Because surviving against all odds is just for wimps

Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: March 9, 2007 | Publication: | Author: Chris Knight
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Thanks to LESVAN for the article!

You can learn a lot at the movies. I walked into 300 thinking Spartan meant minimalist decor, maybe a white leather sofa and a bamboo mat. Turns out the actual Spartans would find that kind of luxury obscene. The soldiers of the ancient Greek city-state, as portrayed in 300, sleep on stony ground (when they sleep at all), wear little more than loincloths and metal helmets and laugh in the face of death. In fact, they laugh only in the face of death. Here's a bit of Spartan humour from Vincent Regan, who goes by the name Captain in the film: What do you call a few dozen Persians at the bottom of the ocean? "A helluva good start."

Zack Snyder, working from Frank Miller's graphic novel, tells the story of 15 score Greek soldiers who in 480 B.C. briefly held back the massive army of Xerxes at Thermopylae, which I think translates as red-hot visual effects. The Greeks are led by King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler. Leonidas is well suited to the job, having grown up in the Spartan suburb of Hazing and fought wild wolves as a child. When the local wise men (in Sparta, even mountaintop sages are tough as nails) forbid all-out war against the advancing Persian army, Leonidas chooses instead to take a stroll in a general Persian-y direction with 300 of his closest, buffest pals. Carrying armour-piercing spears and displaying more six packs than a beer depot, they head for certain death. Jauntily.

This may sound like so much entertainment for the video-game crowd, but Snyder, who directed the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, gives his spears-and-sandals epic an astounding amount of pomp given the circumstances. First there's his use of colour, with scenes drenched in gold and red and black, the kind of glow you see when you turn your closed eyes toward the midday sun. The film has been ? well, I was going to say drained of other hues, but given the rough-and-tumble Spartan lifestyle, it's likely the colour was physically beaten out of it. Equally awesome is the music, which borrows heavily from Wagner and, when that runs out, finds inspiration in the guitar licks of Eddie Van Halen.

Butler has been bulking up his resume with roles as the Phantom of the Opera and Beowulf, and he wears the mantle of a king well, bellowing "Spartans!" every two or three scenes, even though his men are right behind him. Scrambling among rocks in his red battle robes, he looks not unlike Charlton Heston from his Biblical days. Dominic West, meanwhile, resembles an unfinished bust of Mark Wahlberg, and plays Theron, the conniving politician who begins to plot even before the king has left Sparta. David Wenhamis Dilios, a warrior so rugged that when he loses an eye he considers it a blessing; why lug around two when one will do?

As the sole Spartan survivor, he also functions as the official historian of the battle. If you've read your history books (or even your comic books) you'll know the rest of the guys perished.

As a counterpoint to this acute attack of manliness is Lena Headey (Imagine Me & You) as Queen Gorgo, though she doesn't look like a Gorgo. An early scene finds her and Leonidas making love in a series of tasteful jump cuts that lets us know they were at it all night. When he heads off to fight and pontificate on the battlefield, she stays home to do the same, trying to convince the politicians to commit the entire Spartan army to defeating the Persians, not just leave it to her husband and his drinking buddies. (His blood-drinking buddies.)

The 300 seem to be doing pretty well, however, owing in part to the enemy's strategy of sending a wave of combatants at them and then pausing so the Spartans can regroup and make a big pile of dead Persians they can use to bury the next wave. Along the way they dispatch a giant (New Brunswick wrestler Robert Maillet), some horned beasts that look to have wandered in from Lord of the Rings and a group of masked men who call themselves The Immortals, a claim the Spartans immediately disprove.

Leading the Persian hordes is Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) in what, judging from the heavy eyeliner, must have been the Ziggy Stardust years of his reign. He's also got more body piercings than a Surrey high-school class. Simultaneously fey and menacing from atop a travelling throne on slaves instead of wheels, he demands tribute from the Spartans. But tribute is not in the Spartan dictionary -- nor for that matter is surrender, retreat, cower, abdicate, yield, submit or capitulate. They know "back" and "down" but never use them together unless it's a phrase like, "I'm going back down the hill to slaughter more Persians."

Snyder's style is also a few words short of the complete OED, lacking restraint, moderation, subtlety, peace and quiet. When the Spartans wade into battle, the soundtrack reverberates with the clash of blade on blade and the squelch of blade on liver, stomach, heart, eye and throat -- organ music. Blood spurts forth in unnatural but arresting patterns. Granted, I've never skewered anything more lively than a vege-kebob, but I didn't think blood flowed in such blobby globules, as though being blown through a bubble wand.

But the visuals, apparently built entirely inside a computer, lift the violence to a level approaching art. The battles wow and disturb, often simultaneously, and they mirror an interior struggle in the viewer: Will the film wear down our resistance before we weary of its insistence? Either way seems fine with the protagonists, who never fail to remind us that "We are Spartans!" And they're not looking for anyone's approval.

Rating 2?