Saturday, August 17, 2013

THE 300th POST: 300 (2007)


 

           Appropriate, right?  I had not planned it this way, but I had not reviewed it yet and when I realized I was approaching my 300th post it made perfect sense.  “300” was based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley that was published in 1998.  It was directed by Zac Snyder in Montreal with almost all the shots taking place in front of a blue screen. The film took 60 days to shoot, but spent over one year in post-production.  The movie cost $60 million and was considered a big risk by Warner Brothers.  The film was shockingly successful and made $210 million in the U.S. alone.  The critics were not as kind as the public, however.  The public was right, the critics were wrong.

                “300” is a fantastical retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae.  The main character is King Leonidas (Gerard Butler).  The film is narrated by one of his men, Delios (David Wenham).  He flashes back to Leonidas’ upbringing which is implied to be typical of a Spartan boy.  The baby is deemed fit by the state (avoiding being thrown off a cliff) and at age seven is taken from his mother to be raised in the state-run agoge.  There he is forced to fight and steal to survive.  This culminates in his “time in the wild” where he achieves manhood via a lupine encounter that is the first taste of how faithful the film is to the plot and visuals of the comic.

                Persian emissaries arrive in the only shot filmed outdoors.  They demand “earth and water” symbolic of Sparta’s submission to Persian rule.  They get both in the form of a well.  “This is Sparta”, says Leonidas.  “This means war” says Xerxes, off camera.  Knowing he has acted a bit provocatively, Leonidas visits the Ephors (“priests of the old gods”) in their mountaintop temple.  They consult their oracle babe who, in a scene filmed under water, prophesizes that the Spartan army must “respect the Carneia” (a religious festival coming up).  Persian gold encourages their red light.

In both the movie and the comic,
Sparta was a very unsafe place for toddlers or drunks
 
                Leonidas decides to go for a hike with his 300 man body guard.  Their destination is a narrow mountain pass that the Persian army must pass through.  They are joined by amateurs from Arcadia.  Along the way they get an idea of what they are facing when they encounter a devastated village with a tree of death.  The gods seem fickle because this atrocity is followed by the destruction of the Persian fleet by a storm.

"You've already lost your breastplate
so come back with your shield"
                A deformed Spartan exposure escapee named Ephialtes wants to be #301.  Leonidas turns him down because he can’t hold a position in the phalanx.  Boy is Ephialtes going to be pissed when he sees how the Spartans actually fight!  It turns out that when the Persians send their horde, the Spartans start in a phalanx, but quickly decide it is too confining (like clothing).  Plus one-on-one melee action is way cooler.  A blizzard of arrows allows the Spartans to “fight in the shade”.  After the first day’s battle, Leonidas celebrates by munching on an apple while his men kill the Persian wounded.  (See Iranians, they are not depicted as perfect angels.  On the other hand, maybe your soldier ancestors shouldn’t have been so killable.)

A rare glimpse of the phalanx
Phalanx?  We don't need no stinking phalanx!
                Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), one-upping the Spartan beefcakeness by adding some bondage accessories, visits Leonidas and offers him the overlordship of Greece.  Leonidas would never stoop (or kneel) to ruling other people (other than the slave-like helots of Sparta, of course).   It’s game on so Xerxes sends in his elite Immortals.  They are Ninja monsters and so good that they actually kill some of the Spartans!  Unfortunately, for the three or so they kill, they lose thousands.  Their hideous, drooling goliath takes a good sword to the bicep and spear head to the eye, but is a bit weak in the neck muscles.

"Your red cloak is no match for my chains"
                It’s kitchen sink time on day 2.  War rhino.  Black powder urns.  War elephants.  (How did an actual animal weapon make it into this movie?)  Now that Xerxes has emptied his sink, it’s beginning to look like 300 men in skirts can actually defeat a million pants-wearers.  If only Xerxes could discover a way to get around that pesky pass.

                Meanwhile back in Sparta, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) is forced to negotiate with the loathsome Theron (Dominic West).  This corrupt politician is a Persian lackey who is constantly trying to undermine Leonidas’ efforts.  Gorgo allows Theron to do to her what Leonidas is doing to the Persians in order to win his support at the Council meeting.  Theron proves to be an untrustworthy rapist, but Gorgo is a woman not to be trifled with.   However, her positive intervention is way too late to overcome Ephialtes’ negative intervention.

Spartan foreplay
                Ephialtes visits Xerxes tent of temptation which looks like it inspired Caligula.  Ephialtes tells Xerxes about a path behind the Spartans.  When Leonidas learns of this treachery he realizes that “we just might win this thing” vibe was premature.  He sends off the only verbose Spartan in history, Delios, to carry the story back to Sparta.  It’s Delios flowery and fantastical retelling that we have been watching.  Blame him for the rhino, etc.  He doesn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

"I told them to stay in the testudo!"
               
