History: Late Summer 480 BC
The Battle at Thermopylae, chronicled in
Herodotus's Histories, was an early chapter in King Xerxes'
carefully planned campaign to fold Greece into the Persian Empire.
The progress of his impossibly large army ground to a halt in
central Greece as it was funneled through a narrow pass between
cliffs and sea on the Malian Gulf between Locris and Thessaly and
into the spear tips of the most highly trained soldiers the ancient
world ever produced.
the Spartan king Leonidas had led some 7000 troops to Thermopylae in
an effort to prevent, or at the very least delay, the Persian
invaders from spilling into the Greek heartland. There he positioned
his men in what the locals referred to as the "Hot Gates," a
corridor roughly two meters wide at its narrowest that would negate
the Persian advantage of numbers. For several days, Xerxes' soldiers
were fed into impenetrable Spartan phalanxes. Their losses were
considerable. The Persian king himself noted "he had in his army
many men, indeed, but few soldiers."
On the third day, Xerxes caught a break when the
Greeks were betrayed by Ephialtes, a local who revealed to the
Persians a path that would allow them to outflank Leonidas and his
men. Hearing of the treachery, Leonidas sent the bulk of the Greek
army home to mobilize a stronger resistance. Those selected to
remain behind included the famous 300
Spartan heavy infantry, plus 1100 Boeotians
and at least 900 helots (Spartan state-owned slaves). Surrounded and
facing certain death, the 300 fought ferociously to the last. When
spears shattered they switched to swords. When swords broke they
fought with bare hands and teeth. Xerxes' forces, fearing to close
with even unarmed Spartans, stood off and delivered them to the
afterlife on a tidal wave of arrow heads.
Not long after Thermopylae, Xerxes met defeat
against the Hellenic League, suffering a debilitating blow at the
naval Battle of Salamis. The following year, Spartan-led Greek
forces defeated the Persian army definitively at the Battle of
Leonidas' suicidal standoff gave inspiration to
the remaining Greek allies and remains a magnificent example of how
a small, highly disciplined, and well-led body of men can resist a
vastly larger enemy force. Thermopylae marked the origin of the
"Spartan Mirage"—the myth of the invincible Spartan warrior whose
choice in combat was a brutal one: win or die.
Graphic Novel: May 1998
The graphic novel adaptation of the Battle of
Thermopylae was published by Dark Horse Comics as a five-issue
series of comic books: Honor (May 1998), Duty (June 1998),
(July 1998), Combat (August 1998), Victory (May 1999), and was
quickly collected into a single hardcover volume (August 1999). The
series enjoyed instant critical and commercial success, due largely
to the reputation and talent of iconoclastic writer/artist Frank
Miller's career began essentially in 1979 in the
pages of Marvel Comics' Daredevil, which writer Stan Lee
and artist Bill Everett had launched in 1964. Miller started as
penciler on the series
but quickly established himself as an adept writer and was soon
pulling double duty on the monthly book. He breathed new life into a
tired character that had been on the brink of cancellation with
stories that transcended the typical "superhero foils supervillain"
formula. Daredevil evolved into an introspective, morally complex
character. A highlight of Miller's thirty-three month run on the
series was the introduction (and eventual death) of femme fatale,
Elektra Natchious, a Greek assassin named after Agamemnon's vengeful
Years later, without Miller's participation,
Marvel Comics gave Elektra her own monthly comic book series. In
2005, 20th Century Fox produced the film Elektra (2005), a
critical disaster that Miller cannot even bring himself to watch:
"She's my daughter so I'll always love her, but she's been sleeping
around all over town. I don't talk to her anymore."
In 1986, after a long, successful run on
Daredevil, Miller composed a work for DC Comics that completely
revitalized the comic book industry, establishing comics as an
artistically powerful and socially significant medium. Originally
released as four individual books and later collected into a
best-selling volume, The Dark Knight Returns ignited a renaissance
in the superhero genre.
Written and drawn by Miller, inked by Janson, and
colored by Lynn Varley (who broke from conventional coloring
techniques by actually painting the comic book's panels), The Dark
Knight Returns supplanted the campy Adam West-style Batman with
a completely retooled hero who spoke to a sophisticated, modern
audience. A fifty-five-year-old Batman emerges from a ten-year,
self-imposed retirement to put a crumbling and chaotic Gotham City
back on the rails. The sixty-year foundation DC Comics had given the
character was an important subtext of the narrative, though the key
to the title's breakout success was Miller's filtering of that
history through a dark lens. The book "deconstructed and criticized
nearly fifty years of comics history, and stretched the boundaries
of the genre … bringing new meaning to its stock formula."
