In one of the behind-the-scenes interviews included in the two-disc special-edition DVD of 300, director Zack Snyder throws in a quick remark about the nature of storytelling. “A storyteller knows how to not ruin a good story with the truth,” he says. “He knows how to exaggerate a moment for dramatic purposes.” Though he’s supposedly referring to Dilios (David Wenham), the rhetorically skilled character who provides the narrative framework for his film, the description applies equally to Snyder himself. His movie is a retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, a real campaign where a mere 300 Spartan warriors are led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) to take a stand against the colossal thousands of the Persian army. Synder’s story, on the other hand, is never in any danger of being ruined by the truth.
Snyder, like Dilios, is interested in the drama above all else, and as a result, he pushes his exaggerations to their very limit, almost to the brink of absurdity. Every line of dialogue is an intense proclamation, and most of them are shouted. Every spear connects to its intended with a horrifying crunch and a spurt of blood. Every villain is demonized physically as well as morally—- not since the Orcs has one evil army contained so many oozing boils, gnarled faces, twisted spines, and other gruesome deformities—while every Spartan man is a perfect, near-naked physical specimen and consummate warrior (and the women don’t look half-bad, either).
Even time, which is generally a constant, is subverted for the purposes of storytelling. Snyder plays with the pacing of his action scenes to maximize the spectacle: As a Spartan charges toward his prey, time speeds up and the action moves quickly; the moment his spear enters the flesh is indulgently slowed down.
Snyder’s visual style also satisfies his need to go over-the-top with all aspects of the film. While some compositions are lifted directly from the pages of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, Snyder adds layers of special effects until the same images look more three-dimensional and surreal than their printed origins. A webisode on production design included in the DVD shows that, without the special effects, the set looks like one giant rock, a half-naked man, and a collection of green screens. In the film, that same set is a blood-spattered battlefield, where thousands of soldiers march off in the distance under an ominous, cloud-covered sky. The result is a historical epic with an MTV-and-videogame sheen over every frame.
Therefore, those looking for nuance, complexity, shades of gray, or a sober account of the Battle of Thermopylae best look elsewhere. Instead, 300‘s penchant for drama and exaggeration leads to a much more simplified narrative, closer to the Greek spirit of myth-making. Spartans lived for one reason: to die in the glory of battle. Anything that might have complicated this truth is left out of the film. Political alliances between Greeks at the time? Gone. Any backstory, familial or otherwise, to make the Spartan warriors seem like whole, rounded characters instead of an anonymous horde of 300? Jettisoned. Women, especially, are given the short shrift: Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) is the only Spartan woman who is even allowed to speak.
While the story has been streamlined to its essence then stretched to visual and dramatic excess, there are nuggets of truth to be found in Snyder’s tale. As author / historian Bettany Hughes explains in the featurettes “The 300: Fact or Fiction” and “Who Were the Spartans: The Warriors of 300”, Spartans did strive for honor and glory on the battlefield.
Items mentioned briefly in Leonidas’ backstory in the film, justifications of his ingrained warrior ideals—such as the Spartan traditions of abandoning inferior babies at birth, and the savage agoge system of training seven-year-olds for combat—were not an invention of Miller’s warped mind, but rooted in fact. So while there may not have been rhinos and elephants at the real Battle of Thermopylae (to say nothing of a man with axes for hands), the spirit with which they met these monsters in the film could ring true for the actual Spartans.
In one scene, an emissary for Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) demands that Leonidas and his warriors lay down their weapons. After the emissary is dispatched by spear, Leonidas offers: “Come and take them.” While this seems like the sort of pithy rejoinder only seen in particularly Hollywoodized historical epics, this exchange really did take place via written notes. Spartans were as clever as they were cruel.
And even some of the wardrobe choices seemed to be inspired by reality: Miller reports in the extra features that, in his Grecian travels, he came across a monument to Leonidas that was naked save for helmet, shield, and spear. (The inscription? “Come and take them.”)
Still, no one should look to 300 for history. While there’s some sprinkled throughout the features, it’s all tiny grains embedded in the vast drama. (Features in the two-disc special edition are plenty, with everything from scholarly history to interviews with Miller, but they recycle quotes, interviews, and film clips between them, as if the makers thought no one would have the fortitude to get through them all, let alone watch one after another.) Yet Snyder’s film is proof that a far-reaching vision and hyperbole can come together to tell a much better story than one based purely on historical facts.