Astonishing visuals define 300
By Lady Liberty
*** out of ****
There was no way that somebody who calls herself "Lady Liberty" was not going to be in the audience for a movie telling the story of some of the most heroic freedom fighters of all time. Area theatres were sold out; I bought a ticket for the first show I could (which turned out to be the last) and ran a few errands. I returned to the theatre an hour and a half before showtime. 15 or 20 minutes later, the line was already substantial.
Despite the inconvenience, I have to say that I was perversely pleased that so many people were apparently so anxious to see 300. Sure, it's based on a graphic novel with a legion of fans, and yes, it boasts some more than impressive CGI technology. But I had high hopes that the history and the strong pro-freedom message might also seep into a few brains, and so it was with a good deal of optimism that I took my seat.
300 takes us back to about 500 years before the birth of Christ to a time when men who dreamed of conquering the world — at least what was known of it — could actually do so. At that time, the all powerful conqueror was Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), a man whose ego may have been the only thing bigger than his substantial army. As Xerxes made his way across the Mediterranean leaving subjugated peoples in his wake, he set his sights on Greece.
The city-states that then made up modern day Greece had varying reactions to becoming targets. A few simply agreed to annex themselves to Xerxes' rapidly growing kingdom. But among those that refused Xerxes' emissaries was the small region called Sparta. Ruled by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his Queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey), Sparta was known for the caliber of its fighting men as much as for its pride.
King Leonidas petitioned his priests for their blessing before battle, but the priests consulted with an oracle whose confusing message was interpreted by them to mean Sparta should not fight. Because Spartan law required that the king obey the priests, Leonidas gathered up a few hundred of his best men and called them his "bodyguards." Tongue in cheek, Leonidas announced that he was "going for a walk," and he and his bodyguards departed for the coastal "hot gates" (named for the hot springs nearby) in the hopes they might funnel Xerxes' army into the narrow pass there.
It was the king's contention that within the narrow confines of Thermopylae, all of Xerxes' numbers would count for nothing as only so many men could enter at any given time. Allying himself with a few men of like mind, Leonidas commanded a force that might have totaled 3,000 at its peak. Formulating a battle plan, he prepared to face an army whose numbers are estimated to have been anywhere from 200,000 to two million soldiers strong.
Meanwhile, back at home, Queen Gorgo is doing all that she can to urge the ruling Council to send forces to bolster her husband's stand. She maneuvers with the politically-astute Theron (Dominic West) to gain his support for her efforts, but even as Leonidas faces betrayal from within, Gorgo also has to deal with those whose greed outweighs all else. She is among the few who, along with the king, knows full well that a victory for Xerxes means far more than a change of allegiance. Instead, it means the loss of everything Spartan, including first and foremost real freedom.
History calls the Battle of Thermopylae one of the greatest of all time. The tactics of the outnumbered defenders, of course, are considered impressive as are the superlative skills of the soldiers. But more admirable even than that was the honor of a king who knew he was going to lose, but who was determined to make his foes pay for their win. His loyalty to his country and to freedom was unparalleled.
Leonidas and many of his men could have survived had they taken Xerxes up on his offer of surrender with honor. But when a Persian army officer told the Spartans to drop their weapons, history tells us that Leonidas' response was, "Molôn labé!" or "Come and take them!" The Persians did, but at great cost. In the end, about 1,400 Spartans and allies died (those who survived were mostly released by Leonidas prior to the final battle). Before they did, they killed upwards of 20,000 (yes, that's the correct number of zeroes) Persians and delayed Xerxes' forces long enough that the Greek city-states could unite. A decisive naval victory in the Battle of Salamis followed by the Spartan-led Battle of Plataea (where the Spartans were outnumbered a "mere" six to one) finished Xerxes all together.
I've not read Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 so I can't say how true to history it was. The movie, however, was surprisingly so. From the most famous of quotations to the setting, much is accurate. Certainly, some liberties were taken (including name changes for some of the more tongue-twisting character names), but I didn't see it as taking anything away from the very real heroism of those few days.
Gerard Butler is as loud and defiant as you'd expect King Leonidas to be, and Lena Headey presents a flawless portrait of a wife who is really just as brave and stoic as her husband. Vincent Regan and David Wenham are terrific soldiers under Leonidas' command, and Andrew Tiernan manages despite substantial prosthetic effects, to convey the desperation as well as the twisted greed of the deformed Ephialtes. Rodrigo Santoro, meanwhile, is transformed with the aid of make-up and computer magic to a man one might actually believe has some godhood running through his veins. (As an aside, I'd note that the men in the movie worked out extensively prior to filming so as to more accurately portray extraordinarily fit soldiers, and I'm going to have to say they succeeded very nicely indeed.)
Director Zack Snyder does a good job (though there are moments I felt Leonidas' mood was too instantly volatile and some edits too abrupt), particularly when it comes to some of the most amazing camera techniques I've ever seen. There are repeated instances of slow motion that are jaw-dropping, and camera angles that add immeasurably to the scope of the battle scenes. When you put that talent together with a good cast and CGI work unlike anything I've ever seen, 300 is more than a little impressive onscreen. 300 was, believe it or not, filmed entirely on a sound stage.
The CGI is so good, however, that even the water looks real let alone the stony cliffs of the "hot gates." The battle scenes are flawlessly rendered amidst background action you'd swear was really there; the graphic wounds and deaths are as real as can be (with a couple of lamentable exceptions which, in the midst of so much brilliance, are almost forgivable).
The only real flaw I saw in 300 is a script (co-written by Snyder) that could have been quite a bit better. The dialog is often stilted in its attempt to sound something like the ancient Greeks might have spoken (though there are moments of sheer genius), and the story occasionally proceeds in something of a "herky-jerky" fashion. 300 could have been better, I think, but its message was as good as it gets.
I recommend 300 for movie lovers everywhere as a breakthrough in technology if nothing else. And then, once your interest is piqued, I dearly hope you'll go home and look up the Battle of Thermopylae for yourself. King Leonidas rallied his soldiers in the film by saying, "A new age has come, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it." 2,500 years after the fact, we still know. That's one hell of a legacy for liberty, and one I think not enough people can know enough about.
POLITICAL NOTES: Xerxes typically didn't conquer people to become mere slaves. He demanded only loyalty from them, and that they subjugate themselves to his will. Even the most benevolent of dictators, though, is still a dictator; and any dictator can, on a whim, become a tyrant. The Spartans knew that full well, and fought to the death to avoid such a slippery slope.
There are some real lessons here for those who would place too much power in the hands of a government they consider to be a benevolent caretaker. Barry Goldwater took a page out of Leonidas' book when he said, "A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away." The ancient Spartans knew that. Our own Founding Fathers knew that. History teaches us the truth of it again and again. I can only hope that enough of us take the time to learn before we lay down without any kind of a real fight at all.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: 300 is rated R for "graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity." 300 is unequivocally not for small children. The blood and gore alone is substantial, and much of the subject matter is quite adult. Remember, though, that 300 is based on a graphic novel which is often the bailiwick of the teen-aged boy. Given their pre-existing exposure to such pictures and plotlines, I believe that most 14 year-olds would be perfectly fine. That being said, given the lessons offered up by 300, I'd hope that the movie gets a broad exposure and that you take what you learn to heart enough that you take the time to learn more. Leonidas died a long, long time ago, but his courage can still inspire. Here's hoping that it does.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other related essays: