A low budget movie with no recognized stars that presents a cartoonish version of an event that happened long ago and far away is a surprising box office hit.
The movie is The 300, about the battle at Thermopylae between Greeks and Persians. It's opening grossed more than $70 million, more than the next ten highest grossing movies playing that weekend combined.
The 300 has been denounced by the government of Iran, and the battle it describes cited by former Vice President Al Gore in his congressional testimony Wednesday as inspiration for Americans to fight global warming. That's a lot of buzz.
The 300 has plenty of violence, sex, and the largest number of ripped abdomens ever seen on the silver screen, which doubtless counts for much of its appeal. But there is more to it than that.
The 300 is a simple story of good versus evil. A handful of valiant Spartan warriors, inspired by love of country and love of liberty, fight to the death against a foreign oppressor. (Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.)
The reality is more complicated. The contemporary society Sparta most closely resembled was Nazi Germany. The 300 were more like the Waffen SS than the Minutemen. The Persian was the most benign of ancient empires. Its founder, Cyrus the Great, is praised in the Bible for having freed the Jews from the Babylonian captivity.
The Persians had reasons to be peeved with the Greeks. Some 20 years before, ethnic Greeks in what is now western Turkey revolted. Athens sent troops to help them. They sacked the provincial capital of Sardis, killing thousands of noncombatants.
The Ionian revolt was quelled, but King Darius' efforts to punish the Athenians came a cropper when a Persian force of 25,000 was routed on the plains of Marathon by a Greek force less than half its size.
Darius was succeeded by his son, Xerxes, who was determined not to make dad's mistake of sending too few troops. He assembled an army of 250,000 men and a navy of 6,000 ships. To oppose them, the Greeks had an army of about 10,000 commanded by King Leonidas of Sparta, and a navy of 380 ships, commanded by the Athenian statesman Themistocles.
Leonidas made his stand at Thermopylae, a narrow mountain pass which prevented Xerxes from bringing his vastly superior numbers to bear. But a traitor showed the Persians a path through the mountains behind them. Leonidas learned of the treason in time to get most of his troops out of the trap. But he, his 300 Spartans, and about 1,100 soldiers from Thespia and Thebes chose to remain, to fight to certain death.
Leonidas' last stand didn't prevent the sack of Athens. (It was Themistocles' naval victory at Salamis a month later that forced the Persians to withdraw.) But it made for a great legend, which is why Leonidas is better known to history than is Themistocles, a fascinating figure who was a combination of Winston Churchill and Lord Nelson.
Despite its oversimplifications, The 300 is good history. The three battles of which Thermopylae is the most famous marked one of the greatest turning points in world history. Had the Persians succeeded, democracy would have been strangled in its crib, and the Hellenization of the ancient world never would have occurred. We may never have known Plato, Aristotle or Euclid.
The 300 is soaked with the masculine virtues of courage, honor, patriotism and self sacrifice, and the camaraderie that exists among fighting men who have been through a shared ordeal. These are little valued in Hollywood or contemporary society, and there is a hunger for them. This, I think, is the key to the movie's appeal.
We need to rediscover these virtues. At once the most preposterous and the most dangerous of contemporary beliefs is "nothing was ever settled by violence."
A cursory reading of history makes it clear that virtually every important development in the history of mankind has been, for good or ill, a product of violence. Every empire that's ever arisen rose by force. Islam was spread by the sword. Christianity is a religion which preaches (and often practices) turning the other cheek. But the Christianization of Europe got its jump start at the Milvian bridge, and was preserved from Islamic conquest at Tours, Lepanto and Vienna. The United States, the most pacific of great nations, was born in revolution.
It is the soldier, not the priest, who protects freedom of religion; the soldier, not the journalist, who protects freedom of speech. History teaches that a society that does not value its warriors will be destroyed by a society that does.