If your idea of a good war film is a crackingly clever script, long pauses for reflection to reminisce about ‘the missus back home’ and profound character arcs that lead us to unbridled empathy and emotion at the end, look away now. 300 is no Gladiator and doesn’t pretend to be (well, except for one or two scenes) – Gerard Butler hasn’t got the vengeance factor of Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridias, driven by the memory of his dead wife and son. But what he lacks on this score, he more than makes up in pure brute force and muscle which would put any male couch potato to shame.
300 begins by charting the life of Leonidas (Butler), his unforgiving journey from childhood to the throne. We learn how he was cast into the wilderness to learn to be a soldier, staring a giant wolf in the face before outwitting it in a fight to the death. We rejoin his story as a messenger arrives at his kingdom of Sparta, demanding that King Leonidas submits to Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) – instead he and his guards throw the messenger and his party into a well, knowing full well that this action will spark a war. Leonidas seeks counsel from ancient priests who in turn consult the Oracle, who tells them a war must not be fought during the religious festival of Carnea. The king decides to go ahead as planned, with the intention of channelling the opposing Persian army into a narrow passage where they will be bombarded from all sides and ultimately defeated.
King Leonidas sets out towards Thermopylae with 300 men who he calls his personal bodyguards instead of an army, to avoid the veto of the Spartan council under the suspicious, watchful eye of Theron (Dominic West). A fierce storm batters the Persian ships on the night before the battle is due to begin and kills many soldiers but these are only a small number of the vast army approaching. The Persians demand that Leonidas and his men lay down their weapons, but they refuse and manage to repel Xerxes’ armies’ repeated advances and increasingly intense bombardments. As both human casualties and treachery threaten to derail King Leonidas’ strategy, he must continue to fight Xerxes, not only in combat, but also diplomacy, as he has to come face to face with his proverbial wolf once again – Xerxes himself.
The first thing that strikes you (no pun intended) about 300, is its very unique cinematographic style. Zack Snyder shoots the film using similar colours to Frank Miller’s original comic strip of the same name. This creates a very atmospheric tone – at times beautiful scenery but always with black storm clouds seemingly lurking in the background. While Snyder puts you right in among the action, you may also feel detached from it, such is the nature of the film in that it doesn’t feel realistic enough but this is a very unusual characteristic that may take time to get used to. The fight scenes are unflinching in their brutality, with maimings, beheadings and skewerings that are the standard in sword-and-sandals epics, but are taken to a new level here.
Gerard Butler fills the screen quite literally – during his scenes the camera barely leaves him for a second. Despite there being a strong Greek mythological influence with its Oracles and mysticism, King Leonidas and his army are ultimately mortals and it is therefore easier to empathise with Butler’s character than if he were an invincible, infallible god. Where the film loses its way, is during the non-battle scenes, where we are transported back to Sparta for bouts of hammy dialogue from decidedly one-dimensional characters drawn from Gladiator. Lena Headley’s Queen Gorgo is just about tolerable, which is far more than can be said for Dominic West as token baddie Theron – taking his character out of the equation altogether and concentrating on Gorgo’s efforts to win over the council would have improved 300 considerably.
For its sheer scale and grand design, 300 is an entertaining war film that will most likely prompt a visit to a well-known online encyclopedia to find out a little more about ancient Mediterranean history and myth. Where it fails, is on the more subtle moments of convincing character backstory development and motive, which made Gladiator a far more rewarding experience.