King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, “Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera”, “Dear Frankie”), fearless leader of the Spartans, receives a messenger from King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, “Love, Actually”, TV’s “Lost”), the king of Persia and ruler of all Asia. “Surrender to him and you can keep your kingdom”. Leonidas doesn’t know the meaning of the word “surrender” and, against the wishes of the elders, amasses an army of 300 of his fiercest warriors to do battle with Xerxes’ army of tens of thousands. Sounds like a fair match to Leonidas. They know of a small valley leading through two mountain passes and intend to use this as a bottleneck for the enemy, picking them off slowly and surely. His Queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey, “The Brothers’ Grimm”, “Ripley’s Game”), stays behind and tries to convince the council to send a full army, to back up her husband. Dilios (David Wenham, “The Proposition”, “Lord of the Rings”), a warrior who also serves as an oral historiographer, narrates the story and helps to ensure the legend will live on.
Written and directed by Snyder and based on Miller’s story, “300” has one of the most interesting, and consistent visual looks I have ever seen in a film. The filmmakers have gone to great pains to recreate the look of Miller’s art; most, if not all, of the film was shot in front of a blue screen with the backgrounds and physical locations added later, allowing them to give the film an artistic look. Throughout the film, this adds a touch of drama to the look and feel of the story. Leonidas marches up stairs to a temple on a mountaintop, the full moon sitting directly behind it (a truly beautiful image) and this would never have been possible with sets and other forms of traditional filmmaking. In a prologue, we learn how Leonidas fought a wolf. The wolf, a creation of CGI, is, nonetheless, very fearsome. As the two creatures circle one another, snow falls on the barren mountain, providing one of the most ‘graphic novel-like’ images in the film. As the 300 warriors move off to do battle, they walk through a field of grain waving in the wind. As they battle, we see brief snippets of their confrontations with various creatures, all of which is depicted in a way that can be rightfully described as beautiful. As much as a film with so much violence, blood and gore can be, “300” is a beautiful film to watch.
This technique of shooting the film almost entirely in front of a blue screen has been used before (“Sin City”, also based on a Frank Miller graphic novel) and seems to lend itself well to this style of filmmaking. The difference between the two films is “300” does not have comic book panels and tries to depict the legend of the Battle of Thermopylae in a way befitting a legend. Don’t get me wrong. I loved “Sin City”; it is one of my favorite films, “300” is also very good, but “300” is shot in a way that reminds me of an artist painting on a canvas. The backgrounds and the settings are all created by computers and through special effects and the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to make them appear both painterly and different. Because this story is basically based on a legend, this style fits. Everything appears realistic, but also exaggerated, much like a myth or legend would be; it contains some elements of truth, but over the years, many parts of the story have been enhanced.
Most films filled with special effects are missing some important key elements; a story, character development and people and things to care about. I am happy to say that “300” has these elements. I went to see the film with a friend of mine and the first thing he said as we left the theater was “That had a really good story”, as though he was surprised. And he had every right to be. Most big budget films filled with special effects have at least one weak element, the story. “300” follows the legend of King Leonidas and the events leading to the Battle of Thermopylae. Did this story actually happen? Maybe, but it has become more of a legend or myth at this point and the story is grand enough to fit the subject matter. The film begins with Delios recounting the birth and childhood of the boy who would become King Leonidas. In Sparta, boys grow up fighting, to become fierce warriors, and Leonidas is no exception. We watch a couple of key moments and then we meet the adult King and his wife and their son. These elements are all key because as soon as Xerxes’ messenger arrives and tells Leonidas of the Persian King’s ultimatum, we know Leonidas will never give in. And Leonidas dispatches the messenger in a pretty spectacular way. Then the story shifts and Leonidas has to try and amass an army against the wishes of his advisory council. But there are many key elements in this section which give the film depth and interest.
The battle is interesting because they face a variety of foes, almost as though Xerxes sends in one team after the next, to see who will win, not really expecting he will have to have an all out battle. As each of these groups battles, the action is filmed in a unique way. We might see a character swing his huge blade at an attacker, the action will slow down considerably and then speed up slightly after impact. This technique is not new either, having been used in many, many martial arts films, but in “300”, it adds an almost ballet-like look and feel to the battles, further adding to the beauty of the overall film. These scenes are pretty bloody, sometimes gory and very violent, so it seems odd to be calling them beautiful, but they are just that.
The acting is full of shouts, grand gestures and broad movements, strangely fitting for a myth or tall tale. Gerard Butler almost always shouts, growls or grimaces, with every line, giving him the air of a man with a lot on his mind. He clearly loves his wife and son, but has the fate of his people in his hands. He must go to battle, even if it means 300 against tens of thousands. Dominic West plays Leonida’s advisor and friend, Theron, a member of the council. He is more subtle, but also a man of State, so he does not have to go to battle and must stay behind to attend to politics. Lena Heady is very good as Queen Gorgo. She is a strong female character and that fact does not go unnoticed in this society; the messenger questions it, Theron uses it and Leonidas is attracted to it. David Wenham’s Delios provides narration in the beginning and end and at periodic moments throughout. His voice struck me as slightly odd, as though he was trying to mimic Butler’s fearsome growls, but didn’t have the right type of voice. He often reminded me of a high school actor, someone narrating “Our Town”, standing at the corner of the stage, trying to ‘emote’ to the edges of the audience. I didn’t expect Delios to partake in the battle, but he puts on his leather bikini and straps a piece of fabric over one shoulder just like all of the other soldiers in Leonida’s army. Perhaps showing off their chiseled abs, and they are universally chiseled (perhaps a little touch up with CGI?) was a method of intimidation. Xerxes is played by Rodrigo Santoro, who suddenly appeared on the island in “Lost” and is perhaps best known as Laura Linney’s object of lust in “Love, Actually”. In “300”, he is bald, very buff and covered with piercings and chains.
The friend who accompanied me initially sent me an e-mail asking to join me when I went to see the film, stating “300 scantily clad Spartans? I’m there.” I wonder if he realized going in they were all men. Because he’s straight. Actually, there are a few moments when the bare flesh extends to women, but the main display of flesh is male.
“300” is a rousing film, filled with beautiful imagery and an involving story.