(Better late than never – I hope to be more current in my reviews in the near future.)
There is a scene in the film Jarhead, a memoir of marine sniper Anthony Swofford during the first Gulf War, where the troops watch Apocalypse Now and get really excited by the helicopter scenes set to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. For men who have enlisted to be soldiers and who are going into battle, these dramatic scenes of war are envigorating and inspiring. Watching 300, I came to believe that the soldiers will now have a new film to whoop and holler along to before seeing combat.
300 is the adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, which he was inspired to draft by seeing the 1962 film, The 300 Spartans, which is based on the historian Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Thermopylae. The film sees Leonidas (Gerard Butler) take 300 Spartan warriors to Thermopylae to delay the immense Persian army of Xerxes from conquering Greece. He is prevented from taking the full army by the prophecy of the priests of the Oracle, who have been bribed by envoys of Xerxes, so can only take his ‘personal bodyguard’ with him, ‘just taking a stroll’. Even these few are impressive; Sparta was famed for its soldiers and the intensity and devotion of their training, making them fearsome opponents and dedicated fighters, as Leonidas points out to the Greeks who join up with them on route to Thermopylae (the numbers and identity are kept vague – in reality, the total number of Greeks fighting in the first few days of battle is estimated to be five thousand, including the 700 Thespians and 900 slaves of the Spartans who remained with the Spartans for the final stand).
Reality is, however, not the aim of this film. The idea is to show the bravery of the Spartans in the face of overwhelming odds in defence of freedom. The fact that Sparta had enslaved an entire race of Greeks, or that they killed their newborns who didn’t measure against their standards, or that the prophecy (according to Herodotus) was actually that a king would die or Sparta would fall (meaning that Leonidas knew he was going to die, which is why he selected his bodyguard for having heirs, and was only staying loyal to the Spartan code of fighting or die), or that the Persian numbers are exaggerated to one million for effect, or that the Persian army seems to have mutant men with blades for arms, and huge rhinoceroses, let you know that this is not a documentary. This is a historical fantasy to provide a story all about loyalty, bravery, sacrifice, honour and heroism.
In this goal, it succeeds. The film imparts the notion of what it means to be a soldier, doing your job for the greater ideal. It might have been more rousing if there had been less stupid fantasy elements (such as excessive misshapenness of Ephilates, the Spartan traitor – Frank Miller has a bizarre obsession with mutations in the human form being an expression of inner evil, from Ronin through Dark Knight Returns and Sin City – or the goat-headed creature playing a lute in Xerxes camp, which throws you out of the film and makes everybody snigger with disbelief), but the bending of the truth allows the story to unfold more dramatically, thus heightening the bravery and heroism.
The drama is also heightened by the visuals of the film. The blue-screen approach to shooting this film allowed for a heightened sense of reality in the lush colours that fill the screen. The saturation of colours to match the artwork of the graphic novel makes for a spectacular-looking film, bringing to life the perfect snapshots that are chosen to represent the story in the comic, acting as the perfect storyboards. There are times when the shadow of Gladiator hangs over the film, with the same wind-swept fields (and Butler’s look and shoutiness echoing Russell Crowe, and the character being driven by honour but thinking of his wife at the end), but it forges its own identity – there is nothing else quite like it.
Butler comes out of the film well, bringing the presence needed for the character as well as the cocky arrogance (telling Xerxes that he can’t kneel before him because he’s strained his thigh from killing Persians all day). Lena Headey, as his wife Gorgo, pulls off a small role with aplomb (a role beefed up with a sub-plot, different from Miller’s book), but this is a film about mostly naked, buffed-up men fighting in slow motion – acting isn’t a first priority. Zach Snyder moves the film along at a quick pace, attending to detail in the fight scenes and the visuals, with a less assured hand in the dialogue scenes. Much like his good reworking of Dawn of the Dead, he creates an enjoyable and excitable film very much a reflection of current viewing attitudes and ideas of the cinematic experience.
I don’t think it will revive the swords and sandals genre, even if box office numbers would disagree, but it’s a fun experience while it lasts without achieving lasting status. However, it does what it sets out to do – create an idea of heroism and demonstrate it in dazzling fashion. It should leave you wanting to walk in slow motion out of the cinema, scowling and looking to fight and shout ‘This. Is. Sparta!’ at anybody who looks at you funny.