           Spoiler alert: all the Spartans are killed.  (If you did not know that already, enjoy “The Alamo”.)  Xerxes gives Leonidas one last chance to kneel, but his incredible forbearance is rewarded with a spear to the cheek.  Too bad the Spartans do not stay in their cozy testudo because there’s a hard rain coming.  Leonidas does his best Elias from “Platoon” impression and the movie cribs from “Pearl Harbor’s” feel-better Doolittle Raid ending.

                Love it or loathe it, “300” is an eye-popping spectacle.  It’s definitely a generational thing, but I am from the John Wayne generation and I love the movie.  As my readers know, I am strict about accuracy, but the complaints about the film’s fidelity to history are ridiculous.  Hell, it’s based on a graphic novel!  In fact, as you will see in the “History or Hollywood” section below, the movie is surprisingly accurate.  But more importantly, the generation that made the movie a huge hit certainly learned something they did not have a clue about.  If they now also believe that there were monsters at Thermopylae, at least they know the basics of the Battle of Thermopylae.  As a Western Civ teacher, I call that a fair payoff.


It would be cool if they would make a movie
that is a prequel to this
                Snyder deserves a great deal of credit for bringing the novel to the screen.  He replicates the feel of the novel in his cinematography which used the new super-imposition chroma key technique.  Almost the entire film was shot on a sound stage using blue screens.  The CGI effects are amazingly seamless.  The plot may appear cheesy to some, but the visuals are not.

                The Spartan warriors look so buff that the movie was popular in the gay community.  That was not CGI.  Those abs were real.  The actors were put through a very rigorous regime by a personal trainer.  They bought in to this and although I would not argue that acting is a tough profession, those guys sacrificed for their art.  Being fit also helped with the fight choreography which looks like it was strenuous.  It’s not usual to talk of choreography in a war movie, but it is crucial to most of the fight scenes here. 

                The acting is over the top, but appropriate for the nature of the film. Butler earned his career boost.  West is gleefully hissable.  Headey perfectly channels a strong Spartan female.  Gorgo is one of the strongest female characters in war movie history.  And, amazingly, the character is not fictional!  The supporting cast is game and does not have to wear names on their helmets like in “Black Hawk Down” to identify themselves.  They take off those confining helmets as much as possible.
Andrew Tiernan (and his ten hours of make-up)
played Ephialtes

                The music is of the epic variety.  Tyler Bates mixes techno, Middle Eastern, and hymnal.  It’s on the restrained side and not as pompous as would be expected.  Unfortunately, Bates got in trouble because he “borrowed” quite a bit from Elliot Goldenthal’s score for “Titus”. 

                The main thing people take from the movie is the extreme action.  The movie certainly has a higher percentage than most war movies, although it periodically mellows out with trips back to the home front.  The violence is graphic and there is plenty of CGI blood splattering.  When I saw the movie in the theater, the people in the first row were given raincoats.  (Don’t let truth get in the way of a good story.)  Someone counted 585 deaths.  That includes three beheadings.

                “300” conforms to my theory that a movie should be better than the book it’s based on.  It faithfully covers almost every scene in the novel, but more importantly Snyder adds to the plot mainly through the Theron – Gorgo subplot.  Gorgo only appears briefly in the novel and Theron not at all.  Once the 300 leave, you don’t see Sparta again.  Snyder also made the awesome decision to include the Goliath-like monster and the rhino (the elephants are in the book).  Kudos.  Most of the dialogue is straight from the novel via Herodotus.  Some of it is sappy – graphic novel sappy.  Was Snyder supposed to Shakespeare it up?  Some of the lines that critics complain about are actually direct quotes from historical sources.  For instance, “come back with your shield or on it” and “we will fight in the shade”.  You can certainly criticize Delio’s narration.  The Spartans were not exactly known for storytelling, but a key concept of the movie is Delios is embellishing the story.  Like Snyder needed an excuse for including the rhino!

                Few movies have such a gulf between the critics and the viewers.  The film gets a 60% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and an 88% from the audience.  Some of the critics were absolutely brutal, using words like boring, stupid, puerile, absurd, and ass-crack ugly.  That last one tends to inspire my belief that some critics might have felt their sexuality was challenged by the movie.  I think a vast majority of viewers had to be informed by the “intelligentsia” that the movie was “gay”.  I certainly did not leave the theater thinking that.  After so many recent blockbuster bombs, are we seriously going to credit Warner Brothers with consciously creating Spartan warriors who would appeal to straight and gay males as well as straight females?

                In conclusion, feel free to dislike the movie because it’s not your cup of tea, but don’t fault it because it doesn’t fit your idea of what a war movie should be.  The best modern war films are those that put a new spin on the genre.  Films like “Patton”, “MASH”, “The Dirty Dozen”, “Platoon”, “Saving Private Ryan”,  and “Waltz With Bashir” to name a few.  Here’s another way of looking at it.  One year after “300” was released, “Valkyrie” came out.  It was a traditional type of war film with a huge star.  It was also admirably accurate.  It made $75 million.  “300” was a graphic novelization with no star.  It tweaked accuracy for entertainment purposes.  It made $210 million.

              GRADE =  A

Coming soon:  "The 300 Spartans" review
 

HISTORY or HOLLYWOOD

1.  When the Persian emissary talks to Leonidas, Leonidas takes counsel from his wife.  The Persian asks “why are Spartan women able to rule men?” and Gorgo responds “because we are the only ones who give birth to men”.  HISTYWOOD  Gorgo did say that, but it was in response to a comment made by an Athenian woman.  Spartan women did have considerable influence.

2.  Leonidas sneeringly describes the Athenians as “philosophers and boy-lovers”.  HOLLYWOOD  Certainly the Spartans considered the Athenians to be cultured wimps, but it would have been hypocritical to diss their pederasty considering they had a similar “mentoring” system for their young men.

3.  The Persian emissary’s demand for “earth and water” results in him being kicked into a well.  HISTYWOOD  The Spartans did throw Persian emissaries into a well, but the incident occurred ten years earlier and under a different king.  Also, as tough as the Spartans were with their kids, I still doubt they had a huge well that was flush to the ground!

4.  Leonidas killed a wolf as the final stage of the agoge training.  HISTYWOOD  Because he was not the heir to the throne, Leonidas did go through the agoge, but the culminating rite of passage would have been to hunt down and kill a helot.  Interestingly, Xerxes had a similar experience involving a lion and a locked room.

5.  The Ephors were disease-ridden priestly perverts who were in the pockets of the Persians and tried to prevent Leonidas actions by using the Carneia as an excuse.  HOLLYWOOD  The 5 Ephors technically had supreme power, but they were not priests.  They were elected annually and served only one year.  They did not live on a mountain and did not have a beautiful oracle.  They did not stand in his way.  There is no evidence that there was any fifth column in Sparta.  It is unclear why he was able to take only 300 warriors with him.  It was most likely an advanced force to show the rest of Greece that the Spartans were not submitting.  The Corneia may have been a factor (as it was in keeping them from the Battle of Marathon.)

6.  The oracle used the Corneia as the reason for not going to war.  HOLLYWOOD  The Oracle of Delphi weighed in on the discussion by predicting that if Sparta was willing to sacrifice one of its kings (they had two), it would avoid Persian destruction.  This is the most likely explanation for why Leonidas insisted on fighting to the death.

7.  Leonidas left with only 300 men and they had to have a son to qualify.  HISTYWOOD  Leonidas did leave with 300 elites who had to have sons, but they were accompanied by about 1,000 helots and 1,000 perioeci (foreigners) as auxiliaries.

8.  A unit of Arcadians joined along the way.  HISTORY  More important than the Arcadians were the 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans.  The total Greek force was 4,000-7,000.

9.  Ephialtes was a spurned, disabled Spartan who told Xerxes about the path.  HOLLYWOOD  Ephialtes was the traitor, but he was not a Spartan.  He was a local famer who did it for the money.

10.  For the first two days, the Spartans slaughtered everything Xerxes threw at them.  HISTYWOOD  The slaughter was accurate, but the Persians did not use cavalry, rhinos, monsters, or elephants.  Or grenades.  The Immortals were simply his best soldiers who got the name from the fact that the unit was always kept at 10,000.

11.  The Spartans would leave the phalanx to fight melee style.  HOLLYWOOD  The Spartans would never have left the phalanx.  The movie neglects to depict their famous use of feigned retreat in the battle.

12.  Gorgo played politics to get the support of the Council.  HOLLYWOOD  The Theron character is totally fictitious.  There is no evidence sending reinforcements was debated.

13.  Xerxes and Leonidas negotiated and Leonidas attempted to kill Xerxes.  HOLLYWOOD  They never met.  Xerxes watched the battle from a throne on a hill.  By the way, he was not considered to be a god.

14.  The battle ended with the Persians using the path to surround the Spartans and arrows were used to finish off the 300.  HISTORY  The movie neglects to mention that the 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans stayed and died, too.  That is one of the most egregious omissions of the movie, but is consistent with history’s neglect of these valorous warriors.  Leonidas was probably killed in the middle of the fight leading to a scrum over his body.

15.  Delios was sent back to preserve the story.  HOLLYWOOD  Only one Spartan survived.  A “coward” named Aristodemus bowed out of the final battle due to an eye injury.  He may have carried the story back to Sparta where he would not have gotten a very receptive audience.  He died making a suicide attack at the Battle of Plataea.

Trailer

 
the first battle
 

12 comments:

  1. Congratulations on the 300th post.

    I was a really big fan of Frank Miller, and I agree that the critics who panned the movie missed the point. It is fun, it is gorgeous, and people learned something.

    While I loved the fantastical images, the graphic novel is still superior, in my opinion, mainly because everything that Snyder introduced was unnecessary. Miller focused on the Spartans but as you point out, he also gave credit to the forces sent by other Greek city-states. More important, Snyder ignored the battle of Artemisium, which happened at the same time, which is pretty unfair to the Athenians who led the Greek fleet. Still a great movie, but the stuff in Sparta with Gorgo and Theron really bugged me.

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  2. Thanks.

    I kind of disagree about the superiority of the novel and the necessity of the additions. Of course they were not "necessary", but the movie would have been substantially shorter if only the elements of the novel were included. I usually don't condone changes in a novel in bringing it to the screen, but in this case we are talking about adding to the plot, not changing it. Miller was on board for the production so we can assume he was okay with the additions. I know you are not saying the lesbian demographic should have been overlooked by removing the Amazonish Gorgo from the film. LOL

    I agree on Artemisium. Surprisingly, the old forgotten "The 300 Spartans" (which I will post on soon) does give the Athenians their due. Themistocles has a major role. I have high hopes the sequel coming out in the spring will be more balanced since it will feature the Battle of Salamis. Being a huge Themistocles fan, I am stoked for the sequel. Plus we get Artemisia!

    I thought the biggest flaw was nonrecognition for the Thebans and Thespians. They stayed to the end, died like Spartans when they were not brought up to do that, and yet no one knows about it. But that is not just this movie. That's every retelling. The Spartans were like the WWII Marines when it came to publicity. You'd never know the Army fought in the Pacific (he said exaggerating a bit).

    Lastly, you and I both must scratch our heads over a critic calling the movie "ass crack ugly". You can criticize the movie for various reasons, but that is unbelievable.

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  3. The most important thing to remember is that this isn't necessarily a war movie. Far from it. It's an adaptation of a comic book. Of course it clashes with history, and I, for one, am glad for it. Because it gave us a great thriller of an action flick, full of sensationalized fighting scenes. Perfect for the venue it was released in: movie theatres.

    Jeff

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  4. I agree. I would say it is more of a fantasy film than a war movie. However, after seeing most of the 100 Greatest War Movies as chosen by Military History magazine, it can clearly be classified as a war movie. It is a much better fit for the genre than many of the movies on the list (like many of the espionage movies).

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  5. Don't ask me how I missed this post . . .
    Congratulations to 300 posts and what an apt way to celebrate with this great movie.
    I must admit I had to watch it twice before I could appreciate it. i don't read graphic novels so maybe that's why i too a while to get used to it but the second time I loved it.
    I don't think that historical accuracy is the point in this movie.

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  6. Thanks. I was not sure what your feelings were towards it. I don't read many graphic novels either. Ironically, my brother gave me "300" before there was any talk of making it into a movie. I would read more of them if there were more on historical topics.

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  7. I had a debate with my uncle over this movie. He insists that the portrayal of arms and armor was dead on and that Spartans (and Greeks in general) didn't wear breastplates during this period, instead using the shield for body cover and ditching armor for mobility. I was of the opinion that they used the linothorax. He said it was ditched since it couldn't stop a spear thrust anyway and that fighting in He Man attire was historically accurate. What are your thoughts?

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  8. I have never heard the theory that they fought bare-chested. I'm not even sure the vase paintings showed that. Are you sure your uncle is not pulling your leg? Even if linothorax was ineffective (which recent research proves it was actually surprisingly effective against sword thrusts and arrows), it makes sense that even the toughest humans would feel more confident with something covering their chest.

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  9. I have to say I'm quite surprised that you liked this movie, since generally speaking you don't seem to like sci-fi, superhero or other highly fictional elements in (war) movies.
    I, on the other hard, usually don't have a problem with those elements, but I hated all the mutant stuff etc in 300. And also largely the style of the movie. For me this is in the WTF category. I simply can't get to the right mindset for the movie and for some reason keep expecting something a bit more... traditional.

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    Replies
    1. I guess if you see as many war movies as I do, you can be attracted to a movie that is different. That probably explains my love of "Waltz With Bazir".

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    2. Well, in general I'm drawn to weird movies. I like The Tin Drum, for example. Which you obviously did not appreciate. Maybe it is just that when I feel like I'm watching a war movie, I expect realism and that's what happens with 300 even though I'm perfectly aware it is based on a comic.

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    3. I don't follow that reference to realism and 300. In comparison to "The Tin Drum" yes, but in comparison to other battle movies...

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Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.