Frank Miller’s 300
Friday, March 9, 2007
There's so much testosterone pumping through the new film 300 that the screen virtually sweats the male hormone. Even the beautiful Spartan queen (Lena Headey) displays such steely reserve that she had male viewers cheering her on as she dispensed tough love to her husband, and ruthless vengeance to her enemies. If you're looking for a film about relationships, or if you like anything remotely warm and fuzzy, steer clear of 300 and its ferocious celebration of Spartans warriors. 300 is a lean, mean work about men who are born to fight and never question their destiny of dying on the battlefield.
At last year's Comic-Con, Miller sat on a panel for the film and revealed, "I researched the hell out of the story. I had wanted to do this story since I was six years old. It's so compelling that I think each generation has to retell it." The 1962 sword and sandal epic The 300 Spartans was the Hollywood retelling that had inspired the young Miller. But that film now seems stiff and stilted.
So for the generation growing up now, there will be a much bolder and more vivid account helmed by Zack Snyder. He says that Hollywood is finally looking to graphic novels with more respect: "Hollywood has gone through a long gestation period but now I finally think that they see graphic novels as something that dont need to be fixed, they just need to be filmed."
A comparison of the film image and the graphic novel 300 (WB)
Snyder, who previously directed the remake of Dawn of the Dead , treated Miller's graphic novel as if it were an elaborate storyboard for a film. The result is a faithful adaptation of Miller's blood splattered tribute to the fearless and fearsome Spartans. This proves successful because Snyder is not a great director and the more he relies on Miller's images as a storyboard for the action, the better for the film. Miller is ultimately the better storyteller both visually and narratively.
"I did go to Greece," Miller said, "and I took a side trip out to the actual Hot Gates [where the battle took place]. Well it's not what it used to be. Now there's a freeway and you park by the side of the road to get to a lovely monument put up by American Greeks. But you have to make your way across a busy freeway and climb up the mound where the Spartans actually died. If I hadn't sailed the Aegean and seen the cliffs and felt the sea I don't think I could've possibly interpreted the story because any story about ancient Greece, you have to realize that the land and the sea were their biggest weapons."
The film does a kick ass job of depicting the way the Spartans fought. The film combines live action and virtual backgrounds to deliver a period tale with a contemporary punch. Miller has said that some of the background elements were created by Lynn Varley, the colorist on Miller's graphic novel. Miller and Snyder are quick to point out that in putting the action on the screen they definitely went with what looked "cool" rather than with what might have been historically accurate. (Miller's research is evident in other places of the story, however.) The results are amazing. The battles scenes are intense and vividly rendered. Although there are moments when you have to stop an ask what it means to have a film that glorifies death on the battlefield at a time when we have soldiers fighting in a real war. But political commentary is not what 300 is about. It is as simple and single-minded and the Spartans fighting. As with the Spartans, it knows what it does well and it simply goes out and does it without apology.
300 is in its element on the battlefield. (Warner Brothers)
Working against a blue screen proved a challenge for actor Gerard Butler, who was also on the Comic-Con panel: "I felt it [the blue screen] was very difficult to get used to. You are looking at cliffs that don't exist and armies that aren't there. It's only the immediate surroundings that are actually there and they're not real because theyre in a studio. It took a bit of getting used to. I have to say that it is not quite as fulfilling an experience from an acting point of view when you are performing on blue screen but there are other advantages. One is that everything is very contained; it's easy to move from set to set so you can get through the work really quick. I was really amazed that we were able to get through the shoot really quickly."
Another challenge was the costumes or the lack there of. "My panic set in relatively early," said actor David Wenham, "once I was cast I went out and bought Franks book and I opened it up and I think on page three my character appears for the very first time and he's standing naked over a fire telling stories. It was then I hit the panic button."
But the costumes -- a kind of leather speedo -- were eventually provided. Butler said that he overcome his initial embarrassment once he got on the set with "60 other guys dressed like you and then you get into it." The heavy red capes, though, did cause problems in battle.
Gerard Butler in 300 (Warner Brothers)
"In the fights some ridiculous stuff could be happening with your cape," said Butler, "It takes a lot to set up the action and you have a spear and a shield or a sword and you go to hit someone, and you find that your cape has gotten stuck around your sword. It made me wonder how many people died in battle as they were about to make a killing and their sword got stuck."
The actors, however, did extensive training for the film that helped them manage both their costumes and the extreme physicality of their characters. I can't remember a film (outside of the porn industry perhaps) where so many well-muscled, gleaming male bodies have been on display. These guys are hot. There's not an ounce of fat anywhere in this 300 . The training and daily pumping not only made the actors look buff to the max but it also helped them get into character.
300 (Warner Brothers)
"There was an incredible team spirit on this film," said Butler, "Everybody trained together, everybody hung out, and everybody gave their lives and their souls to it, and that went toward that sacrifice you get at the end. It was like we were willing to die for each other and you have so much testosterone floating around there that at times you felt ready to kill and ready to die."
If you know your history, you know that the 300 do die. That kind of a dark ending is not what Hollywood usually wants in a big-budget action film. But Frank Miller has an answer for that: "I'm really damn sick of being reassured by every damn picture I look at. I mean how many times is Harry Potter going to be cheered on by his classmates. I would like some stories that are more challenging. So I find what Zack's put together is very refreshing. The thing that I noticed when I saw an early cut of the movie was that everything feels very timeless but contemporary. In the fights Zack makes very clever use of changing camera speeds so the Spartans actually move like super humans when they swing their swords."
300 (Warner Brothers)
As with the Spartan warriors, 300 (rated R for graphic violence and sexual content) is most at home in battle. Some of the early scenes between Leonidas and his wife are awkward. But during the extensive fight scenes, this film rocks. It earns its R rating as it cuts through men and beasts, splattering blood across the screen and reveling in the lethal skill of its characters. Ancient history's never been this cool, so sit back and enjoy. And make sure to stay through the stunning end credits that capture more of the graphic novel's look and feel.
Companion viewing: Sin City, The 300 Spartans, Troy
Listen to the discussion of 300 from These Days.