Dir: Zack Snyder. US. 2007. 115mins.
Adolescent daydreams of gung-ho, band-of-brothers fantasy are commingled in compelling fashion with grand orations of honor in 300, a stirring, violent and visually audacious tale of battlefield sacrifice. Genre fans who made solid hits out of fellow graphic novel adaptations Sin City and V For Vendetta will provide the core audience for a film that will dominate with young males and should enjoy at least several strong weeks in theatres.
From Braveheart and Alexander to Kingdom Of Heaven and Apocalypto, international audiences have shown much more of a willingness to embrace historical epics over the past several years, sometimes by a 3:1 margin. While that leaning will likely continue, 300’s returns should rate favorably when compared to the aforementioned V For Vendetta, which nearly split its $132m gross between worldwide and domestic receipts in a similar frame last year. Securing at least a small slice of more adventuresome mainstream action epic fans would help push 300 past those grosses.
Long-term, ancillary value will remain high, with the same sort of replay value genre fans found in Troy likely driving DVD sales when the film hits that format later this year.
The movie tells the story of The Battle Of Thermopylae in 480BC, a mighty clash as philosophical stand which is said to have eventually inspired all of Greece to band together against a massive force of invading Persians, and in turn help usher in the world’s first democracy.
When Spartan King Leonidas (Butler) and his wife, Queen Gorgo (Headey), spurn the counsel of a Persian messenger to offer up a token submission to self-proclaimed god-king Xerxes (Santoro), it touches off a political crisis, and then a military one.
Unable to win the blessing of the group of diseased, corrupt priests who sanctify battle, and unsupported by equally duplicitous counsel member Theron (West), Leonidas skirts governmental standard by enlisting the private aide of an elite cadre of bodyguards, a group numbering 300. He leads them into battle to confront Xerxes’ army of well over one million men, meeting up along the way with another several hundred Arcadian sympathizers and citizen soldiers.
A brilliant tactician, Leonidas decides the Spartans will make their stand in a narrow, seaside mountain pass, to lessen the enemy’s advantage. Several gory battles ensue, and a face-to-face meeting with Xerxes - a towering figure with a bald pate and an elaborate jumble of piercings, bracelets, straps and other jewelry - produces no tenable compromise.
As Gorgo attempts to broker a compromise that will send reinforcements, Leonidas and his dwindling comrades make a last stand for freedom.
If 300’s battle sequences are rooted more in fantastical posing rather than the realistic choreography of something like Kingdom Of Heaven, one has to consider also some of the larger-than-life foes - from elephants to gargantuan mutants - that are trotted out against the Spartans, and the undeniable element of whimsy in the film.
Snyder indulges a penchant for intermittent slow-motion that fetishises the film’s violence - which includes a few choice acrobatic amputations - but both this and other posed imagery (thousands of fired arrows blotting out the sun, Persians being pushed off a cliff like lemmings) generally works within the context of 300 as a come-to-life storybook.
Cinematographer Larry Fong’s superb camerawork presents consistently evocative images. Part live action shot against green screen, part rotoscoped and painstakingly tinkered with in post-production, the saturated frames and rich shadows feel and look like a comic panel come to life, and the movie’s brawny, heightened tone is a marvelous encapsulation of youthful, masculinised idealism.
Tight close-ups, meanwhile, give viewers a strong sense of intimacy and identification with the characters, particularly Leonidas.
Tyler Bates’ driving, aggressive music reflects the characters’ physical vigor but also their steadfast dedication to principle.
Grizzled and jut-jawed, Butler gives a striking, sympathetic and surprisingly humanistic performance, considering he’s playing a monarch. In a film with much sound and fury, he conveys his convictions with palpable force, and even injects a nice wry sense of humor into a few scenes, leading up to and including his initial meeting with Xerxes.
Craig J Flores
Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B Gordon, from the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley