Continuing my infrequent blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I slog my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money, here’s Zack Snyder’s only good movie, 300.
(2007) Directed by Zack Snyder, Written by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
Tagline: Prepare for glory!
What it’s about:
In 480 B.C. the Persian emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) invades Greece and stubs his well pedicured pinky toe on the militant nation of Sparta, whose forward thinking monarch Leonidas (Gerard Butler) defies convention and logic and leads three hundred soldiers and a couple hundred Athenians to a narrow canyon pathway to bottleneck the million man invasion force in an ultra-heroic do-or-die last stand.
Why I bought it:
300 is the movie that for me, saved modern film.
I had just completed a rotten string of bad luck at the theater. I had seen, in rapid succession, Superman Returns, Nacho Libre, Lady In The Water, (and I could’ve sworn, though the dates don’t seem to bear it out, a Nicholas Cage movie which among my moviegoing friends is now known infamously as ‘that flaming skull biker movie’ and shall remain forever nameless on this blog).
I was pretty disillusioned with Hollywood. I’d gotten to the point where I had to be in the mood to watch anything new.
I was familiar with the story of the Battle of Thermopylae from Larry Gonick’s treatment of it in his seminal Cartoon History Of The Universe, but I hadn’t read Frank Miller’s graphic novel, although I’d been aware of it for some time.
I had zero expectations about this. Though it looked visually interesting, I had seen the same extensive green screen technique already used by Robert Rodriguez in his Sin City adaptation, and felt the whole thing had turned out kind of silly. I lovedSinCitythe comic (particularly The Big Fat Kill), but like Watchmen, it worked better as a comic. The exaggerated look of the characters in the film was ridiculously literal and the dialogue just sounded goofy when spoken. I didn’t hate it, but it was pretty forgettable.
I went down to Palm Springs to see 300 with an old buddy who was staying down there for a couple weeks while he worked on the wind turbines (DON’T say windmills in his presence).
From the opening scene, this movie positively arrested me in the theater. It’s baroque style brutality (featuring children no less – something that’s almost NEVER done), it’s Wagnerian music and staging (I love the strangely ominous swelling of the chorus at the return of the majestic young Leonidas wearing the skin of the wolf he killed), and most especially David Wenham’s voice, which drips with the same kind of classical, grand guginol theatrical quality of narration by Vincent Price or Christopher Lee. It’s perfectly matched to the overblown, overdramatic, hyper-realism of the movie’s imagery.
I’m a tremendous fan of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan. I was drawn to seek out Howard via the 1980 Milius movie, but it was the amazing cover art that graced the various Zebra and Lancer paperbacks of Howard’s work that drove me to obsessively collect them. The art of Boris Vallejo, Jeff Jones, and most especially Frank Frazetta set fire to my imagination.
300 is obviously meant to reflect the style of Frank Miller, but I can’t help but think of Frazetta watching it. The female figures are voluptuous and sensual (spearheaded by the beautiful Lena Headly as Leonidas’ Queen Gorgo – the woman projects maturity, strength and soft and cuddly womanhood at the same time, without being either a waif or a tomboy. She really should’ve been tapped to play Wonder Woman), the males tigerish and virile in the extreme, and the various ‘monsters’ suitably hideous yet disturbingly humanoid, bolstering the idea that they’re not quite monsters, just corrupt offshoots of humanity.
I’ve heard the cries of homoeroticism leveled at 300. I guess people see what they want to see. Of course the real life Trojans practiced institutionalized homosexuality (it could be argued, pedophilia – which always makes me cringe ruefully at the ‘boy lovers’ line Leonidas directs at the Athenians at one point), but this is only lightly touched upon if at all, mainly in hints in the friendship between the Captain’s son and his best friend.
For my part though, 300’s unabashed maleness appeals to the 12 year old in me that flexed his skinny arms in the mirror hopefully and dreamt of rescuing the cutest girl in class via some act of extreme, righteous (and somehow impressive) violence. It’s a gung ho, unapologetically un-PC guy movie, promoting esprit de corps, nationalism, and the supposed virtues of war, but God dang it if doesn’t pull it off masterfully.
And it’s a helluva a lot smarter than it lets on (perhaps even smarter than its director knew judging from his other work). Consider that the entire movie is narrated by the lone survivor of the Battle of Thermopylae, Wenham’s Dilios.
Leonidas has defied the Ephors (insanely corrupt, bestial oracular priests who molest virgins are part of their ceremonies) and his own government (being maniuplated by Dominic West, who is on the Persian payroll – and looks like an evil Harry Hamlin/Perseus) in taking the fight to Xerxes because he knows the Persians must be defeated. So he tells the wounded Wenham to return and tell them what’s happened. It’s then revealed in the end sequence that Wenham has been narrating the entire movie to a new force of Spartans and free Greeks who have amassed to deal with the Persian threat following the destruction of the 300.
This immediately puts all of the movie’s gross exaggerations (Xerxes is a giant, the Persians are monstrous and use magicians, the traitor Ephialtes is a subhuman, the corrupt Ephors look like C.H.U.D.s, Sparta itself is a sunblessed paradise) into perspective. Wenham’s Dilios intends to relate a heroic, larger than life tale to spur the Spartans to war.
LEONIDAS: ‘You have another talent unlike any other Spartan. You will deliver my final orders to the council with force and verve. Tell them our story. Make every Greek know what happened here. You’ll have a grand tale to tell.’
Thus, the movie we’re watching is a tall tale, a grand, glorious bit of propaganda spun by Dilios, the most eloquent of the three hundred, and every fantastic bit of nonsense becomes completely justified. The bomb throwing ‘wizards,’ the monstrous inhuman Immortals, the incredible martial art death dealing of the individual Spartans (ignoring the fact that most of them break the phalanx that was the most crucial component of their defense), all of it.
300 becomes, in this context, a fantastic Greek hero myth, as lusty and bloody and beautiful as anything Homer might’ve recited to get the audience’s blood pumping.
As I said, 300 made me love movies again. At the time I saw it, it was practically unlike anything else that had come before it, a brilliant moving Frazetta painting with larger than life heroes and action.
Best bit of dialogue:
This movie is endlessly quotable, some of the lines actually coming from the original historical accounts (‘Fight in the shade,’ ‘Spartans! Lay down your weapons!’ ‘Persians! Come and get them!’, are both purported to be true exchanges), but my personal favorite is the final curse Leonidas lays on the traitorous Ephialtes just prior the final stand of the 300. Spartan law decrees that any infant born too weak to be raised as warriors, be left to die, and Ephialtes is a twisted, deformed hunchback. Yet his parents, out of love for him, chose to spare him, and we presume left Spartan society. Ephialtes returns, wearing the warrior garb of his late father, claiming his father taught him how to fight. He offers his service as a soldier to Leonidas. Leonidas rejects him due to the practical reason of his not being able to raise his shield arm to maintain a phalanx with the other Spartans. The spurned Ephialtes goes straight to Xerxes and betrays Leonidas, guiding the Persians to a secret pass by which they can circumvent the Spartan defense and surround the 300 in exchange for wealth, sex, and a ridiculously clownish Persian uniform.
In one simple, almost offhanded remark, Leonidas cuts the traitor to his soul, alluding to all the cultural lessons Ephialtes’ father tried to instill in him about seeking honor and a warrior’s life (which of course must end, by a Spartan’s way of thinking, with a warrior’s death on the battlefield). All in five heavy words.
‘Ephialtes. May you live forever.’
Again, almost too many to cite. I love the opening sequence, but there is another scene that really sticks with me.
The Spartans are on a bluff overlooking the ocean as a tremendous night tempest unleashes all it’s fury on the horizon-to-horizon Persian fleet, capsizing the great ships, smashing them into each other, and sending thousands of Persian sailors (and we presume, warriors) sinking slowly to the bottom.
The Spartans lose all their previously established discipline and match the storm’s violence with their own apparent exuberance. They beat each other’s shoulders, ball their fists, and scream their exultation at the drowning Persians as the slanting silver rain drives against their bare skin, plastering their hair and cloaks.
The music reaches a tremendous crescendo, utilizing as never before, weird, crashing electric guitar strains that capitalize the barbarity of the moment -men abandoning themselves to extreme joy at the death of other men.
‘Zeus stabs the sky with thunderbolts and batters the Persian ships with hurricane wind. Glorious.’
The camera cuts to Leonidas, who alone stands grim and subdued, frowning at the destruction, not because he doesn’t share in his men’s appreciation at seeing the enemy so destroyed, but because he knows that ultimately, it’s not gonna be enough.
‘Only one among us keeps his Spartan reserve. Only he. Only our king.’
Would I buy it again? Yes.
NEXT IN THE QUEUE: The Adventures of Robin Hood