The biggest problem with 300, Zack Snyder’s retelling of the Greco-Persian battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., is its audience. Or, rather, two specific segments of that audience, to wit: a) Iranians, not happy at the humiliating—for them—last stand of the 300 Spartan warriors against the Aechemenid king Xerxes’ vast army. Chatrooms have been buzzing with furious bitching, much in the spirit of the Kazakhs taking offense at Borat and the Islamic Republic’s official protests at Persepolis, another graphic novel brought to the screen and much lauded at the recent Cannes Film Festival. b) Serious film critics, who have been analyzing and criticizing 300 as they would Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Relax, people, 300 is not meant as an insult on all things Persian (One irate viewer told me that, taking exception to the depiction of Iranians as barbarians, he had written to various papers to “educate viewers about the reality of the greatness of Persian civilization.” As though readers of Frank Miller’s book or viewers or Zack Snyder’s film cared a hoot about where the villains came from.) Nor is this movie intended to make cinema history. It’s an unpretentious romp, far less boring than the latest installment of, say, Pirates of the Caribbean.
What’s the history behind it? In 480 B.C. King Leonidas of Sparta took with him 300 of his best soldiers in a suicidal attempt to delay the Persians invasion. His last stand at Thermopylae has been the stuff of legend ever since. (And actually brought to the screen several times, including in a 1962 version by Rudolph Maté, a legend in his own right as cinematographer for Gilda, Lady from Shanghai, and scores of other great films).
The 300 who fought and died in that battle, had, like all Spartan males fit enough not to have been abandoned as babies on Mount Taygetos, been given from early childhood a strict military training. Spartan warriors always left for battle knowing that they were to return victors or die. Here they had to contend with the Persians led by Xerxes, ruler of the powerful Aechemenid Empire, one of the greatest civilizations known to men.
From this extraordinary battle, described and discussed endlessly since Herodotus, the Greek historian who left us a six-volume relation of the Greek-Persian wars, came Frank Miller’s 1999 graphic novel, 300, itself collected from Miller’s monthly five-issue comic book series. Not much relation between the two, but the film, thoroughly silly, is still fun. The philosophy is primitive, the computer-generated carnage unceasing, the Spartans buffed to a fault, King Leonidas the epitome of the brave warrior, his queen (the gorgeous Lena Heady) resplendent and utterly vapid. (About the pouting Xerxes as played by the Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, the less said the better.) The gaudy color palette of pink, orange, black and purple works perfectly with the great gushing rivers of blood to accentuate the comic-book aspect. Chill…and enjoy (300 COMES OUT ON DVD JULY 31ST).