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Graphic & gripping: Adaptation pits Spartans vs. Persians, from the days when war was glorious

Category: 300 Reviews
Article Date: March 9, 2007 | Publication: Philadelphia Daily News | Author: Gary Thompson

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Mar. 9--Movies like "Letters From Iwo Jima" reflect the contemporary belief that any war movie worth its salt must capture the horror of armed combat.

"300," on the other hand, believes it's enough to capture the fun of watching a war movie on Saturday afternoon.

Some years ago, a 5-year-old named Frank Miller watched a 1962 Richard Egan movie called "The 300 Spartans" and decided it was the coolest thing he'd ever seen -- the story of a 480 B.C. Alamo, about a few Greek warriors dying to defend their homeland against an invasion force of perhaps half a million Persians.

He later turned his fascination with the story into the popular graphic novel "300," relating what essentially happened at the battle of Thermopylae, while coating the whole thing with the pulp appeal of a cartoon strip.

Now it's a movie, adapted by Zach Snyder, selected for the job due to his previous cinematic experience with siege fighting -- his remake of "Dawn of the Dead." Snyder, needless to say, is completely on board with Miller's conception of Thermopylae as one- fifth history, four-fifths something that looks cool.

His "300" is another in the style of "Sin City" or "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" -- live action actors mixing with computer-generated figures against an animated backdrop.

Gerard Butler is Spartan King Leonidas, who takes 300 elite commandos to face the Persian multitudes while weak-willed Greek politicians (led by Dominic West) dither over whether to muster a larger army.

Leonidas makes a stand at the narrow pass of Thermopylae ("Hot Gates") where he needs to fight only a few hundred Persians at a time, while slaughtering thousands in aggregate.

The computer-generated sheen of "300" aids the movie's aims in two important ways -- the fakery makes the stupendous slaughter digestible, and the wholesale dismemberment and blood-squirting can be done digitally, with "Matrix"-style acrobatics.

The fanciful depiction of the horrific battle also allows Snyder to integrate fantasy elements -- the Spartans battle a giant ogre, and there's another creature with crab-claw hands who executes ineffective generals at the whim of the Persian King Xerxes, who himself looks like Dennis Rodman after a shopping/piercing spree.

There's something to be said for a movie that pauses amid an orgy of violence to show us an actual orgy -- Xerxes' tent houses a harem of naked, squirming bisexual slave girls, and the movie, obsessed with machismo, seems to at times suggest that the Persians need to be stopped because they are sexually ambiguous. This is funny, since the half-naked Spartans look ready to break into a chorus of "YMCA" at any moment.

Obviously, we're not dealing with "Letters From Iwo" here. "300" makes no bones about embracing the glory of war (or the glory of a comic strip based on a movie about a war), and romanticizing the Spartan warrior culture (never surrender, never retreat, hope for a beautiful death) that entranced Miller as a boy.

Miller chose his subject well. Thermopylae is a cinema-ready event that produced dialogue that no dramatist could improve, dutifully recorded by Herodotus and repeated here. "Come back with your shield, or on it," says Leonidas' tough-love wife (Lena Headey). When Xerxes asks the Spartans to lay down their arms, Leonidas says, "Come and get 'em." And when the Persians brag that their arrows will blot out the sun, the unflappable Spartans reply that they prefer to fight in the shade.

Along the way, "300" does give us a sense of why Thermopylae is considered pivotal to history. It casts the Spartans as defenders of Western civilization (freedom and self-rule and "reason") against Xerxes, a self-styled divinity supported by slave armies who fought with whips at their backs. (The Spartans had slaves, but did their own fighting.) This has caused a stir in Europe, where debate has begun on whether "300" is an apologia for Bush's Iraq adventure or an apologia for anti-occupation suicide missions.

I suspect this will matter little to Miller's constituents. They're concerned with more urgent matters, like how to disable and defeat an ogre by first cutting his hamstring and biceps, then slicing him open at the neck.


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