300 (film, 2007)

A review of the DVD release of 300 from Death Ray 07.



Writers: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon

Director: Zack Snyder

Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham

Frank Miller’s comic book take on the heroism of the Greeks at Thermopylae gets a CGI-drenched outing on DVD.

One of the most significant battles in European history, King Leonidas’ last stand at the “Hot Gates” of Thermopylae has been credited with everything from saving democracy from Asian despotism to inspiring the history-shaking formation of today’s nation states. Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s graphic novel take on this conflict was heavy on heroism, light on realism, Snyder’s cinematic adaptation takes this further, bunging war-rhinos, goat-headed lyre-players and other fantastical elements into the mix.

Fantasy gilding aside, the film is extremely loyal to the comic, which is itself loyal to the spirit, if not the history, of the event. Miller chose to frame his story as a parable on heroism, and Snyder’s film does a good job of bringing this mythic treatment of manly sacrifice to the screen.

But this one note emotional text, a rousing horn-blast at the beginning, tails off into tedium a good twenty minutes before the finale of the film. The streamlining of the story is the comic’s greatest strength, serving Miller’s mythologising aims well in comic book format, but it is the film’s biggest weakness. Extra narrative complexity is added to the movie in the form of political and sexual machinations back home in Sparta, but it’s not quite enough.

The film does look great, and 300 is yet another testimony to how well good comic art transfers to the screen, especially in stylised form. CGI blending of the real and unreal translates Miller’s artwork well, the sombre colour palette further adding to the legendary feel of the piece, making the proceedings seem less like a film and more the rememberings of a Hades-dwelling Leonidas.

Great to look at, rousing for much of its length, the film does a marvellous job of bringing the comic’s art to life, but not so well at adding sufficient dimension to the story to make this an outstanding cinematic experience. The graphic novel is an exemplar of its type. Comics tell simple stories with simple messages very well, but cinema requires more, and this story is too unsophisticated to have great impact at this length on screen.

Extras: 90 minutes of fun, including deleted scenes, a documentary on transforming Miller’s vision into a movie, and another called “300 Spartans, Fact or Fiction?” This is a frothy piece featuring the flip Snyder, Miller himself and saucepot historian Bettany Hughes. The opportunity to delve deeper into the fascinating culture of the Spartans is not grasped, instead we get the usual glib Hollywood treatment, just enough to encourage you to pick up Hughes’ documentary The Spartans, on DVD.

There are numerous other bits and pieces, including “The Making of 300 in Pictures” , a novel, pop-video style approach to a stills gallery.

The deleted scenes concern the hunchback Ephialtes, and a really over the top sequence involving a giant being ridden by a midget archer. The film’s better off without them.

Did you know…?

The real “Hot Gates” are so called because of the hot springs that are found near them. In the classical past, the pass was a track that was perhaps as narrow as 20 metres wide, with the Gulf of Malis on one side, cliffs on the other. Three gates built by the Phocians barred it. The gulf has since been filled in by sedimentation, and the track now lies inland [rather unromantically near a main road, I later discovered].

Also, were several thousand Greeks at Thermopylae. Even after Leonidas ordered a general retreat, more than 2000 remained – 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and 900 Spartan slaves. Some of the Thebans, whose city had taken the side of Xerxes, surrendered, the rest were killed.

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