The ‘sword and sandal’ genre can be fitted into two categories- the visceral intensity of Gladiator or the wanton extremities of Spartacus. 300 falls into the latter category. If there is one word used to describe the movie, it would be ‘excessive’. Adapted from a graphic novel by Frank Miller, it is a hyper-intensive, visually bewildering experience that focuses on the here and now rather than trying to claim any sort of historical significance.
The setting is the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, as 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) face off against the Persian army, led by the tyrannical King Xerses (Rodrigo Santoro). The battle sets the stage for a year-long conflict with Xerses and his army, despite opposition from back home in the senate, as Leonidas’ wife (Lena Headey) battles to send reinforcements to her beleaguered husband. The film is less interested in the political backdrop than it is recreating the intensity of the battle- a job it is extremely good at.
300 is a graphic novel brought to life. As with Sin City, an earlier adaptation of a Frank Miller work, the intention is not to adapt the novel, but instead, interpret it for the screen. As directed by Zack Snyder, who is also responsible for Watchmen, Man of Steel, and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, it exists in a kind of hyper-reality between the worlds of graphic novels and motion pictures. Certain images and scenes are ripped straight from the page, while others have a look only a movie camera can capture. The film has a lot of Snyder’s own hallmarks as well- slow-motion camerawork, large close-ups, and sweeping locations.
Everything, from the various speeches, music, sound design and costume, is dialled up to eleven. This is not a film for characterisation or three-dimensionality. The people inhabiting the movie are standard personality types, whether the Strong Fearless Warrior, the Loyal Best Friend, or the Passionate Wife. It is a kaleidoscope of masculinity, heroism, and style, punctuated by intentionally simplistic dialogue (mostly cries of battles and pledges of devotion) and battle scenes that skew closer to The Lord of the Rings trilogy rather than Troy– there are even grotesque, Orc-like figures within the Persian army and a shot that is almost a deliberate call back to the climax of The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s not so much a movie of emotion or tension as it is an instant snapshot of adrenaline and exhilaration.
To create the world of 300, Snyder digs into several well-worn troughs. The colour desaturation gives off a bleached, chrome look, a cross between super-realism and the gritty illustration of Miller. Most of the backdrops are shot on blue-screen, making the setting virtually indistinguishable- they may as well be fighting in Narnia. The men show off bulging biceps and the women (what few there are) are sexual and voluptuous. There are bare butts and breasts and plenty of extreme shots of copulation. The violence is brutal, revelling in gore and blood, although it doesn’t push the boundaries quite as much as it could have done, despite the various decapitations. The film’s new 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray release captures all the splendour and noise in a way like a regular cinema-going experience.
The cast of 300 is comprised mostly of character actors. The obvious exception is Gerard Butler, whose appearance in the film kickstarted a career as a leading man. Butler’s performance is aggressive, larger-than-life and animalistic, exactly the qualities needed to play the King of Sparta. Lena Headey, in the only significant female part, is arguably the biggest asset in the cast- she exudes fire, spark, and passion without resorting to histrionics. David Wenham’s Dilios serves as the film’s intrusive voice-over and his on-screen appearance is remarkably similar to Sean Bean. Dominic West and Michael Fassbender appear in significant roles, with the cast rounded out by the likes of Rodrigo Santoro, Vincent Regan and Andrew Tiernan.
300 is bold, loud, and garish. It has energy, frenetic action, gorgeous visuals and an over-the-top sensibility. It isn’t a very good film in the sense of plot construction or character development, but it’s a masterpiece of spectacle and testosterone- in that sense, it’s absolutely unmissable entertainment.
Dir: Zack Snyder
Scr: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon
Cast: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro, Stephen McHattie, Peter Menshah, Dominic West
Prd: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldman, Jeffrey Silver
Music: Tyler Bates
DOP: Larry Fong
Runtime: 116 minutes
300 is released on 4K Ultra-HD and Blu-Ray Combo Pack on 5th October 2020.