Reviewed by: Chris

"It feels like a two-hour descent into Mordor that makes Gladiator look gay."

God and Gods, Heroes, Legends, Fables, Mentors - even Movie Stars. Figures we look up to, ones that inspire us. External, made in our own image, or just something we latch onto. Real, make-believe; true, glamorised; each of us finds characters to enthuse us or with whom we can identify. A way to escape from ourselves for a moment, then maybe become a bit more like them. Opera can make the mundane glorious; fairy-tales unfold lessons of morality to children. With comic-book heroes, we explore broad brush-stroke ideas of heroism and romance. Throughout its history, cinema has been used to raise morale or even for politics. Comic-book adaptations span genres and include Batman, stories examining existentialism (Ghost World), and ones that reinvent neo-noir (Sin City).

Based on a comic based on a film based on ancient history, 300 explodes on our screens with stark adult images of bare-chested warriors and overtly sexual Oracles. It carries us into a world of fantasy, but with intense bloody violence, like a Tarantino movie. It is the story of 300 heroic and highly trained warriors. They pitch themselves against an army numbering one million. If they die, they won't die in vain. They will inspire. They will stand for liberty. They will be a catalyst for ultimate victory. They will herald a far-reaching moral order.

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King Leonidas of Ancient Sparta receives an emissary from the Persian Empire. Earth and Water, if you please, says the emissary, else we'll kick your sorry ass to a kingdom you don't wanna know about. Leonidas responds quickly to this bit of diplomacy. He kicks said emissary and entourage down a dirty great pit.

Before the King can whop these aliens from Asia for being so damn cheeky, he's legally bound to ask advice of the Oracle, a beautiful, writhing, naked young blossom who is letched over by particularly ugly and deformed mystics called Ephors (think Orcs with sex drives). Xerxes, the Persian ruler who wants to attack Sparta, knows full well the Oracle will tell Leonidas to back off (as there's a religious festival due), which she does. Guessing the cunning plan, but unable to go directly against the Holy Ephors, Leonidas just "goes for a walk" - together with a personal bodyguard of 300 crack soldiers.

Leonidas' wife, gorgeous Queen Gorgo, is left behind. Although women can open their mouths at formal events (not like those heathen Persians), she's still regarded as second class by the all-male politicians. Gorgo shows she's a Sparta woman through and through. Brave, intelligent, willing to sacrifice herself as forcefully as any male warrior, she gets to give a speech that would out-Maggie Mrs Thatcher. And, unlike many women leaders, she's sexy and feminine to boot.

Leonidas' men, helped by some woosy Athenians, acquit themselves in a manner that would put the CGIs to shame if they weren't so awesome. Like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, he has learnt to shout words like 'freedom' and 'democracy' until the men go into a hypnotic rage of murderous joy. And he has his wife to thank for it. It was her advice that got his mind off that 18-year old slut in the temple.

Phrases like, "A new age has come, an age of freedom!" echo through the movie. "We rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny." But although historians are already arguing over the factual accuracy or lack of it, it seems palpable that much was invented or changed to make the story, visuals, and moral imperatives 'more cool' than they were in ancient times. It is so obviously intended as a work of fiction that the shred of historicity seems a mere device to assist suspension of disbelief.

Landscapes have the menacing simplicity of Sin City, the earlier Frank Miller comic-strip adaptation. But unlike Sin City, backdrops are seamlessly lifelike, yet still retain an air of fantasy. Bloody battles include stylised violence emphasised by fast- or slow- motion. Characters are intentionally simplistic, maintaining the sensation of reading a horrific graphic-novel. It's almost like Lord of the Rings for grown-ups.

Acting is gritty throughout. Special effects could send you into Exorcist mode if you've just had lunch. Cinematography is consistently atmospheric. It feels like a two-hour descent into Mordor that makes Gladiator look gay. But if this movie can effectively get your rocks off, no review is entirely complete without acknowledging the political upheavals that brew even as it is released. Protests in Tehran railed against a "movie which has insulted the ancient and glorious civilisation of Persia."

"Hollywood declares war on Iranians," reads a headline in Iran's independent Ayende-No newspaper. "The film depicts Iranians as demons, without culture, feeling or humanity, who think of nothing except attacking other nations and killing people," Ayende-No says. "It is a new effort to slander the Iranian people and civilisation before world public opinion at a time of increasing American threats against Iran."

A Persian journalist (born of Iranian parents in Greece) writes, "There has been no agenda on the part of the original novelist, movie director, cast and crew to promote an anti-Iranian agenda. The movie however (no matter how sincerely it was intended as entertainment), is nevertheless purveying messages; messages most certainly unintended by Miller or the film producers." Which is probably a bit closer to the truth. But is that wrong?

Americans, at the time of the film's release, are going through a period of schism and intense self-doubt over their increasing losses in Iraq. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the war, the families and friends of those who have lost men and women there need sources of succour and belief in themselves. The film provides heroic stereotypes who die for their beliefs and find ways of justifying or coming to terms with the accompanying grief.

In 300, reverence for race, religion and sexual preferences are given short shrift. If the movie claimed to represent history and the peoples in it accurately, it would be offensive to common sense. But it does not. It is, feels like, and looks like, a comic-strip simplification and glorification of a battle. It will make much of its target audience feel good about itself. As propaganda, it is no worse, or rather far less harmful, than the propaganda churned out on a smaller scale by many Islamic countries for internal consumption. I did not find the depiction of Persians at all belittling. They look as glorious in their majesty and technical achievements as the Spartans look ferocious. The main audiences understand it is light entertainment, however baffling it may be to eastern minds (just as Manga can be baffling or even offensive to Western minds).

300 is, at a pinch, not a beacon of political correctness, but it is one hell of a movie.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2007
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An adaptation of the Frank Miller comic about the real life struggle of 300 Spartan soldiers to hold a pass against the full might of the Persian army.
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Read more 300 reviews:

Stephen Carty ***1/2
Max Crawford ***
Jennie Kermode **1/2

Director: Zack Snyder

Writer: Zack Snyder and MichaelGordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro, Kelly Craig

Year: 2006

Runtime: 117 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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