300

Remember ‘300’ Indeed

A movie about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few

My road to seeing 300 in the theater was a long one, but suffice to say I was lucky enough to catch the new adaptation of the 1998 Frank Miller comic on its opening weekend. Our showing wasn’t too crowded, but I was surprised to see a healthy mix in the audience.  Despite its previews of slow motion and effects and macho one-liners, 300 is a film for both men and women in the 18 to 49 demographic.

Gerard Butler (Attila, Dracula 2000) stars as Leonidas, the Spartan King who must hold the tiny mountain pass of Thermopylae against the invading Persian King Xerxes.  The Spartan council, however, is against the fight to save its rival Greek neighbors, so Leonidas sets out on a stroll with only his 300 best men, leaving his wife Gorgo (Lena Headey) to fight the politics of Sparta.

If you know the basics of World History, you’ve heard of Thermopylae before. The History Channel has been smart to play its Greek programming in time with 300’s release, but the film isn’t entirely accurate.  Die hard historians might not dig the movie’s emphasis on sword fighting as opposed to the truer spear styles of the Spartans, but hey, it’s a movie.  Having the history fresh in your mind may in fact not be a good thing.  Virginal minds can be more into Leonidas’ speeches of honor, glory, and death if they don’t quite know the double sided outcome of the battle.

Many lines from the film come from the historical literature of the time, and despite humorous catch phrases like ‘Never give up! Never surrender!’ that remind me more of the science fiction spoof Galaxy Quest, 300 does have some moving moments.  I came to find the picture through my offshoot obsession with David Wenham-who plays the narrator Dilios-but oddly enough, I could have done without the Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers actor’s voiceover.  Without the narration, there is actually precious little onscreen words mixed in with the slow motion battle sequences.  Dilios’ words, however, seem redundant.  We can see Leonidas’ feelings and motivations by what he says and does.  The extra words are a bit like 300’s own hype, but then again that is very Spartanish, isn’t it?

300’s unnecessary voice over reminds me of another cult sword and sandal picture that I actually saw recently: Conan The Barbarian. A bit silly with Arnold’s thick accent and James Earl Jones’ snake love, but yet it’s a good picture with a good story that fans love. 300definitely has a cast one can get behind, but it surpasses all the other films in its genre with one thing-the imagery of 300 will be tough to beat-at least until the next digital revolution in filmmaking comes along.

Rated R for its brief sex scenes and nudity as well as its battlefield gore, 300 is not excessive or all CGI and nothing else.  The slow motion sword action is perfectly paced.  Too much hard core battle or too much slow motion artistry and you’ve washed out your audience.  Director and Screenwriter Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) creates just the right blend.  Battles of course don’t really happen in slow motion, but the moves are spot on and should be fully appreciated.  Heads are cut off, legs, and limbs lost.  Ironic that we are rooting for the 300 Spartans, who are renowned for their ruthlessness in war and child rearing.  Their brutality is not spared onscreen, nor is the body count that accumulates when the 300 take on the Persians, whose numbers are in the thousands.

The palette of the film reflects the tremendous Spartan odds.  The oracle sequence and love scenes are so blue they are almost black and white.  They look faded and otherworldly, more like memories.  Juxtaposed these against an earthy and nearly bare battlefield scheme were the only color is the Spartan red cape and spilled blood.  The carefully choreographed allusion of this spilled Spartan blood is one of the more beautiful onscreen effects.

Outside of the properly placed laugh tracks in the theater, my fellow viewers were silent.  I myself was surprised to notice the sound of 300. Spears and shields echoed, and when Butler yells, he yells.

Every footstep fits in place and every sword clang chinks onscreen in time.  The background music, however, is an unusual mix of choral chants, classical score, and what sounds like heavy metal compositions.  Believe it or not, it works.  As effective as the haunting choir and slow motion are, as poetic the score and scope of the film are, there is no doubt about300’s rocking status.

Part of the reason 300 does rock is the men themselves.  Guys can easily get behind the kick ass Spartans and their punch lines, but women and gay men will giggle and dig the look of Sparta’s 300 finest.  Wearing little more than loincloths, buff Leonidas leads his equally hard abbed, dirty men to save the women they love.  Despite the hyperbole, 300 has shades of Braveheart andGladiator.  When it comes down to it, Leonidas isn’t doing it all for Sparta, he’s saving the woman he loves from Persian enslavement.  Snyder, however, keeps the romance a toe before sappy, and what precious little we see of Leonidas and  Queen Gorgo together is subtle and sexy, yet no less powerful-as any Spartan relationship must have been.

Snyder was also smart to use lesser known actors as the handful of identifiable Spartans.  You aren’t looking for Brad Pitt or Orlando Bloom like you are in Troy, and the focus is instead on the 300 men defending the divided Greece as one unit.  When the helmets are on and the shields are up, you can’t always tell who is who.  Not everyone even receives names, but 300 almost hits you over the head by continually reminding you that it’s what the 300 Spartans did at Thermopylae together that should be remembered.  Um, have we ever really forgotten it?

300 deserves any and all the technical awards and cinematography Oscar nominations it will get, but I don’t see any official accolades for Gerard Butler.  Anyone who didn’t know who he was before will certainly know him now; His cult following will swell with the catch phrase of the year, “This is Sparta!”.  Unfortunately, his speeches are almost redundant with knowing the history he is going to make.  Buffness and nudity aside, Butler’s silent onscreen performance is what makes the movie.  His facial range, battle sounds, and quick tears say more than most of the dialogue or narration.  This should not be surprising, coming from a graphic novel where illustrations are often more important than word balloons. Although I don’t recommend watching the future DVD on mute. That would just be a little too kinky.

I was, however, surprised by Lena Headey’s performance.  I didn’t expect to see Gorgo as much as we did.  Goodbye in the beginning or a flashback or two.  Instead we are treated to the conflicted Spartan home life. Women are no slouches in Spartan society, yet the Queen has a difficult time in pleading her case when challenging the council to send the entire Spartan army to fight the Persians.  The subtle nod to the cultural changes taking place is carried well by Headey.  The warring Greek states will soon united as one democratic nation, and the sacrifice of her husband, her son, and herself is not a wartime ideal lost to history.  Some critics have claimed many current wartime allegories in 300, but Headey carries the history we are to learn from well.  Likewise, when Leonidas’ Captain ( Vincent Regan) weeps over his dead son, there is no shame.  It’s a touch like Gone With the Wind-as cruel as some parts of Spartan life were, you feel for Butler and his men and the passing of Sparta’s might.

300 is not for children and probably not for prudes who can’t enjoy a visually stunning picture with a hint of cheekiness – nor is 300 meant to be a textbook.  Despite its sometimes unnecessary narration and one too many Christ-like sacrificial images, 300 is a film about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few.  Sometimes it’s too heavy and serious, sometimes it’s too fun, but mostly it’s just right.  Besides, what’s wrong with having a good time while you brush up on your history?  I don’t care for Michigan State University, so I never thought I’d say this, but Go Spartans!

Review by Kristin | MFO | I Think, Therefore I Review

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