“Relate this tale of victory” says Leonidas, King of Sparta, to Dillios (David Wenham), a soldier in his army who is heading back to Sparta, as the king faces certain death against the Persians.
Moving and inspiring you might think, but also a great bit of spin doctoring, considering they lost.
Although to be fair dying in battle for Sparta is a sort of victory in itself.
At the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC Leonidas, King of Sparta, led 300 Spartan super-soldiers into battle against the Persian King Xerxes and his 300,000 fighters.
A movie about such a hopeless yet simultaneously awe-inspiring task requires an actor who has a subtle understanding of the nuances of history, enormous muscles and a beard. Yes GERARD BUTLER.
He’s made a career of playing heroes. Dragon-fighting Creedy from Reign of Fire. Mike Banning, single-handedly saving the American president several times in London Has Fallen. That film where he snogged that woman who used to be in Friends. Okay maybe not that last one.
And this is a role you could say was made for him. To give Butler his due here, he’s inspiring, focussed, and practical, and as usual when he’s playing someone who isn’t actually from Scotland, 50% Scottish. The Spartans are tough as hell but they still look to their king for leadership that’s as rock hard as Butler’s sepia-toned abs.
300 is based on Frank Miller’s comic book series. I’m no aficionado of comics, though you don’t need to be to enjoy this (I actually don’t know if comic book fans would/did enjoy this; maybe they’ll tell me). It is, though, very different to your average ancient world war epic.
History is full of little bands of warriors ending up in unwinnable wars. Sometimes through hubris, though sometimes – thanks to the structures of their times – without much real choice.
Persian King Xerxes sends his messengers to Sparta demanding submission to their king, dangling the skulls of other kings from their horses as a warning.
Leonidas unsurprisingly refuses and the messengers are pushed down a well, but not before the King has checked with his wife Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) as to what he should do, a touch which may or may not be historically accurate but I don’t care.
Leonidas has a plan to funnel the Persian soldiers into a rocky mountain pass, but despite his strategy the Ephors, a group of cloaked, pustule-ridden old men who live away from the hoi poloi, not unlike the Tory Cabinet, refuse him permission to go to war.
There’s also an attractive and near-naked Oracle. Like most attractive, near-naked Oracles, she provides vital information in the very opposite of clear, concise language.
Leonidas shouts a lot in a slightly Scottish way and resolves to go to war anyway. But before he leaves there’s time for a very sexy goodbye between him and his equally stunning and hard-as-nails queen. And then off he goes, protected only by leather underpants, the world’s largest dustbin lid and a red blanket, which makes me wonder if he lost a bet during their night of passion.
The Spartans are a tiny band, so few in number that one poor soldier has to play two recorders at once as they march along.
But their training and skill is not in doubt when they come across old friend Daxos and his band of Arcadians.
Shocked at the small number of Spartans, Daxos is laughingly reproved by Leonidas, as the Spartan king asks some of Daxos’s men what their trades are: potter, blacksmith… come the replies. But when he asks his own men, their reply is a war cry. “See old friend, I brought more soldiers than you did!” says Leonidas.
And at first it seems as if even Zeus himself is on their side as terrible storms tip Persian boats into giant waves, and the Spartan forces repel endless attacks: “This is where we hold them. This is where we fight. This is where THEY DIE” shrieks Leonidas and he’s actually very inspiring.
The Persian god-king Xerxes is extraordinary to look at; hugely tall and with so many gold chains and piercings he seems to have been let loose in high street jeweller H Samuel. I was half expecting him to be wearing a X-E-R-X-E-S name necklace.
The Spartans nearly all die of course, gloriously, after chopping off heads and arms and other bits in sepia slow-mo while the Persians attack with never ending brute force, day after day.
As a highly stylised fantasy, 300 is both lush and slightly gloomy at the same time, with its palette of sepia, red, dark blue and grey. It is very focused on men’s bodies: almost naked and adorned.
And while the shots of wave upon wave of Persian soldiers and elephants charging towards the Spartans are impressive, some of the quieter scenes are as effective: a tree of murdered villagers’ bodies, stark against an orange sky, holds the Spartans in shocked silence.
There are some attempts at humour. “I’m just talking a walk” says the Spartan king, as he does indeed start walking, towards the battle so far away, when it is pointed out to him that he is not allowed to go to war as the Ephors have not agreed to it. But in the main this is a rather serious film as befits a tale about a tribe which casts out puny babies. They hardly seem a laugh a minute.
Butler fills the screen and is utterly driven, while at the same time showing surprising sympathy. There isn’t much room for anybody else, though look out for Michael Fassbender as Stelios, one of the Spartan warriors.
The women of Sparta are as resolute as their men (“clearly you don’t know our women” quips Leonidas when Xerxes threatens what will happen to them if Sparta does not surrender), and Gorgo is particularly interesting as her husband treats her like an equal. (She’s the only woman of any note in the film though Headey’s uncompromising brilliance somewhat makes up for that.)
A cursory google shows there’s more artistic licence here than if you gathered together Picasso, Michaelangelo and Tracy Emin just after passing their driving tests. And when I say artistic, I do mean the aesthetics. There’s also a more worrying East bad, Europe good theme going on.
Ultimately though, watch this as a fantasy guts-and-glory movie that uses a story from thousands of years ago on which to hang its message of the little guys standing up to an evil opponent.
“The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many” as Leonidas says.
Watch the 300 trailer: