To the U.S. Marines serving at Camp Pendleton, there is much to learn from the Spartans, those heroic warriors of ancient Greece whom one might have called “the few, the proud” centuries before the Marine Corps adopted the motto.
In the hit new film “300,” Marines see parallels between the current war in Iraq and the film’s story, which tells of hopelessly outnumbered Spartans fighting heroically to the death against mighty Persian invaders at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.
There was periodic cheering Monday night at the Regal multiplex in downtown Oceanside, a few blocks from the main gate of Camp Pendleton, where young Marines attended showings of “300" on three screens. Some Marines nodded in recognition at lines in the movie that were familiar from their training -- such as when King Leonidas instructs his son that the more troops sweat in training, the less they will bleed in combat.
“When the Spartan officer says that Spartans are all about protecting the guy to the left and right rather than being worried about themselves, that struck a chord,” said Pfc. James Lyons, 20. “That’s what they tell us all the time.”
The R-rated film set box office records over the weekend, pulling in more than $70 million.
Meanwhile, the film has sparked outrage in modern Iran, which denounced the blockbuster’s depiction of the ancient battle as “hostile behavior which is the result of cultural and psychological warfare.” According to Reuters, poor-quality pirated DVDs are already circulating in Iran and a broad spectrum of government leaders and bloggers have denounced the movie as portraying the Persians as decadent, sexually flamboyant and evil in contrast to the noble Greeks. Some elected officials in Iran are urging other Muslim countries not to show “this anti-Iranian Hollywood movie.”
It probably comes as no surprise that Marines would like the film.
“I barked and cheered my way through ‘300' with two fellow Marine infantry officers who have shed blood and tears in the back alleys of Iraq,” said Ilario G. Pantano, whose book “Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” details his experiences in Iraq and his criminal case on charges of murdering two Iraqis. He was exonerated and is now a sheriff’s deputy in New Hanover County, N.C.
At a time when mounting U.S. and Iraqi casualties in Iraq have alarmed the American public, the movie seems to celebrate war, militarism and battlefield carnage.
The clash between the Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae was classic war: force on force, enemies looked in each other’s eyes, no hidden improvised explosive devices, one nation versus another.
To scholars, the Spartans are an extreme example of a society trained for war and soldiers who were expected to go into battle without questioning authority.
Kathryn Morgan, who teaches classics at UCLA, said there is much to learn from the Battle of Thermopylae.
“The Spartans were the marvel of the ancient world,” she said. “For a long time, it was thought that you couldn’t conquer Spartan soldiers in battle. This was a society that was totally devoted to creating fantastical warriors.”
At the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans were hopelessly outnumbered, but they fight to the end, refusing to surrender.
“They fight even when they could have escaped,” she noted. “They are making a statement of what it is to be a Spartan. It’s a hugely tear-jerking thing.” Furthermore, she said, history remembers these men as virtuous defenders of freedom and civilization. “That’s the way the Greeks saw it. It made a huge impression at the time. These dead warriors were considered heroes ever after.”
Vincent Farenga, who teaches classics at USC, said via e-mail that he believes the movie “300" strikes a chord with young people because they are “very curious about the ancient world.
“As [the film] ‘Gladiator’ proved, film can burn right through the impediments of verbal histories and archaeological studies -- but only if it has a ‘look’ and ‘feel’ that strikes young people as ‘right on.’ ”
Bill Stutzman, an upper-school humanities teacher at Foundations Academy, a nondenominational Protestant K-12 school in Boise, Idaho, that stresses teaching of the classics, said one of his students showed a trailer for the film in class and described what it would be like living in Sparta as a woman.
“What we are seeing is that kids, from the youngest age on up, love these stories,” he said.
There is, of course, precedent for Americans showing a cultural cross-current in their movie preferences during wartime. In 1967, with the Vietnam War protests raging, “The Dirty Dozen” was hugely popular.
The film “300" and the Frank Miller graphic novel on which it is based celebrate a warrior cult that prizes physical fitness, discipline and bravery. The numbers are small, but the hearts are stout. The cult is part of the society it protects but yet is separate, even alienated, from it.
“Currently, the U.S. Marine Corps embodies the Spartan code, as shown in the Fallouja battles,” e-mailed Bing West, former assistant secretary of Defense and author of two books about Marines in Iraq.
How frequently did “300" remind the young Marines in the movie audience of the Marine Corps?
“Every second,” said Pfc. Zach Marino, 23. The Spartans and the battle at Thermopylae are an official part of Marine Corps mythology and self-image.
“Gates of Fire,” Steven Pressfield’s novelistic treatment of Thermopylae, has been on the commandant’s reading list for enlisted ranks. Officers are asked to read Thucydides’ accounts of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.
Of course, all current cultural concerns aside, there is also another possible explanation for the success of “300.”
As West noted, Aristotle thought courage was the most important virtue of all because it makes possible all other virtues. There is a modern box-office equivalent.
“A good war movie is a good movie,” said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.