Sunday 5 August 2012
Film: 300 (2007)
I don't usually watch historical epics (the last one I can recall being Troy, several years ago), but when I realised that I'd recorded 300 sometime around last Christmas and it was still sitting on my PVR memory, I decided to look through it and see if it was worth watching.
As I expect most readers will be aware, the film concerns the Greek legend of the three hundred Spartans who fought the massed hordes of the invading Persians to a standstill in the Battle of Thermopylae, over 2,500 years ago. The battle certainly happened in the location attributed to it although the situation was, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather more complicated than that portrayed in the comic series by Frank Miller on which the film was based. As recounted by Herodotus, the Greek historian and main source of information on the battle who was born shortly after it happened, there were many more Greeks involved, somewhere in the region of 4,000, from a variety of Greek city-states. When a secret path around the narrow pass the Greeks were successfully holding was revealed to the Persians by a traitor, Leonidas, the Spartan king, did order the majority of his army to retreat, but that still left nearly 1,500 Greeks (including the 300 Spartans) to form a rearguard to enable the others to get away. Almost all of the Greeks in the rearguard were killed, including Leonidas.
From the historical point of view, the film therefore simplifies the tale to emphasise the glory of the self-sacrificing Spartans. It also shifts elements of the story around, putting in incidents which occurred on other occasions. Some of the bizarre menagerie of creatures in the Persian army also owe more to fantasy than reality. Despite this, overall it is probably at least as true to the accepted historical account as any Hollywood historical movie ever is (the notorious U-571 of 2000, in which the warship which captured a U-boat mysteriously changes from British to American, springs to mind). Herodotus' story may itself have exaggerated the achievement of the Greeks, of course. Early historians were often more concerned with telling a good tale (especially one which boosted the grandeur of their own people) than being strictly accurate, and even if that didn't apply in this case, Herodotus was relying on tales which had been told for decades, and maybe grown in the telling.
Setting the historical debate aside and judging it purely as a movie, was 300 worth watching? Well, just about. It is a very violent film, with lots of fighting, hacking, thrusting and spraying of blood, repeated in slow-mo action replays just in case the viewer missed the finer points the first time around. The characters are two-dimensional caricatures declaiming portentously as if they want to sound as epic as possible, with the notable exception of Lena Headey (currently gracing the small screen as Queen Cersei in Game of Thrones - which may alone be enough to persuade some people to watch). She has a strong part as Leonidas' wife in the scenes in Sparta which are interleaved with the battles, providing some contrast, not so say relief from the constant slaughter. The film has a voice-over, describing and explaining what is going on, which seems rather odd until it turns out at the end to have been the account of the one of the survivors; a trick which works rather well. So, if you like lots of gory hand-to-hand fighting, lots of heroically muscled Spartans wearing not a lot, or Lena Headey wearing not a lot, then you might well enjoy this film.
Incidentally I recently tried to watch another 2007 epic with rather less association with reality, Beowulf. This uses "motion capture", effectively taking real actors and sort of "cartoonising" them (if there is such a word). Now I like watching real actors and can happily watch cartoons and computer-generated alien characters such as those in Avatar. But something about the appearance of the motion capture characters put me off completely - I found it very creepy and the film thereby unwatchable. So I only saw the first few minutes.