Well, I did it. I finally watched "300." Back when it was in the theater, the trailer made me turn up my snobby little academic nose and kept me away, but I borrowed the dvd from my brother-in-law and watched it last night. (It's on cable now, too.) And you know what? It's actually pretty good! Not "Gladiator" good -- I LOVE "Gladiator" -- but a rollicking hoot just the same.
Let's not confuse "good" with "accurate," though. Spartans fought in tunics, not superhero-briefs, and while those swirling capes look fabulous on screen, they were unsuitable for hoplite warfare (your enemy could throw it over your head, choke you round the neck with it, etc). Xerxes would have looked nothing like his cinematic counterpart, and not one elephant turned up at the real battle of Thermopylae. But the ESSENCE was there, and that's what made the film for me. We see the with-your-shield-or-on-it legendary bravado of the Spartans, the total extent to which the Greeks were outnumbered by the Persians, and the heroic sacrifice of the 300. Some of the dialogue came straight out of Herodotus, too. I definitely got into it, and I loved the last bit where the surviving Spartan leads the charge at Plataia. (I got a little sad thinking how few moviegoers probably knew what the heck the battle of Plataia was and what it meant, but what can you do.) The film's message of heroism being remembered was so key in ancient Greek culture -- Spartan, Athenian, or otherwise -- that the film would have made the original 300 very proud indeed.
I've been to Thermopylae, and I've been to Sparta. The memorial to the Spartans at Thermopylae is literally by the side of the highway, so it's not the most romantic setting. Sparta though is amazing; you cross these incredible mountains to this town nestled in a valley, and even in its modern incarnation the memory of ancient times is there (true in all Greece). We visited the Menelaion, a Classical shrine dedicated to the memory of Menelaos and Helen (real people, as far as the Greeks were concerned). Standing on that windy hilltop, the rugged landscape all around, one feels very close to the ancient Spartans. The archaeological museum in Sparta is worth visiting, too; the Spartans weren't dedicated building-builders and art-makers as the Athenians, but their artifacts are fascinating nonetheless.
So it's all about the essence when it comes to "300." "Gladiator" captures the essence too -- "Troy" doesn't. Perhaps that's a post for another day.