Imagine gazing at an army a million strong bent on destroying you, your family and your city. What would be your reaction to the sight of such an ominous force, knowing that only a few hundred soldiers stand between your city and imminent destruction? A Spartan would laugh.
Such is the setting of “300” (Warner Bros.), a mythic and unapologetic telling of the battle of Thermopylae from the perspective of the Spartans, who naturally view themselves as the greatest warriors ever to walk the face of the earth. They might not be far off. For those of you who aren’t history buffs, Thermopylae was an actual battle fought in 480 BC in which Spartans led by their king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) plus a few allies held off the Persian king Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro) invading army – which many accounts tally as a million strong – for three days. Consider, for a moment, the audacity and bravery required of such a small force to perform a feat so incomparable, and you get a taste of the epic setting of this film.
For this particular edition, director Zack Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead”) adapts Frank Miller’s (“Sin City”) similarly titled graphic novel. The transition from the page to the screen is seamless, and one of the strengths of the film certainly lies in its dedication to Miller’s vision. Filmed entirely indoors with CGI generated sets, Snyder is able to distort reality just enough to lend a sense of timelessness to Spartan heroics, and intense acting performances all around further immerse us in the world of Sparta. Snyder’s adoption of Miller’s world is stunning and unique, complete with rich, varied colors.
Never is the aim of the movie nitpicking accuracy – in this sense, however, “300” shows us Thermopylae as it should be told. It is a legendary battle because of the extremity of its circumstance – never, to my knowledge, has such a small force held off for so long an army of a million men. Hence, Thermopylae has mythic proportions that echo today in “300’s” depiction of Spartan soldiers as archetypal warriors. They are more than mere men; they have been imbued with a power and confidence that stands as a pinnacle of audacity and combat prowess. As Snyder relates, “we wanted a purely Spartan perspective.” “300” is a celebration of that courage and skill.
Never before have I seen battles filmed this way. The Spartans glide through hordes of Persian soldiers like dancers in the bloodiest ballet. At times, perhaps, the fighting could be seen as repetitive, yet I think it disingenuous to say that a movie about a battle shows too much of that battle, especially when the depiction is aesthetically rich. To Snyder’s credit, a sub-plot involving Leonidas’ wife (Lena Headey) and the councilmen of Sparta provides useful contrast to the fighting: we learn more about what they are fighting for. My main criticism concerns this subplot, however. Exploring the human side of Spartan society, Snyder at times overly romanticizes what at heart is an essentially ruthless culture in an attempt to allow modern audiences to empathize with our heroes. These moments aside, a welcome glimpse of ancient political intrigue serves to heighten the drama.
I plan on returning to the world of the eternally heroic on March 9, the date of 300’s release. I will command my friends to march with me in phalanx formation to the theater to rejoice in a movie that pulls no punches – it is a film about the defining moment of a culture that glorified war told from the perspective of that culture. I suggest you join us, and we will march in formation together; but make sure of one thing: Spartan, come home with your shield . or on it.