In 1999, Frank Miller wrote and drew (with colors by Lynn Varley) a limited series comic book (now known as “graphic novels” because, one presumes, it sounds better) called “300”. It told the tale of Spartan King Leonidas, who went for a walk “somewhere up north” with 300 of his “personal bodyguards” when he was not allowed to take Sparta’s army to go meet the invading Persian hordes, led by their self-proclaimed God-King Xerxes. The year was 480 B.C., and Xerxes had determined to finish what his father Darius had failed decades before — conquer Hellenic Greece, or burn it to the ground trying. Zach Snyder’s “300” is a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller‘s story, but it is not a faithful re-telling of what actually transpired that day at Thermopylae, aka The Hot Gates, and the difference should be noted.
Gerard Butler (“Reign of Fire”) slips on the bronze helmet and picks up the heavy shield (but curiously retains his heavy Scottish brogue) as Leonidas, whose legend from boyhood is recounted regularly by storyteller Dilios (David Wenham) to the rest of the Spartans as they march to war. It is Dilios’ voice that we hear at the beginning of “300”, and his voice that we hear afterwards, at the final battle at Plataea a year after the events of Thermopylae. And what a story it is — unfolding like the best of the Greek tales of war, encompassing great men, greater woman, and even greater villains.
It is at the Hot Gates that Leonidas is determined to stop the army of Xerxes, numbering in the 100s of thousands, and composed of slave armies conquered by mighty Xerxes, or die trying. (Those who know their history, or have read Miller’s comics, will already know how “300” ends.) The result is a massive clash of men, shield, arrows, spears and swords the likes never before seen in Greece — well, except for a little something called the Battle of Marathon some ten years earlier. (In case you ever wondered why a marathon is 26 miles long, it’s because after their victory at Marathon, the Greeks sent a messenger back to Athens, on foot, to deliver the victorious message. He had to run exactly 26 miles — promptly dying when he arrived, but not before he relayed the message: “Nike!” — which translates as “Victory!”)
Zach Snyder and Frank Miller’s version of “300” has its basis in truth, but it is not truth in and of itself. The best way to approach the film is the way the film approaches its own storytelling — as a tale told by a man (in this case, Dilios) who is determined to rally all of Greece against Xerxes’ Persians. To do this, he must spin the most delicious, most heroic, and most stunning tale of his life, for anything less will not be enough to stir the hearts of men to the greatest battle of their lives (at Plataea, where the Persian army was soundly defeated, despite still heavily outnumbering the assembled Greeks by at least 3 to 1). So seen through this prism, any questions about “300’s” truthfulness to historic events should be discarded. It just doesn’t matter in this case.
This is clearly a fictional retelling of true events, the kind Hollywood does so well, able to get by with the simple warning of, “Based on a true story”. Indeed, “300” is very much based on a true story, but it’s not the true story. Once the viewer has accepted this, there remains little hindrance to enjoying the full brunt of Snyder’s adaptation of Miller’s tale of unbound machismo. So rejoice, lovers of decapitations and other bodily dismemberments, because you will get your fill!
Armed with state-of-the-art CGI and extensive green screen work, Snyder has crafted a pure action film, a manga version of the Battle of Thermopylae with human stand-ins for animated characters. The Spartans prove their ruthlessness in the arena of killing, slaughtering thousands of Persians in the first day, and continuing the work into the second day. Xerxes continues to send his horde of men, including his fearsome Immortals — black-clad warriors that numbered exactly 10,000 — as well as unleashing a series of beasts of war from all across Asia Minor. Alas, the beasts fails to live up to their full potential because of the narrow passageways of Thermopylae — exactly as Leonidas had planned.
