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Category: 300 Reviews
Article Date: March 26, 2007 | Publication: | Author: Matthew Champion

Posted by: stagewomanjen

In a nutshell…

Tonight we dine in hell.

What's it all about?

In 480BC the Spartan king Leonidas led 300 seasoned warriors to the pass of Thermopylae to prevent the rest of Greece falling prey to the tread of the Persian hordes.

Despite being hopelessly outnumbered, Leonidas and his recklessly elite Spartans held the narrow pass for three days, until their betrayal at the hands of a fellow Greek allowed king Xerxes to march a force through an overhead mountain pass and surround his most stubborn of foes.

The Spartan king and all of his men subsequently perished, but their rousing tale of heroism inspired the whole of Greece to, momentarily at least, unite and drive the Asiatic masses out of their lands, bringing an end to Persian expansion into Europe forever.

About 2,500 years later, graphic novelist Frank Miller, himself moved by the selfless bravery of Leonidas, puts pen to paper to create his own retelling of Thermopylae.

Zack Snyder's 300 is a scene-for-scene recreation of Miller's graphic novel of the same name.

Who's in it

Gerard Butler (Reign of Fire, The Phantom of the Opera) mostly succeeds in his portrayal of the doomed Leonidas, although the demanded comic book style means his main achievement is a vociferous one.

He certainly looks the part though, with his reported seven months worth of rigorous training evident in every sinew and muscle glistening on screen.

English actress Lena Healey is well cast as Leonidas' street-fighting wife Queen Gorgo, while David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings, Van Helsing) wins the award for the least convincing tough-guy voice as the Spartan soldier with the gift of the gab; Dilios.

Spanish actor Rodrigo Santoro is almost inexplicably cast as the Persian king Xerxes, but then his own mother would probably struggle to recognise him under his caravan of piercings, tattoos and (for some reason) a completely hairless body.

As an example…

Persian solider: "Spartans… lay down your weapons!"
Leonidas: "Persians… Come and get them!"

Persian emissary: "Our arrows will be so numerous that they will blot out the sun."
Stelios: "Then we will fight in the shade."

Likelihood of a trip to the Oscars

Quite high. Whereas the big statues for best picture, best director, best actress et al are obviously out of reach, 300's unique look lends it a good chance of getting Academy nods for best visual effects, best costume design and even best makeup. Admittedly the last one is not a very Spartan award…

What the others say

"Ultimately, this is a warrior's wet dream, a guilty pleasure that’s beautiful and startlingly gory. What are you waiting for?" Total Film.

"Nothing is more epic than the tradition of the defiant David standing up to a mammoth and all-powerful Goliath - Homer knew it; Leonidas knew it; Frank Miller knew it; and after watching 300, you will know it too," Empire.

"It's an ugly business: brutal, racist, homophobic – dare I say fascist? Harmless escapism indeed," Metro.

So is it any good?

300 is best described as a moving comic book; a film like little else, a fact almost entirely down to its hellishly beautiful recreation of classical Greece.

Apparently the only location shot in the entire film is the opening slow-mo scene of the soon to be pitted Persian messenger arriving at Sparta. From that point on its blue and green screen country, but the results are astonishing.

Zack Snyder cannot be accused of laziness, for despite having a script and storyboard in front of him before even beginning to develop the film, he has worked hard to create a visual chic that beats even 2005's Sin City, itself a Frank Miller product.

One scene jars in the memory more than any other: The Spartans, having recently arrived at Thermopylae, survey the grim scene of the storm-ridden Aegean cruelly dashing the Persian fleet against the cliff face.

The darkly-lit shot, illuminated only by the crimson of the Spartans' cloaks, resembles nothing short of a living painting, and cinemagoers can be forgiven for swaying with the swelling waves as if mesmerised by a gallery masterpiece's spell.

This visual flair extends to the actors themselves, with Xerxes' personal bodyguard the immortals satisfyingly demonic and the androgynous Persian god-king himself a monstrous giant.

The Spartans themselves are all suitably muscle-bound, but if you think their codpiece and cloak costumes are camp, just be thankful the producers did not include the Spartan practice of naked wrestling and hair combing as a prelude to battle.

Even the poor script is excusable, for it is, after all, an adaptation of a comic book. The forced camaraderie between the Spartans is at first laughable, but once you realise that these words were never meant to be said but read in a speech bubble, the illusion of 300 takes over.

So why then, with all this said, is 300 a film that makes you feel like a war criminal?

While Hollywood has a penchant for rewriting history, in 300 it has chosen the strangest of cultures to idealise.

In scenes painfully reminiscent of similarly meaningless ramblings found in Braveheart, Butler's Leonidas quickly tries to establish his forward-thinking protagonist credentials by insisting that the Spartans are prepared to die for the "new age of freedom".

In truth Sparta was a cruel and twisted city; by today's standards its practices abhorrent, including the discarding of 'imperfect' infants at birth.

Leonidas talks of freedom and paints the Persians as the alien invaders seeking to destroy it, but he fails to mention the subhuman race of peasant-slaves the Spartans have squirreled away to sustain their entire civilization.

How could the city-state maintain an economy when every able-bodied male of Sparta spent his life perfecting the muddy business of war into an art form? By subjecting those not born of Spartan blood on the Peloponnese, known as Helots, to a lifetime of servitude and a distinct lack of freedom, that's how.

The spectral wolf that a young Leonidas kills in the film's prologue would have historically been a Helot; slain for no other reason than to give his young Spartan master his first taste of a kill.

So when Leonidas tells Xerxes that he and his comrades are prepared to die for freedom, he more specifically means his in particular.

Even without this knowledge, once you realise that Leonidas and his warriors are ultimately fighting for themselves ("Remember this day, men, for it will be yours for all time"), the vibrant heroism of 300 dries up.

What you are left with is a stylishly violent action-film that borders on race hate in its portrayal of the gibbering Persian masses.

The word epic has inevitably been bandied about to describe 300, but despite the scale of the real-life Spartans' achievements, epic is one thing that it is not.

Perhaps it is due to the claustrophobic confines of the Hot Gates themselves, but 300 feels trapped, cloyed even by the historical event it is trying to portray as myth, meaning that ultimately, Snyder has failed to break out of the comic book squares that Miller framed his tale in.

6 out of 10


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