Miller's Batman was an "anti-hero," rejecting heroism in the classic
sense. Several times during the narrative, the postmodern Dark
Knight Detective denies himself the reward of martyrdom, choosing
instead to instruct a younger generation and perpetuate his ideals.
|#1 - The Dark
|#2 -Hunt the
|#3 - The Dark Knight
|#4 - The Dark
Comic books were never the same again. Frank Miller had
brought grown-up, complex themes and controversial storylines to
what had previously been breezy entertainments for kids (and adults
who lived in their mother's basement). The Dark Knight Returns
garnered massive media attention, which expanded its audience well
beyond the subculture of comic book collectors. It has been a
perennial bestseller and has never gone out of print.
This retailored Batman so enthralled fans that the entire industry
entered what came to be known as the "grim and gritty" period.
Reinterpretations of many classic heroes swept across the pages of
comic books with varying degrees of success.
Miller followed up The Dark Knight with a series
of solid works and began focusing on creator-owned properties that
allowed him full creative and legal control over his own characters
and stories. His greatest success in this arena is the hard-boiled
black-and-white Sin City (1991– ). This brutally violent crime noir
anthology features recurring characters that double-cross, bully,
murder, and scheme their way through intertwining stories. Miller
stocks these stories with short-lived heroes who rarely ride off
into the sunset. The tough-talking protagonists often sacrifice
themselves (usually for a "dame") at the expense of their
reputations, their honorable intentions known only to themselves and
|A Dame to Kill For #1
||The Big Fat Kill #4
||That Yellow Bastard #1
||That Yellow Bastard
Miller's next undertaking represents the first
time Herodotus's account of Leonidas at Thermopylae was put in comic
book form. His interest in the Spartan culture began with Rudolph
Maté's 1962 film The 300 Spartans. "I was about perhaps six
years old when it came out, and my parents took me and my brother to
see it, and I was utterly astonished by the power of the story, the
pure heroism involved. And that led to a lifelong fascination with
ancient Greek history...."
This was a formative experience for him, defining the theme of
heroic sacrifice that motivates nearly all his protagonists,
including Elektra, Ronin, Batman, Marv, Hartigan, Carl Seltz, among
others. "It was an epiphany to realize that the hero wasn't
necessarily the guy who won."
Before undertaking the Thermopylae project
percolating in the back of his mind since The Dark Knight Returns,
Miller spent several weeks in Greece studying the terrain and
steeping himself in the history. "I couldn't have understood it
properly had I not seen the cliffs and that angry sea and actually
sailed on it."
300 is an idiosyncratic interpretation of
Herodotus's account. Miller hones the already spare original
narrative down to its barest essentials. He eliminates much of the
historical back-story, offering little character development and no
subplots or extraneous elements that might distract from the
singular theme of heroic sacrifice. The Spartans in 300 are
amplified versions of their historical selves—pared down to capes,
shields, and hair, evoking the "heroic nude" style of Greek vase
painters and sculptors. "It was very important to streamline the
appearance of characters to make them more dynamic and to lose the
sense of this being an old story. It's not an old story; it's an
Miller's execution of his vision breaches
standard comic book formatting. Rather than confining the artwork
within fixed panels on each page, Miller depicts individual scenes
in full-page spreads. The dialogue is minimal, the story driven by
the actions of simple figures drawn in bold, deliberate lines.
Greatly enhancing the work is the expert painting of long-time
collaborator (and wife) Lynn Varley, whose dramatic red and gold
palette and watercolor washes give the artwork a rich texture and
gritty atmosphere that intensify Miller's characteristic engrossing
compositions and camera angles. "I didn't know how I could do it
without her. I knew it had to be a color story. It wouldn't work
without the atmosphere, and without those red capes. And I also
couldn't imagine anyone else working on it, so I did the logical
Printed on glossy, heavy-stock paper, the whole project takes on a
coffee-table art book aesthetic.
|300 - Honor
||300 - Duty
||300 - Glory
||300 - Combat
||300 - Victory
The series was a massive success. Individual
issues sold out quickly and the over-sized hardcover, which
beautifully presents each two-page spread in the comic as a single
undivided page, has been a bestseller, running through multiple
printings. 300 won three Eisner Awards and two Harveys in 1999.
Movie: March 2007
Although Frank Miller had had a positive
experience translating Sin City into a successful movie, he bristled
at the prospect of working within the Hollywood system to film what
he considered the "crown jewel" of his career: "'300' means an awful
lot to me, so to see it homogenized into something like 'Troy,'
which manages to turn the Iliad inside out, would betray it."
