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Monday 12 March 2007

Movie Review of 300

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Zack Snyder

Written by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, and Michael Gordon (based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller & Lynn Varley)

Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro, Giovani Cimmino, Kelly Craig

Howard Waldrop: If Cecil B. DeMille would have had CGI around while he was planning the 1956 Ten Commandments, he would have never stopped crapping his pants.

Both: 300 is a literal transcription of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae ("The Hot Gates"), Greek city-states vs. the Persian Empire, 480 B.C., in which 300 Spartans under King Leonidas (along with a few allies from other Greek city-states) held off a much larger Persian force under Xerxes (historical estimates range from a way-too-low 15,000 to an almost-certainly-insanely-too-high 3 million, the latter closer to what's depicted here) for three days.

Lawrence Person: This is a good, but not great, ancient war film, with just enough touches of the fantastic, including a demonic dire wolf, a prophetic oracle, and humans too grotesque looking (more on that latter) for even the most outlandish bits of pre-history (such as men not just with filed teeth, but actual fangs), to justify a review here. The battle scenes are pretty spectacular (if repetitive), the art direction is first-rate (assuming you don't mind the sepia-wash laid over everything) and the acting more than passable. The script ranges from by-the-numbers plodding (the scenes back in Sparta during the battle, or, as the audiences we saw the film with treated them, "the bathroom breaks") to reaching for the classical poetry of its taproot texts. It wants to be a great movie, but the script and direction, though competent, just aren't strong enough to carry it there.

HW: Don't get me started on the historical stuff — it was probably in the graphic novel. There have never been "war rhinos" — not then, not now, not ever. Xerxes we know was a short bearded fat man in a dress — here we get a thin black clean-shaven giant wearing (in Samuel R. Delany's words in Neveryon) "women's jewelry."

We start in never-ending voice-over (we later figure out who's doing it) with a short history lesson on Sparta and on Leonidas, and what seems to be the last surviving dire wolf in Greece (there were lions left there in 480 BC but I doubt there were any Ice Age wolves anywhere after about 5000 BC). More artistic license...

LP: Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the film is its manifest lack of political correctness. It's an unabashed celebration of the honor and glory of killing and dying for king and country, and one that revels in the bloodshed rather than apologizing for it. (When the film starts out showing a valley filled with the skeletons of babies that weren't judged fit enough to be Spartans, and you realize that the Spartans are the ones presented as the good guys, you know you're not in Kansas anymore.) Save one scene (a father grieving over the death of his son) that sticks out like a sore thumb, the battle sequences are entirely free of 21st century "war is just a bloody waste" Western attitudes, and the film entirely eschews the modern elite disdain for martial prowess. Like the Spartans themselves, it's far too steely for sentiment, and thus a throwback to the epic legends (and the Victorian translations of same) that obviously inspired Miller's graphic novel.

It's a very butch film.

Some of the best parts (at least for me) were the depictions of ancient Greek warfare the way it was actually fought: how you form up a phalanx, how you position a wedge to fight against cavalry, etc. I would have preferred more of that than the unnecessary bits of now-standard wire-work sprinkled in the movie (I counted two that didn't work for me and one that did, which probably meant there were several more occasions where it was successfully deployed).

HW: The CGI effects, wonderful for the first three minutes, go on 4FR, and I do mean for ever. The slaughter scenes become so choreographed and predictable (with watermelon-splitting noises) that you feel nothing when Greeks or Persians get killed, but you feel bad about the horses, rhinos and elephants...

LP: Yes, the first two or three times we see the cinematographers not-quite-bullet-time (sword-time?) "full-speed battle, slow-mo Spartan stabbing a Persian and sending out a slow-motion splatter of individual blood droplets, shift back to full-speed battle, repeat" effect, it's pretty darn cool. The 40th time he does it, the loving attention paid this very particular stroke of cinematic bloodletting has gotten tiresome.

Besides the bloodletting, the element most likely to put off some critics and viewers is the film's (and presumably Miller's) love of the grotesque and deformed. Not since Fellini have there been so many human freaks on display in a film (though Fellini tended to use real freaks, while these are the products of latex prosthetics). There's even a giant Lobster Boy executioner that looks like he walked out of a game of Doom 2. Next to that, wondering why the priests were inbred if they were receiving a fresh supply of virgins every year seems like quibbling. The grotesqueries didn't offend me, but, like sword-time blood-letting effects, eventually there was just too much of a muchness to them.

As for the acting, Gerard Butler has the gravitas and physical presence to carry off the role of Leonidas, but his accent wanders in and out of his Scottish brogue throughout the picture, putting it at odds with the sub-Masterpiece Theater High English Accent preferred by the rest of the cast. Lena Headey is largely wasted as his queen (she was actually better in The Brothers Grimm). Dominic West does about as well as can be asked in a role that has all the depth of Snidley Whiplash. The rest of the acting is solid, but director Zack Snyder doesn't yet have the verve necessary to pull off the hackneyed scenes back in Sparta. The script shows the same dichotomy: solid for the battle scenes, and plodding for the political interludes. There are even occasions of very sharp, very deadpan humor (I'm assuming they're straight from Miller), but too few of them.

HW: All the emissaries from Xerxes are like so many Persian Alfonso Bedoyas; unlike in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, you get to see them killed and maimed here.

This is 480BC — there's plenty of Christ imagery here, and the references to Hell aren't the Greek one but to the later present one. Xerxes gets behind Leonidas when he offers him the World. There's a crucifixion pose; and a tree full of dead, and as Lawrence pointed out, even St. Sebastian imagery, which takes us up to 287 AD. All unnecessary and just wrong.

For the historical Sparta, women play too large a role in things. There's a line where the Spartans refer to the Athenians as "philosophers and boy-lovers". Maybe the first was derogatory, but not the second, not in Sparta. (An inconvenient truth — not artistic license.)

LP: Again, this is not a great film, but it does pull its weight. It's a solid action film, and a solid ancient war film. If you liked the trailer (be warned that most of the best bits are in it), you'll probably like the film. However, Snyder's reach here clearly exceeded his grasp, and I remain skeptical that he's the right director for Watchmen. (Though he'd be a far better choice than, say, Mark Steven Johnson.) He needs a surer touch for his actors' quieter moments, and the wisdom to know when more starts to become less. But he's got promise. Give him ten years of seasoning and he might well turn out a film as great as this one obviously aspires to be.

HW: The other movie on the subject — The 300 Spartans, made in l962, was directed by Rudolf Mate (who did When Worlds Collide in 1951) Things were done as filmed, the effects were done with clunky old optical printers and moving mattes. The Leonidas of 300 isn't even a pimple on Richard Egan's butt from that movie.

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