300 is a remarkable achievement. Of what, exactly, is a subject open to debate. Visually, it is arresting and beautiful in a Grand Guignol way. In fact, speaking strictly in aesthetic terms, it is a masterpiece. Speaking strictly in terms of tone, mood, and dialogue, well, that’s another matter entirely and one that is uneven at best. As with SIN CITY, another Miller graphic novel adapted for the screen, and much more successfully, this is a realm of pure fantasy grounded only by the genuine emotions of the characters and the blood that spatters with alarming regularity and with no regard for the mundane laws of physics.
There has to be a lot of blood. This is a loose retelling of the Battle of Thermophylae in 480 B.C.E., which was precipitated when Leonidas (Gerard Butler), king of Sparta, refused to make a token offering to Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, pierced, gilded, and wondrously androgynous) as he was conquering his way across Greece on his way to Europe. The battle itself, where 300 Spartans, Leonidas, made a heroically hopeless stand against Xerxes seemingly endless army of the East, makes up the bulk of the film and that is as it should be. Only such time as necessary is given to the Spartan upbringing that Leonidas, like all his countrymen experienced, brutal in its intention of literally killing off the weak, his consulting an oracle that may or may not have been corrupted, and establishing the bond, physical and spiritual, that he shares with his warrior queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey). Denied the right to take his entire army into battle against the Persians because of a pesky religious holiday, he takes the titular 300 of Sparta’s best for a “stroll” to meet the Persians and hold them at bay in the name of freedom.
So far so good. Butler has a fire in his well-chiseled belly and in his eyes, even without the visual effects that render the whites of same so bright that they seem to glow. Yet this is no automaton of war, though he and the other Spartans take out the hapless Persians with a staggering efficiency that doesn’t miss a beat even when it comes to beasts such as elephants and rhinoceri. It’s genuinely thrilling to hear him exhort his army to greater glory and genuinely moving to see him bid a suitably laconic farewell to his queen. He is larger than life as all good mythic heroes should be, but he also has the rough wisdom a Spartan life cultivates, as well as a tenacious hold on his humanity, despite the upbringing that has taught him that a beautiful death in battle is the highest achievement of a true Spartan. It’s also taught him things like killing Xerxes’ messengers because he doesn’t like their message, to show no mercy, much less take prisoners, in battle.
With the computer-generated locations and enhancements, the imagination of the graphic novel takes flight. The precarious, shadowy climb by Leonidas to the towering crag that houses the oracle and her priests gives way to the aethereal clouds of sacred incense that swirl around her as she floats into the embrace of one of the leprous priests. The battle sequences are heart-pounding. Decapitations, dismemberments, and vaguely humanoid creatures that are very, very cranky swirl ballet-like with the camera going into stop-action, as though the heat of battle can only be contained in snapshots. The screen teams with warriors from Japan, Africa and all point between in numbers that are dizzying. It is gory, but it is stylized and with the grace of the painting on a classical urn.
The story is about the battle on the ground, but also between Leonidas and Xerxes, as the latter comes to respect the former, offering him the world on a platter if he will only bend his knee to him. It is in that contrast that things go awry. The contrast between the hard-living, independent, not to mention physically perfect, Spartans and the decadent and debauched Persians should have been piquant, but instead the Persians speed past ravishing kitsch and into the dicey waters of camp. Xerxes dressed in various types of golden chains is one thing, but a performance from Santoro in which he seems ready to swoon at any moment takes any sense of personal competition between two generals off the table. Whenever Xerxes opens his mouth, even with the echo-enhanced voice, mirth ensues as he puts the “Oh” in homoerotic. Better he should have remained silent.
300, is pure escapism and when it works, it is both ferocious and mesmerizing. Butler’s performance is never less than visceral, making the idea of death over retreat into a worthy, even glorious sacrifice. If 300 Spartans could face down an army of tens of thousands, an audience can endure the bad in order to enjoy the good here.