As lessons in ancient history go, 300 is unforgettable, a mythic orgy of violence that sheds the blood of thousands while imprinting two facts in your brain. First, that 300,000 Persians were bitch-slapped by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his small band of soldiers during the defence of a coastal pass in 480 BC. Second, that Spartans were really hard bastards.
Thank Robert Rodriguez and Sin City for 300. The director’s groundbreaking use of CGI in that lush cartoon noir turned geek god Frank Miller into hot property and paved the way for director Zack Snyder’s imposing take on Miller and Lynn Varley’s source material. Like Sin City, it’s a new generation of adaptation that puts the (computer) graphics into the graphic novel. Faithful to the comic-books, it looks incredible, a swirling otherworld that could be the posttraumatic stress nightmare of one of its survivors. Not real, not surreal, 300 is something else, a hyper-real realm where myth gasps to life.
It’s laden with visual echoes: the image of King Leonidas and his men standing on the cliffs of Thermopylae watching a hurricane destroy an armada of Persian ships could have been copied straight from an Old Master; a tree covered in corpses recalls Brit artists the Chapman Brothers (via Goya). 300 finds a terrible beauty in war, Spartan red robes flowing over a dark, blighted battlefield. There’s comic grotesquery, too: Leonidas nonchalantly munching on an apple during a lull in the action, as his men skewer the half-dead bodies of Persians. Miller says he based the comic book on his childhood experiences of watching Ralph Richardson in The 300 Spartans (1962). God only knows what today’s kids might get up to after seeing 300...
Everything here gives way to the visual. What little semblance of a plot there is simply follows Leonidas as he faces down the Spartan hordes; what Snyder thirsts for is the thrill of battle. When it comes, it proves impossible to stop, Spartans arranging themselves into a phalanx to hack, block, hack, block while their enemies bleed and gurgle. Blood-drunk on its own violence, this is war porn, realism sacrificed in favour of money shot after money shot of spurting, sticky claret.
Butler as King Leonidas remains rock solid despite being saddled with a beard small animals could nest in. Close-ups of his smouldering eyes and spittle-spewing mouth match the clunk of his dialogue: “Freedom isn’t free if it comes with the highest price of all, the price of blood.” He’s surrounded by Hercules rejects, men with six-packs and sandals who snarl lines like, “It’s only an eye; the gods saw fit to grace me with a spare!”
The men hardly wear anything, the realities of armour ignored because bare torsos look sexier. Still, in a movie that features the Persian answer to ninja warriors and bomb-lobbing magicians, a few unlikely wardrobe choices are the least of any classicists’ worries. Ultimately, this is a warrior’s wet dream, a guilty pleasure that’s beautiful and startlingly gory. What are you waiting for?