Zack Snyder stylishly re-creates the ancient Battle of Thermopylae


on March 09, 2007 by Annlee Ellingson
In his second outing behind the camera of a feature film, Zack Snyder ( Dawn of the Dead ) once again infuses previously produced material — here, Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 — with a visual style that injects new energy into the sword-and-sandals epic. Set in 480 B.C., the plot centers on the historic Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartan soldiers go up against a Persian army of hundreds of thousands.

Events are set in motion upon the arrival of a messenger, dark-skinned with violet eyes, who warns King Leonidas (a commanding Gerard Butler) that Xerxes, the self-proclaimed God-King of Persia (Rodrigo Santoro, transformed into a giant with a Dark Vader voice), is marching toward Sparta with a massive army of a thousand conquered nations. Corrupt priests and politicians refuse to declare war, so Leonidas and 300 of his “personal body guards” — stripped down to the bare essentials of capes, helmets and weaponry, their buff physiques their only body armor — head north with a plan to use the geography of Greece herself to defend their land from foreign invaders. Along the rocky coast of the Aegean Sea, there is a narrow corridor called the Hot Gates through which the Persians will have to pass. There, against an at-times heavy-metal soundtrack, the nimble Spartan army has a strategic advantage over their enemy.

Meanwhile, in parallel storyline that was not part of Miller's original plot, sassy Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) — “Only Spartan women give birth to real men,” she says when the messenger questions why a woman is allowed to speak — uses her feminine wiles to convince the skeptical council to send troops to back up her husband.

It's a relatively simple story about three days on the battlefield, and the waves of attacks—which escalate from hand-to-hand combat to cavalry to exotic African animals to the “magic” of explosives—even when juxtaposed with the political machinations taking place back on the home front, can grow wearying.

Thematically complicated, the Sparta of 300 is a society that, in order to defend freedom, must be ruthless with the weak. At birth, babies who are deemed small or sickly or misshapen are discarded. Freedom is worth dying for but, it seems, only deserved by the strong and the beautiful. This attitude proves the undoing of Leonidas and his men, when a grotesquely deformed would-be soldier is rejected by the king, rightfully so (he can't raise his shield high enough to protect the man next to him), but betrays the Spartans.

Still, these are compelling characters, trained from boyhood to experience nothing but pain to become warriors who never retreat, never surrender, and whose greatest honor is to die a “beautiful death” on the battlefield, even when they know victory is impossible. And their stand, the film argues, protects what later proves to be the cradle of Western civilization.

Moreover, there's poetry and humor in the lines and their delivery, many taken directly from Miller's text. (Too many: In a bid to capture the quality of the author's prose, Snyder has employed a voiceover that serves as little more than redundant summary.) In one of the more thrilling exchanges in the film, an enemy combatant threatens, “Our arrows will blot out the sun.” “Then we will fight in the shade,” comes the reply. Then, summoned before Xerxes during a lull in the fighting, Leonidas, his mouth full of apple says, “There's no reason we can't be civil,” as his men finish off the dying bodies littering the battlefield.

Like Sin City, Robert Rodriguez's virtually literal adaptation of another Miller work, 300 was shot almost entirely against bluescreen in an attempt to capture the graphic visual style of the comic book, although not as literally. Red still accents the picture, but, whereas stark black and white with occasional splashes of crimson characterized the previous film, here the filmmakers have manipulated the color balance to jack up the contrast ratio and run the digital intermediate through a silvery bleach bypass. Coupled with aesthetic shot construction in every single frame, whether inspired by the comic book or not, the picture achieves a heightened, painterly quality in its imagery. Also artistic is the fight choreography, where assured control of slow motion and other speed effects achieve a balletic rhythm in battle. Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham and Dominic West
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon
Producers: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann and Jeffrey Silver
Genre: War drama
Rating: R for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity
Running time: 117 min.
Release date: March 9, 2007

Tags: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham and Dominic West Director: Zack Snyder Screenwriters: Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon Producers: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, Jeffrey Silver Genre, War drama, Warner Bros.

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