The legendary Battle of Thermopylae is recreated in Zack Snyder's 300 as a blood-soaked, hyper-stylised barrage of images, noise and pop culture influences. Among the art forms thrown into the blender to create it are the comic books that inspired it, old school sword and sandal epics, Michael Bay blockbusters, hard rock music promos and next generation video games. The result is going to alienate as many viewers as it entertains. What might you not like? 300 is very violent, with graphic impalings and decapitations aplenty and it's also very uncritical of violence. Once it gets going, the action and special effects are virtually non-stop. The director is as much of a show-off as Michael Bay.
If you can live with these things, is the film any good? Yes, I think it’s damn good. I found it a rousing piece of entertainment and a pleasure to watch. It's not entirely mindless either, despite the wall to wall action. There's a clear, guiding vision behind it all. While you shouldn't mistake this for a history lesson, the film's creators are obviously fascinated by the Spartans, their philosophy and their way of life and they immerse the film in the Spartan culture. This, plus a commanding lead performance by Gerard Butler, gives us more to hold our attention than the constant spectacle, which we could get from plenty of other, lesser films.
300 refers to the 300 warriors who are led into battle in 480 BC by the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) against a vast Persian army marching on his land and the rest of the Greek empire. Sparta is a warrior kingdom and the Spartan army numbers ten thousand. However, Leonidas is prevented from amassing a proper army by politics and superstition. Greek mystics have decreed that there can be no warfare during the sacred festival currently unfolding, while politicians like the slimy Theron (Dominic West) want to avoid conflict for their own ends.
Seeing no alternative but to live as slaves of the Persian king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Leonidas leaves his queen (Lena Headey) and sets out with a token force to Thermopylae. There, the invading Persians will be forced to march through a narrow pass and they will lose (at least in part) the advantage of their overwhelming numbers. But how long can a few hundred warriors, even the elite warriors of Sparta hope to last against an army exceeding a hundred thousand men?
The bulk of 300 is devoted to showing just how Leonidas and his men hold out. Probably half the movie takes place on the battlefield. To the credit of the film's creators - writer-director Zack Snyder, screenwriters Kurt Johnstad and Michael B Gordon and of course Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, who wrote the graphic novel on which this is based - the blood-letting doesn't become boring and repetitive. Instead of adopting the chaotic approach to filming battle scenes that's been popular since Mel Gibson's Braveheart, 300 tells us what's going on. It lets us in on the strategies being used and so we follow the battles with interest.
Don't take this to mean the film is aiming for anything close to realism. We're not just watching men in helmets clank swords together. No, Xerxes' forces include a chained giant, squadrons of masked mutants, armoured elephants and even a rhinoceros. The Spartans and their enemies are deliberately exaggerated and made fantastical. This is more Lord Of The Rings than Spartacus.
The look of the film is that grainy, bleached-out, overlit look that's become popular lately and not just with fantasy films - Clint Eastwood used it for his Iwo Jima project. Partly this is intended to reproduce the look of the comic book (as Sin City did) but another factor is that it allows for simpler and cheaper special effects. The vast crowd scenes don't have to be too detailed. Given the amount of effects, lord knows what 300 would have cost to make, had it been shot with the clarity of Troy. One throwaway scene shows us an entire fleet being broken apart in a storm.
Zack Snyder's directorial style is part comic book, part video game and part Michael Bay. Overwrought doesn't begin to describe it. Every shot in this movie calls attention to itself. Every shot looks like it was designed to be showcased in the trailer or a promotional music video. Loud rock music blares during the battles. The film's rhythm alternates from slow-mo to speeded-up. Fast MTV cutting gives way to lengthy, unbroken shots of Spartans dispatching foe after foe after foe. The onslaught of CGI effects is never-ending. If you loathe Michael Bay and everything he stands for, you probably won't enjoy 300 much either. If you can accept the style though, there's a lot here to impress. Unlike many of Bay's disciples (and sometimes Bay himself), Snyder doesn't ignore the tone and themes of the film and he doesn't leave the actors high and dry.
Granted, the cast aren't there to act so much as they are to look great half-naked and display enough presence to stand out amidst all the special effects. The characterisation comes down to this: the heroes are noble, the villains hissable. Star Gerard Butler gives Leonidas a bit of complexity. He shows us the king's hidden, tender side in between shouting and hacking off heads and we do feel something for him. It's the shouting and hacking you remember though. In his most memorable moment, shown in all the trailers, he kicks a hapless messenger down a well with the cry, "Madness? This... is... Sparta!" Butler puts on quite a show. 300 should do for him what Gladiator did for Russell Crowe.
For a comic book action movie about a 2500 year old conflict, 300 has inspired some strong reactions and upset a lot of people. Partly this is down to the Michael Bay factor - critics getting fed up with Hollywood sound and fury - but partly it's the perceived politics of the movie. Here's a movie that unashamedly glorifies war, warriors and the warlike values of the Spartans. Some have labelled it pro-Bush propaganda, including the Iranian government who point to the heroes being Westerners and the villains being demonised Persians.
Warmongering, blood-thirsty and gung ho the movie certainly is, but ask yourself how would you go about making a politically correct movie about the Spartans and who would want to watch it? This story appeals to the same macho part of you that cheered the 60 year old Rocky Balboa for standing toe to toe with the champ. If you're going to undercut it with hints that maybe fighting isn't the answer, you may as well not bother. 300 does thrown in a few lines to pacify the liberals, suggesting (unconvincingly) that the battle is being waged to preserve civilised, humanist values. However, make no mistake, this is a right wing testosterone fest that John Milius might have directed thirty years ago with Sean Connery as Leonidas. Gerard Butler actually calls to mind Connery more than once.
On the other hand, I think the Bush references are grasping at straws - this film has virtually no parallels with today's politics and it makes its opinion of politicians crystal clear. As for the Iranians' charges of racism, the Persians in the film are so exotic and so far-removed from contemporary Middle Easterners (Thermopylae predates Islam by a millennium) that Iranians should be about as offended by this as Germans should be by King Arthur's rampaging Saxons.