Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 3.15.07


The First Last Stand
A history lesson from the Persian wars

300: Directed by Zach Snyder. Written by Zach Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon, based upon the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Cinematography, Larry Fong. Music, Tyler Bates. Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West and David Wenham. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007. R. 117 minutes.

The Spartans, history tells us, were not to be taken lightly. Unlike their soft-bellied Athenian counterparts, who considered them base and ignorant, Spartans emphasized military service from the day male children were born. Obedience, toughness and bravery were the cherished Spartan ideals. So it’s not a little surprising to learn that Spartan women were the most free and independent in Greece, with access to land, education and comfortable clothing. (Athenian women weren’t known for dressing smartly.) Spartan women, like all Spartans, had the gift of the bluntest wit; prior to battle, women handed men a shield and this moving send-off: “With this or on this.” In other words, come home victorious or dead.

“Some day, son, you too can have man boobs!”

That little gem appears early in 300, the new film based upon the graphic novel by Frank Miller (Sin City). Appearing as well are other bits of Spartan history, but they’re included merely to accent 300, not to give it any meaning, rather like words in a Mountain Dew commercial. By way of example, consider the uniform of Spartan soldiers. In actual Sparta, males wore breastplates during battle. In 300, they seem to have misplaced chest protection. Clad in only capes and leather bikini bottoms, they face death with honor and their shining, chiseled abs. The result is more six-packs than a college fraternity house, but it turns out the updated garb is deliberate: Director Zach Snyder, recently of Dawn of the Dead, chose bare-chested attire because he thought it would “look cool.” Dude, where’s my armor?

Fidelity to history aside, 300 contains some smartly choreographed battle scenes, even if they’re derivative of The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. What those films contain, and what 300 lacks, are the inscrutable details that give characters personality. What 300 needs is a little self-doubt to make this rabid killing force more interesting. Humor and irony can’t survive in this climate, which I would describe as mildly thrilling but stifling. Perhaps this is due to the subject matter: 300 is about how Spartan King Leonidas, commanding only 1,000 Greeks (300 of them were Spartans), headed off more than 250,000 Persians for three days during the 5th century BCE. Even by the yardsticks of myth and legend, it is one of the greatest last stands in military history. The Spartan valor allowed Greek forces to regroup and later win the war.

The acting here is passable if a little overbaked at times. There are some effective and touching moments to 300, but for every scene of genuine emotion there’s a counterbalance of chest-thumping or looking into the wind for counsel — including, it should be mentioned, an actual “winds of change” moment when the wind stirs up during a point of no return. It’s all very self-important. I also take exception to the depiction, no matter how accurate, of Persians as an evil nation of dark warriors versus the flaxen-haired shirtless nation of Sparta. There’s more than one ode to “freedom isn’t free” and some suspiciously modern talk of liberty and justice. I half-expected a cameo from Donald Rumsfeld, but alas, it wasn’t to be. I wouldn’t want to see him shirtless, anyway.