The Battle of Thermopylae has stirred the blood of writers many times (Herodotus through William Golding to most recently Steven Pressfield) and its story of a small force battling a vast invading army has been filmed once before, back in 1962. Seemingly drawn to difficult films - a George Romero remake and an Alan Moore adaptation bookend this project - Zack Snyder has set out to bring to life Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's graphic novel version, 300.
Expectations are high. The trailer and snippets of footage both released and leaked onto the Internet have had the fanboys' blood up for months now, while those not familiar with the source have been treated to previews attached to high profile films such as Apocalypto and Hot Fuzz. With its eye-candy Sin City-style visuals and audiences perhaps bored with the idea of sword and sandals after the messy Troy and Alexander can 300 live up to the hype?
We saw it on Friday night and hand-on-heart can say it takes the hype, impales it on a stake and then thrashes you over the head with the torn-off, bloody limbs, leaving you with a giddy rush. It's not just good. It's great.
480BC and Greece faces being conquered by King Xerxes and the Persian Empire. One small city state, Sparta, makes a stand against unimaginable odds, drawing a line in the sand behind which rests not only Sparta and Greece, but the entire Western world and everything that followed. At least that's Miller's interpretation of events:
"We are talking about the crucible, the epicentre of the battle of for everything that we have, for everything that is Western civilisation. There's a reason why we are as free as we are, and a lot of it begins with the story of 300 young men holding a very narrow pass long enough to inspire the rest of Greece... It's not just an old story; it's an eternal story."
Synder doggedly follows Miller's vision, fleshing out the story (more about that in a minute) and breathing movement into the panels ensuring that 300 far surpasses any comic book adaptation to date. It's a little like taking the Lord of the Rings trilogy and cutting all the annoying bits out (the Hobbits, the wandering, the elves, the talking trees, the fucking ring, the stupid eye, etc) and concentrating on the best bits - arms, legs, heads fly through the air and heroes release the kind of dialogue that makes you grin from ear to ear:
I trust that scratch hasn't made you useless?
Hardly my lord. It's just an eye. The gods saw fit to grace me with a spare.
At the centre of the movie is King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler. He's the lead Scot in a cast mostly made up of Brits - the last thing we saw him in was the marvelous Beowulf & Grendel when he also played the lead and, by the way, it's criminal that the movie is still waiting for a UK release. Expect that to change once 300 opens.
King Leonidas refuses to bow down to Xerxes, casting the shadow of war over Sparta. More than a mere refusal, he kills the threats of the approaching God-King with the oft-quoted THIS. IS. SPARTA line.
Leonidas plans to take the fight to the invading army by using his own army's superior fighting skills - Spartans are taught from an early age to endure pain, and that to die in battle is the greatest glory imaginable - and the geography of Greece against the interlopers. His plan is blocked by the corrupt Ephors (an ancient and diseased caste of priests) who, through their Oracle, decree that Sparta must honour the festival of the Carneia, not go to war.
Leonidas, knowing he cannot break their law, instead decides simply 'to go for a walk'. With 300 volunteers as his personal bodyguard. As luck would have it, they find themselves right in the path of the invaders. Kickassery ensues.
A much expanded role from the one in the book goes to Lena Headey, who plays Leonidas' queen. These segments will no doubt provoke heated debate among the comic fans, along with a few other scenes that expand Miller's work. With Miller on board and more than happy with the extra material, there's not much to be upset about. The scenes back in Sparta show not only what the soldiers are defending, but help flesh out the relationship between the king and queen. It also sidesteps the issue of how to give the girls more to do, which tripped up Liv and Keira in Fellowship of the Ring and King Arthur.
Spartans of note include David Wenham from LOTR playing the storytelling Dilios, plus Tom Wisdom and Michael Fassbender as Astinos and Stelios - two of the younger warriors so eager to get into the fight. Some of the funniest moments in the film feature the aghast allied Arcadians, trembling at the Persian army as the Spartans look on grinning and laughing when deluged in arrows, hoping that somewhere in the vast enemy is a single man capable of giving them a good death.
It must have been doubly hard for actors working almost entirely with blue screen effects. Visually the film is magnificent. Using a similar technique to one Robert Rodriguez utilised in the earlier Miller adaptation, Snyder delivers detail after detail with such flare that it's hard to believe this is only his second feature. Every frame of the movie involves a visual effect and while CGI is often used these days to pad a bad story, or distract from a poor film, the effects here help lift 300 well above the competition. And for fans of the graphic novel it's alarming to see just how well certain shots mimic the illustrations in the book. Snyder calls those shots 'Frank frames', but the overall look of the film is all down to 'the crush', the way that the colour balance was manipulated. As producer Jeffrey Silver explained:
"Zack developed a recipe where you'd crush the black content of the image and enhance the colour saturation to change the contrast ratio of the film. Every image in the film went through a post-image processing. The crush is what gives the film its distinct look and feel.
That distinct look and feel has already started to anger historians. But Snyder and Miller are the first to explain that 300 was never meant to be historically accurate. The prime example is the way that the Spartans fight practically naked (they are often nude in the book, but Snyder revealed a memo was sent to him forbidding any "dangling genitalia"). In reality the Spartans would have been heavily armoured, but their reliance on only shield, spear and helmet strips them down literally to the force that they represent. It also underlines their bravery and with a cast put through a rigorous training regime the resulting buffed torsos resemble armour anyway. Plus if it's good enough for the Greeks in their own representation of the heroes who are we to argue? And the contrast between the simplistic Spartan garb with that of the elaborate Persians, with their love of deformity (strictly the opposite of the Spartan code, which doomed any child not fitting the Spartan mould at birth), wild exotic animals, magic and slave-warriors from all over the known world help keep the screen filled with spectacle.
There was a rather off putting early review over on Ain't It Cool that mentioned the METAL soundtrack, but that's not the case at all (the same reviewer also suggested that Snyder had "a dick made of three machine guns"). Aside form a brief crescendo that would do any thrash band proud and perfectly fits the action, Tyler Bates keeps the score perfectly restrained and melodic. But please try and see the movie in a cinema with a decent sound system to get the full benefit. Those battle scenes really need to be cranked up to 11.
300 can really be summed up with a single exchange between the heads of the ill matched armies:
Xerxes: I would gladly kill any one of my men for victory.
Leonidas: And I would die for any one of mine.
Who do you want to bet on?
300 is released on 22nd March. When you see it a second time (and you will), wait for the upcoming IMAX screenings. Seeing the film on a screen that size is the only way to improve it. The movie's UK website is here.
Oddly enough the last film we reviewed was also the story of an outnumbered force facing certain defeat at the hands of the enemy.
Images © Warner Bros Ent Inc 2007.
Tom, over on Solace in Cinema, was at the same screening. You can read his take on 300 here.
There were moments I actually thought he might take a bite out of the screen, chew it up and spit it out onto a Persian corpse.