March 10, 2007 -- “300” is essentially a comic book-style remake of a 1962 movie called “The 300 Spartans.” The new film is a lot more stylish than the original, and there is a lot more gore, but it is very similar in many other ways. The style of the new film is overwhelming. It has the look of Frank Miller's (“Sin City”) 1988 graphic novel from which it is adapted. Everything is bronze-tinted, and contrast-enhanced. Much of what you see on the screen is computer-generated, like its predecessor, “Sin City.” This film was shot mostly in front of green screens. The film is filled with cardboard-thin characters played by thespians who are overacting, but that works well enough in this exaggerated context. What doesn't work so well are the non-combat scenes of politicking, back-stabbing, bribery, negotiating and plotting betrayals. Those scenes temporarily bring the film's momentum to a standstill. What works are the exquisitely-choreographed battle scenes, and those really are electrifying. It looks like a combat video game.
The actors aren't really the stars of this film. They take a back seat to the film's look and style. The film's main character is the king of Sparta, Leonidas (Gerard Butler of “The Phantom of the Opera”) who makes the fateful decision to fight against overwhelming odds, despite the opposition of his people and the emissaries of his gods. He leads 300 elite Spartan soldiers to stand against the Persian army of some one million men led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro of “Love Actually”) in 480 B.C. This is loosely based on a historical event. The Greeks take on the Persians at a place called the “Hot Gates” at Thermopylae. Here, at a geological bottleneck, the Persian army is squeezed down into a small opening where its numerical superiority is nullified.
The movie explores the Spartan military lifestyle. Spartan boys are taken away from their homes to undergo strenuous military training at an early age. They are taught to ignore pain, hardship and fear. They believe it is an honor to die for their country. Sparta was a warrior society unlike any other. Athens was a rival to Sparta. At one point in the movie a Spartan makes a disparaging remark about Athenians, noting that Athenian men like to have sex with boys. The odd thing about this remark is that sex between men and boys was just as common among Spartans, perhaps more so, since it was also part of the Spartan military training. Also, it should be noted it was the Athenians who held the much larger Persian fleet at bay, enabling the Spartans to hold their ground without being flanked by sea. It is also the Athenians who later defeated the Persian fleet at Salamis, a key factor in Greece's eventual victory.
The Spartans are portrayed with such exaggerated masculinity in this movie they look like gay bodybuilders. The Spartans in 300, with their ripped abs, remind me of the “manly men” of the pirate ship Raging Queen in that old Saturday Night Live skit where John Belushi asks a boatload of women, “Are there any men with you?” The movie has been portrayed either homophobic or homoerotic, depending on your point of view. This is yet another sign of the film's foggy sexual and political ambivalence. It seems to be all things to all people. It is also another aspect of the film's exaggeration of everything, including masculinity, courage, heroism, drama, betrayal and sacrifice.
The movie also highlights the famed spirit and independence of the Spartan women, who had more power and influence than most women in the ancient world. Leonidas' wife, Gorgo (Lena Headey of “The Cave”) fights to save her husband and her country during the battle. She is up against a slippery politician, Theron (Dominic West of “The Forgotten”) who threatens to keep Sparta out of the war against the Persians. These scenes, and any others that are not battle scenes, really slow down the film's momentum. They are also not historically accurate. The only thing that saves this film are its beautifully-choreographed battle scenes, complete with lots of blood, severed heads, skewered bodies and severed limbs. If these scenes looked realistic at all, this film would be rated NC-17 instead of “R.” But this is clearly exaggerated comic book violence. It doesn't look real and it isn't supposed to. It has a haunting beauty to it, especially the slow-motion battle scenes.
This film takes itself way too seriously and it could have used a lot more humor, but one thing I did find funny was a Greek king, Leonidas, who has a Scottish accent. Hearing that certainly took me out of the moment. Leonidas sounded a lot like Sean Connery. I thought I was back in “Highlander” there for awhile. Leonidas' speeches, which are louder than they are inspiring, get repetitive after awhile, too. Another thing that was strange about the look of the film was the unusually large number of malformed people with misshapen faces and bodies. They looked like gargoyles. It was creepy and disgusting. The film depicts the good guys as being physically perfect and heterosexual, while the bad guys are literally monsters, either deformed, homosexual, or both. This is another aspect of the film's simplistic depiction of good and evil, black and white.
Seeing this movie, it is tempting to make comparisons between the Greek-Persian war and the current war in Iraq. Some critics have compared heroic Leonidas to President Bush, except of course, Bush never actually fights. Others compare Bush to Xerxes, leading his forces to their doom with hubris and bad strategies. The latter analogy is probably more apt since U.S. forces invaded Iraq, like the Persians invaded Greece. Iraq did not invade the U.S., and could not, even if it wanted to. Now U.S. occupation forces are being bled by the Iraqis, the way the Persian forces were bled by the Greeks. I don't think either analogy is intended, since the story was conceived and written long before 2001 or the current war. However, the film is pro-war. All those opposed to war in the film are depicted as weak, depraved or traitorous, and all those Greeks in favor of war are noble and heroic. But the film offers something for both liberals and conservatives, depending on how you look at it. At any rate, the parallels between the two distant wars will be a lot closer if the U.S. attacks Iran. The modern Iranians are descended from those ancient Persians who invaded Greece. Now, they are building nukes. Yikes! More likely the real point of the movie is not about history, religion, liberty or any modern war, but about extraordinary heroic sacrifice. This film rates a B.
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