As promised, I’ve gone and done it — seen 300. And what I have to report is this: it’s a very good movie, for what it is. Not great. But very good.
As I’ve gone on at length about before, this is a movie based on a graphic novel, which in turn was based on historical events — events, mind you, from 2500 years ago. So our records are none to complete, and moreover, the first written account of the battle at the Hot Gates was approximately 50 years after the battle, by Herodotus. Fifty years is a long time, so even if the movie was based on the record of events rather than the comic book by Frank Miller, it would be a stretch to say it was entirely accurate.
So up front, my assumption is that the movie, as a movie based on the Miller graphic novel, is excused any but the most inexcusable historical accuracies. What inaccuracies are inexcusable, well, that’s for you to decide. I will venture to say, however, that if your view is that what is inexcusable is determined by the pontifications of foreign rulers, well, you and I simply and inexorably part paths on this point.
The movie is violent, yes, but not pointlessly so. It’s a movie that’s a paean to the warrior spirit and the Spartans’ warrior culture. The brutal efficiency of the Spartans disemboweling, decapitating, and hacking off limbs, was a clear counterpoint to the clumsy fighting technique of the Arcadians (non-Spartan Greeks), whom the narrator, Dilios (David Wenham (Faramir of LoTR)) describes as “brawlers” and “making a mess of things.” Several of the scenes and dialog are there to demonstrate that unlike the rest of the Greek fighters, who were blacksmiths and potters in civilian life, the Spartans’ profession — each and every one of the 300 — from youth has been soldiering. So when the 1000-strong Arcadian army encounters the 300 Spartans and their leader complains that the Spartans sent too few soldiers, King Leonidas (Gerald Butler) interrogates three Arcadians as to their professions before being conscripted. After receiving his answer, Leonidas smartly retorts: “You see, I have brought more soldiers than you.”
And that’s perhaps the core of the movie — these fighters glorify soldiering above all, and to preserve the Spartan way and a free Sparta (as the “free men” of Sparta in the movie term it, debatable (or wrong) though that description of Spartan society may be) they will happily die on the battlefield. It’s one of the most memorable and touching depictions of the warrior spirit I’ve seen on film. To portray it to good effect requires both death and gore, and a sort of mindless indoctrination and egotism (detractors of soldierly virtue may view it thus) about the soldier’s willingness to deal out and receive death. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator evoked the same concept in the protagonists’ devotion to the “dream that was Rome” — and used much of the same lush imagery that 300 uses to great effect.
So a violent and bloody film, but in pursuit of a very clear end. And the cinematography by Larry Fong has the same sweeping grandiosity that Peter Jackson and Andrew Lesnie exhibited so spectacularly in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The colors darken and become grey and grim with the arrival of the Persians — the computer-altered washed-out color palette that Jackson displayed in the Mines of Moria, for example, and Scott used for the opening battle of Gladiator — and brighten, as at the end of the Return of the King, as (spoiler alert) a second Spartan thrust ensues with significant results. I found the battle-scenes much less visually jarring than the jerky skip-frame technique cinematograpy of Gladiator’s and some of Saving Private Ryan‘s battles; despite the protracted violence, 300’s battles are in contrast very watchable. And again, the gore is not the gravaman of the battles: the high morale and ideas driving the individual Spartan is what’s at issue.
The difficult and unrealistic parts are, as some complain, in the depiction of the Persians. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Persian Emperor, is a decadent, sexually ambguous–eye-liner and a hint of lipstick and makeup, plus a clearly “femmy” manner about him, contrasted with a 8-foot body, rippling muscles, and a voice that has been enhanced downwards several keys. Think the sexually-ambiguous alien ruler-child in the Stargate movie, but on steroids. Then there are the multitudinous creatures with diseased and horrible skin, including Xerxes’ own elite warriors the “Immortals,” who wear masks to conceal their disfigurement. It gives the impression that the Persians are comprised of horribly disfigured and diseased troops, next cousins to the orcs of Middle-Earth. In contrast, the Spartans, nearly every last one, are red-cape-wearing, tight-undie-sporting, six-pack rippling and tanned weightlifters that, from a distance, are virtually indistinguishable from one another — but they’re all perfect specimens (and, I suspect, computer-enhanced).
Does all this matter? I think not, as I’ve discussed above. This is a graphic-novel set to film, and a very well done one at that. If for 117 minutes of escapism the characterization of a people 2500 years ago (certainly farther removed than the original Hatfield-McCoy barbs, and that spat is already over) can be excused as poetic license, it’s an enjoyable action romp, with some thought-provoking notions that challenge modern society’s assumptions about the place of the warrior-ethos in modernity.
Zack Snyder, the Director, has given us a coherent and beautiful movie, and certainly done Frank Miller’s work justice. Bravo.
Harry’s Rating: 8/10