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Best Thriller, 2007 - 4 Stars


While the Battle of Thermopylae is one of the ancient wonders of military history, and King Leonidas (who led the Greeks against the Persians) is one of the great military heroes of all time, the producers of the film 300 decided that wasn't good enough, and that they could improve upon the story. I don't agree with that. Frankly, I think their departure from history takes away from the story's impact. Making it a fantasy adventure, and the soldiers super heroes, takes away from the real people and the real event.

According to the facts, Leonidas led a contingent of 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians against a Persian army numbering in the 100's of thousands, if not several millions. But, as if the facts weren't enough, Frank Miller (author of the graphic novel upon which the film is based) and director Zack Snyder decided to tell the story, not as a Greek heroic epic, which it most certainly is; but as a dark, Nordic tale in the tradition of Beowulf. Why they did this would be a good question for an interview or a psychiatrist's couch. The extra features really don't reveal this.

So, intermingling the incredible facts as we know them from Herodotus and others, we have other darker elements: like a decadent and diseased priesthood, mutant man-creatures, super-size rhinos and elephants, dark nights with Wagnerian moons, decapitations and other bloody aberrations that even the most gothic of writers would envy. There is nothing of the happy, sun-drenched countryside of Mediterranean Greece here.

The Spartans had a severe warrior culture that demanded discipline and abstinence from the corrupting arts and vices of other Greeks. They were also very practical people who steered away from the complicated religious and mystical thinking of cultures to the east. They were a very honest, outdoor people that were taught to tell the truth from an early age. So, to include corruption and intrigue on the scale presented here misrepresents the straightforward simplicity that was Sparta.

Nevertheless, as misplaced as some of these elements are historically, and as strange and disturbing as the film is at times conceptually, it is interesting both visually and cinematically. We have never seen anything like this before. Most of it was created via blue screen and computer, much like Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. But it goes far beyond Sky Captain, because Miller has created a powerful vision in his novel that holds Snyder's film together and gives it a look. To say that it is graphic is an understatement. It is quite handsome. It is also quite sensual, and is a study in flesh as well as blood, both of which are shown quite prominently.

Storywise, 300 is over the top: a cross between sci-fi thriller and military epic. It is narrated for us by David Wenham who plays Dilios, Leonidas' second-in-command, the man Leonidas sends back to report their heroic deeds to the Council, and the man who eventually leads the Greek army back against the Persians after the 300 have fallen. It would have been nice if the filmmakers had opened with Dilios speaking before the Council, so that we knew who the narrator was in the beginning.

Leonidas - who is introduced to us as he teaches his son to fight - is played super-heroically by Gerard Butler (Phantom Of The Opera, Dear Frankie). I cannot imagine another actor in this role. Butler has pumped himself up to football linebacker size and bodybuilder cut. But more than his look, he conducts himself as a hands-on military leader who knows how to inspire his men to "do their duty," so that we believe he truly is Leonidas. There never have been more ferocious looks on screen, with his white teeth and whites-of-his-eyes gleaming from beneath his helmet. As the perfect action hero who can also act, he has taken his career to the level of stardom with this one.

Also memorable are Lena Headey as Leonidas' gorgeous wife Gorgo (appropriate name) and Rodrigo Santoro as the affected king-who-would-be-god Xerxes. Which brings up another point: art direction. It, too, is over-the-top. Persian art is very well documented. There are even statues of King Xerxes, so we know very well how he looked in an official capacity. But all that seems to have been ignored in this film. Again, it is a departure from historical fact; but the departure is quite interesting.

There are very many elements in 300 that are unsuitable for children of any age, most women and men who are squeamish. Like Apocalypto the previous year, this is a ground-breaking film, but it is not for everyone. I love the slow-motion fight sequences; but there is a glorification of violence in the idea of violence as art which many viewers, including myself, do not accept. And there are several sexually explicit scenes that don't add anything to the story.

The bottom line is, this film will never be more than a cult classic because it doesn't allow us into the story. I think that is the weakness of a film shot almost entirely on blue screen. As a theatrical piece and as cinematic art, it is memorable. But as drama, it won't hold up over time. The extra features on the two-disc special edition support this view. The filmmakers were willing to sacrifice everything for the fantasy look of Frank Miller's graphic novel. You can't do that and end up with a great film. You need a certain level of reality for most adults to relate to a film. And when you have history that is already great drama, why sacrifice it, especially for a fantasy look? It doesn't make sense.

Rated R


Waitsel Smith, March 11, 2007

Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. Images © 2007 Warner Bros., Int. All Rights Reserved.

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