I've always been interested in Greek history and have generally been dismayed by the recent cinematic attempts to bring to life the prolonged Greco-Persian conflicts. The survival of Greek civilisation was essential to the future of nationalism and patriotism, Western civilisation and democracy itself - everything many of us take for granted in the modern age. But it all hung in the balance back a few hundred years before Christ, where a half-Millennium-long war raged between the almighty Persian Army and the skilled Greek warriors. Still, we just have not managed to capture the essence of these Ages on the Big Screen. Troy ruined the legend of Achilles (arguably one of Pitt's worst performances) and was a damp squib of a historical epic. And after three botched attempts by Oliver Stone to re-cut his own imagining of Alexander the Great (whose extremely short reign towards the end of said conflict saw Greece rise to the height of its power), I suspect it will be more than a decade before someone else gives this subject a shot. The tale of this crusading visionary King who conquered and 'united' most of the known world - at the time - should surely have made for more than just three hours of Colin Farrell looking constipated? (Perhaps an HBO series like Rome would have done it more justice?). Ah well, what of some other pinnacles of Greek history?
Sparta was a preeminent Greek state and although it was also often regarded as somewhat estranged, its Army played a vital role in fending off the might of the Persian Empire across the Centuries. The Battle of Thermopylae was one of the key points in the second major attempted Persian invasion, although it was not in itself a Greek victory. Essentially the Spartans - and, in effect, Greece - were attempting to repel the Persian invasion, but though Thermopylae could ostensibly be seen as a defeat, it was significant because it basically sparked off the unification of Greece - despite their eagerness to be differentiated from the rest of the nation, the Spartans sacrificed themselves willingly and courageously for Greece as a whole, and effectively unified the Greek states. It was inspirational, and arguably their strength and courage spurred the rest of Greece on and helped them ultimately defeat the Persians.
“A thousand nations of Persians descend upon you. Our arrows will blot out the sun!”
“Then we will fight in the shade.”
The battle itself was the stuff of legends. These days no end of movies and TV dramas about military-style engagements pitch small, highly skilled units against overwhelming numbers: from The Wild Bunch, Tears of the Sun and Assault on Precinct 13 to Ultimate Force and The Unit. With the Battle of Thermopylae the numbers are harder to estimate but basically pitched an augmented Spartan Army of 300 (coming in at several thousand in total) against upwards of a million Persians. It was the epitome of 'taking a last stand', the ultimate example of patriotism (before the term became bandied about in the States), and of advanced training, superior weaponry and tactics (and a good choice of battlefield arena) working against the might of sheer numbers. Having previously been done for the Big Screen in the 60s as a decent enough Historical epic - The 300 Spartans - it was not until acclaimed graphic novelist Frank Miller got his hands on the subject matter that we saw a modern reinvention. Off the back of his success with Sin City, Miller's graphic novel - 300 - was picked up for adaptation as a major blockbuster. But did they finally get some Greek history right on celluloid?
Seeking to extend his Empire over the fractured Greece, King Xerxes I sends emissaries to the various Greek states to obtain a tribute from them as a sign of their submission. After the Athenians stand up to them, King Leonidas of the rival state of Sparta decides too to resist, sparking a conflict which sees the mighty Persian army march on Sparta. Leonidas makes his case to the Ephors, a spiritually-founded political council who deny his request to take a stand against the Persians in a key position at the 'Hot Gates' of Thermopylae - a tactically advantageous spot where the Spartan Army could successfully fend off the advances of the vast Persian numbers. By funnelling the Persians through a comparatively narrow passageway, their greater numbers would be immaterial and the Spartans would stand a chance of winning. Denied his request, Leonidas decides to go anyway, taking just his elite private guard of 300 hand-picked men North to confront the millions of invading Persians. Along the way he enlists the help of several other Greek units, mostly poorly trained but nonetheless willing, and proceeds to the Hot Gates to face King Xerxes and his 'immortal' army. Outnumbered a thousand to one, can Leonidas and his brave men really make a difference?
“The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant; that few stood against many; and before this battle is over, that even a god-king can bleed.”
Frank Miller penned his story clearly adhering to the old adage that 'a picture paints a thousand words', with his extremely short 80-page A3-format graphic novel having more double-page battle spreads and iconic posturing than I have come across in any other comic. It is something of an irony that Director Zack Snyder later went on to successfully adapt Watchmen, whose source material is almost the polar opposite in terms of storytelling. Then again Frank Miller was never known for his extensive wording or convoluted back-stories (unlike Watchmen's writer Alan Moore), instead definitely a fan of heavy style, colourful characters, snappy dialogue and old-school sex and violence. His anti-heroes flex their muscles and defend their buxom women, with little room for political correctness; his villains are positively and unequivocally evil, often depraved and despicable; and his women were almost all tough (whether good or bad), outspoken and extremely shapely. So 480BC Spartan civilisation must have been the ultimate backdrop for one of his tales.
Synder's interpretation of Miller's 'Spartan' novel is almost as faithful to the source material as Sin City - the original and arguably best attempt at bringing a graphic novel to life - taking dialogue and shots from the book in an often scene-for-scene way and utilising the same method of blue-screen film-work and CG backdrops to create the impressive visual treat. But this is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Miller's 300 was pulp fiction, an MTV-generation, stylistic vision of this monumental historical conflict, and whilst this worked well as a piece of art, it could never be faithfully adapted into a historical epic. Thus Synder's 300 could never hope to be Spartacus, or even Gladiator, instead taking a little under two hours to paint an extremely flashy, stylish picture of this single, momentous confrontation. It is a simple story, but rather than develop some kind of back-story about the ongoing Greco-Persian war, or about the way in which Sparta was at odds with its fellow Greek state Athens, or even the way in which Sparta was essentially a democracy not wholly unlike our own, where a political division made policy decisions and could effectively overrule the King himself, both Miller and Synder went straight for the streamlined bullet-point version.
We get one or two throwaway lines a-piece for each of the important historical points: Leonidas' derision of Athens; his wife voicing an open opinion (skim-summarising the fact that women were given respect); the spiritual 'counsel' who veto his battle plans etc. etc. It is the bare minimum required to get us into battle, which is the whole point of the movie itself. This is not a film about Leonidas himself, Spartan society, or even the conflict between the Greeks and Persians - it is a movie about 300 kick-ass soldiers standing up to wave upon wave of attacks from an overwhelming force for three long days and three long nights until most everybody had died. And although this makes for visually opulent material - plenty of amazing battle sequences and imaginative deaths - it dilutes the whole point really, in my opinion.
By avoiding filming this as a lavish historical epic, Synder (and, in effect, Miller) weakens the message of the battle: these few hundred men made the ultimate sacrifice to secure the freedom of civilisation as we now know it. Forget US Civil War dissections - this was the first epic stand against slavery, with the tyrannical threat of the Persian slave-Army uniting a 'free' Greek nation that would give birth to modern ideas of democracy and consequently go on to found much of Western civilisation as we know it. 300, in pictorial format or on the Big Screen, just does not do it all justice.
“A new age has begun, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.”
By eschewing substance in favour of breathtaking style, the characters understandably suffer and amount to little more than one-dimensional clichés. Just like in Miller's Sin City, this works surprisingly well mainly because of the setting, but it does leave the actors with little to do but shout and postulate. Despite having been around since the late eighties Gerard Butler only started getting leading roles off the back of his performance in the sequel to Tomb Raider. Starring opposite Angelina Jolie obviously got him some attention, but his filmography since has been a mixed bag at best. He can clearly do charming (Rocknrolla) and melodrama (PS I Love You, Phantom of the Opera), and both Tomb Raider and 300 (particularly the latter) showed off his action chops. But what of acting chops? Well nothing he has done has really stretched his abilities in any way, and shouting and flexing his muscles a lot as King Leonidas did nothing to change that. Unfortunately, while he makes a perfectly good action hero, he really needed to be Russell Crowe for this kind of role, and inject it with some kind of humanity to make you feel for the sacrifice of him and his men. Instead this is just Brian Blessed's head (and bellowing voice) on Arnold Schwarzenegger's body.
The men too become a blur of heaving, oiled pecs and bronzed body armour - Troy's Vincent Regan, Eden Lake's Michael Fassbender and the often irritating (normally on purpose - Australia, Van Helsing) David Wenham (who narrates the story) all don the outfits to become just one out of the massive CG crowd, whilst Lost's Rodrigo Santoro gets stretched to 9 feet tall and given a lower-pitched voice to portray the fundamentalist tyrannical Persian King Xerxes. The gorgeous Lena Headey (Sarah Connor in the now-cancelled Terminator Chronicles TV show) politically defends the home fronts as Leonidas' Queen Gorgo without enough presence for the part, having to contend with The Wire's Dominic West, on slimy form, in an unnecessary back-story that only pads out the runtime and offers nothing significant to the already thin plot despite attempting to expand upon the importance of Leonidas' last stand (and, for a movie that follows the graphic source material so faithfully, it seems marginally contrived for Synder to have crow-barred in this completely fabricated sub-plot).
More about action than acting, visual imagery than character development, 300 is a single massive military set-piece, given a huge budget, plenty of slo-mo and one-liners and padded out to suitable Blockbuster runtime, eschewing all sense of depth or gravitas in favour of guts and glory. The movie loses all historical or cultural significance in the process. That said, the end result is still plenty of fun. Vacuous fun, but fun nonetheless. It's Gladiator or Braveheart for the MTV Generation, Tears of the Sun or Black Hawk Down set in 480BC - a bunch of hard-ass, ripped soldiers blistering with testosterone and machismo, putting up a last stand against a massively overwhelming force. And doing so with the help of superior training, unyielding courage and the technological advances of CGI at their disposal. It is the ultimate rock-track-laden swords-and-sandals actioner, peppered almost with no end of limb-lopping, hack-and-slash setpieces and even a little decent Spartan phalanx shield-push-attack tactical action. It looks stunning, the CG scenery breathtaking, the action relentless, remaining visually captivating throughout, and making the end result a boisterous, loud and violent period-set war action vehicle. It may not have much substance, it may not give the 300 Spartans the legacy they truly deserve, nor help the average viewer to be any more informed about the historical significance of their sacrifice, but it almost makes up for it with lashings of style, and visceral entertainment, and the end result is pretty damn enjoyable.
“Spartans, lay down your weapons!”
“Persia, come and get them!”