300 houses some of the most iconic battle sequences in modern filmmaking. However, most movies about moments in history only hold so much of the truth. An ancient warfare expert breaks down the first major battle sequence in Zack Snyder’s 300 to explain the tactics, how they apply to real historical combat, and gives it a score.
‘300’ is a fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae in the Persian Wars
300 takes place in 480 B.C. when a war is taking place between Persia and Greece. King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) leads a massive army. However, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) isn’t willing to give up so easily. At the Battle of Thermopylae, he leads an army of warriors massively outnumbered. However, they have the famous Spartan battle tactics to help them survive for as long as possible.
Leonidas and the men understand that death awaits them in this conflict. Meanwhile, Leonidas’ wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) tries to rally support to help her husband on the battlefield. However, their sacrifice would ultimately bring Greece together to unite against their common enemy.
Warfare expert Roel Konijnendijk analyzes ‘300’ battle sequence and calls it ‘controversial’
Insider invited Roel Konijnendijk, who has a doctorate in ancient history and lectures at the University of Oxford’s New College, to talk about 300 battle tactics. He breaks down the iconic first battle sequence that finds the two forces clashing with spears and shields held up.
“So, this is the supposed Greek concept of othismos, which literally means pushing,” Konijnendijk said. “About 100 years ago, a scholar in Oxford, who clearly had rugby on his mind, decided that this should be conceived as a literal mass shoving. We have no evidence of that. Nobody ever says that that’s the case, but for some reason, this really caught on.”
Konijnendijk continued: “So, for the last 100 years, it’s been controversial. But, generally speaking, people didn’t want to fight like that. Spears are right in your face, so there’s a lot of reasons to want to avoid this.”
Next, Konijnendijk discusses the sequence in the same battle where Spartans begin to individually charge at their enemies and kill as many as they can.
“This moment when they switch from fighting in formation to going after individuals who are still existing, that seemed very realistic for most of these fights,” Konijnendijk said. “Make sure you can kill as many of them as possible because that’s when they’re vulnerable. That’s when they’re not fighting back. So, that’s when you can just spear them in the back. That’s exactly what happens in this scene.”
Konijnendijk added: “It’s only very much later in Spartan history where they say, ‘We don’t chase the fleeing enemy.’ If you chase the enemy, then you’re caught out of formation and you become vulnerable. But, at this time, of the Persian War, the Spartans had no rules against this, and indeed, it’s a true story. You can’t really dispute that, but in sense of the tactics and the weapons, it feels like a fantasy movie. Maybe three or four out of 10.”
Zack Snyder’s impact on the action genre
The battle sequences in Snyder’s 300 are some of the most famous ones of recent times. Many movies try to emulate the slow-motion brutality that unfolds throughout the movie. This gives the audience the opportunity to really take in the film’s most violent imagery, looking like an ancient painting of sorts.
Warner Bros. released a sequel titled 300: Rise of an Empire. However, the film didn’t manage to capture the same lightning in a bottle. Nevertheless, the original film’s impact remains important.