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300

July 31, 2007

Well, now. Here’s a thing.

300, which I’m sure you won’t be able to escape hearing about, is the story of a brief period during the Greco-Persian Wars when, in 480 BC, King Xerxes led a huge force to subjugate Greece. A small force of about 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians led by King Leonidas of Sparta held off a Persian army of more than 300,000. For three days at Thermopylae the Greeks fought a desperate action to delay the entry of the Persians into the Greek heartland. They caused huge causualties, but all were eventually killed in the battle.

So, a key historical moment, of course, one of those things that we all think we know about, the Hand of History (if I may borrow a very recent soundbite) resting heavily on the broad shoulders of all involved. And that, is a major problem; the theme here is the preservation of high ideals, logic, art, culture. A stand against the massed ranks tyranny, the principles that Democracy will be built upon…but I’ll come back to this point in a moment.

300 boldly takes its source material and imagines it in a visceral and startling fashion. Unfortunately, that source material isn’t Herodotus, but Frank Miller’s comic of the same name:

The imagining is bold because the film tries to exactly replicate the visuals from Miller and put them up on the screen.

Everything (apart from one solitary scene of horses racing across a field) was shot in front of a blue- or green-screen, so that effects could be laid over it later to recreate Miller’s drawings perfectly:

And I mean everything; the landscapes, the sky, the sunsets, the very air that surrounds the characters has been generated to look the part.

And look the part it most assuredly does. This is stylised to buggery, frankly, and looks absolutely bloody gorgeous. Evereything has been saturated with colour for certain scenes, desaturated for others, washed through with ochres and reds and blues to indicate mood. It has a very gritty graphical feel and is clearly a work of great love, almost obsession.

And it’s gorgeously bloody, too, for as well as being the most unusually stylised movie, it is also easily goriest film. It may even overtake the sainted Braindead for viscera and bodies. If you want to see thousands, and I really do mean thousands, of people being cut down, then this is your thing. Oh, and horses, and elephants and rhinoceros, too, just to warn you. But then, if you’re even vaguely squeamish, just stay clear.

 

But, we’re approaching a dilemma here. The visual element here soon bumps up against everything else. How it’s balanced is where the problems arise. This is a massive historical moment, of course, and so it means we must suffer that curiously stilted faux-Shakespeare portentous dialogue that historical epics feel is necessary:

A new age has come, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.

interlaced with quite laughable, please-the-plebs, Arnie-style crap:

Unless I miss my guess, we’re in for one wild night.

Both of those coming from King Leonides of Sparta!

The acting is dwarfed by the enormity of the visual feast on offer here. Actually, the acting is pretty minimal anyway, and uniformly poor. Even the normally reliable David Wenham is a slave to his pecs, abs and decs, for all are required to look fabulous, and have the musculature of superheroes. These guys have worked. They’re built, and the camera devours them. All that’s really required is the ability to shout and die with brass knobs on, and everyone does that. The problem, the problem, is that the style gets in the way. You could probably play all the reels in reverse order and no-one would notice because the audience would be too busy staring at the imagery. There is one almighty money shot that knocked me back on my heels. During the first combat sequence, Leonidas runs out into the oncoming Persian hoards and takes dozens on by himself. His attack, slowed, sped-up, slowed again, allows him to strike the aesthetic at every turn. Blood flies out in perfect CGI’d arcs to complete the symmetry of each fall and thrust. It is horribly beautiful. This still:

can’t even begin to do it justice.

But then we have some talking, a bit of plot, some ridiculous dialogue…and you’re begging for another blast of something stunning to gaze at. The peaks and troughs make this either the worst film I’ve ever seen or the most extraordinary. I just can’t decide.

One thing it isn’t, though, is history: seems some critics have decided to see in the film a parallel with the current Middle East situation, a neo-con wet dream of democratic free-thinkers facing down the barbarian hoardes. It’s all nonsense of course, and anyone going in to this to see some sort of allegory will come unstuck. The Spartans didn’t give a toss about that sort of thing. No, this is a silly, fatuous, shouty, loud-mouthed action movie. It just happens to look fantastic.

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