Have you seen the movie 300? It’s an epic “sword and sandals” action film based on a graphic by Frank Miller (also the guy behind Sin City). I recommended it in my Why Inspiration Matters post as an example of a movie that’s motivational and gets you pumped up. Our team at Stanford definitely watched it before several of our major competitions, including the NCAA championships. I started thinking about it and realized there are three reasons why this is an amazing film/story/phenomenon
1) The visuals are stunning, the soundtrack is explosive and the ending is highly charged
If you haven’t seen the movie, you really should. I’ve embedded the trailer here so you can get a sense of what the film is like. High contrast cinemetography, a visceral soundtrack by Tyler Bates, a lot of graphic violence and some sweet slo-mo shots. This movie is gripping from the first shot to the last. Oh and the guys in the movie are ripped! (More on this in the next section)
2) The actors behind the movie busted their asses
So in action movies today, you’ll a lot of guys dressed up in suits and stuff that allow them to get away with not the best body. Tobey Maguire in SpiderMan 3 comes to mind.
A lot of people were blown away by how cut these guys are. There is no faking a six-pack and while unrealistic (the real Spartans probably wore some kind of torso covering garment) the sight of 30+ guys on one screen who are all shredded is pretty impressive. You can see the dramatic 1-4-8 week progression of the then-40 year old Vincent Regan, who stars as the 2nd in Command for Leonidas:
So how did they do it? They worked with Mark Twight at Gym Jones. Mark discusses his experience working with these guys in two articles: “300″: The so-called program and Opinions on 300: Everyone Has One.  I’ve quoted some elements of it here with commentary:
We took the opposite route of calorie restriction to make them look like they lived off the land, in the wild, all sinewy and ripped. The diet was adequate to fuel effort and recovery, barely. And we prescribed random physical challenges to keep them off balance, to ensure they never knew what was coming, to cause a stress-reaction, to break them, to make them look bad in front of each other, which eventually led them to trust one another … Our goal, outlined by director Zack Snyder was to “turn them into a gang,” a unified force whose trust and belief in one another would be obvious on the screen.
Two points here: the first is that these guys are ripped but not bulky. It looks like they didn’t have these guys downing protein shakes every five minutes. And secondly, I love how they made training together not just a matter of “make these guys look good for the camera” but as a bonding mechanism. By forcing the group through this awful regiment, they simulated some battle experiences they would have shared as Spartans for real.
It appears everyone has an opinion about “300″ and how the actors and stunt crew achieved the level of fitness – and consequentially, appearance – for the movie. I have read that it was all CGI, make-up, steroids, etc. However, no one has come right out and said, “those guys worked really hard and had the self-discipline to control what they put into their mouths.”
Clearly, Mark is a little pissed by the guys who bitch and moan in the forums about how this “could only happen with ‘roids” etc.
Those who aren’t the real thing always find an excuse for their failings when confronted by the real thing. Or they cast the accomplishments of anyone further up the food chain as having been achieved by cheating. Even in the small world of mountain climbing a few guys were convinced that their betters were using EPO, “because there’s no way they could be that much faster than me.”
Mark was/is an elite mountain climber and sees the very normal human pattern of “well if I can’t win then the winners must be cheating”. I am also frustrated by this – people say things like how “lucky I am” to have my physique and that they’d “give up a lot to have a great body”.
Wrong and wrong. I don’t happen to have been born with a fit body, I developed it over 16 years of training. Of working out 20+ hours a week, 50 weeks a year for over a decade. And they obviously don’t want a great body badly enough or else they’d stop eating poorly and get in the gym way more than they do. The fact is, most people just don’t want things badly enough.
In one interview Gerry Butler summed up his experience with us when he said, “Pretty much anything Mark Twight offered up was so difficult in the kind of way where you wish you had never been born – and even more than that, wished he had never been born.” As for the training done on a regular basis there were no consistent, structured workouts. The point was to improve fitness and facility across a variety of movements and through the three-dimensional range-of-motion required by the fighting. We did this by constantly changing the challenges, and focusing on athleticism to build a balanced foundation of general physical capacity.Butler commented that my idea of a workout is to “go until you are actually in fear of your life and then go further. Then, you do more.”
Haha, awesome. I think one reason why gymnasts are considered some of the strongest / fittest athletes is that they have to be strong in so many different ways. There are 6 events and hundreds of different skills in each event, requiring totally different muscles and levels of explosiveness and endurance. To be fair, I don’t think this type of training is for everyone and you probably don’t need to do the kinds of workouts Mark was putting them through in order to look like the guys from 300. But they clearly went through some brutal training and you’ve got to give them respect for that.
Did it work? It worked for those who did the work, who paid attention, and who controlled what they put in their mouths. We reinforced those who started with their own self-discipline but we could not give discipline to anyone who didn’t already have it. In the end Vincent Regan shed 40 pounds in eight weeks, and took his deadlift from less than bodyweight (205) to more than double-bodyweight (355).
Self-discipline is the key. It doesn’t come overnight and it’s driven, I believe, by a deep-seated need to achieve/accomplish/perform. These guys were dedicated to their craft of being the best actors they could be, and they put that drive into their training. It paid off.
3) The main details of the film are closely based on historical fact
The issue with a lot of inspirational movies is that the story is twisted up so much that the film loses it’s meaning. But the main elements of 300 are rock solid  – backed by two different primary sources (Greek historian Herodotus and Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus) plus archaeological evidence.  I have taken the liberty of splicing together the relevant details from Wikipedia with commentary:
The Battle of Thermopylae was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece in August or September 480 BC, at the pass of Thermopylae (‘The Hot Gates’).
So pretty straightforward – Xerxes sends in a huge army to conquer Greece after a failed attempt by Persia a decade prior. Leonidas and his team defends the pass for several days at the pass at Thermopylae.
Leonidas took with him the 300 men of the royal bodyguard, the Hippeis, and a larger number of support troops drawn from other parts of Lacedaemon. En route to Thermopylae, the Spartan force was reinforced by contingents from various cities (see below) and numbered more than 5,000 by the time it arrived at the pass.
Fine, the concept of just 300 guys is a bit off. Leonidas starts with 300 guys and picks up some followers along the way (which to be fair, is partially depicted in the film).
A Persian emissary was sent by Xerxes to negotiate with Leonidas; the Greeks were offered their freedom and the title “Friends of the Persian People,” moreover they would be re-settled on better land than they currently possessed. Leonidas’ famous response was for the Persians to “Come and get them” (Μολὼν λαβέ).
Love love love this line. Ok so it is still possible this line is not real, we can never really know, but historians in THAT ERA did record his statement as such. And I’m inclined to believe them because these Spartans certainly followed through on the sentiment behind these words
Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held off the Persians for seven days in total (including three of battle), before the rear-guard was annihilated in one of history’s most famous last stands. After the second day of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing a small path that led behind the Greek lines. Aware that his force was being outflanked, Leonidas dismissed the bulk of the Greek army, and remained to guard the rear with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and perhaps a few hundred others, the vast majority of whom were killed. Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded, and the Persians rained down arrows until every last Greek was dead. The pass at Thermopylae was thus opened to the Persian army according to Herodotus, at the cost to the Persians of up to 20,000 fatalities.
Betrayed by a local resident (which is portrayed in the film in a really weird way) Leonidas buckles down with his small team, sacrificing himself so that the others can live to alert the rest of Greece about what was happening. Bad. Ass.
Both ancient and modern writers have used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power of a patriotic army defending native soil. The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is also used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.
‘Nuff said. This is clearly an epic tale. Go see 300.
 One point I do want to bring up is that a lot of people have complained about the movie’s portrayal of Persians (modern day Iran). That’s understandable. It’s unfortunate but in movies like this, one side is frequently portrayed as heartless, unfeeling and monstrous. That definitely happened in 300 and in no way represents what the ancestors of Iranians were like.