I will get it out of the way and say that this was not and was not meant to be a historically accurate depiction of Ancient Greece. It was never meant to be even when it was still just an Eisner-Award winning graphic novel from the mind of iconic graphic novelist and artist Frank Miller. With that out of the way I was able to watch and enjoy Zack Snyder’s film adaptation on its own terms without the criticism of historical accuracies looming dangerously over my head. 300 deserves the label of being an event film. From start to finish, Snyder’s film practically screams blockbuster and popcorn and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Frank Miller’s 300 was at its time an interesting depiction of one of history’s greatest military last stands. Miller already known for hyperstylizing the look and feel of the noir genre with his Sin City graphic novels, takes the same approach with his depiction of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans taking a final last stand against Persian God-King Xerxes at a narrow mountain pass called Thermopylae (literally meaning Hot Gates in Greek). Zack Snyder took this graphic novel and painstakingly stayed true to the visuals Miller and his colorist wife, Lynn Varley put on paper. Looking back at my memory of some of the panels and images from the graphic novel. Snyder and his crew of art directors, cinematographers and CGI-artists were successful in translating almost every page of the graphic novel onto the screen.
Like Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Miller’s Sin City, Zack Snyder’s 300 pretty much brings the graphic novel to moving life. This means he stuck to the source material quite literally which limits his own take on the graphic novel. Like Rodriguez, Snyder doesn’t really put his own signature stamp as a director to the film. It’s not too much of criticis since he does a great job of translating Miller’s work onto film, but one wonders what sort of personal touches he could’ve added to the finished look that wasn’t lifted from Miller’s style and whether it would’ve changed the overlook look and feel of the film.
The story is quite simple and just takes the basic summary of the historical event itself. Spartan King Leonidas (played with visceral gusto and machismo by Scottish thespian Gerard Butler) makes a decision to go to war and confront the encroaching and fast approaching massive Persian Army led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) intent on conquering the Hellenic city-states of the Greek Peninsula. Persian ambassadors ride forth to demand oaths of fealty from those city-states ahead of the army’s path. Sparta is one such city-state, but different from the rest of its Hellenic brethrens. Sparta has gone down in history as a word synonymous with unbending dedication to a strict, ascetic warrior code. Warfare and battle were what Spartans were born and trained to do from an early age. Weakness and physical imperfections weeded out from the time of birth (the film explains just what happens to male newborns with physical imperfections and deformities). The answer Leonidas gives the Persian delegation could be seen as somewhat extreme, but not contrary to his nation’s warrior-culture of never surrendering and seeing death in battle the greatest glory for a Spartan to achieve. From this sequence right up to the end of the film we get to see just how much of a warrior culture the Spartans were in extreme detail.
It’s during the prolonged battle scenes between Leonidas’ Spartans and Xerxes army which will have everyone chomping at the bit. If you have to see this film for any particular reason outside of watching superbly-trained underdogs slaughtering and endless supply of enemy troops then you will most likely be disappointed by the slower scenes away from Thermopylae. Indeed, this film an its original source material would’ve worked even better without the extra filler Snyder and his writers added to give the film more depth. I’m all for more emotional depth and characterization in my films but when a movie is all about a bloody and heroic last stand of a few against the many, scenes which slow the story down does more to break the rhythm and tone of a film than add to it. Othe than a deeper understanding of the kind of partnership Leonidas had with Gorgo, his Spartan Queen, most of the subplots added by Snyder and his writers could easily have been left out and still ge a kick ass action epic.
It’s the action scenes which reall stand out visually. Some people might see the style tricks of speed ramping certain action sequences then slowing it down considerably to show the minute detail of the battle scene as being to gimmicky, but I would disagree and say it actually gives the movie a mythical quality in its storytelling. One thing I have to say about Zack Snyder as a director (his remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead better than what detractors have made it out to be) is that he knows how to film action and with special mention to bloody and gory action. He makes these scenes of dismemberments, decapitations, and disembowlments look like a piece of performance art.
These scenes of carnage would be considered extremely gratuitious if it didn’t look so made up good. Even the way the blood flows, spurts and splashes look like something Jackson Pollock would take interest in. The speed up and slow down of the sequences also gives the fight scenes a certain rhythm that once an audience picks up on will follow it through to the end. This is why the scenes back in Sparta with a duplicitous politician and his powerplay to assume control and power seem such a downer instead of enhancing the sacrifice of Leonidas and his men. Those scenes just feel tacked on and completely superfluous. Luckily, there’s not enough of them to slow down the frantic pace developed by the battle itself.
The performances by all actors involved really doesn’t require too much criticism or reflection over. Gerard Butler does a great and convincing job as the Spartan King and his conviction in confronting Xerxes and his army with so few seem very believable. It’s not a star-making performance but it does show that Butler can add a bit of gravitas to a character and role so basic in characterization. Lena Hedley is radiant as his partner and Queen. Despite the weird sounding name of Gorgo, Hedley plays the strong-minded and equally influential wife to Butler’s Leonidas. It’s only her scenes back in Sparta as she tries to rally her people to support their king which keeps these slower sequences from fully pulling down the film. The performances were good enough to keep the acting in the film from becoming too campy or too serious. It’s an action film and with enough action going on in the movie I could forgive the writers (both Miller and the screenwriters) from scrimping on character build up.
All in all, Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 succeeds in bringing the book to moving life. Throughout the run of the film it was hard not to get lost in the beautiful visuals. Whether it was the muted color pallette which puts most of the scenes in an almost sepia-tone look to over-emphasizing certain colors to set a certain mood. From oversaturation of reds in one sequence to one where everything seem to be tinted with the many shades of blues at night. This is what 300 will be best remembered for. It’s technical use of CGI to paint the environment in unrealistic but beautiful ways which gives the scenes a lyrical and mythical look to them once the actors were superimposed over them. The film really was a painting come to life and it shows once again how computer and digital filmmaking technology have now afforded directors in making what used to be impossible technically to something that could be done with the limit being the artist’s imagination.
This film will not win many acting, directing and even screenwriting awards (which it didn’t once award season rolled around), but it doesn’t have to for people to enjoy it. It will entertain and pull its audience into a living and modern retelling of a legend. Whether all that happened on the screen was exactly as it happened in 480 B.C. doesn’t matter. What it does show is that through retelling down the years even all the embellishments added to the story of Leonidas and his men doesn’t diminish the fact that what they did and accomplished was how legendary heroes were made and remembered.