Despite hesitations, he was eventually won over by producer Gianni
Nunnari and director Zack Snyder's enthusiasm for the project and
dedication to preserving the visual integrity of the book.
The movie was shot in sixty days inside a
Montreal Studio on bare-bones sets in front of blue screens. After
the live actors had been filmed, Computer Graphic (CG) artists spent
months in post-production adding sweeping backdrops, dramatic
weather effects, legions of soldiers, and oceans of spraying blood.
This "digital backlot" technique makes for a challenging acting
environment, but gives maximum control to the art director. This is
the same technology weathermen have been using on television for
decades, now realized with a technical polish that makes it
impossible to discriminate a virtual wheat field from the real
Despite the incredible scope of the film, the
lack of elaborate sets, expensive shooting locales, and pricey
A-list actors kept costs to a reasonable $65 million (for
comparison, less than a third the production costs for Wolfgang
Petersen's 2004 sword and sandals epic Troy). The movie earned back
that investment in its first three days of release, with the entire
theatrical run grossing nearly half a billion dollars world-wide.
300 was not the first major studio release shot
entirely on blue screen. Paramount Pictures' Sky Captain and the
World of Tomorrow (2004) originated on a Macintosh IIci in
director Kerry Conrad's living room.
Sky Captain captured the tone of low-budget sci-fi serials of the
30s and 40s, Hollywood's "Golden Age." The stylized visuals lent
themselves well to the blue-screen technique, allowing the
filmmakers to hide limitations in the technology. Starring Jude Law,
Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie, Sky Captain was filmed almost
exclusively in a warehouse in Van Nuys. Promotion of the movie
(mis)led audiences to expect a more traditional action-adventure
film. Consequently, though it was a critical success, the film's
theatrical run recouped barely half its production costs.
Frank Miller's screen adaptation of Sin City
(2005) was spearheaded by maverick director Robert Rodriguez, who
persuaded Miller to oversee production
and share a co-directing credit. Filmed at Rodriguez's ranch in
Austin, Texas, Sin City was a slavishly faithful adaptation of the
comic. Stark black-and-white visuals alleviated the technical
difficulties of "digital backlot" film-making. Dialogue, locations,
and even camera angles were pulled directly off the pages of the
books. The result was an enormously successful film with a unique
|Kerry Conrad (right) &
||Robert Rodriguez (left)
||Frank Miller, San
300 represents a marked improvement in the
blue-screen film-making technique. The Greek countrysides are an
idealized version of reality posing technical challenges beyond the
stylized environs of Sin City and Sky Captain. Over a dozen special
effects companies scrupulously refined the cinematography to create
a vivid, sometimes dream-like reality. Each scene is beautifully
framed for maximum balance and visual appeal. Lynn Varley's
(prominently credited) artistry underlies the film's rich color
palettes and moment-by-moment visual texture. Jeffery Silver, 300's
producer, said "Zack [Snyder, the film's director] developed a
recipe where you'd crush the black content of the image and enhance
the color saturation to change the contrast ratio of the film ….
Every image in this film went through a post-image processing. The
crush is what gives this film its distinct look and feel."
This nuanced, carefully calculated cinematography
is in sharp juxtaposition with the brutal violence of the combat
sequences. The rigorously choreographed fight scenes unravel in a
variety of film speeds like an ethereal, blood-soaked ballet. There
are moments when the action slows dramatically, allowing viewers
just enough time to drink in the chaos before returning to normal
speed. The combat strikes a high note of historical realism with the
depiction of the Spartan phalanx. This hallmark of Hellenic
heavy-infantry warfare involved locking shields in an impenetrable
wall. The close-quarter ground-level perspective thrusts the
audience right into the thick of the battle.
300 unfolds with the broad, exaggerated strokes
of a Wagnerian opera. Those hoping for a straight recital of
Herodotus's Thermopylae account will be disappointed. 300 is, like
Sin City, an exceptionally faithful adaptation of a Frank Miller
graphic novel and can fairly be judged only as such. The spirit of
Leonidas's accomplishment is intact, but art wins out over
Where history is concerned, the movie provides
more than a striking rendition of phalanx warfare. The basic
elements are preserved: messengers kicked down a well,
marching 300 red-caped Spartans to fend off vast numbers of Persian
invaders, Xerxes' "Immortals" and countless archers, the treacherous
Ephialtes—but these are just an armature on which to hang a gory
operatic retelling. The many departures from Herodotus's narrative
do not keep the film from delivering the underlying meaning of the
event. 300, like The Histories, demonstrates how
Leonidas' heroic sacrifice achieved an inspirational moral victory.
In Miller's words, "Heroic sacrifice is the essence of
Still, inaccuracies and outright absurdities in
the film are as commonplace as decapitations. The elevation of the
Spartans into the rarified air of comic book superheroism pales
beside the outrageously superfluous parade of Persian sideshow
freaks. It doesn't take a classical scholar to surmise there were
probably no ten-foot mutants with axe-hands in the ancient world.
Ephialtes has been transformed from greedy miscreant into deformed
abomination anxious to don a Spartan uniform but too disfigured to
fight effectively. The physical stature of the man now matches his
unseemly betrayal. And was that actually a lute-playing goat-man in
Xerxes' tent of malformed debauchery? As repellent as these details
are to the historian, they neatly forestall any assumption of
historical veracity by viewers unacquainted with the ancient
The film departs from the graphic novel's
appealing, straightforward approach to the story by, in particular,
completely fabricating the side story of Queen Gorgo (wonderfully
played by the foxy Lena Headey), which unfortunately hinders the
momentum of the action. Gorgo, looking for a troop surge to save her
king, schemes with the diabolically over-the-top politician Theron
(Dominic West). It's all a minor distraction from the heart of the
epic tale, valuable only for its rare portrayal of a strong feminine
The action of the film is recounted by one
which somewhat mitigates the fantastic embellishments and gross
inaccuracies. As Miller himself put it, "I always wanted this to be
like a story told by a soldier over a campfire."
* * *
Response to 300 has been sharply divided
along generational lines. The film was savaged in the establishment
but Leonidas and his unwaveringly noble ideals found acclaim in
publications, both print and online, catering to a younger crowd,
including military personnel.
However mixed the critical reaction, the film has enjoyed
spectacular financial success. 300 shattered box office records for
the month of March; its opening weekend take was the third highest
for an R-rated movie, after Matrix: Reloaded and The Passion of the
Christ. It clearly resonates among those who choose not to be
encumbered by the baggage of history.
It's a short jump to postulate how the timing of
the release contributed to its exceptional success. 300's clear,
concise military operation is a refreshing change of pace from the
exhausting stream of disheartening reports emerging from the
quagmire in Iraq. Watching a highly trained force engage in a
straightforward military operation has an almost restorative effect.
The thematic stakes are high. Leonidas and his men fight with
unflinching heroic resolve, with the burden of defending freedom and
democracy upon their well-muscled shoulders as they strike terror in
the hearts of a culturally distinct enemy. The movie delivers an
uncomplicated truth—a comforting escape in the midst of the gleeful
wanton violence. The overt moral dichotomy between the Spartans and
the Persians is as simple as good and evil, right and wrong.
Both the film and the book idealize the Spartan
way of life—the 300 have been purified of the complicated facts of
history. Leonidas extols the virtues of freedom, but fails to
mention Sparta's quarter million helots, who were regularly
terrorized and murdered by their brutal masters. Spartans could
afford to devote themselves from childhood to rigorous military
training, since the helots handled their agricultural needs. Spartan
warriors are depicted as charismatic Caucasians with chiseled
By contrast, storming the shores of Greece are "the Others."
Decadent, tyrannical, and often deformed, the Persians of 300 are
easy to identify and play strongly to racial biases. Xerxes himself
is sexually ambiguous and his Immortals inhuman creatures.
Such historical distortions aside, the film
provides fast-paced entertainment that speaks with a visual language
rooted in comic books. The cinematography is simply beautiful. Every
shot is thoughtfully composed. The combat is intense and wonderfully
choreographed. The goal was to bring 300 the comic book to the
screen, and on that front it succeeds wildly. As always with
Hollywood, entertainment is the first imperative, historical
fidelity a distant second.
It is difficult, however, not to consider the
abandoned historical narrative. 300 wouldn't require much editing to
accommodate Herodotus: the excision of approximately ten minutes of
flagrantly unhistorical material spread throughout the film, the
toning down of Persian deviancies, and the insertion of some helots
into Sparta's golden digital wheat fields. The result
would have made Herodotus proud with no loss of appeal to modern
audiences. We've been given an impressive, artistically exaggerated
version of history, but I can't help wondering, wasn't history
* * *
"This is the best damn story I've ever gotten my
hands on." —Frank Miller
Histories, rev. ed., trans. A. de Sélincourt,
ed. J.M. Marincola (NY: Penguin, 1996) 7.210. See, for a
recent, very readable account of the campaign, Paul Cartledge,
Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (Woodstock
& New York, NY: Overlook Pr, 2006), with Donald Lateiner's
review at MWSR 2007.01.01 <link>.
