In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army in the mountain pass of Thermopylae. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the enemy in one of the most famous last stands of history. Persian King Xerxes lead a Army of well over 100,000 (Persian king Xerxes before war has about 170,000 army) men to Greece and was confronted by 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans. Xerxes waited for 10 days for King Leonidas to surrender or withdraw but left with no options he pushed forward. After 3 days of battle all the Greeks were killed. The Spartan defeat was not the one expected, as a local shepherd, named Ephialtes, defected to the Persians and informed Xerxes that the separate path through Thermopylae, which the Persians could use to outflank the Greeks, was not as heavily guarded as they thought.
Director Zack Snyder’s divisive sophomore outing, 300 (itself an adaptation of Frank Miller’s divisive comicbook miniseries), has been labeled many things but its harshest critics seem to have missed the point. Like Robert Rodriguez’s gut-punch-a-minute masterpiece, Sin City, 300 is a graphic novel come to life; a visually arresting showstopper that effortlessly captures the static intensity, suspended momentum, and simmering fury of its comic-panel roots. Snyder isn’t concerned with historical accuracy or the traditional mechanics of film, nor is he interested in spending too much time developing his admittedly one-note characters. No, the young director focuses on one thing and one thing alone: crafting a legend that rings as true as the embellished literary epics of old. Miller and Snyder’s Leonidas confronts monsters with the unwavering determination of Beowulf, scoffs at Xerxes with the confidence of Achilles, and leads his men with the cunning temperament of Odysseus. The filmmakers’ Spartans are a fearless race of tenacious freedom fighters, their Persian army an endless ocean of blood-thirsty warriors. Their skies are filled with the rage of gods, their grounds shake with the thundering approach of bewildering beasts. Make no mistake, 300 isn’t, and was never meant to be, a typical Hollywood production.
As such, its story has been stripped of extraneous subplots and unnecessary exposition. When a Persian envoy arrives in Sparta and demands allegiance, a brave king named Leonidas (Gerard Butler) kills the insolent messengers and sends word to the Persian ruler, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), that his nation will never bow to foreign aggression. Xerxes responds by sending his massive army to a thin sliver of beach and rock called the Hot Gates, the only tactical entranceway to Sparta. With just three-hundred of his finest fighters, Leonidas marches against Xerxes to prove even a small band of Spartans is more dangerous than legions of enemy soldiers. But the war isn’t just waged on the battlefield. In Snyder’s biggest departure from Miller’s graphic novel, Leonidas’ queen (Lena Headey) is forced to deal with a corrupt politician (The Wire’s Dominic West) secretly working to convince the Spartan Council to surrender to the Persians. It all results in a stirring third act that reveals just how much Sparta’s bravest heroes are willing to sacrifice for freedom.
Those unwilling to accept the film on its own terms will find it’s incredibly easy to pick it apart. Character arcs are few and far between, the story often takes a backseat to Snyder’s visuals, and an uber-heightened reality permeates every shot and scene. However, 300’s power lies in its ability to lure its viewers into its meticulously designed world of clashing swords and slinging spears, drawing people into the same rousing tale the film’s narrator is telling his audience. Those who balk at its lingering, slow-motion trappings will miss the beauty of each steady shield and rampaging swordsman. Those who shrug off its homespun emotional core will miss the untapped rage and stirring loyalty pulsing just below the surface. Those who raise an eyebrow at its strange parade of monstrosities and limbless executioners will miss the nature of the narrator’s story and the intent behind his exaggerated claims. Me? I get caught up in the sheer magnificence of the imagery and the audacious swaths cut by the script. Watching Leonidas rally his troops into a frenzy gives me chills, seeing them press against an oncoming horde makes the hair on my neck stand at attention, studying the warriors as they accept their fate leaves me with the overwhelming desire to watch it all over again.
I have no doubt 300 will continue to divide audiences. It defies expectations, shatters genre conventions, and ignores a variety of filmic fundamentals. Even so, it excels at everything it sets out to accomplish. It breathes new life into its source material, represents a complete realization of Miller’s comicbook miniseries, and stands as one of the best comic-to-film adaptations of all time. I know there are plenty of people out there who despise its slowburn pacing and restrained action, but I’m always blown away by its assuredness and control. If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch 300 yet, try to approach it without any preconceived ideas. Simply sit back, soak in the sublime imagery, and lose yourself in the simplicity of its mesmerizing story.