300 (2007): Zach Snyder’s Special Edition

The Two-Disc Special Edition includes several making-of-documentaries, tributes to graphic artist Frank Miller, who offers the source material, and chronicles of the film’s factual basis. In vein with the rest of the footage, the three deleted scenes don’t add much.

In his commentary, director Zach Snyder talks about his approach to the graphic text, and reveals a tribute to a film he admires. The scene in which the Spartans arrive in a burned village, the little girl, who greets the soldiers before falling into Leonidis’ arms, pays homage to the girl (Newt), the only survivor of the attack in James Cameron’s “Aliens,” who reawakens Sigourney Weaver’s maternal instincts.

Film Review

Berlin Film Fest 2007 (World Premiere)–Inspired by the work of the graphic novelist Frank Miller (the creator of Sin City), “300 is not just a tale about the ferocious Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans fought to death against a massive Persian army; the film itself is ferocious and assaultive in both the positive and negative sense of these terms.

The text offers a perfect follow-up for the gifted co-writer and director Zack Snyder, who made a strong impression with his 2004 debut, Dawn of the Dead.” With “300,” Snyder lets his vivid imagination run even wilder.

The new film is as visionary as the (mostly) black-and-white “Sin City,” which was co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller, but it’s also more engaging and entertaining; some critics felt that the 2004 neo-noir pulp fiction was dull, despite the visual pizzazz. In contrast, Snyder’s “300” translates colorfully Millers graphic novel of the ancient historic tale by combining inventive live action with virtual backgrounds.

Epic in scale and visual effects, 300 is a thrilling adventure about passion, courage, freedom and sacrifice, embodied by the Spartan warriors who fought one of the greatest battles in history. As such, the picture should be especially popular among teenagers and young viewers.

More significantly, Snyder’s “300” redeems the bad taste left by Rudolph Mate’s 1962 “The 300 Spartans,” which, though shot on location and starring Richard Egan, Ralph Richardson, and Diane Baker, depicted the heroic battle in schematic “Hollywood” ways.

As written and directed, “300” is more steeped in mythology than in history–by intent. The movie carries to an extreme the notion of Sparta as an enigmatic culture. Taught never to retreat or to surrender, the Spartans are depicted as the “perfect” warriors. They are unique in being a battle culture, dedicated to warfare and embracing a rigid code of honor that defines precisely the meaning of being a real Spartan.

The Spartans create a phalanx in which each warriors shield protects the man next to him. Its an awesome sight to behold for the masses of Persians–as well as for us viewers. Though the Spartans face insurmountable odds in terms of the enemy’s numbers, they define themselves by sacrifice and are willing to die for freedom; they consider it a “beautiful death.”

Miller first encountered the Spartans when he saw the 1962 film 300 Spartans as a kid. To illustrate “300,” Miller synthesized his research-which took him to Thermopylae-with the trademark style brought to such graphic works as “Sin City” and “The Dark Knight Returns.” Miller pared the Spartans uniform (half his body weight in uniform and weapons) down to its most essential and symbolic features. He then peppered the story of the historic 480 B.C. battle with both prior and subsequent clashes between Xerxes and the Greeks.

Snyder follows Miller’s approach in taking an actual event and turning it into mythology. “300” is not a linear historical drama, nor is it meant to be historically accurate. Existing in a hyper-real world, it unfolds as a feverish dream of an inspirational fable, full of passion, politics, and brutality. In streamlining the characters, Synder retells Miller’s saga not as an ancient tale (sort of “once upon a time…”), but as a classic and eternal one.

In the graphic work “300,” which became a best seller and won Miller numerous industry awards, the prose goes hand in hand with the drawings; they are much more than just illustrations. Showing love and appreciation for the material, Snyder is committed to preserving the integrity of the text as well as the imagery–perhaps too much so. As visually commanding as “300” is, the film overstays its welcome by at least 15 minutes (running time is 117 minutes, most of which are visually intense and quite violent).

Snyder worked on the adaptation with Kurt Johnstad, infusing the story with additional motifs and roles that go beyond Michael B. Gordon’s earlier draft. Every frame in his movie counts as a visual effect: The landscapes, the battles, the action, and architecture.
Snyder manipulates the color balance by crushing the black contents of the image and enhancing the color saturation to change the contrast ratio of the film.

Gerard Butler (“Phantom of the Opera”) is well cast as the charismatic Spartan leader Leonidis. A feared and revered military king, he rules with the guidance and support of his queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey). Leonidas and Gorgo watch each others backs. She is a great contributor to his strategic thinking, and they seem to enjoy both emotional and intellectual partnership, one obviously tainted by a contemporary perspective.

Under Leonidis’ regime, Spartans are taught the values of endurance and fearlessness–to have no mercy for their opponents. A steeliness of character dominates their culture, from the way boys are trained to the way women must surrender their children in warfare. A strict code of honor and duty is ingrained in them, affecting how they breathe, act, and interact in their daily lives.

As an actress, Lena Headey possesses an innate grace that’s essential to the role of Gorgo, which is not a prominent figure in Millers tale. Gorgo has already lost her husband, but admitting that would be too much, so she fights with her heart in the political arena.

Plot gears into action, when a messenger rides into town with a warning that the army of a thousand conquered nations is marching towards Sparta. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) has brought the ancient world to its knees through audacity. An enigmatic figure covered with exotic jewels, Xerxes is carried on a golden throne by slaves. A rich, arrogant megalomaniac, he behaves like a self-proclaimed God-King. His ambition for glory and victory is unlimited, but underneath, hes weak and insecure.

Leonidis reacts to the Persian threat by killing the messengers, but Sparta’s politicians don’t want to fight. Theron (Dominic West) represents a new kind of Spartan, one more interested in power negotiating than fighting for freedom. A dishonest politician (who gets the best lines of dialogue), Theorn has a dual nature, reflected in his treacherous appeasement of the Persians.

The Spartan Council sends Leonidis to consult the Oraclea young woman corralled by Ephors, ancient men who interpret her signs. The council doesnt want to have a battle, using the Carneia celebration of the moon as an excuse not to go to war.

Dilios, a Spartan warrior and storyteller (well played by Aussie actor David Wenham, best known for Lord of the Rings trilogy), is the key to Snyder’s resolution as to how to unify the episodic, effects-driven saga. Having a narrator who tells the story allows Millers fantasy world to come to life. Dilios’ voice provides the movie’s poetic flux–his version of events would become the narrative future generations will pass along. A writer who knows how not to ruin a good story with the truth, Dilios makes events bigger when they need to be bigger, do whatever it takes to motivate the Spartans.

The trio leading the 300 Spartans consists of Leonidis, Dilios, and an enigmatic but intense warrior named the Captain (Vincent Regan). The Captain brings with him to battle his eldest son, Astinos (Tom Wisdom), thus making a great sacrifice because its seen as a suicide mission. There are only 300 Spartans against a million soldiers of the Persian Empire. Astinos and Stelios (Michael Fassbender) represent the spontaneous enthusiasm of the young Spartan warriors.

But makes no mistake: Xerxes army represents a worthy adversary. Xerxes has willed an exotic and extraordinary force comprised of physical oddities, brute strength, wild African animals, magic practitioners, and his elite guard called the Immortals, skilled and fierce-looking masked warriors.

Leonidis is the opposite of Xerxes, who sits up in his high tower, bribing, seducing, and killing his men to achieve victory. Theres a poignant exchange when Xerxes says, “How can you ever stand against me, when I would gladly kill any one of my men for victory” To which Leonidis notes, “And I would die for any one of mine.”

Leonidis plan is to use Greece’s geography against the Persians, leading his men to the Hot Gates of Thermopylaea narrow corridor between two towering rocks on the cliffs of the Adriatic. But it is not invulnerable, as Leonidis learns from a deformed onlooker, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), who tells him of a hidden goat path behind the rocks. A tragic character, Ephialtes was outcast from Sparta at birth, and all he wants now is to be a Spartan.

The whole movie builds up to the battle, when the horizon literally darkens with the awesome sight of Xerxes forces. Leonidis knows that his 300 cant defeat the Persian army. Indeed, the act itself holds more power than the sum of the warriors arrows. In fact, Leonidis intends them to die, knowing theres no chance of survival.

Synder has taken extra efforts to make the men look believable, and to mesh together, as the fighting machine the Spartan guard is rumored to be. To physically prepare the soldiers for the rigors of the fight sequences, he enlisted the expertise of Mark Twight, a former world record-holding mountain climber, and vet stunt coordinator Damon Caro.

A handsome film, with many visually arresting images, “300” benefits from the gifted crew behind the camera: director of photography Larry Fong, production designer James Bissell, editor William Hoy, costume designer Michael Wilkinson, visual effects supervisor Chris Watts, and composer Tyler Bates.

“300” may not provide much food for thought, but it’s feast for the eyes.

End Note

Concurrently with the films showings in conventional theaters, 300: The IMAX Experience will be released in IMAX theatres worldwide. IMAX will allow audiences to experience the Spartans fight on some of the worlds largest screens, surrounded by state-of-the-art digital surround sound.

Credits

Warner

Warner, in association with Legendary Pictures and Virtual Studios present a Mark Canton/Gianna Nunnari production

Running time: 117 minutes

MPAA rating: R

Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller (with Lynn Varley)
Producers: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, Jeffrey Silver
Executive producers: Frank Miller, Deborah Snyder, Craig J. Flores, Thomas Tull, William Fay, Scott Mednick, Ben Waisbren
Cinematography: Larry Fong
Production designer: James Bissell
Visual effects supervisor: Chris Watts
Music: Tyler Bates
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editor: William Hoy

Cast:

King Leonidis (Gerard Butler)
Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey)
Dilios (David Wenham)
Theron (Dominic West)
Captain (Vincent Regan)
Stelios (Michael Fassbender)
Astinos (Tom Wisdom)
Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro)
Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan)

Reviewed by R. Voss