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A fight with real bite

Category: 300 Reviews
Article Date: March 25, 2007 | Publication: The Times | Author: Cosmo Landesman

Posted by: stagewomanjen

Thanks to crosswest for the heads up!

Don’t let the historical inaccuracies put you off — 300 depicts the nobility of war.

I have a terrible confession to make. I was watching 300, the spectacular fantasy epic based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller (creator of Sin City), when I turned and said to a fellow critic: “My God, these CGI actors look so real. It’s amazing what film technology can do nowadays.” He looked at me, shook his head and said: “Cosmo, that’s because they are real.” Doh!

But then 300 occupies a space somewhere between fact and fantasy, realism and romance, cinema and comic books. It plunders the past of classical antiquity with a pop sensibility that refuses to get bogged down in so-called truth and historical accuracy. It uses real actors, then dresses up the visuals by computer. But the whole thing could be computer-generated and it wouldn’t make a difference. Miller and the director, Zack Snyder, want us to take a high-speed ride into the white heat of the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC. The result is something fantastic, voluptuous, bloody, ferocious and, dare I say it, sublime.

The film begins with the childhood of Leonidas (Gerard Butler), and how he was brought up according to Spartan rules. Imagine Gina Ford meets Genghis Khan. The voice-over tells us he was “baptised in the fire of combat”. As he is forced at the age of seven to leave his home and fend for himself, you would think Leonidas would grow up a psychopath with abandonment issues, but no, he becomes the great and much-loved warrior-king of the Greek city-state of Sparta, married to the beautiful Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). One day, a messenger arrives and informs him that the vast, unstoppable army of the Persians is heading his way, and that he and his people will be spared if he is prepared to submit to their king, Xerxes. Of course, no Spartan can do that, so he kills the king’s messenger — an act that amounts to a declaration of war. Leonidas fails to get the backing of the Spartan politicians for war, so he takes only 300 of his best men to the “hot gates” of Thermopylae, a narrow corridor between two towering rocks, through which the Persians will have to pass. This gives Leonidas a tactical advantage, but he and his heroic 300 know they will die. They relish the chance, though, to make a stand for freedom and honour. What follows is wave upon wave of attacks by different and increasingly frightening parts of Xerxes’ army.

There have been complaints from classical scholars that the film is a travesty of the truth. There have been complaints from Iranians that it is a “Zionist conspiracy” to blacken the name of the preIslamic civilisation of Persia. And there have been complaints from film critics that 300 is just another video game masquerading as cinema.

Such complaints miss the point. You wouldn’t criticise Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Leonidas at Thermopylae because it lacked realism. The film is not a fabrication or a condemnation of anything: it is a romantic celebration of the Spartan view of war, heroism and self-sacrifice. The spectacle on offer here is not just battle, but an epic kind of bravery. In an age where every war film has the same war is hell/futile/ pointless message — see the recent work of Clint Eastwood — here is a film that dares to say war can be noble.

It’s refreshing that an irony-free film aimed at the young can be so serious about Spartan virtues. That is not an easy thing to pull off when all your lead male characters are running around in little leather shorts and thongs, with chiselled pecs, like waiters at a gay disco. The important question posed is whether 300 has a message or is just high-octane entertainment. In interviews, Miller sounds like Samuel P Huntington (of The Clash of Civilisations fame), with his talk of how this battle was the basis on which the freedom of the western world was founded. But I doubt that our children, after seeing 300, will become born-again neocons, hungry for the taste of battle.

The weakest thing about the film is the screenplay. It’s the language that’s wooden, not the acting. The cast are competent, but there isn’t an outstanding performance to be found. Yet that doesn’t matter, because 300 is so terrific to look at. It’s aimed at a younger generation more interested in watching an awesome spectacle than taking a lesson in history. This film is more original and more beautiful than so many others that critics celebrate for such qualities. The dedication to detail, the determined effort to present something the viewer hasn’t seen before, has paid off. The way the film blends the fantastic and the grotesque, the heroic and the hellish, is a joy to behold.

And I can’t remember when I last saw such an original and memorable bunch of baddies. Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) is a Spartan outcast hunchback who makes Gollum look like Brad Pitt. But the star of the show has to be Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who makes the kind of extravagant entrance that will go down in gay cinema history. He is the self-proclaimed God King, a wonderful mix of camp and cruelty. For all its limitations, 300 has led the way in reinventing the cinema of war. It will be interesting to see what comes in its wake.


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