The pomposity on display in 300 beggars belief. Few films betray such overwhelming self-regard, leaving it wide open to mocking from every angle. Nor does it help that author Frank Miller, who penned the graphic novel on which it is based, cheerfully included a thick slice of racism, misogyny, and homophobia in the mix. Critics have ascribed overt political messages to the film as well, accusing it of proto-fascist warmongering and nationalist delusions. None of which it makes any apology for: indeed, it almost dares us to condemn it for being what it is. Yet so too does it revel in the exquisite poetry of Miller's work -- the strength of a story well-told and the passion of an artist who fervently believes in everything he does. Co-writer/director Zack Snyder shares that respect for the material, and never wavers from bringing it to life. Yes, it can be over the top, but if you embrace it rather than qualify it -- as Snyder does here -- then its themes and visual splendor demonstrably trump the sometimes-ludicrous bombast accompanying them.
The subject certainly has no shortage of appeal. During the Persian Wars of the fifth century B.C., a small band of Greek soldiers fought an overwhelming army of invaders at the Battle of Thermopylae. Though they were finally defeated, they inflicted unspeakable casualties against the Persians, and bought the Greek city-states enough time to rally. The title refers to the 300 Spartan soldiers who served as bodyguard to commander King Leonidas, and who held the Persians off alone in order to cover the Greek army's retreat. The sacrifice they made -- and the eventual repulsion of the Persians from Greece -- is generally cited as a fundamental shift in human civilization, giving the cradle of democracy a chance to flourish and grow.
In Miller's hands (aided by colorist Lynn Varley), the tale became a Wagnerian opera of thunder and glory. He retained the basic facts while exacerbating the human details to mythic proportions. His version has Leonidas and his Spartans standing more or less alone from start to finish, their heroism and bravery contrasted by the physical grotesqueries of the Persians arrayed against them. The battle thus attained a sort of hyperreality, as courage, cowardice, valor, and brutality were inflated to larger-than-life stature. Snyder instinctively grasps the key elements that made it work, while applying new techniques to transfer Miller's artwork to the cinema. Unlike Robert Rodriguez, whose noble but overrated Sin City sacrificed too much in the name of accuracy, Snyder knows the difference between recreating Miller's work, and merely regurgitating it. Utilizing virtual sets and extreme contrasts of color and darkness, he delivers a Greece that never existed except in the mind's eye. Here, Miller's images flower into pulsing life, evoking the stills on the comic-book page, but flush with a vibrancy that only the movies can provide. The script (by Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, and Michael B. Gordon) sticks very closely to Miller's words, while investing them with its own sense of profundity. It honors the source while extending it into a new medium: the vision on display is both Miller's and Snyder's working in near-perfect symbiosis.
Credit also goes to Gerard Butler, in a star-making turn as Leonidas. The trailers give the impression that he spends the entire film in Shouty Man mode, but the full performance is something infinitely more appealing. Butler plays the character's decency just as straight as his ferocity, underlying it with a bizarrely twinkle-eyed sense of fun. He takes his performance as seriously as the rest of the production, but never surrenders to undue gravitas, even when trying to out-Conan Schwarzenegger himself. The levity of his turn permits a little Sturm und Drang without dragging it into the depths of pretense.
Snyder aids him by keeping the narrative lean, allowing the canvas of the visuals to convey the emotional gist of his story. 300 has little to do with historical accuracy, yet it keeps the key details intact, and lets us understand how so few could have held out for so long against so many (three words: location, location, location). Miller's theatricality is on display from the beginning, as a Persian messenger (Peter Mensah) arrives in Sparta demanding water and earth in tribute to the God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Leonidas responds by kicking the man down a well, thus ensuring war between his tiny kingdom and the most powerful empire on Earth. But the Spartans' military culture exults in such conflict, even when scheming politicians prevent the king from marshalling his full army. Hamstrung by backroom deals, he and his personal bodyguard depart alone for the pass at Thermopylae, intent on making the encroaching Persians pay for every step they take.
The bulk of the film concentrates on the battle itself, as wave after wave of invaders descend upon Leonidas' tiny band, only to be repulsed at every turn. Snyder paces it such that each new permutation feels fresh and exciting, interspersed with quieter scenes back in Sparta where Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) tries to ferret out the traitors in her nation's midst. From a purely visual standpoint, the drama is irresistible, heightened by Miller's mythic archetypes whose simplicity never diminishes from their compelling fascination. Admittedly, that sometimes becomes a two-edged sword, especially in the face of the story's reactionary undercurrent. The Persians are portrayed in the most xenophobic terms imaginable -- effeminate and bejeweled, intended to evoke our naked disgust -- while Gorgo reflects Miller's depressingly prejudiced view that sexuality is a woman's only real asset. As intoxicating as the tale can be, it certainly leaves an unpleasant aftertaste at points.
Against that, however, Snyder retains a tireless commitment to the project's potential: if not excusing the nastier subtext, then at least providing plenty of compelling counterweights. Direct political comparisons are difficult to sustain (I could argue that the Persians are as much a representative of current U.S. policy as the plucky Spartans), and the film takes pains to embody humanity's best qualities as well as its worst. Savagery is on display, to be sure, but it appears more as a reflection of the historical period than an excuse for amoral aggrandizement. Above all, 300 remains a stunningly entertaining spectacle, its abstract allegory harnessing the power of the medium to outstanding effect. Its edges may grate, but the heart beneath it remains strong: a fierce, engrossing myth about determined men who once drew a line in the sand and defended it with everything they had.