Directed by: Zack Snyder
Screenplay by: , Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon
Produced by: Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, Gianni Nunnari, Jeffrey Silver,
Studio: Legendary Pictures, Virtual Studios, Warner Bros. Pictures
Based on: 300 by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
Release Date: 9th March, 2007
Despite appearances, 300 is the sort of film that sells itself as a pretty mindless action film, delivers on that in spades, but manages to do so in a visually creative and surprisingly self-aware fashion without necessarily being “about more” like many films in this genre. It’s a deceptively simple concept that’s executed better than one would expect.
The story is framed as a tale recited by the Spartan soldier, Dilios (David Wenham), to a Spartan army. In 478 BC, messengers of the Persian Empire arrive at the gates of Sparta demanding “earth and water” as a token of submission to King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). King Leonidas I (Gerard Butler) responds my killing the messengers, effectively declaring war on Persia. He visits the Ephors, proposing a strategy to drive back the numerically superior Persians. The Ephors, having been bribed by messengers from Xerxes, consult the Oracle and decree that Sparta will not go to war during the Carneia Festival. Nevertheless, Leonidas gathers three hundred of his best soldiers in the guise of his personal bodyguard. At Thermopylae, Leonidas encounters the deformed Spartan Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), who despite his wishes is unable to fight in formation due to his deformity and has no choice but to leave embittered and angry. Using their superior fighting skills and the Hot Gates to their advantage, the Spartans repel wave after wave of the Persian army, meanwhile Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) attempts to rouse the Spartans to aid their king and outmanoeuvre the schemes of the corrupt Spartan politician, Theron (Dominic West).
The majority of the acting in this film is of the over the top variety. Butler practically devours the scenery as the epically loud, possibly mad Leonidas, but still delivers on the quieter and more subtle scenes. Headey is particularly strong and compelling as Gorgo, having a fiery determination that simmers beneath her elegance; in a film that’s very male dominated her performance allows her to stand toe to toe with the warriors and kings in this film. Santoro is imposing and charismatic as Xerxes, leaving a strong impression despite not having a lot of screen time. Wenham nails Dilios as the scarred storyteller and provides necessary narration to the film. Among the Spartan troops, Vincent Regan has a lot of emotional scenes as Captain Artemis, and Michael Fassbender appears as the wild yet skilled Stelios in one of his earliest major film roles, both give really good performances for basically being standard warrior side characters. West is a slimy and thoroughly detestable political figure as Theron, and Peter Mensah is memorable as the Persian messenger.
As one of the most noteworthy things people watch this film for, the action is beautifully shot, revelling in the primal Spartans on display, each individual frame looks like a Renaissance painting in motion with the combined gritty style of the graphic novel. The cinematography by Larry Fong is incredible, his visuals have great depth of field, contrast and an instantly recognizable dark and grim but still eye-catching colour palette, and this would define Fong as a master of stylized and gritty fictional worlds for many years to come. There’s no doubt that 300 is successful in being faithful to the aesthetic and panels of Frank Miller’s Spartan epic.
A combination of martial arts techniques were employed to make the action scenes more flowing and dynamic, in addition to the historic phalanx formation which is only used in the early stages of the battle. Obviously the Spartans did not walk into battle half naked and had bronze armour of their own, but the Persians really did wear little to no armour in addition to a simple uniform, and had highly inadequate weaponry and shields and mainly relied on overwhelming numbers. I mention this because despite the exaggerated imagery of the film, the very core of the concept of highly trained warriors against legions of barely trained slave-fighters is given greater emphasis.
This is an example of filming on a green screen environment done well, rather than being photorealistic but the stylized and exaggerated aesthetic is very pleasing to the eye. What set work is present for the town of Sparta itself or other locations is fairly minimal but does its job well enough. The CGI backgrounds and landscapes still look pretty good, while the creatures are obviously digital creations but in a way that works within the context of this film. The CGI blood is gratuitous, often to the point of hilarity, and yet it goes with the tone. In not aiming to be photorealistic they’re able to get away with a lot more absurd and crazy imagery and sequences. The makeup on the Persian elite forces and Ephialtes is very hideous and monstrous, comparable to the work done by Weta Workshop. Its not the only time Snyder vaguely alludes to the fantasy films of Peter Jackson.
The score by Tyler Bates is a combination of heavy chorus singing, guitar music, percussive drums and heavy metal. This bizarre concoction works for the type of film that this is, and there are a number of striking cues such as ‘Returns a King’ when the choir swells to enormous proportions. This cue is closely based off one of the tracks from the film Titus by Eliot Goldenthal, and whether or not you feel this is copying another composer’s work too blatantly you can’t deny its impact.
It is historically authentic and bat-crap crazy at the same time, thanks to the framing device of Delios recounting and embellishing the story for his Spartan audience, explaining why the Persians and Ephialtes are portrayed as more monstrous than human. Other such liberties include the fact that Xerxes was not an androgynous giant, the Immortals were not deformed Samurai warriors, they didn’t use rhinos and elephants at Thermopylae, and Ephialtes was not a deformed hunchback. Miller and Snyder use the prologue to introduce the concept of the agoge and the brutal militaristic lifestyle of Spartans to weed out the weak and produce invulnerable warriors. Right off the bat, you see the kinds of cruelties inflicted on the Spartan boys to make them the kind of warriors we see in the film, but this is hardly a sympathetic city state. Had the balance been off and the film could have come across as a case of pitting one lesser evil against a much greater one, but we gain a connection to the Spartan warriors because of the very real human connections shared as brothers in arms, as fathers and sons and husbands and wives. The script is laden with the laconic sensibilities of the Spartans, as written down by both Frank Miller and Lynn Varley in the original graphic novel. It’s impressive that many quotable lines have emerged from this film.
Maybe it’s just me, but I found more allusions to The Lord of the Rings than anyone could simply write off as coincidence. Such examples include the presentation of Ephialtes as a skulking, treacherous Gollum-like character, several Persian monsters resembling Orcs and Uruk-Hai, and the depiction of wolves and elephants as more like Wargs and Oliphaunts from Middle-earth. Whether these are intentional similarities on Snyder’s part or not, it’s interesting to see how one expresses affection for one’s artistic influences in their own work.
Obviously the plot about a smaller, scrappier army going up against a host numbering many hundred thousand strong in defence of home, family, honour and freedom is a tale as old as the hills. But here it takes on a somewhat different form: the Spartans are presented as a culture with a religion and mythology, with Delios likening them to Hercules as a shared ancestor, but they don’t adhere to it in the same dogmatic and superstitious degree as the Persians who perceive Xerxes as a living god-king. Whether or not Xerxes thinks he really is a god-king, the image of divine power he projects and indeed how the Spartan audience perceive him his paramount so the theme of rationality versus superstition. The Ephors are presented as just as monstrous and deformed as the Persians, as relics from a bygone era of superstition and blind mysticism and worship of the gods. While none of these elements are brought up in great detail, they are lingering in the background of the story.
Ultimately, 300 is a film that’s able to succeed by eschewing pretentiousness. Troy and Alexander are more realistic looking films with a commendable level of historical accuracy, but both also aspire for greatness and because of that higher level of expectation, even with their best merits, they ultimately fall short of their intended marks. 300 by comparison is a case where a fairly simplistic story is given such a strong sense of visual and directing identity that its entertainment factor ends up outweighing its flaws or visual departures from historical fact.