300 (3/9/2007)

 

            They say that all of western civilization began with the ancient Greeks.  The Greeks gave us the philosophy of Socrates and the literature of Homer.  The new film 300 displays another legacy of ancient Greece, the badass.  The Spartan warrior as seen in author Frank Miller’s 300 are the prototypical badasses, their warrior ethic and determination towards victory can be seen in the chivalric knight, the cowboys of western lore, and even the Klingons of “Star Trek”.

            Based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, 300 takes place in 480 BCE at the dawn of the Greco-Persian war.  A Persian messenger approaches the Spartan city-state holding a bag of skulls and asks for an audience with the king.  After asking King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) to pay tribute to the Persian Empire or face an oncoming attack, the messenger is pushed to his death into a well by the angry king.  The scene perfectly sets up the uncompromising nature of the Spartan warrior; they are completely unwilling to or yield to any authority but their own.  After Leonidas is given an unfavorable prophecy by an oracle, he is unable to bring his entire army to war.  In desperation Leonidas rounds up three hundred of Sparta’s best soldiers, leaves his wife (Lena Headey) behind, and marches to war against an army of millions.  This is the type of story that really shows the power visuals.  As a conventional novel, this story would be nothing special at all, but in a visual medium like comic books or film, and in the hands of an artist like Frank Miller it is gorgeous.

            300 can best be understood when one realizes that the film is being told by an unreliable narrator.  The film is being told by Dilios (David Wenham) a soldier at the battle with a unique ability for story telling.  Dilios narrates the entire movie through a flashback with voice over.  Dilios is not telling the story as a historian but as a propagandist.  The movie is an extended exaggeration, the characters are not human, they are unwavering fighting machines that are jingoistic enough to make John Wayne blush.  Collage students will be getting hammered for decades with the inevitable drinking game that will be made around the number of times the word “Sparta!” is hollered by noble fighters going into battle.  The Persian enemies are every bit as inaccurate, they are faceless enemies, their leader Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) the personification of decadence.  Some of the Persian troops can only be described as monsters.  All this is the result of Dilios’ story which is meant to rile the troops to enthusiastically go to war.

It should be noted that director Zack Snyder is merely building on the foundation that was first built by Robert Rodríguez with another adaptation of a Frank Miller work: Sin City.  Sin City was an exercise in translation; it was a frame for frame moving recreation of the comic books it based on, both in story and visual style.  300 is a far less slavish translation of its source material, but it does follow the same basic story and does effectively reproduce the look of Miller’s stunning illustrations.  300 was filmed using the same blue screen filming process of Sin City and takes it to the next level, the viewer forgets he is watching action on a soundstage and becomes immersed in the visual universe.  With this type of film making we are entering uncharted territories of production.  It may be about time the Academy separates its category of art direction from set decoration.  The set decoration is much here, as there are no sets, but the art direction is amazing.  The design of the visuals is a true work of art.

Sin City took the tradition of film Noir and took it to a glorious extreme; likewise 300 takes the “Sword and Sandals” genre as far as it can possibly go.  Unlike most post-Lord of the Rings epics, 300 doesn’t rely on helicopter shots of massive armies mashing into each other, although the shots of huge armies are up to the standards of those other movie.   In place of these long shots, 300 focuses on the personal side of its battles, many of the battles play out by focusing on a single soldier bursting forth is slow motion, showing each kill he make in graphic detail.  The visceral thrill of these moments is hard to put into words.  Interestingly these moments resemble a quarterback expertly making it through the line of scrimmage on a running play; it’s easy to see why sports were encouraged as military training.

The story told by Dilios is based largely on old fashioned views of masculinity.  On its surface, 300 is the most gleefully pro-war film since the Rambo series.  All parallels to recent events are coincidence as the graphic novel was published in 1998. Still there is an ultimately conservative attitude to this story that can be unsettling to blue-staters like me.  Nevertheless it would be hypocritical to dismiss a film of ideological differences and then scoff at the conservatives who would criticize a film like Fahrenheit 9/11.  In truth however, if one considers that the story told may be a fabrication by Dilios to mobilize the army, the simplicity of the film’s ideology becomes a lot less simple.  The film leaves it to the viewer whether a society based on the principle that not all men are equal and which that sacrifices imperfect babies is worth emulating.

Though it has a simple story, 300 is a visually amazing film.  It is highly entertaining, with amazing action scenes.  The visual style is much more interesting then that of the typical summer movie.  The movie is first rate, cutting edge filmmaking.  Its main weakness is that it would be only a little less interesting if the dialogue track were removed.  Its main strength is that it would be very interesting even without the dialogue track.

 

**** out of four

 

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