When Zack Snyder's cinematic adaptation of Frank Miller's terrific graphic novel 300 came out, my wife was mortified. Still suffering from the shockwaves of my obsession with Ridley Scott's Gladiator, she couldn't bear the thought of another hack 'n' slash epic carving its way into our lives and taking over mine. Troy had its moments - and may yet prove itself with the forthcoming Director's Cut - but such was the impact of this blood and thunder slice of ancient mayhem that her lamenting fell upon deaf ears. For, whilst my love for all things of a sword-and-flesh interactive nature is nigh on psychotic, I have a greater fascination yet for glorious last stands. Be it Custer's insane grapple with his own deluded grandeur at the Little BigHorn, or the valiant 24th Regiment of redcoats at Isandlwhana, or, much more recently, the incredibly brave sacrifice that two Delta Force snipers made against horrific odds in Mogadishu, I have always wondered how such people face imminent death. Beyond even these examples, however, is the awe-inspiring stand of unparalleled bravery and defiance made by King Leonidas and his three-hundred hand-picked Spartan warriors as they held back the sweeping Persian host at the narrow coastal path of Thermopylae in 480 BC. This three-day battle towers above all others, not least because of the individual courage that these men showed, but because of the lasting legacy of their heroism. Myth, folklore, legend ... however history may have chosen to depict their final struggle, the fact remains that without their sacrificial last stand, the Western World, as we know it today, would not exist. And, despite many references to this pivotal conflict in movies and a handful of novels, Hollywood has, oddly, remained quite reticent about it. Richard Egan's celebrated 1961 version, for director Rudy Mate, “The 300 Spartans”, was, until now, the only real attempt to bring the saga to the screen.
“Spartans, lay down your weapons.”
“Persians ... come and get them!”
With Sin City proving that such a visually distinctive style as filming a small number of actors against a vast CG backdrop could accurately replicate the look and mood of a comic-book, it was only natural that Frank Miller's epic 300 would have to follow suit. Seven years prior, Ridley Scott ushered in a new interest for ancient drama and battles with Gladiator, and the trend has continued ever since, with bygone eras revisited with all the consummate skills and technological know-how of modern movie-making. But doesn't it seem somewhat ironic that scenes and vistas set millennia ago need the fine-tuning and augmentation of computer wizardry to have us believe them now? But there you go.
“Yes, my Lady?”
“Come back with your shield ... or on it.”
The cast underwent the now-obligatory training regime to shape themselves into the battle-hardened warriors you see onscreen, their pecs super-honed, their abs as defined as the walls of the old school Tardis and their biceps split with thick ridges of powerful veins - the epitome of physical perfection, in other words. But, essentially, each and every one of them exudes the rock-solid spirit of a man born and bred for war and not just the typical pose 'n' pout, action-movie muscle-man. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger at his mightiest was, if you are honest, too ridiculously inflated to have ever done the things his characters did - I mean, just look at him attempt to run! But the Spartan-crew for 300 have beefed-up with a fine set of granite-hewn working muscle and a wanton lust for carnage that is totally infectious. When Gerard (Phantom Of The Opera) Butler's King Leonidas grins as the ground trembles under the onslaught of a million Persian invaders, look at the eager thirst for blood on his face; or when Michael Fassbender's Stelios surveys their enemy's mighty encampment, his hopeful glee that maybe there is someone down there who is worthy of bestowing him a hero's death; or their laughter as the Spartans shelter beneath their shields from a sky-darkening bombardment of arrows, callous disdain for such a cowardly, long-distance form of attack revealing their disappointment at not being able to get in close to their harassers - there is a genuine sense of the mythical enmeshing with the reality of the conflict. Vincent Regan's awesomely aggressive Captain is the bulwark of the elite corps. Regan, who also saw service in Troy, as Achilles' Myrmidon lieutenant, magnificently exudes the qualities of a loyal warrior both battle-weary and yet filled with boundless stamina and dependability. The film's narrator, Dilios, played with almost Shakespearean relish by David (Lord Of The Rings) Wenham, finds the diction to verbalise the courage and fortitude of a race that prides courage and victory over the fragility of their own flesh, his commentary recited with vigour and passion. Queen Gorgo, played by the delectable Lena Headey, keeps the home-fires burning and is more than enough reason for Leonidas to come back from the battle in one piece - even if he knows that destiny awaits him in that narrow pass the Greeks called the Hot Gates. His farewell to her is acutely heartrending - both know the outcome but are too proud to mourn, which somehow makes the parting all the more emotional.
