300—director Zack Snyder’s faithful, if controversial, adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel—is a visually striking, though loosely interpreted, telling of the now-immortal Battle of Thermopylae.
Over a three-day period in 480 BC, King Leonidas and his three hundred Spartan bodyguards—with the assistance of about seven hundred Thespians and few thousand volunteers from other Greek city-states—fought the massive armies (estimated in most ancient accounts to have exceeded one million) of Persian Emperor Xerxes I at the Pass of Thermopylae on the Gulf of Malis. Through martial skill, fearlessness, and sheer audacity, Leonidas and his warriors held off the Persians long enough for the Athenians to prepare their navy to defeat the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, and thus save Greece.
The Battle of Thermopylae is a timeless tale of valor and honor. It takes its place in history with other legendary military standoffs—such as the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, where a few hundred Texans held off the Mexican army for thirteen days, and the 1939 “Winter War,” the World War II battle in which Finnish forces repelled over one million Russian invaders. Why, then, would a cinematic retelling of this remarkable event of so long ago prompt argument and debate today?
Historical film epics are rarely contentious enterprises nowadays, precisely because they portray events long since past. The ones that do spark heated debate tend to have religious themes, such as The Passion of the Christ and The DaVinci Code. If there’s any blasphemy to be found in 300, it’s against oracles and deities long since relegated to the dustbin of piety. Certainly there was little controversy in 1962 when Miller’s original inspiration, director Rudolph Maté’s The 300 Spartans,was released. So what’s happened in the forty-five intervening years to make Snyder’s remake-of-sorts so controversial?
In a word: multiculturalism.
Just as in the days of the ancient Greeks, the theme of saving the civilized West from barbaric Asiatic hordes is made quite explicit in 300, and given voice by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler): “A new age has begun, an age of freedom. And all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their last breath to defend it . . .The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many.”
The Spartans are portrayed as reveling in the sting of battle.
But unlike the days of the ancient Greeks, it’s now verboten to suggest the superiority, let alone the preferability, of Western culture to any other—including, presumably, Persian culture. And therein lies the controversy over this film. As “civilized people,” we’re not supposed to like war, much less relish military victory or the enemy’s demise. Hell, we can’t even use the word “enemy” anymore to describe the enemy. These days, when Hollywood goes to war, our fighting men are represented—at best—by that ubiquitous fixture of modern cinema, the “reluctant warrior.”
In contrast, Leonidas’s Spartans are hardly reluctant: Born and bred since childhood to fight for their military city-state, they’re professional soldiers who revel in the sting of battle. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) sends an officer to present an ultimatum to his vastly outnumbered foe: “Spartans, lay down your weapons!” Rather than accommodating the Persians (as, say, the British Navy did circa 2007 AD), Leonidas roars back: “Persians, come and get them!”
In all of battle lore, Thermopylae stands as the ultimate “David versus Goliath” confrontation of civilizations. To most people familiar with Italian Renaissance art, this legend conjures in their minds the great statues by Donatello and Michelangelo. Both are nude figures of the young Hebrew warrior. Donatello’s David is but a boy. Without a care in the world, he leans on his sword with one hand, his other hand resting effeminately against his hip. Think of the eternally boyish Leonardo DiCaprio or Elijah Wood. More famous is Michelangelo’s manlier David. He’s muscular and stands erect, gazing off in serene contemplation. But, while Michelangelo captures David’s physical beauty and agility, his is a static, motionless fighter; the sculpture merely hints at the decisive moment ahead. Think Brad Pitt in Troy.
Any David who would have a chance of felling the monstrous Philistine had better be credible—one tough s.o.b. Baroque-era sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini depicts just that kind of David—not naked, but clothed in soldier’s tunic, coiled back to fling the rock at Goliath. Bernini freezes his hero in motion: Taut, fierce, and grimacing, Bernini’s magnificent figure conveys both the intent and the execution of his bold, violent act.
The genius of 300 lies in Snyder’s and cinematographer Larry Fong’s ability to dramatize that same highly stylized sense of kinetic energy and unfreeze it. In particular, as Leonidas, the burly, bearded Scottish actor Gerard Butler is Bernini’s David brought to life.
Many reviewers have touted 300’s “comic book” visual sensibility. To me, it doesn’t look like a comic book at all, but rather like an oil painting set in motion. In fact, anyone familiar with Frank Miller’s striking illustrations will note the same qualities in those works. Using a color scheme of burnished tones, 300 manifests a sophisticated visual unity that owes much more to Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Oath of the Horatii (1785) and Akira Kurosawa’s film Ran (1985) than it does to Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four. The rich, gorgeous Technicolor prints further intensify the viewing experience.
This visual stylization is one reason why 300 seems more real than the more historically accurate The 300 Spartans—even though the original was shot on location in Greece, while Snyder filmed his entirely on soundstages in Quebec. For example, the new, stylized Spartan is divested of his breastplate in favor of a uniform that makes him look like a cross between Kirk Douglas in his Spartacus get-up and wrestler Hulk Hogan in leather briefs. But the 1962 movie was filmed mostly from a distance, and the actors’ stiff performances were even more distant. The battle scenes looked like re-enactments; you could tell those Spartans were just a bunch of extras holding spears and shields.
The grand sweep and awesome storytelling of 300 had me cheering on Leonidas’s fearless warriors.
Not so with this crew: While the scenery in 300
may have been rendered by CGI artists, the six-pack abs and bulging biceps on these Spartans are real, the product of a grueling five-month-long exercise regimen in which the actors also got Marine Corps “Oorah!” attitude training. And instead of remote, set-piece battle scenes, Snyder gives us relentless, in-your-face combat—beautifully choreographed bloodletting. He conveys with blinding clarityhow the Spartans could pull off such a sustained, concerted defense against a numerically superior force. When they go into their phalanx battle formation, you immediately realize why
individual soldiers became such a deadly weapon when they fought in unison, something the 1962 film barely depicted.
I could tell 300 was going to be a smash hit when the intelligentsia descended upon this movie, unleashing all the sneering invective their vocabularies could muster—from “militaristic” and “fascistic” to “testosterone-laden” and “jingoistic.” Typical was Andrew Sarris, reigning “dean” of American film critics, writing in the New York Observer:
300 was as pathetically puerile as I had expected. Yet I can’t say that it wasn’t at least minimally entertaining. Indeed, there was a subtextual strangeness about the spectacle that would have made the ghost of Leni Riefenstahl nod in recognition.
Fortunately, the attempt to cut this superb picture down to size is more of an uphill battle than the one that Leonidas and his men fought. What repelled so many of our literati is also the source of its unexpected devotion among mainstream movie fans, (to the tune of $421 million in gross receipts, as of this writing): Miller and Snyder invest 300 with the stuff of mythical legend.
Butler’s Leonidas is a defiant figure with a bit of Phaeton and Sisyphus in him. He ignores the counsel of the Oracle (Kelly Craig), who orders him not to confront the Persians. “Trust the gods, Leonidas,” the governing council cautions him. Leonidas counters, “I would prefer you trust your reason.” Well aware that the very future of reason and democracy lies with his Spartans, the ascetic Leonidas faces down the decadent god-king Xerxes, proclaiming, “We wrest the world from your mysticism and tyranny!”
The epic tone of the story is further realized through the narration of Dilios (David Wenham), the one-eyed warrior who returns to Sparta to relate Leonidas’s story of courage and bravado to his own soldiers, firing them up to do battle again with the invading Persians. Mere days after his death, Leonidas is already elevated to the status of Epic Hero.
As Leonidas’s wife, Queen Gorgo, Lena Headey gives a stirring performance. When the movie opens, a Persian messenger (Peter Mensah) rebukes Leonidas: “Why does this woman think she can speak amongst men?” The queen fires back, “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men!”In a quiet scene before Leonidas heads off to war, she bolsters her king’s confidence: “Spartan: Come back with your shield—or on it.” It’s a lesson in honoring the spirit of a fallen loved one that’s completely lost on the Cindy Sheehans of our age.
History buffs and armchair philosophers have come out of the woodwork to chide viewers for buying into the movie’s inaccuracies. Just as common are complaints that the Greeks had slavery, that Sparta practiced infanticide, that the Spartan army was filled with conscripts, and that they—by gladly laying down their lives in a suicide mission—were hardly rational exemplars of individualism.
With all due respect to the Borg, however, resistance to 300 is futile. Its grand sweep and awesome storytelling had me cheering Leonidas’s fearless warriors. What can’t be denied is the movie’s premise that the seeds of individualism (which is a later, Enlightenment notion, anyhow) were planted in the Greek soil they so gallantly defended.
And, to anyone laboring under the misconception that soldiers are the opposite of individualists, I beg to differ. Over my years of military service, I’ve come to know many Airborne Rangers, Special Forces Green Berets, infantry grunts, Marines, and psychological operations specialists. To a man, these hardcore warriors personify the qualities of character exemplified by Leonidas and his hoplites: heads held high, rigorous discipline, physical prowess, intransigent certainty, moral courage, the ability to face reality at its most grim—and the willingness to think. When it comes to individualism, these guys walk the walk; everything else is just talk.
Through its images of crushing brutality, 300 reminds us that the bounties of civilization that we take for granted are a gift passed down through time from men like Leonidas. Or, in words famously (though perhaps mistakenly) attributed to George Orwell: “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
With 300, Frank Miller and Zack Snyder have concocted an antidote to the steady diet of cynicism and derisive irony that Hollywood has been feeding our youth for decades. If you thirst for a tale that extols honor and reveres gallantry, in which the good guys are great and the bad guys are evil, then look no further than this stupendous cinematic achievement.