Wednesday, January 14, 2009

300: Sound and pectorals and fury, signifying nothing

As someone who loves books by Bernard Cornwell and Vikings and war in general in all its many forms, 300 appears to be right up my alley. It’s chock-full of bloody combat. It’s got swords, shields, and spears (though oddly, no armor). It tells a classic story of sacrifice and a few standing against many. I wanted to like 300. Hell, I should have loved 300. But in the end, I found it very flawed and largely forgettable.

Part of me thinks it’s because I’m out of the target demographic of 300. I never read Frank Miller’s graphic novel upon which the film is based. Hell, I barely know who Frank Miller is.

But I think a larger reason for my disappointment may have been that I went in to 300 with the wrong expectations. I really, really wanted to see Gates of Fire on film. Instead, what I got was a two-hour orgy of videogame-y violence punctuated with repetitive heroic speeches and Braveheart-like cries of “freedom.” And plenty of posturing and flexing of chiseled torsos and biceps.

300 serves one purpose, and that is showcasing its CGI battle sequences. These started out cool but by film’s end felt pretty monotonous. And this from someone who enjoys a good knock-down, drag-out fantasy fight. For instance, I loved the battles in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, which served as (sizable) set pieces for those films, but were a part of the whole and in my opinion didn’t overwhelm the story. In contrast, 300 has nothing to offer outside of the combat.

I would encourage anyone who enjoyed 300 to read Gates of Fire. In the first 50 pages of Steven Pressfield’s novel I promise you will learn far more about Spartan culture and military training (which were largely synonymous) than you ever receive in 300. According to 300, the Spartans made great soldiers by cuffing around their male children and then throwing them out, naked, to fight wolves in the snow. This is, of course, fairly ridiculous. If you really want to learn why the Spartans were arguably the finest military force in history, you’ll find the answer in Gates of Fire. You won’t find it anywhere in 300.

After watching 300 I poked around some of the comments on Rotten Tomatoes and discovered, not to my surprise, a bunch of testosterone-fueled young men savaging any critic who dared to voice a negative opinion of this film (questioning the sexuality of the critic in question was a favorite insult). However, a few voices among the teenage cacophony raised a valid point in the film’s defense, which is this: 300 was never intended to be realistic. It’s based on a comic book, and it succeeds as an adaptation.

That argument seems to have some merit, and if I had read Miller’s graphic novel maybe I could buy into it. But I also think it lets the makers of 300 off the hook far too easily (this “adaptation” argument is used for defending literally everything that’s wrong with the movie). Also, director Zack Snyder seems to want it both ways: He’s been quoted has saying the events of the film are “90% accurate” to history (a crock), and in other interviews backs off and calls it a fantasy, a mere comic-book adaptation.

More than a nod to historic accuracy, I would have settled for some common sense in 300. But there was precious little of that to be found. In particular, I found myself unable to get past the following gaffes:

The lack of formations and military discipline. We get one great early shot of the Spartans’ phalanx and why it was so effective. But the rest of the film is largely one-on-one, over-stylized, slo-mo combats. There’s a laughable scene where a Spartan captain is singled out for “breaking ranks” when his son is slain and he charges the enemy. I thought to myself: And how is this different from what every other Spartan is doing?

A massive, bottomless well in the center of the Spartans’ city. Presumably this exists solely to throw in arrogant Persian messengers. Surely it couldn’t be there for a water source: Rotting bodies are notoriously poor for a city’s water supply. Regardless of its purpose, I’m still not sure why the Spartans would choose to dig a massive, open hole and leave it uncovered in the middle of an otherwise busy city square. Civilians plunging over the edge, especially at night, is presumably a routine occurrence.

No armor. Just think if the 300 Spartans actually wore a cuirass! They’d still be guarding the hot gates today. No Persian would have ever made it through. When queen Gorgo tells Leonidas to “come back with your shield, or on it,” I wanted her to add, “And put some armor on, damnit!”

The 300 trudge off to war with nothing but their spears, swords, and shields. Food and supplies are nowhere in sight—but these are overrated, I guess. Later on the Spartans manage to manufacture meat and fruit and blacksmithing supplies out of thin air, so no foul. And good thing they all wear those long, encumbering red capes. No one would ever think of yanking a Spartan down by one of those in a fight…

The whole “freedom isn’t free” spiel from the Spartans. This from a society which kept slaves (which, of course, are nowhere to be seen in 300). One of the last lines in the film was laugh-out-loud funny: “We rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny!” says the narrator. Tyranny? Really? I don’t know what this guy calls a culture that demands its families cast their sickly or malformed infants over a cliff, but “tyrannical” is one word that comes to mind.

Xerxes’ army of Mordor, which included giants, orcs, sword-armed crab men, and more in its ranks. Which all proved to be pretty wimpy, to boot. When you saw one of these beasts, the formula was the same. 1. Slo-mo shot of the monster to build up its ferocity. 2. Someone looses a chain, monster kills a bunch of Persians in its path. 3. A Spartan runs the monster through, or knocks it over a cliff, and ends the fight.

The ripoffs of Gladiator. The wheat-field dream sequences with Leonidas and his family, accompanied by mournful pipes playing in the background, seemed awfully familiar. I would think Ridley Scott has a plagiarism suit on his hands if he wants to pursue one.

I’ll close by saying, overwhelming evidence above to the contrary, that I didn’t find 300 completely devoid of merit. I liked some scenes (the arrows blotting out the sun was a nice touch), and some of the fights. It’s certainly not boring. Much of it looks pretty. There’s a great early scene where the Spartans use a phalanx to great effect. But in general, I found it pretty disappointing. If all that you expect out of a film is two hours of mindless, orgiastic hacking and stabbing, 300 is for you. I was hoping for something more and it just didn’t deliver.


K. Forest said...

The least believable element was the total absence of chest hair. C'mon. Awesome beards and no chest fuzz? Unlikely.

Seriously, though -- this was a crap movie. The graphic novel it's based on is not much better. I'm not much of a Miller fan, and I accept the possibility that maybe I'm just not getting it.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm something of a Miller fan, and I didn't much care for the graphic novel. It's definitely one of his lesser works as far as I'm concerned.

I think the film is even worse. Almost unwatchable. Upon its release, I had a teenager tell me, straightfaced, that they thought it was the greatest film of all-time. What is this world coming to?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Brian. I also hate that grayish cast to the film that is so trendy. In 15 years, it's gonna look as doofy as the overly-golden look of all the movies of the 70's. I blame X-files.

Atom Kid said...

Being an avid fan of classical history and Frank Miller fan, and comic fan in general, I went into the movie expecting comic like action and little historical accuracy (given that Hollywood never gets history right any ways, i.e. Alexander).
But I still like the movie for what it was, a comic action adventure.
The monsters, and the Spartans championing freedom both would bother me more if I didn't accept the entire movie as a work of sci-fi/fantasy fiction.

I just hope public school teachers don't show this in history classes (((shudder))).

Max said...

I concur with all you've said. Aside from one or two action sequences it left me cold. As I wrote on my blog a few months back, "Slaves unnumbered are cut down like grass, and Spartan blood is the price of each inch of the Persian advance, for this? A city whose only arts are the phalanx, the whetstone and, on the film's evidence, the ab crunch? The place hardly seems worth saving. I was unmoved, and not much entertained."

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Max, great point and I totally agree. I would have felt much more invested in the Spartans' desperate stand if I cared about what they were fighting for. But the characters, at home and at the hot gates, were all rather unlikeable cardboard cutouts. Which is again why I'll plug Gates of Fire: The characters in the novel felt real, and thus, the loss and sacrifice far more profound.

Gates of Fire demonstrates again and again what made the Spartans' great: Their ability to not only wield weapons and be disciplined, but also to conquer their fears (I can't begin to imagine the incredible difficulty of standing in a shield wall and fighting face to face with a man trying to stab you in the guts with a spear or short sword; apparently drinking before battles was common among the Danes in order to work up the courage to do this).

Contrast this to 300, where the Spartans come off as suicidal lunatics, rather than disciplined to a hard edge.

Meghan said...

Hi there! First time I've commented on this blog (very cool, btw!). I just wanted to say that as silly as 300 is (the well in the middle of the city made me LOL) it was based off a comic that is only something like 20 pages long and virtually has NO plot. I thought it was impressive they could make a movie based on Miller's graphic novel at all. :p

andy said...

"No armor. Just think if the 300 Spartans actually wore a cuirass! They’d still be guarding the hot gates today. No Persian would have ever made it through. When queen Gorgo tells Leonidas to “come back with your shield, or on it,” I wanted her to add, “And put some armor on, damnit!”"

To be fair, if we really wanted to be picky about this, we'd have to throw out all of Frank Frazetta's paintings :)

I do like 300, but to me what makes it work is that it's basically Frank Miller's broad, artistic impression of a real event, not a serious attempt to dramatize a real event. That doesn't excuse all of its flaws (I totally agree about the abandonment of the phalanx, which I think is hilarious), but I don't mind that it's not Gates of Fire.

Dave Hardy said...

Spot on review! I'd add, the vision of Xerxes as a ten-foot tall, gay robot from outer-space just left me with my jaw hanging down.

I understand the idea is that the story is a tall-tale told by a Spartan to new recruits. Except the framing story is nearly invisible.

The Battle of Thermopylae is a gritty, TRUE story of determination in the face of overwhelming odds. 300 is about, I don't know what, abs maybe.

Anonymous said...

I quite enjoyed the comic, though I enjoyed Gates of Fire more when I read it later. The movie is a hyper-exaggerated version of the comic. The comic makes no pretense to being strictly accurate. It's still the legend, not the history. But it's still substantially less distorted than the film. No ogres or orcs. A few freaks in Xerxes' traveling court. The Phalanx is used for more than just the initial clash. And it has none of that bullshit yammering about Freedom.