm high enough to protect his comrade. Ephialtes shows he is not up to the Spartan value of selflessness when he refuses to accept the logic for the refusal. We see that Leonidas would probably like to help the man and even offers him other service, but cannot weaken the strength of his defense for the sake of one man. His discipline shines through with no hesitation. Still, it is the moment when their fate is sealed.
Ephialtes is motivated by revenge, which is personal and egoistic, so when he is thwarted, he betrays the Spartan cause. Revenge is an ignoble motive that cannot serve the ideals of freedom and self-sacrifice. From the Spartan point of view, a glorious death in the name of Sparta, is the highest honor, and it is a life response that it is the strict enforcement of their rule that brings about their final glory.
A small contingent of Persians appear. Behind them is the great Persian leader. He says that he is willing to kill his own men to ensure victory. The king answers that he is willing to die for any of his men. It is an entirely different perspective. It is not of power and domination, but of humanity and self-givingness. These sorts of higher perspectives and intensities of the king and his men issue forth vast powerful positive energies that enable them to succeed. (I.e. for life to respond in their favor.)
The God-king has a flaw – hubris. (This in contrast to the humanity and self-giving ness of the king and his 300 army.) Life responds not only to one’s own positive energies, but is added to though the opponents negative qualities. The sum total of the positive energies on the king’s side is thus increased through this hubris, superstition, non-self-givingness, non-equality in the lives of the Persians.
When the Persian King, Xerxes, tries to get Leonidas to surrender, and upon his refusal, tells him the world will never know he existed, we see the power of the Spartan values, as the very opposite happens, they have been remembered throughout time for their courage. An interesting point in the film is when the captain loses his son. He loses his self control as a result, and goes on a killing frenzy that in fact threatens the integrity of their defenses.
Ephialtes' desire for revenge cannot serve Sparta just as the captain's fury cannot do so. Later he says his heart is filled with hate, and he curses the gods, also a weakened state that reflects a loss of the Spartan cool discipline. The news of their betrayal by Ephialtes arrives just then. His loss of control allows for the discovery of the route to their rear and their downfall.
We see Ephialtes with Xerxes who’s line “Leonidas requires that you stand, I only require you to kneel” is key to the theme that a new era of freedom is born with the defiance of the Spartans who are free men. Finally, King Leonidas sends the others home, and keeps only the 300. He asks only that they be remembered. He tells the troops to prepare for glory, for tonight, they dine in hell, which really means the afterlife, not the image of hell we now have.
“A new age has begun” reflects the truth that free men can be inspired to defend themselves and that that power can defeat seemingly insurmountable odds. Truly this battle changed the way men understood the power of freedom. The man he sends back to Sparta to tell of the battle, is the man who leads all Greece against the Persians at the later battle of Plataea where they are victorious. It shows the seed that was planted by this sacrifice, blossomed two years later in a final victory.
The physical sacrifice of the queen is rewarded in council, when she once again has the strength to kill the traitor, Theron, and expose him for a traitor. When confronted with certain death, Leonidas is once again offered an out, encouraged by Ephialtes. We see a flashback to the opening scene with the wolf and once again understand that a cool intensity descends, and he offers the ultimate insult to Ephialtes that he might live forever. This statement is the antithesis of the Spartan wish for a glorious death on the battlefield.
Overall the film is really the story of the power of the expression of values as a tool for accomplishment. Clearly the value of organization is depicted as paramount to the success of their training and the phalanx of the fighting force. The value of discipline is also depicted throughout the film, especially when we witness the rigorous training they had to follow, even the extreme discipline of infanticide, where the boys seem unfit. The value of selflessness in the pursuit of a higher goal or ideal,is evidenced with the queen’s personal sacrifice, and the 300 men’s as well, in their determination to die for the cause.The value of courage is obvious at the centre of their amazing feat.
As well, the king has a very positive attitude -- about victory, about many things -- including his mission. Positive attitude always attracts positive circumstance. That leads to infinite success for the entire society, since out of their defeat, they would be energized to defeat the Persians, and gain full freedom for Greece. All the values together create vast energies that attract exceedingly positive circumstance for such a tiny army. The combination of the values rigorously adhered to, allow for perhaps, the most amazing stand off in history. But more importantly, the inspiration it gave to the rest of the country allowed them to halt the spread of the Persian Empire and defeat their army two years later, allowing for the rise of the free man as a political force.
“The 300” depicts the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC, an alliance of Greek city-states , who fought the invading Persian Empire at the pass of Thermopylae (referred to as the “Hot gates”) in central Greece. In the movie, vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the Persians for three days, in one of history's most famous last stands. Leonides consults the oracle. The oracle prohibits the Greek army to fight because of a religious rite that coincides with the battle, and faced with a loss of honor and anhiliation if he does nothing, the King Leonidas decides to take a small “personal guard” of Spartans, to block the only road through which the massive army of Xerxes I of Persia (Xerxes the Great) could pass. We learn that the priests have been bribed by Xerxes to stop the Spartans from fighting. After three days of battle, a hunch back recluse Spartan named Ephialtes betrays the Greeks, by revealing a mountain path that led behind the Greek lines. Dismissing the rest of the army, King Leonidas stayed behind with 300 Spartans. The Persians succeeded in taking the pass but sustained heavy losses, extremely disproportionate to those of the Greeks. After fierce resistance, King Leonides and the 300 Spartan warriors are defeated in a hail of Persian arrows. The fierce resistance of the Spartan-led army offered Athens the invaluable time to prepare for a decisive naval battle that would come to determine the outcome of the war. The subsequent Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis left much of the Persian Empire's navy destroyed, and Xerxes was forced to retreat back to Asia, leaving his army in Greece under Mardonius, who was to meet the Greeks in battle one last time. The Spartans assembled at full strength and led a pan-Greek army that defeated the Persians decisively at the Battle of Plataea, ending the Greco-Persian War, and with it, the expansion of the Persian Empire into Europe.
The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is often used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers, and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds. However, ancient writers first used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the superior power of a patriotic army of free men defending native soil.
There is also a large political significance of the Battle of Thermopylae, in that it was the first occasion in which the independent Greek city-states formed a significant alliance. The Battle of Thermopylae, also, possibly signified the beginning of the end for the Persian empire – drawing strength from the outcome of the battle, the Greeks as a national body began assaulting the Persian Empire.
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