target="PopUp">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.
target="PopUp">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.
"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.
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!
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.
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.
target="PopUp">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.
target="PopUp">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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