The phrase “Go tell the Spartans” are the first words on a memorial plaque that is actually at the battlefield of Thermopylae. There, the 300 Spartans (along with a handful of allies), battled against the invading armies of Persia for a full week before being destroyed, but only at the cost of tens of thousands of Persian soldiers. Though the numbers are in dispute even today, no one doubts that an epic battle was fought there, the results of which probably still echo even today in the clashes between east and west
Such is the backdrop for one of the most interesting movies to come out in a long time. “300” was a graphic novel by Frank Miller, the writer of “The Dark Knight Returns”, the definitive story of the return of Batman and “Sin City”, the noir thriller that was also made into a memorable movie.
While Sin City was filmed with most of the same techniques that were used to make 300, 300 takes them to new heights. The director, Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead), filmed the actors exclusively against green screens, then composited those shots with spectacular CGI. The entire movie almost looks painted on the screen, in tones and colors that appear muted against the cold grey sky.
The movie opens with a shot of a baby being held above a cliff, with the bones of countless other babies lying below. Spartans go through a rigorous and unforgiving childhood, each moment a test of their abilities to fight and live on in a militaristic yet democratic society. The baby in the first shot of the movie turns into King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), who, when learning of the Persian’s march on Sparta, takes 300 of his finest soldiers out for a “little stroll”. In reality, they are going to guard the gates of Thermopylae, where the enemy will be forced to commit his army piecemeal. That is the main gist of the movie, and while there are side stories such as Leonidias’ wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and her efforts to bring support to Leonidias although there are forces in the court itself fighting against her, the main focus is on the action at the Gates.
And what action it is. Once the movie starts rolling, it almost never pauses to catch a breath. There’s always some new monster or creature to deal with, as Zack Snyder takes definite liberties with what Leonidias actually had to go up against. There’s armored rhinos and elephants, and an enormous man with blades where his arms should be, and another warrior that looked right at home with the orcs and trolls in Lord of the Rings. Almost the most freakish of all is Xerces himself, an 8 foot tall man who commands armies of thousands but is played as if he’s some type of circus freak.
The movie is violent, and it doesn’t shy away from showing stabbings and decapitations in slow-motion. It tends to desensitize the violence somewhat though, so that something that would be almost unbearable if shown realistically (like in saving Private Ryan) is made somehow into an odd ballet of death and destruction that just would not have been possible if the movie had been shot conventionally.
I give the movie a lot of credit: it was clearly a labor of love to reproduce the look of the graphic novel to a great extent, yet somehow capture the feel of the static page inside the movie. It also did not drag at all, and although it was clear what was going to happen in the end, it didn’t make the final scenes of Queen Gorgo and her son any less poignant. If there was anything wrong, it was the fact that there was so much action, there was almost no time for any character development at all, so, unlike in Gladiator, you never felt any sort of real connection with Leonidias. But regardless, there is a lot to enjoy if you’re a fan of action movies and/or an aficionado of special effects in the movies. 300 delivers all that and more.
And for those that think that the film is somehow some type of right-wing polemic ... get a life already! The book was finished far before the current administration, and even if it wasn’t, the mere fact that there are elements in the story that parallel what’s going on today in the real world is going to be the case no matter what side you’re looking at it from. So sit back, and get ready for a good time at the movies. 300 is rated R for realistic graphic wartime violence, sexual situations and nudity.