Monday, October 30, 2006

Analyzing the trailer

In the previous post you can watch the movie trailer of “300”, in this post I will try to interpret/analyze the main scenes of the short film.

At the beginning of the trailer, we have a brief scene of Greeks pushing Persians down a cliff into the sea. This may have some historical base, since, according to all accounts of the battle, the right flank of the Greeks was indeed “protected” by the sea, which made it impossible for the Persian to overrun them. In some stage of the battle the well armed Greek infantry could have driven the barbarians into the sea.

A second later we see a young Spartan fighting a (particularly evil looking) wolf with a stick. I guess that at the beginning of the graphic novel and the film, Frank Miller is giving some information about Sparta and the military training young Spartans received since a very early age. Spartan kids were probably tough enough to fight a wolf with a stick. However this scene is a bit “too much”.

The Persian King, Xerxes sitting on this golden throne appears in the early moments of the trailer, looking rather aloof and wicked. Xerxes was indeed carried on a golden throne from which he observed the battleground. The luxury surrounding the Persian King is not surprising, all historical sources agree that the Persian Empire was the richest kingdom of its time and was controlling the wealthiest lands of the ancient world. The Persian Kings literary lived in Gold and, unlike the Greek leaders, unless it was an absolute necessity, they would not be present in the battlefield. Occasionally, if it was an important campaign, they would follow the battle from a safe distance.
The appearance, however, of Xerxes, is very different from how he probably looked like in reality. In the movie he appears as a young man in his 30’s, half naked, covered with jewels and completely shaved. The real Xerxes, was somewhat older, wore a long tunic and a simple crown, and had a beard.

Spartans!! Tonight we dine in Hell”... Leonidas knew he would die a long time before the battle (I will explain this in detail in another post), and the morning of the third day of the battle of Thermopylae, when it was known that the Persians were descending from the secret mountain path and would soon encircle the Greeks, he most certainly was aware that this was the end. He had the opportunity to withdraw and save his life, but it was an obligation for him to fight to the end, “Never to retreat”. It is reputed, that on that morning, he suggested to his men to eat a hearty breakfast, because “Tonight we will dine in Hades”.
Spartan loyalty to their country was demonstrated in every occasion. It is described that when Spartan men left for war, their women (whether wives or mothers) were handing them over their shields with an order: to return with the shield or (dead) on the shield, “ή ταν ή επί τας” (I TAN I EPI TAS). Spartan women were instructing their men to fight bravely and either win the war and return home with their shield, or die fighting. They were prohibited to run away from battle leaving their shield behind. That would be a great disgrace for their family and a stigma forever. Spartan women were very proud if their husbands or sons died in battle, it was the greatest honor a Spartan could achieve in his life.

When the four horsemen arrive at Sparta to meet the king, we can feel a changing mood in the trailer. This scene is loosely based in history. Two years prior to the first Greco-Persian war (in 492 B.C), while the Persians were planning to conquer Greece, they sent two emissaries/ambassadors (call them as you wish) to each Greek city-state and demanded “land and water” (“γη και ύδωρ”), literally, a handful of soil and water from the city-state as a symbolic submission to Persian rule. When the emissaries reached Sparta and went to the assembly of the citizens, the Apella, demanding “land and water”, the Spartans were so enraged that they killed them by throwing them down a well, where as they said “you may find plenty of soil and water”. The Athenians, since they didn’t have a well around, pushed the Persians down from the hill of the Acropolis.
This assault to diplomats, even in ancient times, was considered unacceptable and the Spartans soon regretted their act. In return they sent to Darius (father of Xerxes) two young men, among the finest of Sparta, allowing him to avenge for the loss of his diplomats. Darius considered this an act of honor and dignity and let the Spartans return home.
At this point I should note that the possibility of a black African Persian ambassador is completely false. The Persians probably had been in contact with sub-Saharan Africans, but in the best case they used them as slaves.

The next notable picture is the assault of masked Persian warriors to the Greek lines. If I was able to understand it correctly, the producers are trying to illustrate the elite Persian troops, known as the Immortals. They were considered the best fighting force of the Persian army, Persian princes, including brothers of Xerxes, served with the Immortals. They had never lost a battle and their presence alone would bring terror to the enemy. Of course, since “This is Sparta”, Leonidas and his 300 were not really scared. They annihilated most of the Immortals, killing 2 brothers of Xerxes. The masks were invented by Frank Miller. Persians did not need mask to terrify their opponents.

At the same time of the Battle of Thermopylae, an allied Greek fleet fought the Naval Battle of Artemisium. A glimpse of this event is shown in the trailer, the Battle of Artemisium was held at the straits between mainland Greece and the island of Evvoia, a location parallel to Thermopylae, but not visible from Thermopylae. It is therefore not probable that the defenders of Thermopylae could see the naval battle. Just for the record, Artemisium was an undecided battle, and the defending Greeks withdrew when they were informed that Thermopylae had fallen.

Later, a Persian emissary, or prisoner of war, informs the Greeks about the strength of the Persian army. He mentions that “A thousand nations of the Persian Empire descend upon you… Our arrows will blot out the sun!!”… It is true that Xerxes had assembled a huge army. He had forced all nations under Persian rule to contribute in men and supplies. He had enlisted Phoenicians, Arabs, Babylonians, Egyptians, even Greeks from Asia Minor to fight on his side. In all, Herodotus mentions 46 nations. The absolute size of this army remains a discussion topic to this day. Herodotus estimates the total number of troops around 1.7 million (!!!), and together with the supporting personnel concluded that for the massive invasion of Greece, the Persians had mobilized about 5 million people!! According to Ctesias of Cnedus, a Persian historian, contemporary of the Battle, the army of Xerxes exceeded 800,000 fighting men. More moderate figures assess the Persian expedition force to a number between 100 and 250 thousand soldiers. A number around half a million troops could easily be assembled by the Persian King. I believe that this is a number closer to reality.

I owe credit to the filmmakers for, accurately, presenting an amazing quote: “Then we will fight in the shade”… this was the remark of a brave Spartan warrior, probably the bravest to fight at Thermopylae, Dienekes. When the Greek army arrived at the site of the battle, an anonymous local visited the camp and warned that he had seen the Persians and they were so many that “their arrows could hide the sun”… Dienekes responded: “These are cheerful news you bring stranger, if the Persians hide the sun, we will fight in the shade!!”

I don’t know if it is necessary to point out that a fighting rhino, as the one seen in the trailer, is an absurd idea. It may make the graphic novel or the movie more impressive, but it’s just too unreasonable.

I should comment however, that the Greeks did not fight half-naked with just a helmet and a shield. The “hoplite” (heavy Greek infantry soldier) was the best equipped individual fighter of his era. Besides the long spear, and standard sword and shield, he wore heavy armor protecting his head, body and lower legs (more about the hoplite soon).

At the end of the trailer, we see Leonidas standing among mountains of broken weapons, shields, arrows and corpses, while the narrator says: “Before this battle is over, the world will know that few stood against many”. Thermopylae was probably the first recorded battle in history where such a minute number of men, stood bravely against an invincible army, one of the greatest, if not the greatest army ever to be assembled.

Herodotus wrote… “The Battle of Thermopylae proved that there may be many individuals, but only very few MEN”


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