300, the Film

The title logotype for 300, done in a strong, red, splattered brush lettering.

Frank Miller’s 300, the comic, is a gorgeous fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. It is a hyper-epic, in the way that Sin City is a hyper-noir. The battles are visual essays on unrelenting force, the grace and power of a body forged to fight with weapons deriving their energy from human motion, and the waves of absolute oppression crashing against the rocks of self-determination. It is a stylized homage not to the specific ideologies of the Spartans, but to their truly staggering will and strength, obtained through a cultural dynamic of constant, brutal testing of the self. To read 300 is to marvel at the possibilities contained within humanity, to witness the raw harshness of human existence forge societies and soldiers of unparalleled might. 300 is an ode the magnificence of human spectacle, as manifested by the players on the stage of the Battle of Thermopylae. The forces at work on both sides of the battle are both horrifying and magnificent. 300 the film builds upon this base, pushing all of these aspect further and amplifying them beyond reality. Miller never shies from hyperbole to convey his message, and the film gladly obliges.

Spoiler warning: While I don’t give away much of the film, or its ending (which is a matter of history, by the way), I show a lot of content, which may give you an inkling of how things go. All images are from the trailers.

King Leonidas roars at the enemy in front of his dead men.

The Spartan king, Leonidas, has a penchant for roaring.

The film expands on Miller’s relatively simple arc from the comic. It tells the tale with a bit more depth as well as some extra baggage, about which I’m still a bit ambivalent. The extra content pushes the film towards a becoming a lesson, setting up the Spartans as heroes meant to be emulated, or perhaps as a not-so-subtle shot at the governmental and religious figures of the Middle East. Given the situation with the current U.S. administration and its military and political actions in the Middle East, it’s easy to draw metaphorical connections between the film. But in spite this easy read, I have a hard time believing that 300 is presented as any sort of model for behavior, particularly since it plays it so fast and loose with history. However, every time I come a conclusion about the film’s intent, the opposite conclusion seems to present itself equally.

The Spartans align themselves in a tight formation of shields and spears pointed forward.

The Spartans rely on simple but solid tactics and equipment. Their fighting style is a marvel to watch. The film touches on their tactics without delving into them.

300 is an odd beast, particularly for someone like myself who’s read and re-read the comic since its release in the ‘widepage’ format hardcover in 1999. It is a beautiful film, and as with much of Miller’s work, it’s an examination of extremes. This is partly why I have a hard time swallowing the assertions that 300 is anything more than a hyper-epic meant to entertain and astound, and perhaps spark interest in the actual tale. For example, as I asserted in my post on Sin City, not all stories contain lessons. Some tales simply spin a unique yarn that is fascinating to behold in its own right, because it stands apart and thrills us. Interestingly enough, the interpretation of the Spartans as America fighting the ‘evils’ of the Middle East as the Persians is thin and facile when compared to the interpretation that Alisa posited to me after we watched the film together: that the opposite is true.

The Spartans look forward from before a pile of their slain enemies, which looms over them.

After a long day of doing their job (killin’ dudes), the Spartans look to the coming night.

The Spartans are a group that cleaves to a harsh philosophy of tradition, honor, and strength, drawing their fortitude from their moral and philosophical totality and clarity. Alisa suggested that they are more akin to the smaller groups of Islamic nations banding together to stand against the allied strength of the nations of the Western world, who use their superior strength foolishly and depend not on true internal strength and battle-tested mettle, but on the threat of overwhelming force to create a demoralizing fear. In addition, the fictionalized version of Xerxes, the god-king of the Persians, has at his command the most terrifying and obliterating marvels of military might and technological force. The more that I turn that comparison over in my head, the more I see it as a richer, truer metaphor. But the film takes a great deal of time (more than it should have, in my opinion) delivering monologues on the righteous nature of freedom and liberty, and its defense by honest soldiers willing to die to protect it. The connections can be drawn, but ultimately I believe they simply don’t fit. The film borders on cartoonish (some have referred to it as more like a videogame than a film) in virtually every respect, and as such trying to draw real-life lessons from it is only fruitful to a certain point. There are honorable notions presented in the film, but both the Persians and the Spartans demonstrate a ruthless absolutism completely out of sync with the ideals of much of modern American society. As such, I don’t believe that Miller is seriously suggesting we act as the Spartans did, or that his version of the Persians is particularly accurate. So, from this vantage point, I enjoyed 300 immensely in retrospect.

Leonidas, with his helmet and spear, stands in front of his remaining soldiers, who've formed a dome of sheilds bristling with spears.

Leonidas stands before the Persian army, readying for the final assault.

While I watched the film in the theater, I couldn’t make up my mind about this issue, which severely dampened my ability to immerse myself fully in the tale. I kept backing out through a hole I couldn’t close, so to speak, and as a result I found it hard to move with the movie’s rhythms. My liberal tendencies continually kicked in and I found myself asking “is this saying what I think it might be saying?” I’ve now concluded to my satisfaction that it is saying some things that are morally suspect, but this does not matter, because it isn’t serving up the Spartans as a model or a parable. It is presenting the ideas of the characters who exist in the fictional world it has created in a manner that is faithful to their nature. These characters hold extreme ideals, many of which have reprehensible aspects. While they are based on societies that existed and are documented in the historical record, they are presented in an exaggerated way for our entertainment. And while we are clearly meant to sympathize with one group over the other, the over-amplified righteousness of one and the bottomless evil of the other are actually tempered by the fact that they are both practicing orthodoxies which carry terrible consequences. Watching 300is not dissimilar from watching the Olympics, in my mind. It’s incredible that a person can bend their body and mind so completely to the performance of one task with such skill, but it would not be beneficial to humanity if we all tried to follow suit.

