On March 9 th, Warner Bros. Pictures releases in cinemas "300," based on the 1998 Dark Horse Comics graphic novel by Frank Miller. The film is the second in a series of tremendously faithful adaptations of the author's comics work, and depicts in blindingly gorgeous effect Miller's telling of the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. It is crucially important to remember that fact while viewing "300;" that it is not a filmic recreation of the Battle of Thermopylae, but rather, a filmic recreation of Frank Miller's particular vision of the Battle Thermopylae, as it is by virtue of that fact that "300" achieves its most stunning victories as well as its occasionally awkward defeats.
"300" is a film truly worthy of the word "epic," firstly because of its hugely dramatic, (kind of) true story. It's 480 BC, and ancient Greece lies in the path of the Persian Empire, the largest of the ancient world and, as depicted in "300," simply the most awesome and powerful force in the history of all things. A Persian emissary is dispatched to the Greek state of Sparta, where he informs the warrior-king Leonidas (played in the film by Gerard Butler) that Sparta and his rule over her will be maintained if Leonidas allows Sparta to be annexed peacefully by the Persian emperor Xerxes the Great.
Ancient Sparta, being above all else a military society in which the default profession was a soldier, raised its sons to be warriors practically from birth. Newborn Spartans thought to be infirm or too small to grow into good soldiers were left to die in the wilderness. Combat training began as soon as boys could pick up weapons. At age 13, the boys were sent out into the Greek countryside to survive for years with nothing but their own ferocious instincts. Upon returning to civilization, these young men began service in the Spartan military, which was quite probably the best-trained, most efficient and most fiercely patriotic war machine in the history of the world.
Naturally, King Leonidas was one of those boys, and, as such, could not accept the Persian emissary's terms of submission, "peaceful' as they may have been (they probably weren't). So, Leonidas kicked the emissary and all his armed guards into a big hole in the ground. It's a scene that fans of the graphic novel remember well, and one that may very well become one of the most memorable in recent film history.
With Xerxes and his limitless armies standing on the porch, the front door to war literally kicked open, King Leonidas prepared to defend Greece. As the President of the United States must receive permission from Congress before waging war (heh...), so too did the King from ancient Sparta's democratic equivalents. And like the America of today, the political system of ancient Sparta operated only at the pleasure of a relatively small group of traditionalist mystics, all of whom were wholly corrupt, largely inbred, sexually deviant and disliked by essentially everybody. And perhaps also like the America of today, these false prophets sacrificed the health of their nation to the interests of a decadent Middle-Eastern monarch. They were called the Ephors, and they denied Leonidas permission to protect Sparta.
And so marched the 300, illegally.
It is interesting that for all its inherent brutality, Sparta prided itself on being a nation of logic and reason. A small band of 300 - even 300 of the best soldiers in the world - against anywhere between ten thousand to two million troops would seem to even the most sentimental child a profoundly un-winnable scenario. Yet Leonidas and his 300 marched all the same, knowing they were going to die.
As truly epic as this tale of legendary heroism is, nothing can properly prepare audiences for the experience of the "300." "Hyper-epic" may accurately characterize the style in which this already exhilarating Frank Miller story was realized on film. From the studio logos to the end credits, every frame of "300" pulsates and flexes as if it were heaving an enormous weight from one shot to the next. The music and sound effects are pushed completely to the forefront, making every pluck of a string, every beat of a drum, every footstep and even every breath carry the dramatic impact of most other films' entire audio tracks. Every shot is picturesque. Every close-up is extreme. Every man is muscle-bound and sculpted. Every woman is elegant and beautiful (even the terribly scarred ones). Every monster is hideous and sickening. Every blow is fatal. Every moment is a moment. Not one second is wasted.
In this fashion, "300" is relentless and will leave its viewers exhausted, because they will have lived it. They will understand and experience every motivation, every action, and every reaction that each character in the film makes, because they will see the world through the unflinching eyes of Frank Miller's Spartans. Credit for this is of course due to the marvelous direction of Zack Snyder, although much praise also belongs to Gerard Butler. The star of Joel Schumacher's "The Phantom of the Opera," Butler is likely an unknown to most comic fans, if not indeed the American public in general. That will change soon. Butler embodies completely Miller's King Leonidas, giving the film all the sincerity and emotional support it needs to keep from collapsing into a mess of meaningless violence, painfully clichéd dialogue and pretty pictures (all among the most popular criticisms of "Sin City," incidentally). It is only because of Butler that viewers will not merely understand the strange culture of Sparta, but also empathize with their struggle, which is quite a Herculean feat (heh) when you consider the fact that the Battle of Thermopylae is 2,500-year-old news.
The rest of "300's" cast is similarly obscure, with a couple of exceptions. Narrator Dilios is well played by David Wenham, who most of the planet Earth remembers as Farimir in the "Lord of the Rings" films. Leonidas' rival, the scheming politician Theron (a character who does not appear in the graphic novel) is played expertly by Dominic West from "The Wire." Every actor is made to resemble exactly their illustrated counterparts, including the grotesque Ephialtes, the obligatory "Frank Miller story freak mutant character," who suffers from just about every kind of physical deformation one can imagine. Played by "The Pianist's" Andrew Tiernan, Ephialtes is, despite his insane appearance, just as believable as all the other characters in "300." Tiernan portrays Ephialtes as a man whose every moment of existence is, without a single exception, totally wretched. The smallest movement seems to cause him pain, including breathing. The sight of this man being caressed and molested by dozens of the Persian Empire's most desirable women is among one of the more disturbing and paradoxical images moviegoers are likely to see for a while.
The resemblance of "300's" actors to the characters in Frank Miller's graphic novel is just one of the remarkable similarities between the two projects. Like Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City" before it, director Zack Snyder's "300" pays enormous reverence to every detail of Frank Miller's original comic, particularly to the Eisner Award-winning artwork created by Miller and painter Lynn Varley. Each frame of Snyder's film is soaked in the graphic novel's unforgettable palette of red and bronze - except for the scenes at night, which are cloaked in Varley's textured blue, black and greys. Every scene is staged to recreate precisely Miller's statuesque, melodramatic poses. Even the author's trademark silhouettes and uses of negative space are somehow - don't ask me how, you have to see it - transported flawlessly into the three dimensional realm. Of course, even "300's" excellent logo is used in the film version and its marketing materials.
"300" is arguably a more successful comics-to-film translation than "Sin City," which seems in comparison to "300" more like a cool art film. "Sin City" was a wholly literal recreation of Miller's comics, employing much of the actual "language" of comic book storytelling. But was "Sin City" a creative success unto itself, removed completely from the comics? Maybe? Maybe not? "300," in any case, seems to actually synthesize the two mediums, creating a new language all for itself in order to make a film that stands completely on its own as one of the best war movies ever made.
Indeed, the combat of "300" is very beyond what most viewers are expecting, even in a time when depictions of vast armies clashing realistically on screen has become routine. Fans of the original graphic novel are likely to be most surprised by the action in "300," as both its intensity and its visual splendor will eclipse even their expectations. Miller took advantage of "300's" double-page spread format to create not just picturesque settings, but also incredibly dynamic angles, poses, actions and beautifully rendered ultra-violence -- the best of which are recreated perfectly in the film.
The notion of "fight choreography" has been severely trivialized for me as a result of "300." No more can I be entertained by two, three or even dozens of men throwing hundreds of punches and kicks with hardly a one landing or, when one does, causing little to no consequences. No, "300" is not about "fight choreography." It's about killing the hell out of people. The force, might and skill of the Spartans' every move is fully displayed in "300," in shot after bloody shot. Audiences will leave "300" with the memory of one particular sequence in which we see in one gorgeous slow-motion/fast-motion/back-to-slow-motion shot, King Leonidas viciously take down one enemy after another for what seems like five minutes without ever cutting away. It is glorious.
The stylized combat of "300" is, as far as I've seen, unparalleled in American filmmaking, and that includes "The Matrix," "The Lord of the Rings," and everything else. In fact, "Rings" devotees may wish to avoid "300," because after seeing Frank Miller's widescreen illustrations come to life and start moving, leaping, hacking, gouging, tearing and bleeding all over their neighborhood IMAX, the Tolkien trilogy will be reduced to little more than the very long story of a schizophrenic Muppet and his curiously affectionate companions. And I love those movies!