The trailers for “300” tells you all you need to know about the film. Unlike previous Hollywood efforts that attempt to lure in unwitting customers with deceitful advertising campaigns, there is nothing misleading about “300’s” commercials. The film is exactly what the trailers promised — blood, gore, testosterone, and pure, unadulterated carnage. To be sure, it can be slightly too much at times, but after the 50th Persian infantryman is skewered through the neck, it’s hard to be surprised anymore when someone’s head gets chopped off. Likewise, after a misshapen creature with swords for hands has already done his bloody work on one of Xerxes’ failed commanders, the presence of war elephants or Persian “magic” doesn’t seem quite as strange anymore.
Coming off 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake, writer/director Zach Snyder (who pens the script with Michael Gordon and Kurt Johnstad) has remained steadfastly faithful to Miller’s books. It’s yet another reason why Hollywood should respect the source material from which they derive their films. Snyder has approached the making of “300” the way Robert Rodriguez approached Miller’s “Sin City”, and the results have been spectacular. In fact, I am shocked Miller isn’t given some kind of co-directing credit on “300”. There are whole scenes, sequences, and vast passages of dialogue transplanted directly from Miller’s comic book pages onto the big screen. For fans of Miller’s original work, there is absolutely nothing about “300” the movie that will disappoint you.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t diversions from the source material. Snyder’s script has given additional weight to Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), which is very noticeable because besides a few panels, Gorgo was mostly missing from Miller’s comics. There is also the invention of an additional Spartan villain named Theron (Dominic West), a Councilman in bed with the Persians, and who seeks to undermine Greece for simple greed — and something else from his beautiful Queen. While Headey’s greater involvement is not entirely unwelcome (if only because Lena Headey is simply an incredibly beautiful woman to look at), Theron’s villainy is heavily clich’d and cartoonishly fiendish. Of course it’s easy to see why Snyder felt the need to create Theron — having given Headey’s Gorgo more screentime, Snyder now has to justify it, and so she was given Theron to battle.
As Leonidas, Gerard Butler earns his paycheck, if only because of the months he spent in the gym getting ready for the role. That kind of devotion has resulted in spectacular abs, something the men of Sparta in the film all seem to have in common. But of course it makes sense — for a race of people bred to fight before they can walk, the Spartans should look like the world’s most physically perfect men. There are no real outstanding performances in “300”, but Michael Fassbender, as Stelios, a Spartan in search of the most glorious death, comes close. Where Butler is required to play it stoic and hard (and does it quite well), Fassbender gets to yuk it up, and delivers the film’s most fantastic line: when informed by a Persian emissary that their arrows will “blot out the sun”, Stelios grins and replies, “Then we will fight in the shade.”
Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes brings the right combination of charm and hubris that is so often found in men in positions of ultimate power. To listen to Xerxes talk about himself, you’d think the guy actually believes his own hype. The fact that Xerxes is also much taller and bigger than Leonidas (and in fact, dwarfs him when the two men finally meet) was a nice touch. No wonder this guy thinks he’s a God among men; he’s friggin massive! The Greek traitor Ephialtes is played by Andrew Tiernan, and I would like to say more about the performance, but the phrase, “It’s all in the fat suit” seems to do the job well enough.
For pure adrenaline-pumping action, “300” meets and exceeds expectations. Snyder’s camerawork is outstanding, and he’s somehow managed to make what should have been an overdone and quickly derivative technique — slowing down the action to a crawl and speeding them up during action sequences — thrilling to the very end. Snyder always seems to know when to slow things down for, as they say, a closer look, and when to rush the action to showcase the brutality of the moment. If Snyder can maintain this type of faith to the source material and at the same time deliver quality action on a grand scale, then I have faith for his adaptation of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”. Then again, despite their origins as comic books, there’s very little that “300” has in common with “Watchmen”, so we’ll just have to see…
Zack Snyder (director) / Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon (screenplay), Frank Miller, Lynn Varley (graphic novel)
CAST: Gerard Butler … King Leonidas
Lena Headey … Queen Gorgo
Dominic West … Theron
David Wenham … Dilios
Vincent Regan … Captain
Michael Fassbender … Stelios
Tom Wisdom … Astinos
Andrew Pleavin … Daxos
Andrew Tiernan … Ephialtes