As our story begins, an adolescent Leonidas faces a wolf that seems to have been conjured from Little Red Riding-Hood's worst nightmares. The size of a small horse, it has fangs reminiscent of dagger-blades, and eyes that glow like twin drops of molten bronze. The boy, our would-be king, stands nearly nude, barefoot in the snow, facing the monster with a makeshift spear. Observing the massive creature circling him, looking for an opening, he lures it into a narrow rift in the rock face behind him, forcing it to face him head-on.
Xerxes' messenger arrives at Sparta and warns Leonidas of his emperor's power; "an army so massive it shakes the ground with its march, so vast it drinks the rivers dry." The Spartan king answers Xerxes' demand for submission by kicking his emissary and entourage into a pit so deep we never hear them hit bottom.
Later, Leonidas ascends a windswept peak in the night, climbing bare stone hand-over-hand, to petition the support of Sparta's bizarre mystics, old men so pocked with sores and tumors that they barely resemble humans anymore. They consult their oracle, a young girl who delves into mystic wellsprings of fateful knowledge so vivid that she becomes nearly weightless,... floating above the ground as the spirits caress her.
Armored rhinos the size of small elephants. Elephants the size of three elephants.
Immortal warriors in golden masks that hide their monstrous visage. Lute-playing goat-men. A gluttonous executioner with crude bone-axes for arms.
Anyone who's discussed the movie with others is familiar with the objections.
"It's an awesome flick, but there's just no way it really happened anything like that."
Well, I'm here to tell you... Frank Miller was not exaggerating any of this. Speculating some of it? Perhaps. But, not exaggerating. All of this is very realistic. In fact, given the limited run-time audiences expect from feature films, if anything, the story is probably understated.
How can this possibly be true?
It's actually very obvious. In fact, the explanation that renders the story literal is apparent throughout the film.
Here's a hint...
~Most People Don't Realize What This Story Isn't~
Pictured above is the character Dilios, as portrayed by David Wenham.
This character is not based upon a real historical figure. He did not really exist.*
He is entirely a literary framing device that lends self-awareness to the outlandishness of the narrative. It is a self-awareness that just about everybody misses.
Wenham's voiceover both bookends and accompanies the film, throughout each scene.
Remember that we are not seeing the Battle of Thermopylae nor the Last Stand of the 300. We are, to the contrary, seeing Dilios's account of these events in his effort to whip the Spartan legion into enough of a frenzy that they will demand the Council authorize them to go to war against Xerxes.
Miller makes this apparent through both dialog and, (I believe) a couple instances of symbolism.
~A Talent Unlike Any Other Spartan~
On the eve of the final confrontation with Xerxes, Leonidas pulls Dilios aside and tells him that he is sending him back to Sparta. To this, Dilios protests, saying that he is fit and ready to fight.
"That you are," Leonidas replies, "one of the finest. But, you have another talent, unlike any other Spartan."
Here he is referring to Dilios' eloquence as a speaker and an evocative storyteller.
"You will deliver my final orders to the council, with force and verve. Tell them our story. Make every Greek know what happened here. You have a grand tale to tell."
Leonidas remarks earlier in the film that if he is assassinated, all of Sparta will go to war. This is what he has wanted from the beginning; some way of prodding the stagnant and ineffectual Spartan council into action. He knows that his death would be a galvanizing force, but he suspects that it may still not be enough. He knows that the key lies in inspiring the Spartan Legion itself to demand war, leaving the council no other choice.
~The Eyes Have It~
Sometime later, Dilios loses his left eye to a war-wound of his own.
These wounds are seemingly window-dressing, as they have no effect on anything in the plot. Leonidas' cut is not deep enough to impair him, and Dilios is sent home because of his persuasiveness, not because he is unfit.
What these two seemingly insignificant details do result in, however, is that Dilios and Leonidas spend the entire third act of the film literally winking at the audience.
Their secret meeting, wherein Leonidas orders Dilios home, is shot close-up. The two men are standing face to face, only a foot or so away from one another, and speaking in hushed tones. The frame-up of each shot of their faces, during this meeting, (both in the film and in the original comic) centers on each man's wounded (read: "winking") eye. Gerard Butler's wounded eye is completely shadowed out, in spite of the lighting only dimming the rest of that side of his face.
And look what happens when we overlay the shots, one on top of the other...
Given that these wounds serve no real purpose in the story, I believe they are meant as a symbolic indication that Dilios is knowingly exaggerating the events of the story in the telling, in accordance with Leonidas' wishes and intent.
Frank Miller's "300" is thus not a story about a war.
It is a portrayal of the propaganda campaign that led up to a war.
Yes, the story was exaggerated deliberately. But, the film portrays this exaggeration in an unexaggerated way as part of the narrative. We are not seeing the battle, we're seeing how the battle is played out in the minds of the soldiers listening to Dilios' account.
So, all of it... the giant monsters and the twirly-whirly fighting and each Spartan dropping Persians by the thousands,... is in all likelihood very faithful to how the story was being told in those days, and the telling of the story is what the comic and the movie are really about,.. not the story itself.
In spite of all of this,... among the many things that Dilios exaggerated, changed, or fabricated... I remain at a complete loss as to why he gave Leonidas a Scottish accent. ;)
*-(It's possible that the character of Dilios was based, at least, in small part, upon two Spartan soldiers named Aristodemus and Eurytus. These two men were stricken with a disease of the eye, and were sent home to Sparta by Leonidas before the battle began. Eurytus, however... turned back in defiance of his king's orders, to die with his Spartan brothers at the last stand. Aristodemus, on the other hand, for continuing home was contrasted with Eurytus and marked as a coward by the Spartan legion until later redeeming himself at the battle of Plataea.)