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'300': Craziest movie of the year

Category: 300 Reviews
Article Date: June 9, 2007 | Publication: | Author: Tom Baker

Posted by: stagewomanjen

4 stars out of 5

En route to Thermopylae, where he would face the vast army of Persian King Xerxes in a world-shaping battle in 480 B.C., King Leonidas of Sparta met up with his Theban allies. In the movie 300, based on Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's graphic novel about the event, Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is not impressed.

The Thebans were ad hoc volunteers, just ordinary Greek guys who devoted most of their lives to farming or pottery-making. Leonidas' pneumatically muscular Spartans, dressed in scanty uniforms they appear to have copied from the kids book hero Captain Underpants, were an altogether different breed. To emphasize this point, Leonidas shouts: "Spartans! What is your profession?" To which his 300 men bellow in chorus: "Ah-ooo! Ah-ooo! Ah-ooo!"

If that scene doesn't make you laugh, I don't know what will.

300 is a fun movie. In its broadest outline it achieves a reasonable level of historical accuracy, but when it comes down to details it revels in a degree of artistic license that borders on pure insanity. Throughout, it is so fantastically over the top that my eyes only left the screen when I couldn't help rolling them--which was often.

For those of you who came in late, Greece in the fifth century B.C. was a squabbling collection of city-states that were experimenting with an idea called democracy. Xerxes (who did not resemble basketballer Dennis Rodman in the slightest, despite Rodrigo Santoro's towering and bejeweled depiction of him here) was a mighty emperor who wanted to add Greece to his collection of vassal lands.

Leonidas and his 300 men, along with their few allies, held off Xerxes' forces for several bloody days at Thermopylae before being slaughtered when a traitor showed the Persians a way around the narrow pass in which the Greeks were wedged.

According to tradition, all of the 300 Spartans died, but Cambridge University Prof. Paul Cartledge writes in his book The Spartans that two survived. One committed suicide out of shame, but the other redeemed himself by getting respectably killed in a later battle.

Also according to tradition, the Persians numbered as many as 1.7 million. Publicity material for the movie puts the number at 1 million. Cartledge writes that the true figure was between 80,000 and 250,000. But they were a mighty host by any measure.

By holding out for so long against such incredible odds, the doomed Spartans inspired the rest of Greece to get its act together and mount an effective defense.

All of this, 300 gets right. One thing it omits, perhaps because the truth gets too complicated, is that Leonidas was not Sparta's only king. This idiosyncratic little state had two kings at any given time, according to Cartledge. They were the heads of jointly ruling royal families that both claimed descent from Hercules.

The professor writes that the kings' power was held in check by the Ephors, a group of five annually elected overseers.

Bizarrely for a movie that otherwise celebrates Greek enlightenment over supposed Persian backwardness, 300 turns this most democratic of all Spartan institutions into a band of morally corrupt and physically grotesque monsters whom the narrator scorns as "inbred." This insult to the Ephors ignores the facts that Leonidas himself was the product of an uncle-niece marriage, and that his own wife, Gorgo (Lena Headey), was the daughter of his half-brother.

Similarly, Leonidas' disparagement of the Athenians as "boy-lovers" overlooks Sparta's own institutionalized pederasty, which had a distinct sadomasochistic flavor. The Spartans believed that beatings were good for the soul, and the narrator describes scenes of intense violence with a giddily excited quaver in his voice.

One area in which the filmmakers really let themselves run wild is the depiction of the diverse forces under Xerxes' command. Elite Persian fighters called the Immortals earned their name from the fact that their ranks were replenished as quickly as their members fell, but the Immortals in 300 are portrayed as acrobatic zombie ninjas who hide their rotting faces behind shiny silver masks. Subsequent waves of attackers are just as outlandish.

The dialog, however, is filled with quotes that do have some historical validity. When a Persian messenger asks why Gorgo dares to speak her mind in the presence of men, she retorts, "Because only Spartan women give birth to real men."

When the Persians demand the Spartans' weapons, Leonidas shouts: "Come and get them!"

And when warned that countless Persian arrows will "blot out the sun," one of his soldiers insouciantly declares, "Then we will fight in the shade."

Athens may have bequeathed us the Socratic dialogues, but Sparta's rhetorical gift was the snappy comeback.

Like the movie Sin City, based on another of Miller's graphic novels, 300 achieves a distinctive style by painstakingly re-creating the look of the original artwork. The results are enjoyable, though not as startling as Sin City, for which the pictures on the page had a more radical look to begin with. Here, many of the scenes appear sepia-tinted, giving them the feel of dusty old friezes that have come violently to life.

In real life, if not in this movie, the Spartans were extreme xenophobes, cultural underachievers and hard-fisted slave-drivers who were at least half-mad by any modern standard.

But in real life and in this movie, they sure put up one hell of a spectacular fight.

The movie opens today.


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