Last Night at the 300
Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: March 6, 2007 | Publication: The Corner - National Review.com | Author: Victor Davis Hanson
I went to the Hollywood Premier of the "300" last night, and talked a bit with Director Zack Snyder, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, and graphic novelist Frank Miller. There will be lots of controversy about this film—well aside from erroneous allegations that it is pro- or anti-Bush, when the movie has nothing to do with Iraq or contemporary events, at least in the direct sense. (Miller's graphic novel was written well before the "war against terror" commenced under President Bush).
I wrote an introduction for the accompanying book about the film when Kurt Johnstad came down to Selma to show me a CD advanced unedited version last October, but some additional reflections follow from last night.
There are four key things to remember about the film: it is not intended to be Herodotus Book 7.209-236, but rather is an adaptation from Frank Miller's graphic novel, which itself is an adaptation from secondary work on Thermopylai. Purists should remember that when they see elephants and a rhinoceros or scant mention of the role of those wonderful Thespians who died in greater numbers than the Spartans at Thermopylai.
Second, in an eerie way, the film captures the spirit of Greek fictive arts themselves. Snyder and Johnstad and Miller are Hellenic in this sense: red-figure vase painting especially idealized Greek hoplites through "heroic nudity". Such iconographic stylization meant sometimes that armor was not included in order to emphasize the male physique.
So too the 300 fight in the film bare-chested. In that sense, their oversized torsos resemble not only comic heroes, but something of the way that Greeks themselves saw their own warriors in pictures. And even the loose adaptation of events reminds me of Greek tragedy, in which an Electra, Iphigeneia or Helen in the hands of a Euripides is portrayed sometimes almost surrealistically, or at least far differently from the main narrative of the Trojan War, followed by the more standard Aeschylus, Sophocles and others.
Third, Snyder, Johnstad, and Miller have created a strange convention of digital backlot and computer animation, reminiscent of the comic book mix of Sin City. That too is sort of like the conventions of Attic tragedy in which myths were presented only through elaborate protocols that came at the expense of realism (three male actors on the stage, masks, dialogue in iambs, with elaborate choral meters, violence off stage, 1000-1600 lines long, etc.).
There is irony here. Oliver Stone's mega-production Alexander spent tens of millions in an effort to recapture the actual career of Alexander the Great, with top actors like Collin Farrel, Anthony Hopkins, and Angelina Joilie. But because this was a realist endeavor, we immediately were bothered by the Transylvanian accent of Olympias, Stone's predictable brushing aside of facts, along with the distortions, and the inordinate attention given to Alexander's supposed proclivities. But the "300" dispenses with realism at the very beginning, and thus shoulders no such burdens. If characters sometimes sound black-and-white as cut-out superheroes, it is not because they are badly-scripted Greeks, as was true in Stone's film, but because they reflect the parameters of the convention of graphic novels, comic books, and surrealistic cinematography. Also I liked the idea that Snyder et al. were more outsiders than Stone, and pulled something off far better with far less resources and connections. The acting proved excellent—again, ironic when the players are not marquee stars.
Fourth, but what was not conventionalized was the martial spirit of Sparta that comes through the film. Many of the most famous lines in the film come directly either from Herodotus or Plutarch's Moralia, and they capture well, in the historical sense, the collective Spartan martial ethic, honor, glory, and ancestor reverence (I say that as an admirer of democratic Thebes and its destruction of Sparta's system of Messenian helotage in 369 BC).
Why—beside the blood-spattering violence and often one-dimensional characterizations—will some critics not like this, despite the above caveats?
Ultimately the film takes a moral stance, Herodotean in nature: there is a difference, an unapologetic difference between free citizens who fight for eleutheria and imperial subjects who give obeisance. We are not left with the usual postmodern quandary 'who are the good guys' in a battle in which the lust for violence plagues both sides. In the end, the defending Spartans are better, not perfect, just better than the invading Persians, and that proves good enough in the end. And to suggest that ambiguously these days has perhaps become a revolutionary thing in itself.