‘300’: The good, the bad and the epic

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2007


1 hour, 57 minutes

Warner Brothers

Being a movie critic I catch a lot of flack. You write a few bad reviews, and people start to think you’re some kind of bourgeois cineste, a film snob who refuses to appreciate any movie that doesn’t have subtitles and star Gerard Depardieu. But though Hollywood doesn’t make it easy sometimes, I am at heart a movie lover. I love sitting in the theater, surrounded by an audience, with a 70-foot screen towering over my head. And rarely have I enjoyed the big spectacle, popcorn-movie experience more than this week’s bloody battle extravaganza, “300.”

“300” is a story made for the movies, though in this case, it made it to the pulp page first. The tale of a small contingent of brave Spartan warriors, defending all of Greece against a massive Persian army, was first released in comic-version by graphic novel-icon Frank Miller, of “Sin City” fame, in 1999. That publication, alternatingly stark and splashily colorful, has been beautifully transferred to the big screen.

The resultant picture is not, as “Sin” was, an attempt to recreate a comic book in absolute faithfulness to style, but rather a gorgeous hybrid of the staged drama of the drawn panel and the fluid motion of film. If the movie had no other positive attributes to speak of, no one can deny that it looks incredible.

Gerard Butler, who hasn’t done much leading-man work, but who I’m sure legions of rabid Andrew Lloyd Webber fans will recognize from his role as the Phantom, is perfectly cast as Leonidas, King of Sparta. When a Persian messenger arrives in the idyllic city-state to demand Sparta’s surrender to the advancing horde of Xerxes, god-king of all the known world (or so his heralds like to shout), he gets more than he bargained for — as in a one-way trip down a bottomless well.

His backup, Leonidas, decides, against the wishes of the Senate, to march 300 of Sparta’s best and brightest to the “hot gates,” a narrow bottleneck canyon along the coast — Xerxes’ only entrance into the heart of Greece. There, Leonidas reasons, the size of the Persian army will be of no real advantage as they will all have to be funneled in to the fight. Marching off to almost certain death, the stoic soldiers say goodbye to home and family. Unbeknownst to them, however, are treasonous forces at work in Sparta, and while the men fight wave upon wave of beautifully costumed baddies, the Queen of Sparta has her own battle to wage at home.

As I mentioned, one of the greatest things about this film is the look. It is dazzling. Every scene looks as though it were meticulously designed, and considering the laborious post-production this movie entailed, I’m sure every scene was. In a fashion similar to “Sky Captain and the world of Tomorrow,” “300” was shot on soundstages and almost everything, aside from the actors and their props, was digitally added later. The result is a rich, darkly colorful tapestry, awash in blues reds, and oranges. The battle scenes, though a little repetitive, are staged for maximum drama, whether they involve swarms of arrows or one-on-one sword and spear fights. These are the battles you always hope for in lesser movies.

Also fascinating are the elements of truth in the film. Now, granted, this is a big, splashy event movie, so I don’t want to come off as gullible. The story of the battle is true, in broad strokes, though there were likely three times as many Greeks fighting as is described in the movie, and modern historians have suggested that there is no way Xerxes could have had as large an army as is portrayed.

However, many of the specific details come directly from Heroditus, an ancient historian. One of my favorite exchanges, wherein a Spartan soldier replies to a despicable Persian who has declared that his army would loose enough arrows to blot out the sun, that, “we will fight in the shade,” sounds like it came straight out of Hollywood, but is, in fact, from antiquity. Now, whether Heroditus simply had a flair for the dramatic or not, who can say?

Enjoyable as this movie is, it’s important to remember that it is just a movie. When you break it down and seriously look at it, Sparta seems like a fascist paradise, where the weak are discarded and only the strong are respected. And Leonidas deciding to take his army to war despite the protestations of sniveling senators who want to, of all things, talk about it, has decidedly discordant overtones to the present.

That said, “300” is great fun, a beautifully presented sword and sandal epic where the bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and there’s little call to think much beyond that. Grade: A-

“300” is rated R for nudity, sexual situations, intense violence and gore.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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