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Let’s get something straight about 300 right off the bat. This is not a movie about brave rebels fighting against some oppressive regime to safeguard freedom and democracy. When King Leonidas shouts “For freedom!” he’s not talking about truth, justice, and the American way. It’s mostly just jargon tossed into the trailers and the film for dim, easily manipulated people who get overly excited when they hear propaganda thrown around, you know, the type who aren’t big on paying attention to context. Telling your soldiers they’re fighting to be free men right before they march to their deaths to defend your right to sit on a throne and sleep with a hot queen is also a great way to energize the troops, even if it doesn’t mean anything. I’m sure the Taliban soldiers were told they were fighting for freedom too. In their case it was the freedom to tie their women up in the street and throw rocks.
Despite a lot of screaming to the contrary, King Leonidas and his men are really just fighting to keep a bunch of loudmouthed Persians from tromping across their lawn. When Xerxes and his multi-nation army show up on Sparta’s doorstep and demand allegiance, they also offer King Leonidas and his people the freedom to live the way they want. But this is Sparta, a nation of warriors bred for blood. Leonidas will not stand for his people to bend knee to anyone, no matter how sweet the pot. Looked at that way, to me 300 is actually more interesting. This is the story not of freedom fighters, but of a stubborn man and a stubborn people obsessed with honor, glory, and war. A group of fighters so fierce they prefer death to surrender, no matter the terms. Only the greatest warriors on Earth could hold off an army of millions with only 300 men. For Spartans, it’s the natural thing to do.
The Spartans in co-writer/director Zack Snyder’s 300 are kind of like Klingons, only prettier. A lot prettier. The costuming is fabulous, as are the bodies Snyder has put under the fabric. Women who see it may cringe at some of the film’s brutality, but they’ll also swoon over the hundreds of ripped abs and statuesc bare bodies posed and on display throughout the movie. Snyder has a similar eye for female sensuality, with women clad in wispy fabrics. Guys aren’t likely to forget a brief scene in which Leonidas consults an Oracle, a mostly naked woman who connects to the spirit world through series of artistically erotic contortions. Black Snake Moan may have Christina Ricci on a chain, but in between all the blood and guts, 300’s careful costuming and sensuous style is intensely erotic.
With 300, it’s ultimately the look that’s everything. It has to be, because though the story is interesting, it’s also thin. It lacks the kind of raw tension that you get from better against the odds battle movies. There’s no moment like the one in The Two Towers where you stand on the battlements and look out over a seething mass of enemies and really feel rattling sound of death walking towards you. You can’t get that feeling unless there’s a real investment in the journey of the film’s characters. That just isn’t that kind of movie. It's too grandiose, too bombastic, too distant. Snyder sticks too closely to the Frank Miller comic on which the film is based for that to happen. The movie occurs in frames, which aren’t always perfectly connected together. There are spaces where no doubt in the comic Miller has white lines between panels, but in the film there’s just a big “something’s missing” feeling. The movie clocks in at 117 minutes, but I can’t help wondering if maybe there’s a longer cut of it out there somewhere, one which does a better job of creating depth by putting more in those gaps.
In a way I suppose, it’s a testament to how good 300 is, that I’d be interested in taking in a longer version of it. I left the movie wanting more, so it’s doing something right. First and foremost the film is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a visual masterpiece. I’ve heard Snyder say he doesn’t want people to think of it like it’s a painting, but there are moments in the film when that’s exactly what it looks like. To me that’s part of what makes it so unique. The trailers for it make the film’s look seem like a colored in version of Sin City, but the similarities in style are fewer than you think. 300 has it’s own completely original look, and it’ll make your heart skip a beat.
And while the script may be a bit thin in places, 300 gets great performances. In 300, giving a great performance means more than simply saying your lines convincingly. A lot of it’s full on physicality. Gerard Butler’s Leonidas dominates the film, his presence is palpable whenever he’s on screen. When he bellows for his men to follow him into hell, his voice is chilling and full of raw power. Lena Headley is both sexy and strong as Butler’s wife, her desperation to bring him home alive is well tempered by how proud she is to be married a willing to march into death. As Leonidas throws himself in the way of the Persians, it’s her job to rally her people into committing themselves to the fight, using his sacrifice as an example. Her role is pivotal, probably a lot more pivotal than it would be were this actual history.
But this isn’t history. Snyder’s take on the film is a fantasy, the way the battle would have looked in the minds of the Greeks, as they tell the story of the 300’s sacrifice. The way Snyder presents it may not be perfect, but it is visually fascinating and overall entertaining. The carefully crafted big battle footage and even bigger glistening bodies of 300 makes it more than worth watching Leonidas lead his men to the glory of death against overwhelming odds, doomed by the forces of Xerxes and history.