"We're in for one wild night." So says King Leonidas to his troops on the eve of the Battle of Thermopylae. It's
one of the greatest battles ever told, where 300 Spartan warriors withstood a massive Persian invading force led by
King Xerxes. A wild night indeed. Adapted from the Frank Miller graphic novel and directed by "Dawn of the Dead"
filmmaker, Zack Snyder, "300" is rich with animated aesthetics - colorful chaos, ethereal bliss, and glorious
grotesque. But filmgoers be warned: If you are looking for historical accuracy, look elsewhere. As this retelling
of the "300" more closely resembles the fantastical, a la "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," than that
of ancient Greece. In spite of characters and details that have been embellished and exaggerated to the point of
absurdity, this is a film whose primary purpose is to entertain the male ego. Depicted with ferocity and blood
spurting testosterone, there's no arguing that "300" stays true to its graphic nature - one that's all about the
fight, not in getting it right.
In Spartan culture, only the strongest and fittest were allowed to survive. Even at birth, babies with the slightest
abnormality were thrown to their death, thereby preserving the culture, one almost entirely dedicated to
warfare. Young boys were forced to walk bare foot in the cold, were toughened through beatings, and slept
uncovered on the ground. Born and raised in this brutal society, Leonidas grew up the hard way. He starved
himself while learning to fight to the death. And all the while, upheld the Spartan code of honor. Over time,
his acts of courage and valor became legendary, inevitably leading to a seat on the throne, as King of Sparta along
with his wife, Queen Gorgo.
But on this day, the Spartan way of life was to be challenged. A Persian Emissary arrives, bringing news of
King Xerxes' intent to control all of Greece. Displeased with the news, Leonidas chooses his words
carefully: "We Spartans have descended from Hercules himself. Taught never to retreat, never to
surrender." Unwilling to kneel before these foreign invaders, Leonidas conveniently dispatches the Persian
messengers. And rather than deal with the politics of going to war, he assembles a Spartan entourage of 300
"body guards" to greet Xerxes at the mountain pass known as Thermopylae. There, the Spartans would sacrifice
everything against insurmountable odds to preserve their freedom.
In May 1998, Frank Miller's "300" hit the newsstands as a limited comic run by Dark Horse Comics. The series lasted only
5 issues; each titled "Honor," "Duty," "Glory," "Combat," and "Victory." But in just a short time, it became widely
recognized as one of the Best Limited Series around. With riveting illustrations and watercolors by Frank Miller and
Lynn Varley, the story loosely depicted the events leading up to the Battle of Thermopylae, all from the perspective of
Leonidas I. Inspired by the 1962 film, "The 300 Spartans," and following the footsteps of "Sin City" and "The Dark Knight
Returns," "300" stood out because of its attention to form and earthy detail - the harshness of its landscapes, the
bloodied uniforms, and the mythical and epic characters. Visually, it was all very unique, even combining the normal
2-page spread of comic books into 1 uninterrupted page. And for the film version, the inkblots, the colors, and the
narration are all there. But not as effective in motion as they are statically on a comic page.
Historically speaking, "300" is neither linear nor accurate. Forget that the breastplates and tunics are missing, the
phalanx is cinematically altered, and Sparta's highest officials are lecherous outcasts. No, there are some questionable
departures here. For starters, Sparta was in fact, a warring state, but its future kings like Leonidas were exempt from
harsh upbringings. And according to Herodotus, Leonidas actually led as many as 7,000 Greeks at Thermopylae, rotating the
phalanx at the pass. Not just 300 Spartans and a few blacksmiths from neighboring states. While the film would have you
believe that the Spartans were the only ones fighting for Greece, the Athenian navy was busy fighting the Persian fleet in
the straits of Thermopylae. Not just Mother Nature wrecking ships amidst Spartan cheers.
Most disappointing, however, is the way in which the Persians are depicted, like some Cirque du Soleil
leftovers. Xerxes is an effeminate giant, the Uber Immortals are disfigured ninja warriors with a giant
troll, and Ephialtes, the local shepherd and Spartan turned traitor, is straight out of "The Hunchback of
Notre Dame." Now why wasn't he tossed at birth?
Obviously, we're talking about a comic book adaptation here, not a historical text. And in spite of all its
inaccuracies and "Lord of the Rings" comparisons, the film adequately captures the essence of the battle more
so than the reality.
"This is where we fight! This is where they die!" Or "Give them nothing! But take from them everything!" In "300,"
there is very little expositional dialogue. Most equates to pure fighting words. Almost instantly, the film plunges
the audience into action and bloodshed, rarely taking a moment to look back. It's when it tries to grow a conscience,
it tries to create a political back-story a la "Gladiator," and it tries to create empathy in its characters that it
fails. These moments are stale and visually boring, adding nothing to what little is described. And the characters
are merely pawns in a visual epic - an epic that lacks pretext, unraveling like a mindless video game that you turn on
and start fighting.
One of the main reasons we go to movies is for the aesthetic experience - to see things in unique and exciting ways. And
for that, "300" does not disappoint. Out of the 1500 cuts in the film, approximately 1300 feature some sort of visual
effect. From the opening scene of Persian messengers galloping toward the camera to the rabid wolf that a young Leonidas
faces to the Oracle floating through the ether. The exquisite set detail of Xerxes tent, the Wall of the Dead, the
Persian armada at sea, and countless battle sequences involving rhinoceroses, elephants, and horses - all bold and
memorable visuals that enhance the drama and magnificence of the story. And all polished beautifully by the saturation
or "crush" effect in post-production, casting the film in a terrific light.
Much like Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City," Zack Snyder's "300" lifts the pages off Frank Miller's graphic tale
with blunt force. And the result is a fist pounding, epic battle of glorious carnage. Ironically, "300"
stumbles when it tries to be more than what it is, when it tries to introduce politics and passion, tales
of paternal woe, or mythical creatures that have no business fighting in the Greco-Persian war. With limited
dialogue and storylines, this is a film where actions speak louder than words. Historical accuracy be
damned. This is an artistic interpretation of a comic book - a blood bath of barbaric madness. Or as King
Leonidas would say, "Madness? This is Sparta!"