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300 comes to the big screen

By peposed

Section: Arts

April 13, 2007

300, based on the graphic novel by Sin City creator Frank Miller, has its greatest victory not by conquering Persian elephants or barbarian hordes, but by its ability to turn testosterone-soaked camaraderie and combat into stylized high art. Director Zack Snyder, who had previously undersold the powerful social commentary in his visually overwrought remake of Dawn of the Dead, crafts a powerful vision in 300 that both preserves and improves upon Millers original work.

The film begins with battle-hardened King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) receiving a messenger of the Persian Empire, who urges the Spartan king to give a token of submission to Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) in order to spare Sparta from the millions of the Persian hordes. This is only the first time the Persians underestimate the Spartans, who are hand-picked and trained from birth in the art of mortal combat, as Leonidas soon dispatches the messenger.

Leonidas plan is further tangled, however, when he visits the Oracle, who forbids him to wage war. To circumvent the law, Leonidas gathers 300 of his finest soldiers as a personal bodyguard and travels to the Hot Gates, a narrow corridor on the coast, where he and his men fight to the death against the legion of Persian forces.

Snyders greatest strength and greatest decision is to use Millers drawings almost as official storyboardsconsidering Miller himself is a professional comics artist and writer, this means that comics fans have the pleasure of finding Millerisms, while the uninitiated will simply be treated to a wealth of striking, compelling images.

However, whereas Millers art in the original graphic novel was somewhat unrealistic and blocky in its style, Snyders real-life reenactment of the action smoothes out Millers rough edgesindeed, the Spartan phalanx explodes from the screen as they hold off, then push back their charging foes. The Tree of Death, where the Persians stacked the corpses of an entire village, evokes both a beautiful yet terrifying image.

The greatest strength of the film is on the sprawling battle scenes which take over the majority of the film. Despite the fact that the Spartans fight solely with sword, shield, and spear, Synder and Miller both build interesting protagonists while at the same time giving the Spartans terrifying and ingenious antagonists to war against: indeed, the fight against the Persians Immortal guardwhom the Spartans put their name to the testis one of the best set pieces of the film, culminating in Leonidas one-on-one battle against a deformed axe-wielding berserker.

Another interesting touch, which can be attributed to Miller, is the Spartans dry sense of humor, which keeps the film from sinking into a morass of depressing violence and impending apocalyptic doom. After suffering surprising losses to the Spartans Xerxes tries to co-opt Leonidas, telling him of what their cultures can share: Leonidas dryly responds that weve been sharing our culture with you all morning. Later, he discusses with his Captain that theres no reason they cant be civil with the Persiansthe Captain agrees, shortly before impaling a fallen Persian with his spear.

Snyder adds certain touches of his own to the original script, as well, fleshing out Leonidas wife Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). Whereas she had only a handful of lines in Millers original work, Gorgo is portrayed in the film as truly a Spartan woman: her support for Leonidas is readily apparent, as is her sense of duty for protecting her people. Her increased role makes Leonidas quest all the more plausibleduring his one moment of self-doubt he asks Gorgo what must a king do to spare his world? Wisely, she responds: Instead, ask yourself: what should a free man do?

Indeed, Headeys character is sufficiently built up over the course of the films added subplot, in which Gorgo tries to convince the Spartan bureaucracy to send additional forces to relieve Leonidas: she proves the old Franklin quote that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

Furthermore, Snyders visual virtuosity is magnified with the hyper-realism of this historical environment: skies burn with golden fog, coastline battlefields are imbued with moody blacks and blues. Indeed, much of the settings were created with computer imagery, lending to the fantastic realm of brotherhood and violence of Millers tale.

The films musical score, a unique mix of ominous chorus and dark electric guitar, while anachronistic, lends a special sort of rhythm to this celebration of masculine warfare. Perhaps the most interesting choice was the voice of Persian god-king Xerxes, which was electronically manipulated to sound inhuman, otherworldly.

Clearly, 300 is not meant to be an emotionally manipulative, cerebral filminstead, it taps into pure cinematic mythology, and a very American tradition of the underdog making good, of fighting for freedom no matter what the cost. These mere mortals, chiseled and bold through force of strength and force of will, use Snyders technical skills to transcend to a pantheon of their own. A very modern take on an ancient tale, 300 uses stylized violence and unbreakable comradeship to go straight for the jugularand boy, do they look damn good doing it.

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