Friday, August 30, 2013

#12 - Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

BACK-STORY:  “Bridge on the River Kwai” is the screen adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s Bridge Over the River Kwai (I do not know why they changed the title).  Boulle channeled his experiences as a POW in Southeast Asia during WWII and based his main character on French officers who collaborated with their Japanese captors.  Boulle was awarded the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar even though he did not write it.  Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were uncredited at the time because they were blacklisted due to the McCarthyism of the 50’s.  Both were given posthumous trophies in 1984.  It was directed by David Lean (who co-directed “In Which We Serve” and went on to do “Lawrence of Arabia”).  The movie was filmed in Sri Lanka so the crew and actors had to deal with diseases and jungle critters.  It was not an easy shoot, but considering what the real-life POWs went through, I hope no one complained.  The movie was a huge financial and critical success.  It cost $3 million to make and made $27 million.  It was the #1 movie of 1958.  It won seven Academy Awards:  Picture, Director, Actor (Alec Guinness), Adapted Screenplay, Score, Editing, and Cinematography.  Sessue Hyakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  The movie is #36 on the most recent AFI Top 100 Films list.

OPENING:  We see graves along a railway that is being constructed by emaciated British prisoners of war in the Burmese jungle in 1943.  An American named Shears (William Holden) is digging a grave in the camp cemetery.  He gives a guard a cigarette to bribe him into allowing him to go on sick leave.  Holden is a cynical gold-brick who is only interested in survival.  He is neither an officer nor a gentleman.  Anti-heroes are not a recent development.

SUMMARY:  New British soldiers arrive whistling the movie’s iconic theme.   When they stop, their marching in place denotes the mindless discipline of the British army.  The commandant Saito (Hayakawa) explains that they are there to build a bridge.  They will work hard or be punished.  There are no walls around the camp because escape into the jungle is suicidal.  Most significantly, Saito proclaims that the British officers will work alongside the enlisted.  The British C.O., Lt. Col. Nicholson (Guinness), reminds Saito that the Geneva Convention says officers do not have to work.  Saito is not interested.

                On the first day of work, Saito gives a speech where he makes it clear he hates the British and considers them dishonored because they surrendered.  When Nicholson confronts him with a copy of the Geneva Convention, Saito beats him with it and threatens to shoot all the officers.  The camp doctor, Clipton (James Donald), intervenes to talk Saito down.  Nicholson and the other officers stand in the hot sun all day while the enlisted go off to work.  Game on.  Next, Saito puts Nicholson in the “oven”, but he refuses to back down.  Weeks pass and the prisoners are doing their best to slack off and sabotage the construction so it is way behind schedule and increasingly shoddy.  Meanwhile, Shears escapes and manages to make it back to Allied lines.  Earlier, Nicholson had ordered his British soldiers not to escape because when the British high command surrendered at Singapore they committed the men to respectful imprisonment! 

                Saito is forced to back down because his career (and life) are on the line.  He agrees the officers will not have to work.  The loss of face on his face tells it all.  Nicholson assumes the dominant role in their relationship and this allows him to start his pet project.  He feels that it would be good for morale and discipline for the British to build the bridge.  The construction of a high quality bridge will also serve as proof of the superiority of the West over the Orient.  They will build a “proper bridge” that they can be proud of.  Nicholson puts a stop to the slacking and the sabotage.  In a telling moment, Nicholson scolds Saito that his recalcitrance means “we’ve wasted almost a month.”
I have students who would rather
die than work, too

                Suddenly, construction picks up markedly in both quality and quantity.  The prisoners work hard because of the charismatic leadership of Nicholson.  Only Clipton questions the collaboration.  At one point, he wonders to Nicholson if the Japanese “appreciate what we are doing for them.”  Even mentioning the T word (treason) has no effect on the pompous colonel.  In fact, Nicholson becomes so obsessed with completing the bridge on time that he puts the officers to work.  Add irony to the list of concepts he is not familiar with. 

Nichol-san and Saito
                Meanwhile, Shears is enjoying his convalescence with a pretty nurse.  (A subplot forced into the movie by the studio.)  A British commando named Warden (Jack Hawkins) strong arms him into joining a mission to blow up the bridge.  They will be joined by a rookie named Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) and aided by Siamese guerrillas.  They parachute into the jungle (with no practice for Shears).  There is a Tarzan-like sequence as they cut their way through the jungle and the ubiquitous encounter with leaches.  Speaking of leaches, Tokyo Rose makes a brief appearance (“Take it easy, never volunteer for anything”).  Warden gets wounded on the trek for plot purposes.

                The bridge is completed on time much to the pride of Saito and Nicholson who tour it together.  The British celebrate and Nicholson tells the men they should be proud and that they “have turned defeat into victory.”  That same night, the commandoes rig the bridge for explosion.  This unfortunately lacks suspense because you know there has to be a big explosion at the end.

CLOSING:  So far, the plan is working perfectly which means some major shit is about to hit the fan.  Sure enough, during the night the river has gone down a couple of feet exposing not only the exposives but the freaking wire leading to the plunger!  Curse you, Mother Nature!  Guess who discovers the explosives?  Hint:  the inferior Oriental soldiers would never have noticed them.  Nicholson brings his lackey Saito to check out this threat to their bridge.  Joyce knifes Saito, but Nicholson calls for help and Joyce gets shot.  Shears tries swimming to Nicholson to kill him, but is not successful. Nicholson gets wounded and finally realizes that he is a shameful collaborator.  “What have I done?”  He falls on the plunger.  Toot, toot!  Boom, boom!  Clipton:  “Madness, madness.”

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:   The Thailand-Burma Railway was constructed by Allied prisoners in a fourteen month stretch from 1942-43.  It was to connect Rangoon to Bangkok.  The railway’s completion was deemed essential to supplying Japanese forces in Thailand.   60,000 prisoners toiled along with many more dragooned civilians.  About 13,000 soldiers died.

                The movie accurately depicts the attitude of the Japanese toward the prisoners.  The Japanese code of bushido insisted that surrender was a disgrace so the British prisoners were not worthy of respect.  There were other factors that explained the mistreatment.  The Japanese were unprepared for the huge volume of prisoners when Singapore fell.  This explained the poor housing, food, clothing, and medical care.  The movie actually underplays the terrible condition the men were in.  The actors in the film are much too fit.  (They also are not wearing the loin clothes that would have been typical.)  Another factor was the fact that the prison administration consisted of second-rate soldiers.  A commandant like Saito would have been in a combat unit if he was competent.  The prisoners were faced with incompetent and bitter guards.  That was a very bad combination.  Then throw in that soldiers who are used to being beat are naturally going to take it out on their charges.  Usually using bamboo canes.  Interestingly, the worst guards were actually the conscripted Koreans.  They had a strong propensity to turn their resentment of the Japanese on the PWs.

                The first 40 miles of the construction was easy and then the Japanese government upped the timetable by months.  This resulted in the “Speedo Period” named after what the frantic engineers kept yelling:  “speedo! speedo!”  At around this time a new group of 7,000 prisoners (mostly Australians) arrived after a 150 mile march that lasted 17 days.  It is doubtful they were whistling when they arrived.  47% of this “F Force” did not survive the war.

                The building of the bridge was actually pretty easy.  The Japanese engineers were competent and did not need any help.  It was across the Mae Klong River, not the Kwai River (Boulle liked the sound of “Kwai”).  Only a few died in the construction.  It was after the bridge was finished that construction through the jungle got really rough.  This was partly because of the monsoon season which the movie overlooks.   There were two bridges in reality.  One was a temporay wooden one to get supplies across the river and the one the movie was modeled after was made of stone and steel.

                As far as the main characters, the movie is way off.  The commanding officer in charge of the bridge crew was a Lt. Col. Philip Toosey.  He was pretty much the opposite of Nicholson.  He encouraged the men to work slower and to sabotage whenever they could.  However, he did insist on adherrance to the Geneva Conventions and was subsequently beaten for it.  He did not argue that officers should not work.  In fact, junior officers routinely worked and senior officers supervised.  There was a Major Saito, but he was second in command and had a reputation for being relatively benign.  Toosey testified for him at his war crimes trial and they became friends after the war.  The fictional Clipton commendatorially represents the real heroes in the railway construction – the medical officers. They had to deal with diseases like malaria and cholera as well as malnutrition.

                It probably will not surprise you to learn that the ending is completely fictional.  There was no attempt to blow up the bridge.  The stone bridge was brought down by American B-24 bombers by June, 1945.

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Yes.  It is not all testosterone like “The Dirty Dozen”.  There is even a brief, lame romance thrown in to lure females into the theater.  The film is more of a character study than a shoot’em up.  In fact, the violence is restrained and not graphic.  There is also no offensive language.  The movie is an adult date movie for baby boomers.

