After witnessing 300 director Zack Snyder's ultraviolent, hyperstylized treatment of the Battle of Thermopylae by way of Frank Miller's graphic novel, I had to wonder, "What would Homer say?"
Not Homer Simpson – he'd shout "Woo-hoo!" at every impaling, beheading and slow-motion spear thrust in time with the crunchy heavy-metal soundtrack.
What Homer of ancient Greece would think is another matter. If the epic poet credited with writing The Iliad could visit a modern-day movie theater, he'd be initially overwhelmed by the loud, fast, computer-enhanced retelling of 300 Spartan soldiers leading a doomed but inspiring battle against 250,000 Persian invaders. Homer might find that the testosterone-fueled storytelling trades the elegance and towering passion of verse for bluster and bloodlust.
At the same time, Homer would recognize some real competition in the creation of heroic iconography. At one point in 300, Persian arrows literally blot out the sun to fall on Spartan forces like rain. Afterward, one undaunted soldier, shot from below, stands up like a colossus, raises his shield – pin-cushioned with arrows – and then shaves them off with one swipe of his sword. Making the old Hercules or Conan films look like flailing slap fights, 300 conquers its own overwrought tendencies to offer a thrilling, larger-than-life spectacle.
The 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae commands a reputation of being the Alamo of ancient Greece, and 300 emphasizes mythic imagery over fidelity to the historical record. Persian "god-king" Xerxes marches on Europe while Sparta's influential priests forbid King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) from raising an army in defense. Leonidas bends the rules by leading his 300 best soldiers to the "hot gates" of Thermopylae, occupying a narrow pass to eliminate Xerxes' overwhelming numerical advantage. The 300 march to battle wearing little but helmets, red capes, loin cloths and acres of gleaming pecs.
In an early scene, Leonidas answers a messenger's ultimatum by tossing him into a seemingly bottomless well, and the image of the exotically costumed envoy tumbling into a black, featureless void provides a visual echo of Sin City, the previous adaptation of a Frank Miller work. Like Sin City, 300 was filmed on a "virtual backlot," with costumed actors standing in front of blue screens. Only one shot was filmed outdoors, and the computerized locations prove as vivid and memorable as dreams, from gleaming, golden wheat fields to a blue-gray battle at twilight.
Sin City and other films shot against virtual surroundings provided painterly visions but stiff, stilted performances. 300's actors break the losing streak by displaying impressive emotional investment in the action, seeming more confident and at ease than the players in sprawling period pieces like Kingdom of Heaven. Lena Headey, as Leonidas' queen, could have sunk beneath the weight of the dutiful wife role, but instead plays a credible, charismatic woman in a warrior nation.
300 matches breathtaking spectacle with earthy close-ups. At one point we'll see a fleet of Persian ships sinking in a storm, or elephants being driven off a cliff, then Snyder draws our attention to the red bristles atop the helmets that have an almost tangible quality. The freedom-and-honor speeches find grounding in rueful, macho humor, like the way Leonidas munches on an apple while up to his knees in dead bodies from an early skirmish.
Once the precisely choreographed battles commence in earnest, 300 doesn't let excessive plotting slow it down. It's more influenced by comic books, wrestling and video games than military history, but the imagery has such a kick that David Wenham's aggrandizing narration feels intrusive. 300 can speak for itself.
The only truly troubling thing about 300 is its contemporary context. At a time of U.S. war in the Middle East, the film's portrayal of hawkish "white" Greeks against exotic Asians feels insensitive at best. You can easily imagine 300 being used as the best military recruitment film ever, lacking only a coda like, "Did you know that Persia is now called Iran? Let's invade Tehran and kick ass like Spartans!" In the wrong hands, 300 could be a lethal weapon.