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300 Print E-mail
Friday, 09 March 2007
ImageWhen he was a kid, comic book artist/writer Frank Miller was bowled over by “The 300 Spartans,” an epic about how King Leonidas of Sparta and a relative handful of Spartan warriors held back Persian invader Xerxes long enough for the rest of Greece to ready for further incursions by Xerxes. Like the Alamo, the Battle of Thermopylae (the narrow pass where the conflict took place) is a defeat more important and famous than most victories.

With his wife, Lynn Varley, Miller later turned the same story into a graphic novel, and now the graphic novel has been turned into a movie. It’s directed by Zack Snyder (who previously directed the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead”) from a script by Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon. Like “Sin City,” the movie has taken its visual styling straight from Miller’s illustrated pages, but this film doesn’t look at all like “Sin City.” In silvery browns, grays and pale greens, it looks like paintings made real, with actors carrying authentic-looking weaponry, moving against entirely created backdrops. Only one scene in the film, an early sequence of fiercely galloping horses (every action in the film is done “fiercely”), was shot outdoors; everything else was against green screen.

The result is that rarest of commodities, a unique movie—there’s never been anything else quite like “300.” It’s intensely violent—it could hardly be otherwise, as battles in those days were almost always hand to hand, with strong men armed with heavy, short swords and long spears hacking and poking at each other. Many heads and limbs are lopped off, but the film is actually not especially gory—blood is visible only in dark splashes on the ground and against shields.

The stylized look of the film begins immediately, with the familiar Warner Bros. shield apparently made of bronze against a pale coppery sky. We’re quickly filled in on what made Sparta unique among Grecian city-states: it focused on austerity and on glory in battle. A Spartan warrior would be ordered by his mother to return carrying his shield—or being carried upon it. The greatest glory a Spartan could achieve was by dying in battle.
As a boy, Leonidas was left in the wilderness to fend for himself, which he did by slaying a wolf (that doesn’t look real). As emperor, Leonidas (Gerard Butler) trains his own sons in like manner, with his strong queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey), proudly looking on.

A group of ambassadors from advancing Persian emperor Xerxes arrives, expecting Leonidas to simply surrender his kingdom to evade battle. They’re dealing with the wrong Spartan: he throws the ambassadors into a pit, and sets out for Thermopylae with, as the title says, 300 soldiers. (If historical records are believed, he actually set out with a much larger army, and was joined by smaller groups from other Grecian city-states, but after the first day or so of the three-day battle, Leonidas sent all Spartans home, except for that fabled 300. But this movie does not pretend to be a history lesson.)

At first, the Spartans face an astonishingly stormy sea which sinks many of Xerxes’ ships—but still leaves him with a million-man army, plus rhinoceroses and elephants as battle beasts, to square off against Leonidas and his men.

It’s hard to judge this film by comparison to other movies, since it isn’t very much like other movies; it makes up its own rules. Is Zack Snyder a good director? Well, this is well directed; how he’d handle a movie with standard requirements remains to be seen. Certainly “300” is an eye-popping wonder, thunderously LOUD, with an assaultive score by Tyler Bates; you don’t just watch this movie, it batters you into submission. Curiously, the very well-done sound is essentially realistic (and makes great use of Surround), even though what we’re seeing is basically unrealistic, at least visually.

Occasionally, there are anachronistic stumbles; I find it hard to believe that a Spartan would exclaim, even in Greek, “Unless I miss my guess, we’re in for one wild night.” I’m also uncertain that the real Leonidas would have exhorted his troops with appeals to freedom and liberty; Sparta was unique among Greek city-states in that there were no slaves—but there were second-class citizens, lots of them, because males who were citizens were forbidden to have any profession other than soldier. Unlike elsewhere in Greece, women were educated and encouraged to disagree with men. There’s some of this in “300.”

To a degree, it’s hard to tell one Spartan from another, except for Leonidas, as they all have helmets that largely obscure their faces. And the characterization is broad, with each Spartan being pretty much like every other Spartan. There’s a couple of Good Buddies who trade tough-guy wisecracks; there’s a father fighting alongside his son—very much the usual sort of military-movie characters.

There are occasional cuts back to Sparta and how Gorgo is faring. She has to face a treacherous rival to the royal throne, but Gorgo is as tough as her husband. Nevertheless, these scenes aren’t very interesting, and only make us eager to return to Leonidas and his men.

There are occasional gaps in the story, as if scenes have been lopped out, like the Spartans lop off their opponents’ arms and legs. Perhaps they’ll be restored for the DVD. There’s initially a lot of narration, but this fades out as the adult Leonidas is introduced. The director tries some very unusual effects in some of the battle scenes: again and again, slow motion is replaced by normal speed only to return to slow motion—all in the same unbroken shot. Sam Peckinpah could have done wonders with this technique; here, it’s showy and has a strong impact, but it’s not part of the tale the movie is telling, but rather window dressing of a spectacular type.

Frank Miller is a great graphic designer; his art is dynamically composed in a kind of variation on Frank Frazetta’s style—and the film follows suit. But he always writes at the level of a brilliant 16-year-old boy; his idea of subtlety is to whack someone with the flat of a sword rather than the edge. His stuff is always rip-snortingly manly, full of swagger, brawn and intensity; he avoids “softness” as assiduously as any classical Spartan. “Sin City” was a teenager’s dream of a tough, film noir-ish city and characters; “300” is his version of an Italian “peplum” (spear and sandal) epic of the 1960s. But these are descriptions, not evaluations; within the limits imposed by his own taste (or narrow abilities), Frank Miller is a master. And “300” is a masterful recreation of a Frank Miller saga.

The actors playing the Spartans were put through a tough-guy bootcamp, bulking some up, slimming others down, until their muscles are brought into startling relief, like a contour map of the Midwest. None of these guys have as much as 10% body fat; they’re all as sculpted as statues, particularly Gerard Butler as Leonidas, who often literally looks like a statue as he strikes heroic poses.

If they know him at all, Americans know Butler only from the movie of “The Phantom of the Opera,” in which he played the title role, although he was also in the second Lara Croft movie and played the title character in “Dracula 2000.” As the bearded Leonidas, Butler is as intense as the soundtrack, eyes like laser beams, muscles like leather. The role doesn’t require acting as much as it does muscle tone, but Butler is still fiercely impressive as the Spartan king.

His best scene may be when he confronts Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) directly. The exotic-looking Persian tyrant is carried to their meeting on a gigantic litter carried on the backs of a couple of dozen slaves. Xerxes is bedecked from nape to heel in golden ornaments, as exotic as his elephants. Leonidas looks carved from the Grecian landscape, as hard and mean as his sword. In terms of charismas, Xerxes doesn’t stand a chance.

Of course, Leonidas and his Spartans ultimately don’t stand a chance in their heroic battle (the site is revered to this day, thousands of years later). But it’s the manner of their battle, the fact that they held the Persian army back for at least a while, that makes Leonidas and Thermopylae historic and grand. (Even his name hangs on, in the Russian name “Leonid.”) Unquestionably, “300” is a peculiar movie, a little ragged here and there, and given to such intense heroic-male posturing that it continually teeters on the brink of self-parody, but overall, it’s so unusual and made with such ringing (and deafening) conviction, that it is one of those few movies that you probably just have to see.

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