In preparation for watching Man of Steel I decided to watch a DVD I’ve had sitting on my shelf for a few years now and have never actually got around to watching, namely visionary director (you have to call him this, he made it his first name) Zack Snyder’s 300.
Short version, it was stupid but fun and I enjoyed it. I think some of the impact of the film was blunted by the fact that so many scenes and moments from it have escaped into the wider pop cultural world and become memes. I think I’ve seen approximately, oooh, a trillion parodies of the “THIS! IS! SPARTA!” scene long before I ever saw the original.
For those who have somehow avoided learning anything about the film (congratulations on finally joining this new-fangled internet business by the way) it tells the story of the battle of Thermopylae. This was a real historical event which the film recounts as follows (spoilers):
King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) of Persia is invading Greece and intends to conquer Sparta. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) aims to stop him but the corrupt senate of Sparta won’t allow him use of the full army. Thus, he sets out with a team of only 300 men to halt the forces of Xerxes one million. Using a narrow pass he can funnel Xerxes larger forces to a small point which reduces Xerxes numerical advantage. The 300 men hold off the much larger army for two days when an outcast Spartan named Ephialtes betrays them, showing Xerxes a mountain path that lets him break through the Spartan lines. Leonidas sends a runner back to tell the story of the 300 and with his remaining men fights to their eventual death. Their noble sacrifice allows time for the rest of the Spartan army to arrive though who presumably will rout the Persians.
I can sit here all day and pick holes in the historical accuracy of the film. For starters there weren’t 300 Spartans fighting for two days, there was a actually a force of 7000 allied Greeks. On the last day when there were only 300 Spartans (because Leonidas had realised their betrayal and dismissed the larger force leaving behind only a small rear guard to protect their retreat) there were also 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans which everybody seems to always forget.*
But really by the time a Persian Immortal removes his mask and reveals himself to be basically an Orc underneath it is pretty clear that this is not a film that bears any resemblance to reality. The Persians are literal monsters they have giants, dudes with knives for hands, armies of what are basically orcs and memorably one dude with a goat head (which makes two films in a row I’ve dicussed that have a dude with an animal head running around). In contrast our Spartans are perfect physical specimens, except the one betraying Spartan who is twisted and malformed. There really isn’t any question of which side the film’s sympathies lie with even if Sparta is depicted as a brutal, cruel, eugenically perfect society.
The moment we see the Orcs was also when the film clicked for me. I had been attempting to evaluate it thematically since so much of what I’d read about it was an argument about whether the film was pro or anti war, whether the Spartans were America or whether the Persians were. But the Orc scene was just a red flag that went up saying, this is basically just an excuse to do one long fight scene from lord of the Rings. Not that you can’t read all that stuff into 300 but it undermines any attempt to take the film seriously when the filmmakers so clearly don’t and just want an excuse to show you Gerard Butler’s magnificent six pack as he stabs a guy.
And taken on that level the film excels. I like a good fight scene as much as the next guy, indeed probably more, and 300 has some spectacular fight scenes. And the rest of the film is really just a way to get us to the fight scenes as efficiently as possible whilst covering all the plot holes and exposition we need. We have some set up that explains who the baddies are and how dangerous the threat is and which plugs the rather gaping plot hole of why we’re only sending 300 Spartans*** and then it’s on to the fighting.
Part of the reason the film is less concerned with historical accuracy is it isn’t based on the real event but rather on a Graphic Novel written and drawn by Frank Miller. The monstrous Persians and half naked Spartans are straight from his work. But why bother? The battle of Thermopylae was real, the story is well known and has been told before. There’s nothing in Miller’s characters or plot worth paying money to adapt. The only thing original and worth discussing about 300 is the art which features some of the best work of Miller’s career and some of the finest sequential art ever produced. But a film by its very nature wouldn’t be Miller’s artwork, unless it was animated. You can use his designs but you miss out on his story telling, his panel composition, his angles, etc. But 300 really is an attempt to put the artwork of Frank Miller into a live action context, and it actually does work at that task.****
Partly this is because Snyder basically shot the film using the graphic novel as a storyboard recreating individual panels as shots and frames in the film. 300 probably ranks as the most faithful adaptation of a comic ever produced as in parts it is a shot for shot remake, just changing the shots from static images to moving ones.
But it’s largely because of the use of “ramping” a technique that 300 popularised and that has become something of a trademark of Zack Snyder’s. Ramping involves showing a shot in slow motion and then at the end of it speeding the action up faster than normal frame rate for a split second. The effect is that we see the build up to the actual moment of violence in all its detailed glory. A Spartan jumps into the air, spear poised to strike and we in the audience get a long slow motion look at the shape of his body and the perfect curve of his arm as he prepares to strike, of his perfectly muscled abs, of the fear on his opponents face and then finally the film speeds up as the spear hits as if to emphasise the impact.
It turns the violence of the action scenes into something aesthetic. Snyder doesn’t focus on the gore, the blood or the impact; those moments are sped up, and disposed of. Instead his attention is on the perfect bodies of his heroes, their skill and their talent at violence. In contrast to something like Transformers which uses very fast cuts and multiple angles to suggest s disorientation, danger and fear; 300 lets us linger on the action, we observe it slowly and take it in as a visual pleasure.
It’s also the best attempt to translate the language of comic books to cinema I have ever seen. The use of ramping recreates the effect of reading a comic. In a comic time is split up into discrete moments known as panels. A panel is a still, a frozen slice of time that the reader can linger over taking in every detail of a moment. Then separating the panels are gutters or borders, moments of white space that indicate time passing, and then another panel, another discrete slice of time. The ramping recreates this effect, we have the long slow section being the panel that we can focus our attention on and then the sped up final moment is the panel border, the transition to the next moment. As in the comic it allows the viewer the pleasure of watching and turns what should be a violent action scene into an aesthetic artwork of human musculature and grace. This is almost certainly the reason the film is considered homoerotic by the way, since there is an awful lot of just looking at men’s bodies in this.
300 is a film that everyone seems to want to read symbolically with the Spartans standing in for this country and the Persians for that and honestly there are enough big clearly symbolic ideas in here that you can do that easily. But it’s such a scattered mess thematically that it takes all the fun out of it for me. When your Spartan’s can equally be the American army in Iraq or the Iraqi dissidents defending themselves from the invading Americans and both interpretations work you have a bit of a mess on your hands.
But as an action film I find it oddly beautiful with a form of cinematic language that is genuinely novel and, yes, visionary. What Snyder has put together here is an approach to action films never before used and whilst it isn’t perfect in execution it is nonetheless interesting and worth seeing.
Also it does just jump from one badass moment to another so I can easily see why it generated so many memes.
*everyone seems to forget the Thespians and Thebans even though there were more of them than the Spartans. 300 does remember that it wasn’t a Spartan only battle but is possibly even more insulting to the poor Thebans because it includes a lengthy scene suggesting that whilst the Thebans may have brought 400 men, they haven’t brought any soldiers whereas each Spartan is raised from birth to be a killing machine. The poor Thespians get an even worse treatment as their name gets used as a homophobic slur, which is a bit rich coming from Spartan’s**
**the Spartan’s actually had a dedicated all gay division. Each member of the division fought side by side with his lover, the idea being that you would fight extra hard to protect your lover’s life. Although this is a widely disputed idea amongst historians.
*** In real life it was vastly complicated and involved festivals, naval plans, retreat plans, etc. In the film its down to corrupt Spartan politicians, indeed there may be a touch too much corrupt Spartan politicians in the film as any attempt to do plot fails dismally compared to more stabbing.
****Actually Miller seems unusually blessed in this regard since Sin City, also based on his original comics, was also remarkably faithful to his original artwork and really captured the art style.