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300: A Movie Review

Posted: Mon Apr 02, 2007 12:22 am
by bretonlass
OK. So I saw 300 twice (once in IMAX, once on a regular screen). On opening weekend.

Madness? Nah…

300 rocks. From start to finish. It is very rare to find “mainstream” movies that well-rounded.

First of all, let us be clear. I have been a fan of Gerard Butler since way back when in 2001 when the Attila mini-series was released by HBO, so I’ll admit I was the slightliest biased. It is even entirely possible that I wouldn’t have gone and see 300 if not for GB. But it doesn’t mean that I think all of his movies are good (some were, to be quite honest, not really up to par).

Another thing: I’ll make references to the movie proper. I suppose that with a story more than 2 500 years old, I can afford to. It’s not like it’s recent news, anyway…

Having 16 years of Classical piano under my belt, I always pay special attention to a movie’s soundrack. I might like the soundtrack or not, but any original score has to fit in the movie it lends its force to. For 300, Tyler Bates’s score does that, and more. It ups the ante on Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack, bringing a truly gritty feel to the movie. It also borrows a bit from Howard Shore’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, with epic vocals that give it a hauntingly majestic presence.

Yet there is also a wee bit of self-deprecation there, that we also find in other aspects of the film. One sequence particularly stands out. At some point in the movie, we see Leonidas and his Spartans marching towards the Persians. Each of the Spartans’ synchronised steps are silent, and there is a very “electric synth” counterpoint when they move forward. It has been much decried as anti-climactic, but I find it rather accurate. It makes me think, in a way, of the start of We Will Rock You by Queen. It’s as though the soundtrack were winking at us: “Hey, remember, this is all great, but don’t forget we’re not trying to be historically accurate.”

Which brings me to another much-debated point: historical accuracy. There is another article here which tells its tale better than I ever could, and since I do not claim to be an expert on Greek History either, I’ll simply bow and let other more qualified people do the job: ... ewsID=2338 . I’ll add this, though. Whoever thought 300 would be historically accurate didn’t read Zack Snyder’s interviews. In them, he always claimed that all he ever wanted to do was making a helluva fun, gory movie which would literally translate Frank Miller’s work to the big screen. If anything, people ranting about historical inaccuracies should take up their argument with Miller, not Snyder and co. Now, I’m not defending Miller (who’s got political views I find manichean at best), but I’m trying to come up with as fair a review as possible.

Now, a word on the general aesthetics of the movie. I have to say right off the bat that I don’t like violence overmuch in movies, seeing as it is too often placed there for gratuitous reasons or for shock value. But the thing is, the violence in 300 actually serves a purpose: we are catapulted smack in the core of the action, and a bloody war it is. I actually admire Zack Snyder for his unflinching approach towards violence. He doesn’t shy away from anything, that lad, and the very images that might seem apologetic to some, I actually find a staunch reminder of the actual cost of war. People die there, and there’s no panning to the daffodils as the most gruesome scenes come.

This is a R-rated movie (in the United States anyway – here in Quebec it got a PG-13). It deals with strong, serious issues. If you’re not prepared to face that, don’t go see this movie. And most certainly, don’t bring your kids.

Yet for all the blood splattered over the screen, it is presented in such a way that, yet again, we are reminded that we are seeing a movie. On the first battle sequence at the Hot Gates (Thermopylae, that is), we are treated to a uninterrupted shot of Leonidas doing his ballet of death among the enemy ranks. With careful application of slow motion and fast-forward, and a very liberal amount of CGI blood, we are forced to see it on a second degree. Some reviewers have described it as a “video game come to life”, but it is more than that. In a way, it gives us a glimpse of the so-called “zone” some military find themselves in when in the heat of combat (it is also possible to feel that when you are extremely concentrated in a sport, for example). But since this “zone” is something not many of us get to experience, it also feels quite alien to us when translated over to the big screen.

Another element I need to underline in this process is the colour palette used to render the images. While it is clearly a reference to Frank Miller’s work, the subtle blend of soft yellows, earthy browns, strong blacks and slashing reds Zack Snyder calls the “crush” helps us to realise that we are indeed watching a movie. There are no brilliant blues to colour the sky or vivid greens in the fields. Everything is stark, minimalist, and – dare I say it – eminently Spartan.

If we take into account the aforementioned reserves we put on historical accuracy, it is then easy to understand where the aesthetics of the movie go. Barring Xerxes and possibly Theron, all the opposing forces to Leonidas are depicted as being monstruous, horrible to look at. It is in accord to the main guideline of the movie: what we are watching is actually a firecamp tale told by Dilios, the sole survivor of the 300 Spartans. It is a tale meant to rise troops against the enemy, a tale meant to inspire in men of all Greece the will to fight against the mighty Xerxes. Of course there are going to be hyperboles and exagerations. Of course Ephialtes is going to be the ugly hunchback we get to see. Of course Leonidas is going to be described as a man in the prime of his life, with rippling abs for all to see. And of course Xerxes is going to appear as this mighty, greater-than life megalomaniac.

Once we get that, it is remarkably easy to take all the rest in stride.

And now I would like to comment on the actors’ performances.

Gerard Butler as Leonidas is quite simply outstanding. And that is not the fangirl speaking. He truly put layers on what could easily have been flat cardboard dialogue. Leonidas’s gruff love towards his son is splendidly shown. And while in the whole movie he never wavers from his strong idealistic position towards the war and his devotion for Sparta, we see in his final, heart-wrenching frame that his every action is fueled by a deep, abiding love for Gorgo, his wife and queen. As Dilios leaves to rise Sparta, he asks Leonidas if there is any message for the Queen. And the King aswers, as he presses a crude necklace to Dilios’s palm: “None that need be spoken.” Gerard Butler is of those quiet character actors who can express more in a glance than some in a full-fledged speech.

Lena Headey as Gorgo is a nice addition to the movie. In the graphic novel, the Queen only speaks one line. In the film, Gorgo has been fleshed out and given a true dramatic role. Though some critics have said that the sequences in Sparta were off-putting, diverting from the main action, I actually find them enlightening. Her good-bye love scene with Leonidas, done in artsy black-and-white flashes, is what I’d expect from two spouses who know the man is quite literally marching to his death on the morning. And as Leonidas fights at the Hot Gates, Gorgo fights the corrupt politicians at home. She is ready to do everything that it takes to support her husband. And earlier, when the Persian messenger shows surprise that Gorgo dares to speak, implying that Spartan men are less manly for it, she says with quiet strenght: “It is because only Spartan women give birth to real men.” Though I do not condone many aspects of the Spartan way of life, I have to say that this is an awesome message to today’s women: don’t accept bullshit and speak out for yourself, because no one will do it for you.

The rest of the cast takes their cue from the King and Queen, giving impressive performances. David Wenham as the narrator, Dilios, exudes a quiet sarcasm. After loosing an eye, he reassures his King worried about this, ahem, “scratch” by telling him: “’Tis but an eye, Sire. The Gods saw fit to give me a spare.” Michael Fassbender as Stelios has a very tongue-in-cheek humour. At some point, he slices an arm off a Persian envoy who promptly screams: “My arm!” And Stelios remarks: “It is not yours anymore.”

Dominic West as Theron has the corrupt politician act down pat. He is sly, self-serving and utterly creepy, which is awesome in the context of the film. He asks everything of Gorgo, but ultimately gets paid back in full, in a wonderfully satisfying scene. And a special mention must go to Rodrigo Santoro as the almighty Xerxes. He is the very image of what some call “terrible beauty”. His most revealing line (and the most disturbing one if we care to analyse it only a little) is: “I am not cruel, like your Leonidas. He commands that you stand. I only ask that you kneel.”

I cannot name everybody, because it would be both a tedious and unnecesary task. Suffice it to say that all the other actors have done a very fine job of it all, and given three dimensions to what could easily have been a purely “Good versus Evil” scenario.

What can I add?

Well, nothing much except the fact that I salute the actors’ dedication to live up to their characters. They had to submit themselves to a guesome training programme to get the physique required for the role, and it pays off. Sometimes, it feels as though we’ve stepped in an ancient Greek pottery, what with all those men in their most glorious apparel (though for modesty’s sake they do don the leather codpiece). But the potential “Chippendale” effect is nil, because at some point the actors got so comfortable in their costume – or lack thereof – that they strut about with a very matter-of-fact attitude, so much that we, too, come to entirely forget that we are watching almost-buck-naked manflesh and step into the ride. It becomes natural, and it is us, coming out of the theatre with all the layers of clothing a chilly March weekend requires, who feel overdressed.

One very last word. It probably wasn’t intentional, but I find it a sweet irony that a movie about Greek warriors would be released in March. It is, after all, the month of Mars, the God of Warfare, who is the Roman equivalent to the Hellenic God Ares. Fitting, that, for a movie about Spartans, the ultimate Greek warriors.

Methinks Ares approved of the offering, if the box-office figures are any indication…

Posted: Mon Apr 02, 2007 12:54 pm
by Windwalker
A thorough and loving review. I haven't seen the film myself but if anyone else has, please chime in!

A review of the movie "300"

Posted: Sun Apr 15, 2007 9:31 pm
by Marie
I have never missed the premier of a film I wished to view and “300” was no exception.

I must say however, that I was biased in the opposite direction than Eloise. My interest in the Battle of Thermopylae goes back over 45 years when the film “The 300 Hundred Spartans” hit the theaters. Back then I saw it 3 times, historically accurate or not. Yet the theme of the sacrifice of the few for the many, overruled the lack of historic value.
Since then, Greek history, especially that of Sparta intrigued me.

As the presentation of “300” approached, I grew less enthused to see a comic book exposition of this event (“graphic novel” if you will) be brought to life on the big screen. My initial mistake was reading Steven Pressfield’s, “Gates of Fire” for the 3rd time and Frank Miller’s rendition was a poor comparison.
Nevertheless, on opening night, I paraded into the auditorium with a crowd of youthful, overeager, Comic Con attendees, all loaded down with concession stand fare. I too eschew films glorifying carnage so the stomach remained empty to save face.

I have been collecting and enjoying selective movie soundtracks since my father gifted me with my first in 1959. It was Miklos Rozsa’s magnificent composition of “Ben Hur” on vinyl (have it still in it’s original cover and wrap). Indeed, a film is nothing without the inclusion of musical emphasis to give it life. Comparing Bates’ score to that of Zimmer’s “Gladiator” is apt, but I found Enya’s vocals more ethereal in the dreamlike sequences of “Gladiator” as opposed to the grating heavy metal rock undertones of “300”. Granted, it was written specifically to underline the exaggerated characterizations, battles and special effects. Although, I did appreciate four of the tracks from the CD, the impressive “Returns a King”(although Leonidas could not have returned a king, he was only 14 and this is Greece, not Egypt) “Come and Get Them” and elegant “Remember Us”and “Message for the Queen" All four tracks using vocals and instrumentation to its fullest impact for the designated scenes.

I know Frank Miller never sought to include historic accuracy and the link provided only corroborates this issue. The author, Joseph Hughbanks, summarized 20 or so incidents from the movie and to his credit highlighted 85% of them to be outright fabrications or fantasy. My fear that these types of inaccuracies would be misconstrued as fact by the literal minded groupies was articulated in may of the reviews penned on some of the film links. This alone made me wish that “Gates of Fire” had been produced instead.

But this is not getting together a serious observation just a bald comparison.

I completely agree that Zack Snyder’s shock approach of flinging the viewer into the heat of bloody vicious battle sequences indicates his effort to project that the overwhelming forces of inadequately trained mercenaries, slaves, conscripts and even the Immortals of the Persian hoards could barely dent the dense packed phalanx of a fully disciplined war machine embodied in the elite Spartan hoplites and their lesser trained allies.
Twenty-five years ago, I was a guest of my cousin to the Marine Headquarters in Quantico where he was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. I got to see upfront and personal, the hand-to-hand “zone” combat training exercises. It is accurate to specify that in the heat of conflict, the concentration is so intense that the body and mind are so attuned to the accoutrements carried or attached that the ballet of battle is perfectly fluid.

Indeed, the color background of subtle earthtones, grays, blacks and splashes of red surrounds the observer in a mantle of careful manipulation. Snyder ranges the effects of emotions, drama, events and environment using the palette from Miller’s novel to its fullest extent. Also, the fantasy of a firecamp tale depicted by the fictional Dilios to rouse the other Greeks to battle is another broad brush of exaggeration. In truth, “Dilios” was in actuality, Aristodemos evacuated due to field blindness and who returned to Sparta only to be scorned as a coward by the citizenry. But to give Snyder the utmost credit, he did attain his objective of giving the audience the bigger than life characterizations that the movie intended including the authentic marshalling of the other city-states to defend Greece against Xerxes at the Battle of Plataea and with the Athenian fleet at Salamis.

The actors performed extremely well despite the abysmal script the writer had to cull for dialogue from Miller’s book. Gerald Butler recreated the role of Leonidas, a proud king, loving husband, canny warrior and undaunted sacrifice to duty with the perfect laconic stoicism attributed to this character. Unfortunately, Snyder tried to interject humor in scenes that required none. Two stand out with glaring clarity; Xerxes to Leonidas “Persia has much to offer Sparta. We could share much of our cultures with one another.” Leonidas to Xerxes “Yes I know, we’ve been sharing our culture with Persia all morning.” Xerxes to Leonidas “ Your women will be slaves…” Leonidas to Xerxes
“Have you seen our women? We might as well have marched them up here…” This particular scene was for bargaining not laughter and I feel that Butler delivered the lines a little too stiffly for my taste. If this were a more serious adaptation of the Battle of Thermopylae, I believe the quiet confidence of this actor would have shone more brilliantly and he could have added a notch to his belt of quality films instead of the jangle of jester’s bells. (I really don’t care what the box office proceeds indicate)

Lena Headey excelled in her portrayal of Queen Gorgo. I agree with Eloise that her addition emphasized the character of Leonidas not just as a king but a vulnerable man.
She contributed so many qualities to the film, wife, advocate, staunch supporter, lover, mother, realist and executor. In truth, Spartan women possessed economic power and influence. Scandalized observers from other Greek cities (as the Persian messenger observed) commented that not only did Spartan women have opinions, they also were not afraid to voice them in public; and worse still their husbands actually listened to them!
Ms. Headey was a natural in this part. Her lines and demeanor throughout the entire film were free flowing and constant.

I had trouble relating to David Wenham as Dilios. Most of his dialogue was choppy, hesitant and unimpressive. Even his “rousing speech” to the Spartan force before the Battle of Plataea never had me convinced. Michael Fassbender as Stelios and Tom Wilson as Astinos were more at ease and natural with their lines and fluid battle skills. Even though Astinos lost the head on that magnificent body in a gratuitous display of unnecessary carnage.
However, if you wanted an oily, slinky, corrupt villain, Dominic West, as Theron is your man. Besides the disgusting Ephors, this role was played to its fullest from his conciliatory manner at the interview with the Persian messenger, frontal assault on the Queen, denigrating speech in the Council chamber and final comeuppance at the hand of the very Queen he mocked was skillfully projected. Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes was a caricature of exaggerated proportions, from his nine foot, bald-head, kohled eyes, pierced and bejeweled body, mesh loincloth and slightly slow-mo deepened voice was truly unbelievable. Last but not least, Andrew Tiernan as the grotesque traitor Ephialtes, prancing around in the Spartan red cloak, carrying shield and spear was enough to get my gorge to rise. After he betrayed the Spartans, Leonidas rightly chided him just before the annihilation of his forces, “You there! Ephialtes! May you live forever.” This was a very apt quote for the final scene of the Spartan’s demise. For Dilios later says “ We Spartans have descended from Hercules himself. Taught never to retreat, never to surrender. Taught that death in the battlefield is the greatest glory he could achieve in his life. Spartans: the finest soldiers the world has ever known.”

Yes, I too saw “300” twice, and while I cannot truly say it “rocked”, I can say for a “comic book” brought to life on the big screen, it did hold my attention for heroic value if not for historic. I would also like to add an anonymous quote that would fit the core of this film

“For those who fight to protect it, freedom has a flavor that the protected will never know.”

I give it 3 out of five stars!

Posted: Mon Apr 16, 2007 12:59 pm
by Windwalker
Another thoughtful, well-informed, meticulous review! I wish that good films would get as much.

I agree totally that Pressfield's Gates of Fire should have been made into film. It combines dramatic action with compelling characters and contemplation of larger questions, including that of freedom.

Regarding freedom, you are both well-versed in Greek history. Given what you know of Spartan society, Persian suzerainity and the subsequent ceaseless wars between the city-states -- the Peloponnesian one, in particular -- you might want to ask exactly what freedom the Spartans were fighting for.

Please understand, I'm not even remotely advocating that they should have capitulated. After all, this was their home (broadly defined). But as I said once before, the closest equivalent to the Spartans were the antebellum Southern plantation owners. The parallel encompasses not only the negative aspects, but also their prowess, bravery and defense of their own physical and cultural domain against an invader.

Cultures traditionally cut a disproportionate amount of slack to warriors, for obvious reasons. They tend to be young, handsome and as picturesque as male lions -- and they largely fulfill the same function: namely, fight against other male lions, while non-alpha males and women do everything else (including fighting in less glamorous modes).

I'm not immune to the allure of these figures. It's part of my cultural hardwiring, which is why I am so aware of its pernicious attraction. In the larger context, if we are to progress beyond Bronze Age thinking, this particular archetype (and application) of the warrior is a major stumbling block.

Added postscript: Susan Sontag wrote a penetrating article about this issue in 1975 which is still entirely relevant today (perhaps even more so than it was then). It's worth reading in its entirety, despite its length. Here is the link:

Posted: Wed Apr 18, 2007 12:25 am
by bretonlass

Great review. I like it that our points of view contrast each other, because we actually get a clearer idea of the movie this way. The world would be a dull place indeed if we all agreed on everything!

A little precision, though: Enya did the vocals for The Fellowship of the Ring, whereas Lisa Gerrard did those of Gladiator. And I agree with Miklos Rosza's soundtracks. To date, one of my all-time favourite scores is the one he did for El Cid. He spent one year in Spain doing it, and it shows: the Fight For Calahorra track is directly inspired by the medieval "cantiga" Santa Maria Strella do Dia, and the Coronation music is actually a pavane variation.

As for the last quote you cited, it reminds me of one of Queen Gorgo's most powerful lines: "Freedom is not free at all, but comes at the highest cost."

Indeed. And some people today would do well to remember that.


Eloise :)

Posted: Wed Apr 18, 2007 10:25 pm
by Marie
bretonlass wrote:Marie,

A little precision, though: Enya did the vocals for The Fellowship of the Ring, whereas Lisa Gerrard did those of Gladiator.
Thanks Eloise! I am happy you and I could give the film its due rewards as well as its downsides.

However you should know about Now We Are Free ( Gladiator Theme ) Lyrics

Title: Enya - Now We Are Free ( Gladiator Theme ) lyrics
Artist: Enya ... oundtrack/
Go to this link and hear her yourself for real listening pleasure.

I know Lisa Gerrard composed and performed for Gladiator but Enya is far superior in her rendition.

Thanks again, Eloise. Your comments are a pleasure to read and ponder.


Posted: Sat Apr 21, 2007 10:26 pm
by bretonlass

I listened closely to the Enya rendition and to Lisa Gerrard. I guess that what makes the difference is that Enya is (to my ears) an alto and that Lisa Gerrard is (to my ears, again) a mezzo-soprano.

It means that, while they are actually hitting the same notes (in the lower mezzo range or higher alto range), Lisa Gerrard's rendition seems more airy, more elusive, and Enya's able to dig deeper, in the feminine version of a man's "basso profundo". Also, Lisa Gerrard has what I call a "classic-pop" voice, while Enya has a "classic" voice. It would then be easier for Enya to go lyrical, while I suspect Lisa Gerrard enjoys giving her songs a gritty feel every now and then.

In the end, it all comes down to personal preferences. And personal moods, even. Sometimes when I sing Music Of The Night of Phantom of the Opera, I give it a "rock 'n' roll" feel like Gerard Butler, and other times I try to go operatic à la Hugh Panaro... Both interpretations have their value. As Einstein would have said, everything's relative.

Oh! well... That's what you get when you talk of music to me. 16 years of piano do tend to make me go in a full-fledged analysis over almost nothing.

And now, back to our regular programme: 300 discussion.


Eloise :)

For the sake of comparison...
MOTN, Gerard Butler version:
MOTN, Hugh Panaro version: