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EPIC VERGES ON MASTERWORK

Category: 300 Reviews
Article Date: April 7, 2007 | Publication: Canberra Times | Author: Editors
Source: *

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THIS IS the second film about the battle in the pass at Thermopylae in August, 480 BC, when 300 Spartan troops led by their king Leonidas blocked the army of the Persian king Xerxes until a traitor showed a path to approach the Greeks from behind.

In 1962 Italian director Rudolph Mate used a cast of mostly British actors to tell the story. The recent version directed and co-written (with Kurt Johnstad) by Zack Snyder tells it more convincingly. Both films had a fundamental problem neither army had a scribe with them to tell the story first-hand. Herodotus (484 BC to ca. 424 BC) who told it was obviously not present on the day and relied on oral history. More recently, Frank Miller told the story in comic-book form, providing narrative and visual templates for Snyder's filming.

The result is profound. The long shots of Xerxes's army omit detail without diminishing our understanding.

Hardly surprising. Herodotus estimated Xerxes's army comprised about 1.7 million Asian ground troops, plus sailors and troops from European allies, bringing the total to around 2.6 million fighting men, plus servants and camp followers.

Miller and Snyder pay little attention to Xerxes's reason for amassing such a huge force. This diminishes the effectiveness of 300. Nonetheless, 300 provides an adequate understanding of Spartan customs, courage and military determination and of the nature of the Greek nation-state and its (albeit limited) concept of political freedom, cultural innovation and new ways of thinking unfettered by priestly limitations. The Spartan king Leonides (Gerard Butler) is plain spoken, a little stubborn, devoted to his queen (Lena Headey), prepared to break Spartan law by leading his 300 to war without approval from the council. His senior officers include Dilios (Australian actor David Wenham) whom Leonides orders to take the news to Sparta before the final melee in which all the 300 perished.

Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), on the other hand, considered himself a god- king, regarding all his subjects, noble or base-born, as slaves. In the film, he is something of an effete, bejewelled and pierced, borne into battle on an ornate palanquin, not actually fighting. Compared with Troy, not blighted by big mobs of posturing movie stars, 300 is almost a masterwork. Some 75 per cent of it unfolds at the mouth of the narrow (about 14m) defile through which Xerxes must force passage if he is to take Athens and punish Greece for its refusal to acknowledge him. Those minutes on the screen are violent, explicit and bloody. Their filming is careful, convincing and ultimately less distressing than you might expect.

 


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