In 480 B.C., Leonidas and his 300 Spartans sacrificed themselves to buy time for the Greeks as an army of Persians beyond count sought to conquer the lands. Over time, the story has become legend; I actually passed through Thermopylae Pass on a trip through Greece, where the Spartans fell in battle for their families, for glory, for Sparta, where the statue of Leonidas still stands with the inscription of his defiant cry which has been echoed as a tough guy anthem throughout thousands of years of history. Recently, graphic novelist Frank Miller (who also created Sin City) inked his own artistic version of the 300 Spartans and their story; it is his fictitious rendition of the events that has been adapted into the film 300 directed by Zach Snyder.
Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder if people would think his classic line was an inserted Hollywood fiction; in fact, it’s one of the known components in the film based on historical tradition. When emissaries of Xerxes, the god-king of Persia, demand that Leonidas and his men lay down their arms, the bold King of Sparta replied “MOLON LABE”, or “Come and Get ’em”. Never mind that a hundred tough guys throughout cinematic history have touted variations on this line (Bruce Campell vs. the Army of Darkness – “come get some!” – springs to mind), it seems Leonidas set the catch phrase bar long before Bruce Willis died hard.
Leonidas died harder.
This movie is not about historical accuracy. As a classic mythological tale of sacrifice and valor – the heights of heroism – it is phenomenal. The cinematic craft is visually astounding. The carnage is visceral and rightfully disturbing; the performances are passionate and intense to match the hyperreality of the lavishly crafted digital set pieces. Not since Fight Club has there been such a testosterone fest, and manly men will not be able to resist this film. Some have complained about this movie being plotless; I guess that hinges on what you call plot. I’m tapping out this review during sessions of a Men’s Training Day at my church. As we walk through what it means to be a biblical man – the basics of embodying protector, savior, of being willing to lay down our lives, metaphorically and physically, for wife, children, family, for what we believe – to live like Jesus and empty ourselves for others… I can’t help but resonate with the plot of 300. There is danger, and men respond: two hours of combat ensue. While I can be enthralled by a good twisting who-dunit, complex spy film, or introspective drama, sometimes 300 is more than enough plot for any man.
Frank Miller is a very, very fortunate man. So many writers and creators have their visions ruined by Hollywood. Whether we like Sin City or 300, one thing is true: they are testaments to Miller’s vision. You can pause many moments in either film, open up the graphic novels he wrote and drew, and literally see the panels brought to life, from the green-screen scenery down to the actor’s posture. I think about poor Alan Moore, whose graphic novels were slaughtered by Hollywood with both The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta. Whether you liked them or not, they were nothing like the creator’s vision. It’s encouraging to see directors and producers understanding the value of the source material, versus simply pillaging it.
There are two moments of temptation in this film which are poignant in their biblical resonance. The towering Persian god-king stands before Leonidas and offers this unyielding warrior everything – all of Greece, all he surveys – if he will only kneel before Xerxes and worship him. The parallel with Satan’s temptation of Christ is undeniable here, seen in the Book of Luke: “the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.'”
In 300, Leonidas sarcastically declines Xerxes’ offer, his unrelenting stance due to his pride and love for his kingdom, his family and himself. Jesus’ posture was equally firm, but even deeper as he answered the devil “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve”. Christians also serve a kingdom, and a living God, and this adamant stance against giving quarter to our spiritual enemy is a pivotal part of our faith. As those 300 Spartans looked to Leonidas for inspiration, direction and strength of will, so Christians look to Jesus.
When another character in the film is seduced to betray the Spartans, he is led through a veritable carnival of debauchery and sexual deviancy, promised everything he desires if he will bow down to Xerxes. For a Hollywood film (and one that shows more skin than it needs) it paints a curiously conservative portrait of the Spartans – family men, seemingly moral – versus the sexual looseness of their enemies, an orgiastic worship and revelry in the flesh… as to say what many even today consider sexual “freedom” is in fact part and parcel with slavery and evil. A curious corollary found in an unlikely place. This character bows, and betrays, and we are filled with disgust at his compromise and fealty to a false god.
It’s also interesting in this film that Leonidas dismisses the oracle and the ephors – his own religion – and also rejects the god-king of the Persians. He’s disgusted with the pagan practices of his own people but refuses to believe in the deified man the Persians worship. At one point in the film he acknowledges a God, but he seems agnostic at best. There is something tragic as the film draws to a close, knowing that Leonidas and his men believe the best life has to offer is the chance for a glorious end and then – as Leonidas himself hollers – dining “in hell”. Christ himself said, “greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends”. I am eternally grateful that Christ also offers hope to those who believe in Him, that death need not be a glorious end, but a glorious beginning, awakening to the words “well done, good and faithful servant”.
300 is gorier than some can take, though it is very stylized and surreal so for some, it will be less shocking than movies with more down-to-earth violence. It also contains both sex and nudity, which will make some steer clear for their own conscience. For others, this will be the new defining man-movie for years to come, trumping even the tough Gibson films Braveheart and Apocalypto. I’d give it four stars, save for one production/editing flaw that literally shook me out of the film, when a character’s voice was looped so poorly it just didn’t match. Flaws aside, the cinematic style of 300 makes me hungry to see what director Zach Snyder will do next.