Monday, April 23, 2007


It seems many cinema-goers and movie reviewers have been trying to read too much into 300. The film - based on Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name - is NOT an allegory about contemporary right-wing politics, nor is it an excessive demonisation of contemporary Iran. It is a big, somewhat silly, often gory, but beautifully shot popcorn movie. Those who think otherwise are simply thinking too much. Sure, it's not one to take Granny to, but if you're keen for big screen arse-whooping thrills and spills with plenty of spectacle and man muscle on display, then this is the flick for you.

Leonidas was the legendary King of Sparta who led a heroic band of 300 elite soldiers against the mighty invading army of the Persian king Xerxes. Historically, Xerxes' had anything from 20, 000 to 5 million soldiers at his disposal at the Battle of Thermopylae. But Leonidas' stand -at a narrow passage known as the Hot Gates, alongside 300 highly-trained warriors - was enough to hold them off until reinforcements from the rest of Greece arrived to send the Persians packing.

First of all it must be said that criticising 300 for not being historically accurate is as useful as bagging Mad Max for not presenting a realistic view of the future.* Some academics don't even believe that the Battle of Thermopylae happened. It was supposed to be around 480BC after all, so it's not like we can watch the edited highlights. It's best to take this film as a version of the powerful legend of the 300, in itself simply a ripping good yarn about men standing together to fight off a would-be conqueror.

Like Sin City before it, 300 yet again attempts to recreate Frank Miller's comic-book style in feature film form. Readers of Miller's 300 tell me it's very accurate, but as someone who had never read the graphic novel, I was intrigued by the film-making style anyway. It's epic and bold, full of washed-out, almost sepia colours, slow and quick edits, and a focus on the superficial: the buff, gleaming bodies of the Spartans; the movement of air under the soldiers' capes and rain buffeting the coast; the clinking of the god-king Xerxes' elaborate jewellery; the spatters of blood as the oncoming Persians get repelled by the 300. It's a film that revels in its machismo, its chest-beating war cries - and makes no apology for it.

Scottish actor Gerard Butler plays Leonidas, and much fun has been made of the fact he seems to shout every line: "This. Is. SPARTA!". "SPARTANS!" etc. He's a solid male lead, but let's face it, this movie is not about the plot, or the characters', or the dialogue. It's a war movie, and everything is presented in as simple a way possible - from the opening explanation of how Spartan boys are trained to become warriors, to the mechanics of the battle, and the Queen Leonidas leaves at home (Lena Headey), who must convince a sceptical city-state to send reinforcements to the Hot Gates, while dealing with one of Leonidas' more slippery advisers (Dominic West). The performances (including a surprisingly buff David Wenham as Leonidas' trusty friend and the narrator of the story) are as good as you would expect from actors working against a green screen with very little built environment.

This is a film all about images - and the digital effects are breath-taking in some sequences. The battle scenes are gory, but the fighting is choreographed like a ballet, in another tribute to the physicality of the soldiers. The god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) arrives in a wonderfully over-the-top chariot, borne on the shoulders of hundreds of his slaves. He's at least 2.5 metres tall, and is dressed like Boy George after an accident with a piercing gun. He promises riches and power (and a fair few nearly naked women) to those who would join him; the steadfast and righteous Leonidas is stinging in his eventual rebuke. There's also battle elephants, rhinos, ninjas, grenades and a parade of psychopathically violent freaks thrown in to take on the Spartans. That's when you know historical accuracy really doesn't matter much in this version of events.
300 is certainly not the best historical action film ever made, but it is an interesting visual experiment and experience, and a big silly beat-em-up movie when right beats might - and should be enjoyed as such.

*And as far as historical anachronisms and inaccuracy go, let's look no further than last year's Marie Antoinette, which played hard and fast with recorded events, not to mention gaily throwing in contemporary references. While it received its share of negative press, it was nowhere near the level that 300 has encountered. May one venture to suggest that the film critics' darling Sofia Coppola directing may have had something to do with that? Meow - saucer of milk to the blogger!

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