Two Spartans bash back the Persians with their shields during one of the assaults.

The fight sequences in 300 are truly marvelous: slow-motion, long, continuous takes that really revel in the motion of battle and the raw, powerful grace of the Spartans.

Alisa, despite my expectations, really enjoyed 300. I had a harder time with it for the reasons I mentioned above, and because I know the comic so well. This happened to me when watching V for Vendetta as well. I think subsequent viewings will allow me to move past the similarities and differences and truly enjoy the film as its own entity. But as I go back over it in my mind, I’m filled with a strong urge to watch it again and really revel in the visuals and the intensity of the tale. I recommend 300 highly to anyone who can separate themselves from the belief systems on display and the historical truths that are distorted to create an entertaining tale.

OK, enought talk. As 300 is such a feast for the eyes, it only seems right to cover the rest of it visually:

Horsemen ride along a hill towards Sparta, which sits beneath shafts of sunlight.

The Persians bring trouble to Sparta, which is the start of a whole mess.

Horsemen ride among fields and mountains.

Sparta’s landscape is very idyllic in the film, setting up the protagonists as really, really tough farmers.

A Persian emmisary rears his horse at in a Spartan courtyard.

The Persians approach the Spartans via an emissary with disdain and ask for their fealty.

Leonidas points his sword at the Perisan emmisary, who is at the lip of a large open well.

It doesn’t go well.

A cupola atop a mountain peak in front of a full moon.

The Ephors are the religious sect that control their contact with the gods. We get a sense that not only are the Ephors corrupt in every way, but they’re also an affront to the Spartans’ strong sense of reason.

The oracle, a young woman in gossamer robes, does a dance in drugged fumes that looks as though it was shot underwater.

The oracle, who is essentially a captive of the Ephors, is one of the more intriguing interpretations of Miller’s comic. Her drugged divinations were filmed underwater, giving her dance an unreal grace.

Queen Gorgo hugs her son in the wheat fields of Sparta.

Queen Gorgo, Leonidas’ wife, is involved in a war on the home front against a corrupt politician. The political scenes were described by my friend Steve as disposable just like those in Star Wars and The Matrix Reloaded. I’m inclined to agree. They were full of a great deal of puffed-up freedom-talk, but little solid emotional content. I can’t decide if they were totally unnecessary, but they didn’t work as well as the rest of the film.

The Spartans stand atop a cliff, nearly silhouetted against the gold sky.

The landscape of the film is very barren once we leave Sparta. The stylized look ensured that the human players would provide all of the life and drama to the scenes.

The Spartans arrange themselves in a tight group between two cliff walls, as the Persians rush towards them across an open seaside cliff range.

The Hot Gates, which were a tactical advantage upon which the Spartans built their strategy for repelling the Persians. I do not know enough of the history to say how accurately Miller represents this key aspect of the battle.

Silhouetted against a sunlit sky, the Spartans push Persians off the edge of a cliff.

The Spartans, early on, show the Persians they are not to be trifled with.

Stelios leaps through the air, sword above his head, towards a Persian emissary whose whip is drawn back.

Stelios, in one of the cooler moments of the film, leaps at a Persian emissary who does not show respect.

Stelio, his spear drawn back to thrust forward, leaps at another Persian.

Stelios is a one-solution kind of guy.

The immortals, clad in black with silvery armor and facemasks, march in formation ahead of Xerxes, who rides atop a massive throne carried by slaves.

Xerxes, the god king of the Persian Empire, and his elite troops, the Immortals.

Xerxes stands, arms spread, atop his throne, featuring two antelopes of gold. He is covered in gold piercings and adornments.

Xerxes’ character design is very over the top, but the effect, along with his booming voice and massive stature, made him a very entertaining nemesis.

Seen from behind, the Spartans look up at a swarm of arrows in the sky flying towards them.

The Spartans don’t much care for arrows, as they prefer to get their hands dirty. But they are happy to “fight in the shade” if need be.

Persian soldiers and allies charge towards the camera.

The Persian army is made up not only of Persians themselves, but also troops from all of the nations in the Empire. The implication is that these slave soldiers did not have the will to compete with the Spartans. Interestingly, with all its talk of freedom, the film glosses over the roughly 900 Helots, Spartan slaves, who also fought.

Persian horsemen charge towards the camera.

The enemy also brings animals into the mix, including horses, rhinos, and elephants.

The Spartans run towards the camera from the cliff pass.

The Spartans don’t spend all of their time behind their shields.

Seen from a worm's eye view, a Spartan leaps onto a group of enemy soldiers.

They’re very willing to get in the fight.

The Immortals charge towards the Spartans, swords out.

The Immortals, based on real soldiers, were put to the test by the Spartans, who were skeptical of their naming.

Leonidas brings his sword up to meet charging oncoming enemy soldiers.

The fight scenes are just stunning. The choreography alone makes this a film to see.

Xerxes, seen in front of his army's massive camp, roars in anger.

Xerxes I, who was historically known for his rages, expresses his dismay at the hold-up and losses suffered while dealing with the Spartans.

A Spartan crouches behind his shield to repel the blast of a hand-thrown explosive.

The Persians bring out new technologies to deal with the Spartans, including hand-thrown explosives. They are brutual in their damage, but the Spartans endure.

Leonidas, seen in front of felled and falling Spartans draws back his spear and shouts.

Do the Spartans win? Well, if you don’t know the history, perhaps you should go into it not knowing. I bet it’s more fun with that dramatic tension, but it was still good even if you know the comic already.

Ad Exec Review: Prepare for glory!

MPAA Review: Graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity.