Monday, March 19, 2007

300

Another thing Alana and I did this weekend was see 300.

I've read some so-so reviews about it, mostly complaining that it was a mindless film. They've lumped it in with Wild Hogs and Ghost Rider, all of which are considered somewhat low brow, and all of which took in obscene amounts of money during the cinematic doldrums that is the period between January and May. In retrospect 300 does have a pretty linear plot, and not much character development. I didn't care, I enjoyed it!

The film is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name. It is a fictional — fanciful, actually — depiction of the stand of 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The film takes huge liberties with history, but it's a very close adaptation of the graphic novel. Corrupt controllers of a prescient oracle prevent King Leonidas of Sparta from sending an army to oppose the huge Persian host under the god-king Xerxes. Leonidas uses a legal loophole to take 300 of his men to a narrow oceanside pass, in order to delay Xerxes long enough for the Greeks to amass an army. With about a thousand allies (historically there were over 7,000 Greeks), the Spartans square off against an enemy numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Those who know me as a history buff realize that I don't usually go for Hollywood's depiction of history. That's not entirely accurate. I despise "historical movies" that take liberties with history because of laziness or incompetence (see my review of Flyboys). However, I enjoy historical fiction. If the fiction is good enough (like most of Shakespeare's stuff, which is excellent drama but horrible history), or if I know the writer knows he's being fanciful, I have no problem with the author tearing apart history. I love alternative history stories, and I quite enjoy fanciful history where it's obvious the writer knew what he or she was doing. A good example of this are the Alistair MacLean novels of the 1960s and 70s, or films like Kelly's Heroes. They aren't realistic, but the authors know they aren't realistic. And above all, they're fun.

Miller's depiction of Thermopylae is fanciful (fantastic, in the true sense of the word), and he knows it. The film is even more fanciful, adding an attack by a giant charging rhinoceros as perhaps a nod to The Lord of the Rings. There's also a giant slave warrior controlled by the Persians that didn't appear in the graphic novel. The horribly disfigured Ephialtes (based on a supposedly real person) was the novel's most obvious fantasy construct, and he is depicted exactly as in the comic version.

The combat style used in the film is also fantastic (and I mean that in all senses of the word). It's based heavily on oriental martial arts, but with enough of a twist to be something new. There are a couple of impressive wire shots, but mostly it's fancy footwork and brilliant spear twirling. And blood. Lots and lots of blood, splattering about like a car soaking a pedestrian next to a muddy puddle. Combat is depicted in a sort of a Matrix style. There's a blur of motion which is abruptly arrested into slow motion. Then the blur kicks in again, followed quickly by more slow motion. This under cranking/over cranking bounce creates a fluid frenzy of action, and yet freezes images. It's amazingly close to how the combat was depicted in the comic book, frame by frame but with a sense of hysterical movement.

Some have called the film "sterile" for its heavy use of CGI. On the contrary, I thought it was the most organic I've seen a heavily CGI-ed movie look. If there was sterility in the images, it was because they tried to match Frank Miller's artwork. I suspect that I got more out of the film than most in the theatre, as I have the graphic novel (in it's original five part comic book release version). There are shots that while, perhaps, "sterile" were direct copies of the comic. The one that captured my imagination the most was a light background with a black face; the eyes were all that was visible. This single shot is almost exactly as I remember it in the comic.

Besides the charging rhino and what not, the film's only major departure from the comic is a subplot involving Queen Gorgo. Leonidas' queen is a very minor character in the graphic novel. Her subplot in the film was created as an example of just what Leonidas was fighting for. Unfortunately, I thought the film clunked a bit when director Zack Snyder (of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, a damn fine zombie movie) cut to the subplot. I liked the subplot, it just felt grafted on. I also think it could have been used to greater effect. I didn't mind the subplot, I just thought it could have been handled better.

The cast is mostly made up of up-and-coming actors. Playing Leonidas is the Scottish actor Gerard Butler. I enjoyed Butler's portrayal, but noticed that his accent slipped a few times. His Scottish accent came out once in a while. At other times he seemed to be affecting a Greek accent, and at others there was no accent at all. That aside, I enjoyed his King Leonidas. The most familiar face was that of David Wehnham, playing Delios, one of Leonidas' men. He also played Faramir in the last two Lord of the Rings movies. Lana Headey plays Queen Gorgo, with probably the strongest performance in the film.

There is, of course, a lot of violence and blood (and a total of three decapitations). I was also warned going into the film (by someone at work) that there was a fair bit of nudity. The nudity turned out to be Butler's bare rear end, and the breasts of Headey, and Kelly Craig (a Canadian model, playing the Oracle). I was expecting far more from what I was led to believe (and was a little disappointed there wasn't more, truth be told; surprising thing to say about a film with a harem scene). I suspect that my co-worker believed there was more due to the erotic sex scene near the beginning, where a lot is suggested without being explicitly shown.

300 is doing wonderful business. According to Rotten Tomatoes it has cracked $100 million gross. Not bad given that due to its R rating it was pared down to a budget of $60 million. A surprise is the demographic that's seeing it. There are as many people over the age of 25 going as those under that age. A lot of women are seeing it, too. Mind you, there's plenty of eye candy for the women. Alana commented on the incredible UBD (upper body development) on the part of the continuously topless Spartan men. We also noticed that the two female speaking roles were played by women who were relatively flat chested. Though thin, they are as close to what you are likely to find as "normal" women in Hollywood. Normal women and well developed, semi-naked men; Alana said, "This is a trend of which I approve!"

There's been a lot of talk about the film's subtext and its political overtones (talk that ignores the fact that it's based on a graphic novel that came out in 1998). Ignore all that. The two hours in the theatre sped past in a blur, and yet the stunning visuals still remain in my memory, which is almost always a good sign. Critics of the film industry are at a loss to explain how an R rated film released in March could make so much money. It's because 300 is the type of film Hollywood tries hard to make but rarely succeeds. It's something that I call "accessibly original". First and foremost, for a film to be "accessibly original" it must be entertaining.

4 comments:

Michael said...

I haven't read Miller's novel, and probably won't. So the only way 300 could really hook me is through history.

Which is to say, of course, that it doesn't have a hope of hooking me at all. I'm a bit too much interested in classical Greek history, I guess, to be able to accept Miller's take, to say nothing of what the film-makers did with it. The final nail in the (admittedly well-nailed) coffin of my disinterest was when I read an article about the movie in Entertainment Weekly in which the director is quoted as saying that he felt free to invent a cinematic combat style because not much is known about the way Greeks and Persians fought in the 5th century BCE. 'Scusi?

I understand that it would be hard to make phalanx-style fighting cinematic, consisting as it did of a lot of close-in pushing and shoving and poking with spears, ending in gross slaughter when one side got exhausted and broke. But to claim that you went all Crouching Tiger on it because you couldn't find out the facts is laying it on a bit too thick.

I have just rented Confederate States of America. Now that's some wonky history I can get behind!

Allan Goodall said...

Which is to say, of course, that it doesn't have a hope of hooking me at all. I'm a bit too much interested in classical Greek history, I guess, to be able to accept Miller's take, to say nothing of what the film-makers did with it.

Yeah, I really didn't think it would be your kind of movie...


I understand that it would be hard to make phalanx-style fighting cinematic, consisting as it did of a lot of close-in pushing and shoving and poking with spears, ending in gross slaughter when one side got exhausted and broke. But to claim that you went all Crouching Tiger on it because you couldn't find out the facts is laying it on a bit too thick.

I think he was talking about the style of individual combat. The movie did, actually, show a phalanx, though it was perhaps a bit stylized. Still, it was the best rendition of spear wall combat that I've ever seen. Every other movie I've seen similar things, they pull their spears upward at the last minute because they are using re-enactors. In this case they kept the points forward and had people crash into the phalanx.

I thought the horses charging the phalanx was inaccurate, but there's a big debate as to whether or not horses actually did charge a wall of spears. I think John Keegan argued that they would not, seeing as how horses have this thing about charging a thicket (which I imagine is what a shield wall looks like to a horse). The shock value of heavy cavalry is such that if the formation didn't break, the cavalry was pretty much out of luck. This is, in large part, what hurt the English at Bannockburn. The Scots peasants were trained while waiting for the English to arrive. Lo and behold, when the English cavalry charged the Scottish schiltrons the peasants and men-at-arms didn't just run away. Oops, now what?!

There is a lot of neo-Asian martial arts in 300. The phalanx breaks apart for hand-to-hand combat quite a bit. That's okay, I enjoy a good sword/spear fight!

Ironically, I thought 300 was a more accurate war movie than Braveheart. Combat styles and charging rhinos not withstanding, it took far fewer liberties with history than did Mel Gibson's Oscar winning film...

Michael said...

Sounds to me as if there was, at best, a bit of confusion between iron-age and bronze-age Greek combat. The whole individual combat thing was much more a feature of the so-called "heroic" age; iron-age combat was mostly about large formations. It was, after all, the cohesion of the Greek (not just Spartan) force that allowed it to hold off the much larger Persian force at Thermopylae.

As for cavalry, until the discovery of the stirrup I don't think cavalry was much more than an auxiliary arm and a make-work scheme for aristocrats. Remember Herodotus's story about the Greek cavalrymen (Athenian?) ceremonially handing in their bridles shortly before the battle of Salamis.

Interesting that you find 300 more historically satisfactory than Braveheart. Haven't seen that one (not a big Mel Gibson fan) so I'm not qualified to comment. For what it's worth, though, I'm being mercilessly mocked by all my friends up here for even asking the question (before I was better informed) about whether or not 300 had tried to be faithful to history.

Allan Goodall said...

Sounds to me as if there was, at best, a bit of confusion between iron-age and bronze-age Greek combat.

I would agree with that. It was probably deliberate...


It was, after all, the cohesion of the Greek (not just Spartan) force that allowed it to hold off the much larger Persian force at Thermopylae.

That cohesion allowed Alexander to conquer a huge chunk of land. It really wasn't until the Roman Legion that the phalanx was defeated (though light missile troops could defeat it, a combined arms force consisting of light troops and/or cavalry and the phalanx was difficult to beat). Even still, it re-emerged as the Scottish schiltron and the Swiss pike formations.


As for cavalry, until the discovery of the stirrup I don't think cavalry was much more than an auxiliary arm and a make-work scheme for aristocrats.

Tell that to the Mongols. *S*

Actually, the whole stirrup thesis has been, at least in part, debunked. Lynn White Jr's Medieval Technology and Social Change is the book that brought the idea of stirrups being the big medieval technological innovation to the fore in 1962. Unfortunately, the basis for his thesis was largely wrong, due to mistranslations and a lack of evidence.

From what I've read, the stirrup allowed what we think of as "shock" tactics: ride a horse straight at an enemy with a long lance. However, without horse armour this is a very dangerous proposition for the rider and the horse. It's more likely that light cavalry used their spears for stabbing, while heavy cavalry stabbed across the horse, protected by their shield. In both cases, a stirrup isn't needed. The Roman saddle was likely a high-backed affair, thus stirrups weren't that necessary if they wanted to use shock tactics.

I've read accounts by people who have tried the stirrup thesis themselves and found that, with the right techniques, you could fight effectively without a stirrup.

Ancient cavalry was definitely used in both a light and heavy role, and centuries before the invention of the stirrup. I suspect that the stirrup was the cavalry equivalent of the crossbow: it allowed lesser cavalrymen to be more effective. (It is, also, a great help in long distance riding.)


Interesting that you find 300 more historically satisfactory than Braveheart. Haven't seen that one (not a big Mel Gibson fan) so I'm not qualified to comment.

When the Battle of Stirling Bridge lacked a bridge (and was, thus, renamed "The Battle of Stirling"), I knew a certain amount of historical latitude was taken. The love interest was a real woman... uh, girl, actually. Isabella was nine and living in France (and most definitely not pregnant, as shown in the movie). The movie implies Edward III was Wallace's son (as an unlikely plot twist). Cute trick, as Edward III was born seven years after Wallace's death. There are other inaccuracies, too, beginning with the first shot of the film.

At least with 300 Snyder's up front with his anachronisms...


For what it's worth, though, I'm being mercilessly mocked by all my friends up here for even asking the question (before I was better informed) about whether or not 300 had tried to be faithful to history.

It is akin to asking if Spiderman is an accurate representation of post-9/11 New York...