300 is the Zack Snyder adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel. It tells a story based on the battle of Thermopylae.
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First and foremost, this is an action movie. It is not a historical drama. Grading it is a historical drama is much like a food critic slamming pop-tarts because they are more pedestrian than filet mignon. It is bloody. Battles frequently are, but where some movies try to minimize the impact of gore, this film goes into slow motion so you can appreciate the effect of severed vertebrae catching the sunlight. So if you can't handle blood, rampant violence, and death, do not watch. (I'm talking to you Mom!)
Second, this movie is a comic book, set in motion. It is not just adapted from a comic book, they used the comic pages to lay out the action. The movie has two palates of colour, sepia tones; human flesh (of which there is a lot!), earth, stone, gold and the El Grecio skies. The second colour is red; the red of the Spartan Cloaks, the red of blood. Lots and lots of blood. This mimics the technique set forth in Miller's masterpiece; black and red ink, subtle washes, with the red leaping off the page.
Third, the script mimics the comic as well. The characters are not Leonidas of Sparta and Xerxes of Persia, they are Leonidas of the 300, and Xerxes, villain of the 300. The claim has been made that the characters are two dimensional. Well, yes, paper is flat. These are comic book heroes, Greek supers able to leap tall warriors in a single bound. Heck, they even wear capes!
So, with those three things in mind, (not historically accurate, bloody as heck, its a comic book) you are ready to appreciate this movie.
And there is much to appreciate. It is visually stunning. Every scene looks larger than life. Grecian air is always full of ominous clouds and dramatic sunbeams. The entire kingdom of Sparta has bodies by bowflex! (More on that later)
Even the camera angles and the film speed add to the drama; every fight scene slows so you can appreciate the delicate arch of spraying blood, the flailing of men throw into pits, the spin of a decapitated head.
When ever the film slows almost to freezing for a few seconds, look, it is a scene lifted from the comic, same stance, position, and composition that exists in the book. It is a unique and compelling approach to film, and while it uses nervous energy watching it, it does build the drama of the scene. No gory detail escapes the eye. Just as you can study the scene in a comic, you are give the same opportunity here.
Even the men look drawn; there is a uniform; red cloak, helmet, shield, greaves and sandals. In the comic, some men wore loincloths, and some went naked, except for their cloaks. (Snyder, you cheat! Maybe in the unrated deluxe edition?) Each is in superlative shape, with minimal body fat, and a triple ripple across the belly that I have to suspect is part crunches and part shadow enhancing makeup. Most have scars, and look the part of total bad###es. This is as it should be, because the Spartans were totally hardcore.
Everyone who ever took world history should know the plot. Xerxes, son of Darius, Emperor of Persia, demanded tribute of all the city states of the Peloponnesian peninsula. Sparta was notorious for never backing down from a fight. But the Ephors, the spiritual leaders of the city said that Sparta could not go to war at that time, as the Carnia was coming, a time when war was an offence against the gods. Leonidas, knowing that the best chance to meet the vastly superior Persian army was at a natural funnel into the Greek peninsula, the Hot Gates, or Thermopylae. Forbidden to go to war, Leonidas and his personal bodyguard (300 strong warriors, all with sons to carry their names) go for a walk.
They join up with 700 Thespians and 6000 assorted militia from all over and together, they go to meet the greatest army the world has ever known.
The Atheneans, the worlds greatest navy, protected the land from attack by sea, forcing a crossing of the narrow point at Thermopylae. The Persian army is huge, and the ships are overloaded. The first break comes for the Greeks when a freak storm drowns part of the fleet on the waters. Then it comes down to meeting the army.
The movie settles in to a gorefest at this point, the superior trained Spartans using every trick they can think of to meet each sally, holding the phallanx, and holding the pass. The only true plot element here is the arrival of Ephialtes, a hunchbacked son of Sparta, saved by a mother and father willing to live in exile rather than expose their flawed son. Ephialtes wishes to serve in the army to regain his families honor. Leonidas, with uncommon compassion, asks him to lift his shield high enough to cover a man from thigh to neck. He is not capable. Leonidas tells him kindly, but firmly, that he can't use him.
Hurt, betrayed, his dreams of redemption shattered, the hunchback travels to Xerxes and offers to tell the Persian despot about a secret goatpath that will allow them to flank the Greeks. Xerxes laughs, saying he is kind; Leonidas required the poor freak to stand...all he requires is that he kneels.
Using this information, the Persians flank the Greeks. Most of the Greek forces flee, but the remnants of the Spartans remain, except for one man, the captain, an eloquent man, whom Leonidas commands to live, and spread the tale.
Then he, and his Spartans meet Xerxes. Defiant to the last, they die to a man, unbowed, unbroken.
But the job was done. Reinforcements from other city states arrived, and the Persians were, after much effort, repulsed.
Oddly, the Ephors insured victory for the Greeks. If they had permitted Leonidas to take the army, they would have held Thermopylae for a good while. But it would have been Sparta versus the Persian Empire. The brave sacrifice of their King and his men insured that all the Greek city states stirred themselves, put aside their petty differences and stood united. It was the first time they were one people, with one goal.
Gerard Butler played King Leonidas. His performance gave us so many memorable lines..."Madness? This! Is! Sparta!" The sex scenes between him and Queen Gorgo are stunning, but definitely make this movie adults only fare.
Queen Gorgo was played by Lena Headly. She reminded us that one of the driving forces in shaping the Spartan warrior was the Spartan Woman. Strong, durable, and not afraid to do what must be done.
Dominic West played Theron. There is one in every crowd, and Theron was Sparta's. West made him detestable, but still somehow appealing. He makes an excellent villain.
Rodrigo Santoro played Xerxes. Almost unrecognisable under his piercings and jewelry, Xerxes was enlarged to a veritable giant. Santoro carried the god kings suave arrogance off with superb style.
The Bottom Line.
I enjoyed the movie. It is not for everyone, but if you keep in mind it is a moving comic, it becomes a fun experience. Still, it is not for kids or the squeamish.
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Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Rome: Season One
Rome: Season Two
Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter
Oracle of the Dead
A Point of Law
A Gladiator Only Dies Once
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