Saturday, March 17, 2007
Dir. Zack Snyder
Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Regan
The Battle of Thermopylae is one of the most interesting historical events I’ve ever read about. The fact that a small group of men were able to hold off a vastly superior army was fascinating and inspiring. There had only been one prior film version of this battle, the absolutely unwatchable 300 Spartans, and there didn’t seem to be much interest in this battle since then. Most of the books or websites discussing it talked about Thermopylae in a philosophical or dry historical context. It was hard to find something that could really get you to feel what it was like. Likely spurred on by the success of Lord of the Rings, two studios started working on film versions of Thermopylae. The first one that made it to the screen (the other one is still in doubt) was the adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300. Miller’s story was not pure history, as it added fantasy elements to the classic battle, but its highly stylized nature actually did a great job of capturing the heat of the battle. Director Zack Snyder’s adaptation of that novel is a glorious and rousing technical production that suffers from the inclusion of an embarrassingly bad subplot.
In 380 BC, the Persian army was rumored to be a million strong (although current estimates place it much lower than that), and they were marching right for Sparta. Sparta’s King Leonidas has a perfect plan for stopping them, by funneling the vast Persian army into the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae. Unfortunately, he is prevented from leading his army to battle because of an important Greek festival called the Carneia. Despite his pleas, the oracle has spoken and no war must be fought during the festival. Leonidas then decides to lead a small force of 300 men (all whom already had sons who could take care of the family) to hold the Persians long enough for the rest of Spartan army to join the battle. Despite constant attacks from the Persians, Leonidas and his men stood their ground and frustrated King Xerxes.
Director Zack Snyder was a great choice for the project. He had previously shown his ability to add life to an adaptation with his Dawn of the Dead remake. In 300, Snyder and his team did a brilliant job of capturing the visceral moments of this famous battle, the only fault being some bizarre heavy metal music cues. Many have complained about the excessive use of slow motion, but it fits right in with the film’s graphic novel style. Snyder gives us a perfect introduction to the Spartan phalanx formation, and seeing it in action is beautiful. Leonidas and his men instantly push the Persians back, killing them quickly and efficiently, and those that don’t die instantly find themselves pushed off a steep cliff. The movie gives you a perfect view of the nature of this battle and how the Spartans were able to use the narrow terrain to their advantage. In these moments, 300 approaches cinematic greatness.
However, there is a distracting subplot going on back in Sparta. Leonidas’ wife Queen Gorgo is desperately trying to convince the Spartans to ignore the festival and join the 300. Every once in a while Snyder takes away from the incredible battle scene and comes back to the political affairs of Sparta. It’s a pretty jolting experience and Snyder himself doesn’t seem so interested in it. The scenes lack so much energy or careful thought that we get the feeling it was included more to be faithful to the graphic novel than to try and make an interesting movie. While being faithful to the source material is nice, there’s no reason to do it when the source has obvious flaws. If you leave in these flaws, then you’re accepting them as part of your adaptation. And considering that the conclusion of the subplot has absolutely no bearing on the main plot makes it a completely worthless enterprise.
The treatment of Queen Gorgo, and women in general, is one of the weakest parts of the movie. At the beginning, they portray her as a strong individualistic woman who isn’t afraid of standing up to any man. Later in the film, she struggles with threats made by a councilman named Theron. He’s threatened to block any attempt to send the Spartan army to help out Leonidas, but offers her a way out. The fact that Queen Gorgo accepts his proposal does not fit with the noble character we’ve seen up to that point in the movie. It seems this scene was written solely for the silly crowd pleasing moment near the end of the film when she speaks to the council. The problem is that this final scene still could have taken place and been just as crowd pleasing if Snyder had allowed the character to retain her dignity earlier in the film. The other women in the film are portrayed writhing around on the ground or seducing the Greek traitor Ephialtes.
There has been some debate about the political message this film apparently brings. Even Iran has gotten in the middle of this, complaining about the film’s treatment of Persians. There are several moments during the political subplot that people seem to think suggest a parallel to the current situation in Iraq. The claim is that by siding with Leonidas’ decision to stop the Persians, Snyder is trying to positive spin on Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. The problem with this claim is that the film is a faithful adaptation of a graphic novel that was written in 1998. Any similarities to the controversial situation in Iraq are purely coincidental similarities to historical incidents. It would be just as likely that the film is attacking the role of religious fundamentalism in politics. However, I think any attempt to pin a political message on this picture is pointless. Zack Snyder was far more interested in displaying awesome battle sequences than attaching any message to his picture.
Despite the considerable flaws, 300 remains an exciting depiction of one of the most important battles in world history. The outstanding technical work makes for extremely exciting action sequences that perfectly capture the brutal nature of war. As Leonidas, Gerard Butler has such an incredibly commanding presence, that you want to suit up and go help him out. If only Snyder had rejected a needless subplot, he could have had something great. As it is, we are left with a decent historical action movie containing some incredible moments.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 12:20 PM