 Foreshadowing the dangers of the mission,
Leonidas had selected only men with living sons to carry on
their family line (Herodotus 7.205).
these, 700 were Thespians who stayed (and died) voluntarily, 400
were disloyal Thebans, who defected to the enemy as soon as the
outcome was clear (Herodotus 7.222).
axiom so ingrained in the culture, a Spartan mother handing a
shield to her son departing for battle once said: "son, either
with this or on this"—Plutarch, Moralia 241, in Richard J.A. Talbert, ed. & tr.,
Plutarch on Sparta (NY: Penguin, 1988) 161.
created many other famous heroes, including Spiderman, the
X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, et al.
 Klaus Janson handled the inking;
the two men collaborated productively for years to come. The
assembly of a comic book typically requires the efforts of a
writer, an editor, a penciler, an inker, a colorist, and a
letterer. As Miller's career progressed, he would assume nearly
all these roles.
Miller, in Daniel Robert Epstein, "Frank Miller, 300 Interview,"
UnderGroundOnline (n.d.) <link>.
 Anne Magnussen
& Hans-Christian Christiansen, eds., Comics &
Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum,
 "Over 1 million copies in print"—Business Wire
(5 Dec 2001) 1.
Frank Miller, in Shawna Ervin-Gore, "Interview: Frank Miller,"
DarkHorse.com (n.d.) <link>.
 NY Times
(26 Nov 2006) 2.9.
Frank Miller in "300 Part One," fxguide (25 Feb 2007) <link>.
Eisners for "Best Coloring," "Best Writer/Artist," "Best Limited
Series"; Harveys for "Best Limited Series," "Best Colorist."
These awards are the comic book equivalents of Oscars.
 Star Wars director George Lucas prophesied that with the
advancements in special effects technology, it would not be long
before the next Hollywood blockbuster was filmed by a couple
kids in a garage.
 Miller had been soured on film-making in general
after a bad experience developing the scripts for the second and
third Robocop films.
 Even though it was a comic book property lacking high
profile characters such as Spiderman or Superman, thanks to the
film's considerable box-office receipts, Sin City became
the greatest creator-owned success in the comic book industry.
Conflated from the run-up to the battle of Marathon ten years
earlier: see Herodotus 7.133.
is worth noting the exceptional performance delivered by Gerard
Butler, who inhabits a note-perfect Leonidas. He's a magnetic
presence on the screen, exuding leadership and inspiration.
Will Lawrence, "The High Priest of Heroism," Telegraph (9 Mar
 Before the final, fatal engagement in the pass,
Dilios, who has sustained an eye injury, is given orders to
return to Sparta and preserve the memory of Leonidas's
accomplishment. This may be a tip of the hat to Herodotus, who
recounts (at 7.229-231) the story of Aristodemus, who missed the
battle because of a severe eye inflammation, much to his
Scott, NY Times (9 Mar 2007): "the script for '300,'
which [Zack Snyder] wrote with Kurt Johnstad and Michael B.
Gordon, is weighed down by the lumbering portentousness of the
original book, whose arresting images are themselves undermined
by the kind of pomposity that frequently mistakes itself for
genius.... '300' may find its cultural niche as an object of
camp derision .... At present, though, its muscle-bound,
grunting self-seriousness is more tiresome than entertaining" <link>.
Stephen Hunter, Washington Post (25 Mar 2007): "There's
no sinuous continuity in his film, which is mostly geared toward
re-creating images from the comic book, as if that's [sic]
David Denby, New Yorker (2 Apr 2007): "the movie is a
porno-military curiosity—a muscle-magazine fantasy crossed with
a video game and an Army recruiting film" <link>.
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone (7 Mar 2007): "prepare your
eyes for popping—hell, they just might fly out of their
sockets—in the face of such turbocharged visuals" <link>. Todd Gilchrist,
IGN Movies (12 Feb 2007):
"Ultimately, this film combines an archetypal conflict, an
ancient storytelling tradition reaching back as far as the
Greeks themselves, and technique that makes it relevant to
modern audiences. In other words, it's not clear whether great
movie myths are born or bred, but 300 is unequivocally
one of them" <link>. Chuck Vinch,
Army Times (n.d.): "
culminates in an ending that will raise the neck hairs and
moisten the eyes of anyone who has ever felt that freedom and
liberty are ideals worth defending—with the East vs. West theme
sure to resonate strongly against the landscape of our own age.
A sensory feast from start to finish, '300' is larger-than-life
storytelling that qualifies as the first true CGI-enhanced epic" <link>.
told everyone, "You guys have got to be in crazy shape, in
superhero shape,"' … [director] Snyder said. To inspire the
troops, he had T-shirts made that read, 'I died at Thermopylae'"—see note 11, above.