Zack Snyder's greatest achievement in "300" is perhaps his realization of the threat and immense power of Xerxes the Great. As in Miller's graphic novel, Xerxes and the Persian Empire are portrayed as basically mythical; a fearsome force of nature that blankets the world as easily as day turns into night. Garbed decadently in only gold and surrounded constantly by dozens of women, hundreds of slaves and thousands of soldiers, Xerxes truly believes himself a god and absolute ruler of the world. For all intents and purposes, he is. Literally the master of all he surveys, Xerxes commands an army of what seems like millions who believe in nothing but obeying their magnificent God-King. That Xerxes mercifully - and constantly - sends emissaries to Leonidas to implore the Spartans surrender for their own good just makes the tyrant that much creepier.
Wave after wave of the Persian "Immortals" come at the Spartans' hold at the Hot Gates, the only path to Persian victory. Snyder stages the battle so well, viewers feel as though the entire world, even the entire host of Hell itself is swelling up from beneath the ground and trying to break through those 300 Spartans and into that narrow pass. It is a tremendously anxious and suspenseful experience for the viewer, and the one aspect of the film that unarguably surpasses that of the comic.
"300" diverges from Miller's graphic novel most obviously with the inclusion of a subplot involving Leonidas' wife Queen Gorgo, played by Lena Heady, and the politician Theron, portrayed by Dominic West. While Leonidas is battling the Persians, the Queen works to persuade Congress to bypass the nonsensical decrees of the mystic Ephors and send the rest of Sparta's army to aid the King in saving them all from obliteration. Theron, a scheming politician with an agenda that depends on the Persians winning, attempts to derail the Queen's machinations by standing before Congress and accusing the Queen of assorted scandalous activities including adultery.
To call this addition a "subplot" is somewhat misleading, as book fans are used to "subplots" in film adaptations meaning "new and generally needless changes to the text at the expense of better material they'd rather see on screen." "300" omits nothing, or at least nothing crucial, and the Queen/Theron scenes serve to actually strengthen Miller's story. Viewers get to see the fabled strength of Spartan women, not to mention the weakness of an eerily familiar Congress that allows the substance of a critical issue to be obfuscated with gossip and sensation. While the heroes of Sparta continued to fall at the hands of an unstoppable enemy, their government bickered about who was sleeping with whom.
But despite the parallels that we can draw to the scenarios depicted in "300," it's important to remember that the story is (largely) true. This battle really happened. It's not a metaphor for anything , and the connections I or any other viewer draws to the world of today are just coincidental. That the United States is currently experiencing a conflict with modern-day Persia has nothing to do with "300." Yet meaning and symbolism will by some viewers be inferred, even where this is none. To be fair, it's likely because riding shotgun with Leonidas and his 300 is so much fun.
It is this sort of thing that is symptomatic of "300's" one main flaw. The Spartans of Frank Miller's "300" are depicted simply as men of enormous courage and valor, warriors with not just brawn but brilliant minds. Heroes. Free men. But the truth is that the Spartans - which is to say, the "true-blooded" Spartans - were able to spend their lives becoming such great warriors only because they had slaves and an underclass to do everything else for them. When King Leonidas and his boyhood chums were roaming the countryside for years trying to survive, they weren't just killing big scary wolves, they were also meant to seek out and murder slaves as part of their rite of passage. And for all the talk of the respect enjoyed by Spartan women, they still weren't even allowed to participate officially in government. There's also that whole "leave smaller babies to die" thing.
These truths dilute the taste of words like "glory," "reason" and "freedom," all of which are at the heart of "300" and its characters. But while these things are probably worth talking about, Frank Miller didn't actually set out to tell the story of ancient Sparta, warts and all. Miller told beautifully (and perhaps even definitively) the story of the Battle of Thermopylae from the point of view of the Spartans, and it is an incredible tale. Just a glance at any random page of "300" reveals immediately the inspiration Miller felt by the heroism and sacrifice of Sparta's 300. Back in 1998, in what seemed like out of nowhere, Frank Miller created one of his most classic works; that rare kind of comic book in which every panel betrays its author's genuine thrill in creating it. The makers of the "300" film have left a similar stamp on every frame of their movie. Zack Snyder and his collaborators will be forever acclaimed for all the cool stuff they successfully brought over from the "300" graphic novel and into the movie, but that they also managed to bring into cinemas Frank Miller's passion for this story was their greatest victory.
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