Friday, March 09, 2007

Movie Review: 300

Oddly, my greatest emotion after watching this movie is a sense of relief. It wasn't the huge disappointment that I secretly feared. In fact, I enjoyed it, and would happily watch it again.

It is less of a coherent movie than a collection of magnificent scenes. Each scene is beautiful to watch and lots of fun. There isn't much holding it together as a movie, especially because the plot they attempted to introduce (Persian bribery of Spartan councilmen, opposed by lovers of freedom and justice) is ahistorical and flimsy.

I wish that 300 had a lot more historical accuracy and less goofiness. The Star Wars bar scene, with the numerous deformed freaks and (I really think I saw this) a goat playing a horn, has absolutely no place in this film. The numerous speeches of freedom felt clunky, because the Spartans didn't fight for lofty ideals - they fought because they were bred to fight. The valor and sacrifice of the other 7000 Greeks who stood with them is downplayed to almost non-existence (although the Phoecians did surrender the goat path without a fight, as portrayed.) I could ramble on about the inaccuracies, but I'll stop with just one more: As Leonidas is leaving for the battle, the council asks him what they are to do, and he replies "Sparta needs more sons." This is actually a distortion of a reported conversation between Leonidas and his he is leaving, she asks "What am I to do?", and he replies, "Marry a good man and raise strong sons." I suppose that the creators of this movie wanted to play up the romance between king and queen, but this obvious twisting of an actual event is disappointing.

Overall, though, these flaws do not ruin the entertainment value of the movie. The battles were fun, but some of my favorite scenes were actually not battle scenes. When the queen grabs a sword and begins to disembowel the traitor, while whispering "This will not be over quickly", I was smiling from ear to ear - Spartan women were not wilting flowers, but were as cruel and hard as men. And I wanted to stand up and cheer when Leonidas stung Ephialtes with the harshest of Spartan curses: "May you live forever."

(Historical note: Ephialtes is actually the name of the Greek who reportedly showed the Persians the hidden path used to surround the Spartans. But he was just a guy who wanted to make a quick buck, not a hunchbacked plot device who felt betrayed by the Spartans.)

It is hard to imagine how ferocious a contigent of Spartan warriors must have been - men who were bred to fight, and taught that the most beautiful day of their lives was their last. Men who were covered in metal armor (not the nearly-naked beefcake outfits in the movie), drilled tirelessly, fought as a coordinated unit, and feared nothing. It is said that the Battle of Thermopylae sapped the will and morale of the Persian army, even though it only put a small dent in their numbers. While many historians dismiss this as a romanticized view of the sacrifice of Greek soldiers, there is almost certainly a grain of truth to this idea. The mighty Persian army, the largest the world had ever seen, returned to Greece to face the only foes that had ever successfully stood against them. Fighting for three days against a tiny force, suffering 50:1 casualties, and only able to finally overcome them by treachery, could not have inspired confidence in the ranks.

This romanticized idea of heroic self-sacrifice, in the face of a ruthless and overwhelming enemy, is at the heart of 300. I am a sucker for even an inaccurate, and sometimes goofy, portrayal of Thermopylae is enough to inspire me.

300 has some problems, but if you're one of the many who skipped to the battle scenes on your Gladiator DVD, then 300 will also find a home in your collection (and require a lot less scene-skipping.) But if you're looking for an intellectually solid representation of a historical event, then watch The 300 Spartans instead.

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, by Spartan law, we lie.


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