As the legend goes, in 400 BC, 300 Spartan warriors, along with 700 Greek volunteers, held the pass of Thermopylae for several days against 500,000 Persian marauders. They were betrayed, and the Persians flanked them, killing the Spartans to a man. But the martyred warriors inspired a Greek uprising that eventually drove the Persians out, and a united Greece, under Alexander, went on to conquer the known world.
That story has been told on film before, in 1962. But it didn’t look a thing like this. The new version, simply called 300 , had a blockbuster opening weekend of $71 million – a record opening for an R-rated film. That’s because of its images, which we’ve never seen before, and its imagist, the red-hot Frank Miller. The Miller fans – of which I am one – were all there on opening night. It was if we were waiting to be fed.
Because for a decade, the movies have been made by directors who can’t frame a shot. It’s impossible to say how much of the credit for the visual pizzazz of 300 goes to the sophomore director of 300 , Zack Snyder, whose only other film is a highly overrated remake of Dawn of the Dead . The kick of 300 comes from Miller’s original compositions — lusty, homoerotic, and outré.
The action was shot against green screen, in a warehouse in Canada, everything else added with computer graphics. As is common with excessive CG, the images are watery, without the necessary pop you get from the real (compare the film to Spartacus ). What works is the directness. We go to 300 for the reptile brain, to see balletic violence; not the campyness of Troy , not the bloated speeches of Gladiator , but bloody action. And that, we get in spades.
The Spartans are born and bred to be perfect warriors; their hard bodies are their armor, their readiness – maybe eagerness – to die makes them fearsome. They are, in effect, superheroes; and the clarity of comic books is a retreat from the soul sickness of a war that’s bleeding us with the death of a thousand cuts. The Spartans laugh in the face of pain – and right now, we need that.
That the enemy is faceless, demonic, and stupid has not escaped Javad Shamaqdari, cultural advisor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has said that the film is the result of a secret U.S. study on how to wage psychological warfare on Iran by plundering its past and insulting its civilization. He should lighten up; but in sensitive times, he has a point. There is a strong theme in Miller’s tale of Western reason triumphing over Eastern religion. But director Snyder doesn’t connect with that in any meaningful way, or with the tantalizing possibility that the Spartan king’s failure to make allowances for the weak is the tragic flaw that brings him down. In any case, no one’s going to 300 for a history lesson.
This and other theater, music, and movie reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wtiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.