“Spartans - ready your breakfast and eat hearty ... for tonight we dine in Hell!”
Although a lot of the lines roared or snarled through gritted teeth in 300 sound like pure Hollywood action-man quotes, they are, in fact, accurate to those recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus, but they are so damn good that no screenwriter would ever dream of leaving them out. Even Wenham's Dilios, when quizzed about his ability to fight with one eye gouged out, states quite matter-of-factly, “The Gods saw fit to bless me with another.” If Frank Miller, who also served as an executive producer on the film, found them acceptable, then this macho-heroic speech is equally fine with me, although Wenham does occasionally over-egg things. I like it when he downplays the actions of the Spartan allies, the Arcadians. “They make a wondrous mess ...brave amateurs,” he says. “They do their part.”
Gerard Butler (set to star as Snake Plissken in the Escape From New York remake) is as resilient to relinquish his strong Scottish brogue as his King Leonidas is to give even an inch of ground to the invading Persian hordes. With an impressive stoicism and an even more impressive physique, Butler stands firm as one of the most dynamically realised heroes of recent cinema. With eyes of coal-black rage and a beard the size and shape of one of those steel cattle-shifters from off the front of an Old West locomotive, he cuts an imposing figure of nobility back in Sparta and a towering colossus of indomitable strength and magnetism on the battlefield. Managing to imbue his warrior-king with intelligence as well as raw anger, Butler wraps a few more layers around his character than the script would have you believe. His love for his Queen is raging and tempestuous, yet poignant and bittersweet. When he looks at her there is love and lust genuinely competing within him, their relationship as fiery and heightened as those in the classical sagas and Homeric poems. But there is a moment when he looks upon the unfortunate hunchback Ephialtes (played beneath a mass of prosthetics by Andrew Tiernan), who is desperate to atone for a pivotal deed he has committed, when Butler taints a curse with a blessing, with both his voice and his eyes, that is, at once, heartbreaking and stirring. “May you live forever,” he says in a searing combination of sympathy and simmering anger. All of a sudden, Gerard Butler, so good yet always so forgettable until now, seems like perfect casting for a revamped Snake Plissken. His playful antagonism of Rodrigo Santoro's Xerxes is just as finely tuned. He makes the Spartan's wry sense of humour akin to Snake's indifference to the kidnapped President's plight when he smugly refutes any offers of peaceable surrender.
“This is where we hold them. This is where we fight! This is where they die! Remember this day, men, for it will be yours for all time!”
But Michael Fassbender's athletically, devil-may-care Stelios and Tom Windom's youthful Astinos deliver what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest slaughterfests seen thus far in a sword and shield saga. Just check out the incredible two-man assault they make on the assorted Persian ranks - some of whom wield vicious-looking Wolverine-style claws - as Synder's camera whirls around them, zooming in to highlight each grievous thrust and slash and slowing down to amplify the ferocity of such limb-lopping with an almost unbroken take of unparalleled immediacy. CG-enhancement really comes of age during this sequence. All films of this sword-clashing nature feature intricately choreographed moves, but if you watch them closely, each slash and swipe of a blade has been designed and rehearsed to miss the target. Only clever camera angles and crafty cutting make you think that contact has been made and damage done. But here in 300, Synder's use of CG actually has the blades slicing through flesh with no cutaways or angle-switches whatsoever. Just watch Astinos severing throats at the trot, altering his grip on his sword and wading in again - all in one 360-degree take. This is violence that goes beyond gratuitous, beyond brutality. It becomes almost a thing of beauty - crazed, warped and disturbing, yes, but utterly captivating to watch. The vicious, impromptu amputations showcased here are hyper-real and perversely entertaining - even Mad Mel's offal-spilling opus Braveheart pales when compared to this level of balletic bloodletting. Extolling all the Spartan virtues in one scene and one decisive act, Michael Fassbender, himself, delivers that most spine-tingling of replies when Xerxes' belligerent emissary snarls that the amassed arrows of the Persian army will blot out the sun ... “Then we'll fight in the shade,” he grins, his sword-tip bristling with the blood of his enemy's freshly-severed arm. You can't get much more defiantly emphatic than that, can you?
“Yours is a fascinating tribe. Even now you are defiant in the face of annihilation.”
And the nine foot tall God-king, Xerxes, played with enigmatic asexuality by Santoro with a thickly sinuous voice that mixes megalomania with lasciviousness, is a jewel-bedecked Adonis who uses the straining spines of his minions as stepping stones. Despite his obvious villainy, Santoro imbues his tyrant with a fierce charisma, a sort of Machiavellian devil-in-disguise who has the power of life and death over a hundred nations and can bend all but the mighty Spartans to his devious will. His vast army include elephants and a rampaging rhino, painted desert tribesmen and whip-cracked barbarians, whilst his poisonous, closer entourage are populated by a tusk-armed executioner, a goat-headed minstrel and some pox-riddled whores in various states of disability. His personal carnival of the grotesque knows no bounds, Snyder and Miller suffusing his presence with taboo-breaking decadence. Most exciting, of course, are the silver-masked Immortals - half orc, half ninja, but all savage - who take down individual Spartans by ganging-up on them and dragging them to their knees. A monstrous, battle-scarred giant - the Uber-Immortal as the production christened him - with an ugly face so full of jagged fangs that his brutish head comes to resemble the snout of a shark adds to the bestial flavour when he scraps with a dwarfed Leonidas, flinging him and his men around like rag-dolls.
But the film is a much a celebration of physical perfection as it is with the bizarre and disturbing.
Wolfgang Petersen and Brad Pitt worked wonders with Troy in the way that they depicted Achilles fighting with the classical style often represented on pottery, base relief and carvings from the era. Synder and fight choreographer Damon Caro go even further with 300. Not only do the combatants convincingly portray supreme fighting machines with ferocity and Olympian prowess, they do it with finesse and a stamina that would amaze the gods. The real-life Spartans were indeed born and bred for war and prided themselves, men and women, on prime physical fitness and pure, pain-ignorant endurance. All those naysayers who pointed to the cast's honed, toned and buffed-up bodies and scoffed at the Hollywood ideal of ancient men-of-war, have got it wrong. Although the Spartans of old didn't have access to computer-enhanced abdominals - step forward David Wenham, for you are the worst culprit by far (just check out those floating abs during the final charge) - this is exactly how they would have looked. Admittedly, Synder's warriors jettison the armour that the real troops would have worn, but this matters little when you consider the fearsome and inspiring sight of Butler and Co as they strut into battle with savage grins on their faces and something akin to Nine Inch Nails roaring across the soundtrack. Our own soldiers once wore two-foot high Busbies when they marched into war, in an effort to intimidate the enemy. I know which approaching army would frighten me more if I was a whipped Persian conscript. Just admire Leonidas when he strikes out during the first wave of attack, Synder keeping track with his spear and sword-swinging progress as he cuts through swathes of twirling, leaping and lunging Persians. The move from spear to sword is accompanied by a truly majestic shot of the King striking the pose that has adorned so many of the artefacts unearthed over the centuries, spear held aloft as he lines up an almost Olympian javelin throw.
“They look thirsty.”
“Well ... let's give them something to drink! To the cliffs!”
Leonidas and his men offer the Persians a chance to cool down in the raging sea far, far below.
But as galvanising as all the battle momentum is, the film can feel stymied by events related back on the home-front. Whilst the red-cloaked warriors are away making history, Queen Gorgo has her own power struggles to contend with, what with treasonous vipers crawling through the royal chambers and nefarious plotting taking place behind her husband's back. These scenes are intended to balance the movie from becoming too combat-heavy and, at the very least, serve to give us more time in the radiant company of Lena (The Brothers Grimm) Headey. But in adding a fresh dimension to Miller's original story, they detract from the only real conflict that we are concerned about, making us itchy to get back to the front line. Other changes from the book are actually minimal, with much of the dialogue the same and a great many of the individual comic-book frames lifted wholesale from the page and placed respectfully upon the screen. The approach of the Immortals, the final tortoise-shell of protective shields, and the pushing of the doomed Persians over the edge of a cliff may be the most immediately recognisable, but Synder inks his movie and his characters in such a way that they appear to have literally hauled themselves off the printed page in even the simplest of shots. Ephialtes scaling the rugged mountain tops as he stalks the 300, Leonidas led to the spectral chamber of the Ephors (hooded, incestuous priests so deformed by ritual and disease that they resemble Ian Bannan's leprous lord from Braveheart), a whip snapping against the back of a primitive warrior driven into the fray. Frame by frame, Synder injects life and emotion into Miller's 2D work, taking the success that Robert Rodriguez had with Sin City to higher possibilities of filmic translation. Of course it doesn't look natural, and the floor of the cliff-top pass can often seem just a little bit too flat, but Snyder and Miller are striving for legend here, reality raised to immortal heights through centuries of telling and re-telling.
Moments of cinematic and visual magic abound. The gull that lifts off the tip of a spear left embedded in the bloodied soil into a glowering sky as the Immortals approach. Persian marines dragged through the inky depths as a hurricane lays waste to their armada, the Spartans cheering from atop a promontory. The teasing cry of more gulls and the whispering of the sea-breeze as Leonidas contemplates the final offer made by Xerxes. The haunting shadow of a small boy staggering over a hill made monstrous by the hellish smoke and fire of a ruined village. The gruesome Tree Of Death, again a direct lift from the book. Snyder proves himself to be poet of images. It may recall Gladiator to have key characters standing amid vast fields of swaying corn, but the effect of such ochre-tinted beauty is mesmerising.
“There is no glory to be had now. Only retreat. Or surrender. Or death.”
“Well, that's an easy choice for us, Arcadian. Spartans never retreat! Spartans never surrender!”
Issues raised about the homo-erotic aspect of the film aren't quite as easy to dismiss as I'd like them to be. If historians seem to disagree over Spartan tastes and sexual attitudes, then what stance do filmmakers take? Synder cannily assumes an open-minded approach, which is to his credit. Where the majority of Leonidas' men, and particularly Leonidas, himself, who has aggressive and terrific sex with his luscious Queen, are seen as pillars of heterosexual pride, then the relationship between the super-warrior Stelios and the Captain's son Astinos is teasing and flirtatious and erring on the other side of the blade. Throughout the film, one taunts the other with innuendo-laden comments on their abilities and prowess, remarks that are both humorous and suggestive. At the height of their combined two-man thrust (!) deep into the Persian ranks, they even find time to praise and toy with one another. “You still here?” demands Astinos. “Well, someone's got to watch your back,” replies a grinning Stelios. “Not now, man ... I'm busy!” Astinos parries with smug satisfaction and a sly wink. It could be argued that the pair just has a healthy competitive streak, but I'm afraid that, given all the previous taunts and interplay, I sense a spark of more than mere rivalry. And, to be honest, this development actually lends the film another layer, which is one in the eye for those critics who thought that 300 was just a one-note excuse for gratuitous combat and macho posturing. Likewise, the deeper resonance of what is at stake is rammed home with the forced sexual attack that Queen Gorgo suffers in her husband's absence. The political skulduggery that takes place back in the Spartan citadel can seem a little contrived at times, nothing more than a breathing space between the battles in Thermopylae, but when Theron (played with demonic poison by Dominic West) does the unthinkable, it reveals that even the relative calm and sanctity of Sparta is actually full of unpredictability and savagery. And, to her credit, Lena Headey does an outstanding job of portraying Gorgo as much more than simply the glamorous wife waiting in the wheat-fields for her hero to return. There is a hot-blooded passion to her performance and a selfless nobility that has cut through the stone pillars of the temples with the radiance of a goddess. It is just too bad that the lad playing her son is such a terrible little actor. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that they couldn't coax at least some emotion out of him during some of the film's pivotal scenes.
Unsurprisingly, the film courted controversy from certain quarters, who deemed its story and themes distinctly non-PC. Wake up, idiots, it is a movie set around actual events. The Persian Empire swept across the known world in an attempt to subjugate the Western states. Fact. A comparative handful of Spartans and assorted other Greeks made a sacrificial stand - at sea as well as on land - in order to buy time for their homelands to amalgamate and form a cohesive defence and, subsequently, decisive counter-attack and, in doing so, wrestled a much bigger psychological and spiritual victory from the jaws of defeat. As a direct result, an assortment of city-states unified into a singular nation and founded the stones for democracy. Fact. If people have a problem with this ... then that is their problem and theirs alone. So what if the film reaches the No.1 slot at the American box-office and gets booed in some Eastern provinces? How well do you think the classic war film Zulu fared in the Transvaal? What would have been interesting, I suppose, is if Synder had made another version of 300 from the Persian point of view, a la Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima double-act. Contention, from the comments I have seen, tend to spring from Dilios' line, “Today, we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny,” and, once again, I will defend the film. Dilios speaks from his peoples' point of view, a people who are being threatened with invasion and enslavement by an enemy that is led under the sting of the lash and the terror of execution. And it is a fair thing to state that the depiction of Xerxes and his policies is hardly damning. The self-proclaimed God-king makes many offers to Leonidas in the hope of averting carnage, but the Spartan stoically and implacably refutes every single one of them. Indeed, the Persians are revealed to be the ones who are dismayed by the barbarism and blasphemies of their outnumbered opposition - the grisly defensive wall that has been mortared by the slain Persian scouts, a line of impaled bodies to greet the emissary of “The Ruler Of All The World.” Thus, if anything, the film actually balances out the truth quite delicately. And then piles on the slaughter and the fantasy!
“The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many. And before this battle was over, that even a God-king can bleed.”
The film of the year gets the soundtrack of the year, as well. Composer Tyler Bates marries up the heavy metal being wielded on screen with suitably testosterone-charged hard rock during several key clashes yet, miraculously, when required he creates some beautifully ethereal cues that raise the blood and thunder to the heavens. When Leonidas and his men depart from Sparta, the music searches deep beneath the macho veneer, scratching away at the heartfelt passions of love and loss, honour and tragedy. Bates enhances this theme immeasurably during the climax, driving sweeping orchestrations with soul-piercing nobility for a homecoming that will never be. A fever-dream of exotica intoxicates the scene set within Xerxes ribald and decadent tent, recalling some of Vangelis' work for Oliver Stone's Alexander. Though, for sheer musical war, it would be hard to beat the simply awesome piece that accompanies Astinos and Stelios on their two-man crusade - pounding, hyper-frantic bass surges forward as they do, a roaring tour-de-force of thrashed guitars and weird ethnic staccato rising in pitch as they hack and slash their way to glory. It is great to hear the same piece playing again over the animated credits at the end, as well ... and, for score-lovers, this is Track One on the film's soundtrack CD, entitled For Victory. Combining the exotic menace of Black Hawk Down - particularly Zimmer's cue Tribal Warfare - with smartly rendered, searing exhilaration, this has become one of my all-time favourite music cues. And don't the neighbours know it!
Coming in right at the end of it, Casino Royale was my film of 2006. 300 was unleashed at the start of this year, but I have seen nothing that compares to it in style, story, power or sheer visceral exhilaration since. And I doubt I will for a long time. 300 is simply awesome in every way and I cannot recommend it enough. If I wondered how men faced death, then this is surely the answer. To greet it head on and laugh in its face ... that's the Spartan way.