There is an old story about a man named Gideon who once had to free his nation from the massive army of his Midianite oppressors. He could have assembled quite an army of his own, but instead his God told him to whittle down his numbers. In the end, he ended up with around 300 men against completely overwhelming odds, so that should they be victorious, the credit couldn’t go to them, but to the God in whom they trusted.

At the Battle of Thermopylae, the Hot Gates, with the Spartan army of 300 amassed against the “millions” of the Persian forces, we see a parallel story. Based on another work by one man movie generator, Frank Miller (Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One – which was the basis for Batman BeginsSin City, Elektra), 300 adds another exhibit in the case of him being one of the most influential comic book creators of all time.*

In a way, 300 is like watching the movie Titanic: you know the ending before the movie starts, so you’re most interested in how you get there. The gorgeous cinematography painted dark, brooding landscapes straight from Lynn Varley’s palette. Every shot infused with either slow-motion drama or foreshadowing portents, the movie follows one man paying the cost for the freedom of his world.

“What should a free man do?” –Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey)

Baptized in the fire of combat from an early age, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) knew who he was, his purpose, and mission from the beginning. Constantly tested on his journey of discipleship to form his Spartan reserve, he was thoroughly a Spartan, a warrior-king, as well as an idealist. He often found himself at odds with his own government–personified by Dominic West’s (The Wire) Theron, whose pockets jingle with (30 pieces?) of Persian coin–because since “No Spartan, slave or king, is above the law.” Torn between their time-honored traditions and his duty to Spartan precepts – Leonidas broke their laws to serve a greater law, a greater way: “Never retreat, never surrender.” Choosing instead to pursue the spirit of the law, obeying the values of honor, duty, and glory.

“Trust not in men. Honor the gods.” –Oracle

Standing in opposition to him is the Persian god-king, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, magnificently chewing any scenery he draws near).

Xerxes is “the accuser”, the one who prowls about like a roaring lion devouring all the kingdoms of the world as his own. Though he claims that it is his world, he betrays a fatal flaw – hubris. Xerxes temptation of Leonidas was simple: all King Leonidas would have to offer is a token of earth and water or to kneel at Xerxes’ feet. A simple gesture that would spare his life, the life of his men, and the life–and way of life–of his fellow Spartans. It was a three-fold temptation as Leonidas was: 1) tempted by his own desires (women and money); tempted by putting his God to the test (going his own way because his gods had failed); and tempted by promises of power (the kingdom would be his as warlord).

Yet Leonidas remains firm ( “there’s no room for softness. Not in Sparta. No room for weakness.”). Unfortunately, he finds his Judas in Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), a hunchbacked figure not capable of fighting alongside Leonidas and his men and not being able to live up to what he thought would redeem him, he chooses to side with Xerxes.

“Freedom isn’t free at all. It comes at the highest cost. The cost of blood.” –Queen Gorgo

Even knowing of the betrayal, that all was lost, King Leonidas accepted his fate. Death in service to the kingdom, three days in the hot gates of hell, was the price of freedom. Until the final shaft pierces him and he dies in a cruciform position, he remained a warrior-king whose message and way of life caused many to choose to follow him into battle. His death lead to the unification of a people and the movement of a greater idea for how to live.

Leonidas is a tragic Greek hero, one who lives by a mad hope for future glory even in the face of immortal darkness. It’s the Gospel he clings to. The gospel message is about accepting freedom. It is about a God-king humbling himself, becoming poor and weak – human – in order to free the oppressed from poverty and powerlessness. He becomes a victim in our place (at the hands of a corrupt power no less) and transforms the condition of bondage. This Gospel speaks to the disinherited, the poor, the disenfranchised , the oppression of the weak by the powerful. The gospel is an offense to the rich and powerful. It’s the death of their ideas of wealth and power, those priorities. We can’t be afraid of freedom.

“Spread the word … let each among them search their souls.” –Leonidas

300 tells the story of their victory. The story isn’t their death, but how they chose to live. A complete testosterone-fest, in the spirit of Gladiator, though more brutal and visceral an experience. Frank Miller’s art and dialogue once again leaps from the screens. 300’s poetically-intricate battle scenes had me leaving the theater ready to shout at ev
eryone around me and march on a neighboring city.

*For the sake of staying focused, I’m going to choose to ignore the whole Asia, Middle East, and Africa united can’t beat even a handful of Europeans implications (and the whole, as a friend called 300 “Frank Miller’s misogynistic phallo-centrism finds an idealized output in Sparta”).