CRITIQUE:  “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a classic epic war film.  Not surprising since David Lean and “epic” go together.  Here we get the density of the jungle instead of the sweep of the desert as in “Lawrence of Arabia”.  And both his signature films feature a deeply flawed main character.  Lean made a film that is not blatantly anti-war.  He described it as about “the folly and waste of war”.  Other themes include strong leaders butting heads, the importance of principles in warfare, and what is proper behavior for a POW.

                In order to explore these themes, Lean and the screenwriters had to defy reality a bit.  There certainly were Nicholsons in the British Army.  However, the same strict adherrance to principles before capture would have made it highly unlikely that type of personality would have collaborated like Nicholson did.  The military code of continuing to resist even after capture would have trumped any belief in acquiesing to your legal captor.  If a commander had chosen to aid the enemy’s war effort, it would have been for much more crass and craven reasons than Lean gives Nicholson.  It is also extremely unlikely that the other officers and men would have abandoned slacking and sabotage for working harder to help the enemy complete a vital railway.  There certainly would have been more debate over the cooperation.  As it is, Clipton sticks out as a lone voice in the wilderness.  You do have Shears sneering at Nicholson, but his character is mainly there to contrast the British an"d American attitudes toward discipline, principles, and officers.

                This is not to say that the Nicholson character is ridiculous or flawed.  The plot could not exist without him.  As played by Guinness (in possibly his best performance), he is fascinating.  There are times when you admire his bravery and endurance in pursuit of maintaining the principles his life is based on.  But more often you shake your head over his borderline treason.  In this respect, the Clipton character mirrors the audience.  Saito is also a strong character and more accurately reflects the Japanese officer class than Nicholson reflects the British.  The arc of Saito from obstinate bully to Nicholson’s lap dog is heavy-handed, but necessary.  Shears is another character that had to be forced into the plot (literally, because in the book he is a British commando who had not been in the camp).  If it is a British movie and there is a minority major American character, they always behave like Shears.  Brash, anti-authoritarian, and individualistic.  Basically, Holden is playing Sefton from “Stalag 17”.

                Speaking of acting, the movie is top notch.  The cast is very good with the odd exception of Horne as Joyce.  What is this B-List actor doing mixing with the heavyweights?  I guess you could say the odd casting paid off for Lean because Horne rescued him when he almost drowned in the river.  Jack Hawkins is his usual solid self as the stereotypical stiff upper-lipped Warden.  The role is basically the one played by Anthony Quayle in “Guns of Navarone”.  James Donald is crucial as the film’s conscience - Doctor Clipton.  He would go on to play the same personality in “The Great Escape”.

                The movie is technically magnificent.  The cinematography was award-winning as to be expected from a Lean film.  Jack Hildyard makes good use of the jungle locale.  The scenery is beautiful.  There is a variety of long-range shots, deep focus, and stationary camera.  No slo-mo.  The score probably did not deserve the Oscar, unless they were rewarding the film for being an epic without the usual pomposity of music.  There are long stretches, like the rigging scene, where there is no music.  It is likely that the “Colonel Bogey March” that book-ends the film is the primary reason for the award.  The sets are great.  The camp is squalid, although probably a bit more liveable than in reality.  The bridge is outstanding.  It took longer to build than the real one (8 months).  Its demolition with the train passing over is one of the greatest scenes of that type.  It is similar to the one in “The General”.

BOOK / MOVIE:  The theme of the book is that both the Japanese and the British had the concept of “saving face”.  Both Saito and Nicholson are more extreme characters in the book.  Saito has a drinking problem which made him mean.  His “I hate the British” speech was given while he was drunk.  Nicholson is more insane in the book.  He forbids the men to steal supplies from the Japanese and in fact orders inspections that were more thorough than the guards.  It was his idea to increase the work quota.  Clipton is the only Brit who questions this and is more of a conscience than in the film.  When Clipton asks Nicholson if he will paint the bridge, Nicholson says no because then it would be easily spotted by planes!  Clipton shakes his head a lot in the book and veers between admiring Nicholson’s obstinate defense of principles and his insane pushing of the men to help the enemy.

                The commando mission is substantially changed.  Shears is the head of the unit and Warden is his right hand man.  Joyce is close to the movie character.  They are in the jungle for weeks before launching the mission.  The book also lacks suspense as the rigging of the bridge and the climactic last day are told in flashbacks.  But it’s that climax that it is the big problem.  Nicholson discovers the wire with Saito in tow.  Joyce slashes Saito’s throat and tries to reason with Nicholson, but the Colonel yells for help and ends up strangling Joyce before he can set off the explosion.  Shears swims across to intervene, but Japanese guards have arrived.  He stabs two of them before he is rifle-butted. The Japanese cut the wire before the train arrives.  Warden fires his mortar from a nearby hill and the first round kills Nicholson and Shears.  Warden escapes to tell the story.

                The movie reinforces my belief that a movie should be able to improve on the book it is based on.  The screenwriters were able to soften Boulle’s racism toward the Japanese.  This attitude was understandable for a person who had good reason to hate his former captors.  A constant refrain of the book is that the Japanese are uncivilized in comparison to the West (exemplified by the British).  The Japanese are absolutely incompetent when it comes to railway construction.  They also softened the over the top personalities of Saito and Nicholson.  The movie Saito is not an alcoholic and Nicholson is more two-dimensional.

                But most importantly, the movie substantially improves the ending of the book.  In the book, the bridge is not blown up!            

CONCLUSION:  It is understandable that “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is high on the list and many would argue it belongs in the Top 10.  Part of this is due to reputation.  Looking at it from a modern perspective, the film is a bit overrated.  As an adventure story, it is slow moving and lacking in adrenalin and suspense.  There is hardly any action.  As a prisoner of war movie, it downplays the horrors the men went through.  As a character study and clash of cultures, it is excellent. However, for a war movie fan, there are many more impactful films.  “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a war movie classic for the non-war movie lover.  Everyone can enjoy it, but I can’t get excited over it.  I would argue it is not as good as lower ranked (but similar) movies like “The Great Escape”.

Action                   5/10
Acting                   A+
Accuracy              C
Realism                 C
Cliches                  A
Plot                        A

Overall              A 
the trailer

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

             “Good Morning, Vietnam” was released in 1987 and was a huge hit.  It was the fourth highest grossing film that year.  The film had its genesis from Adrian Cronauer shopping a script for a TV series or made for TV movie.  He was unsuccessful until Robin Williams got wind of the story and decided he wanted to play a manic disc jockey in Vietnam.  Barry Levinson directed from a script by Mitch Markowitz.  Very little of Cronauer’s script was used.  The movie was shot in Bangkok, Thailand.   Williams was nominated for Best Actor and won the Golden Globe for his role.  The film is #100 on AFI’s list of best comedies. 

                SPOILER ALERT:  The following will cover the plot because the only thing anybody cares about is Williams' jokes.  The movie is set in 1965 Saigon.  Adrian Cronauer (Williams) arrives from Crete to join the Armed Forces Service Radio.  Gen. Taylor (Noble Willingham) has brought him in to bring some humor to the radio broadcasts.  Sure enough, as soon as he gets on the air he becomes Robin Williams.  A montage treats us to ad-libs which have an anti-authority bent.  He also has the nerve to play rock n’ roll!  Lucky for the sound track.  Cronauer’s superiors are not amused with his schtick or his choices in music.  The station head, Sgt. Dickerson (J.T. Walsh), is your typical malevolent lifer who detests Cronauer’s iconoclasm.  His immediate superior Lt. Hauk (Bruno Kirby) doesn’t get his humor or his music.  He’s a stick in the mud.

                Cronauer falls in lust with a Vietnamese girl named Trinh.  He stalks her to her English class and then bribes the teacher to let him take over.  He proceeds to teach the Vietnamese American slang.  They love him because he is so cool.  Just like kids love the teachers who throw course guidelines in the trash and teach just the fun stuff.  Unfortunately, Trinh is a tough sell and her brother Tuan is protective of her.  Cronauer and Tuan develop a friendship and Tuan saves Cronauer’s life by getting him out of a bar before it is blown up.  What had been a comedy is now a war comedy.  When the shaken DJ returns to the station, he wants to discuss the act of terrorism on the air but Dickerson cuts him off and Taylor is forced to suspend him.  Hauk takes over with his very lame humor and polka music (which the screenwriter apparently believed was the opposite of rock n’ roll).
                Cronauer visits Trinh’s village for some local color.  She still does not want to go to bed with her crazy American teacher.  Cronauer decides he is going to quit the business, but after meeting some soldiers in a convoy and doing his Robin Williams act (“where are you from?”), he decides he can’t let them down by depriving them of his awesomeness.  A heavy-handed montage reminds us there is a war going on.  Taylor reinstates Cronauer after numerous complaints about Hauk.  Dickerson decides to go over the general’s head by sending Cronauer off to the combat zone to get him killed.  Mission almost accomplished except that Tuan rescues him in a ridiculous turn of events.  Cronauer finally finds out that Tuan is a Viet Cong operative and was involved in the bombing of the bar.

                Cronauer’s friendship with Tuan ends his radio stint.  Taylor gives him an honorable discharge.  Cronauer confronts Tuan and accuses him of using the American.  Tuan makes a good case for America being the enemy of his people.  On the way to the airport, Cronauer stops to teach his English class how to play baseball.  They all pass this final and are certified bilingual.  He has a tearful good bye with Trinh who wishes things had been different – like if he had not been a creepy foreign stalker.  He says a mirthful good bye to the audience by leaving behind a tape with some more of his hilarity.

                   GMV is an interesting hybrid.  It starts as a standard service comedy then adds in indigenous home front coverage and includes some guerrilla warfare references.  Oh, and there’s the romance as well.  Levinson juggles these pretty well.  The movie shifts gears consistently.  The local color scenes do a fine job depicting Vietnamese culture.  We can be thankful Cronauer/Williams was only there for a few months or that ancient culture would have been forever tainted.  As it is his virus is going to be spread by his English students.  The Tuan character is a nice touch.  You seldom see the Viet Cong cast in a good light.  By 1987, American audiences were ready for a more sympathetic portrayal of the enemy.  It was time to realize it was their country, not ours.  The romance is refreshingly outside the box.  This is one movie where I rooted against the main character getting the girl.  Sorry.

                Levinson puts some effort into getting the war sights right.  For a comedy, it is surprisingly realistic when it shows the soldier’s lives.  Filming in Bangkok proves his seriousness about getting the little details right.  He also brings home the nature of the war through scenes like the bar bombing.  That scene hits the audience hard and is important in balancing the manic “on the air” scenes. It’s realistically violent in its depiction of a terrorist bombing and reminds the audience and Cronauer that there is a war going on and it’s a messy one.  Unfortunately, the other interference of the war through the scene where Cronauer and his chaperone/mentee Pvt. Garlick (Forrest Whitaker) get lost in the jungle is just plain ridiculous.  Sadly, this was also a major plot miscue.  Cronauer was sidetracked from interviewing some front line troops.  This would have been an excellent opportunity to get their perspective.  Instead, Levinson opts for the comedy club banter of the troop convoy scene.  Bad choice!

                The movie avoids clich├ęs for the most part.  The unfulfilled romance.  The failure of the main character to complete his mission.  Empathy for the enemy.  However, it can not avoid the old trope of the clueless brass.  The Dickerson character has been seen numerous times.  Kudos for portraying Gen. Taylor as hip.  He ain’t Patton.  It’s difficult to say if this is an accurate depiction.

                Speaking of accuracy, the movie certainly has flaws as a biopic.  The movie must have been a bittersweet experience for the real Cronauer.  First, they basically threw his script into the trash can.  Second, they turned him into Robin Williams moonlighting as a Vietnam War disc jockey.  Cronauer was nowhere near as funny or anti-authority.  He also did not get into trouble and in fact left at the end of his tour.  On the plus side, I assume he made a lot of money from the movie.  I hope it was worth it for spending the rest of his life with people thinking he must be hilarious and the life of every party.

                GMV is highly acclaimed and highly overrated.  It totally relies for its fame on Williams’ improvs on the air.  This makes Williams’ Oscar nod a bit perplexing since he was essentially playing himself.  The rest of the movie, while being admirably sincere, does not warrant the praise it got.  It is curiously tame in its criticism of the war.  Cronauer is anti-army, anti-censorship, anti-authority and anti-polka, but not really anti-war.  What is depressing is 1987 saw three significant Vietnam War movies.  GMV made $124 million, Full Metal Jacket made $46 million, and Hamburger Hill made $13 million.  Americans preferred a movie about a standup comedian dropped into the war.  Gag.

This picture alone can determine whether you will like the movie.
How do you feel when you see this?
                Cracker?  No.

 grade =  C

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.

                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.)

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.

                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.

           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


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.


the first battle