I never felt the urge to see 300, Zack Snyder’s faithful interpretation of Frank Miller’s retelling of the battle of Thermopylae (Greek for the hot gates) where 300 Spartans held back Xerxes and his huge army while the rest of Sparta and Greece decided whether they should go to war or not (they eventually did, but that’s another story). Snyder’s movie is based on a graphic novel, a large-format one (which simply means that its dimensions are different) by Frank Miller and his wife Lynn Varley, and fond as I am of differently sized books, I have to admit that this was a disappointment. Maybe it’s because I read The Hot Gates, a book by William Golding on the same subject (the battle of Thermopylae is history, after all), when I was younger and still to discover graphic novels (like I told you, I read it a long time ago; Golding wrote the book four years before I was born, Amazon tells me).
Golding is Golding and Miller is, well, Miller and although 300, the book, is filled with delightful Sin City-esque touches—Sin City is the other franchise Miller wrote, and Robert Rodriguez and he turned it into a great movie—I didn’t enjoy it. So much so that despite buying the book a few years ago, I have read it only once, something that can’t be said of any other book in my modest collection of graphic novels.
I give this long-winded explanation as a preamble to a mea culpa of sorts.
When the editor of this magazine asked me about the movie, I told her that it was likely to be ordinary because the book was. Well, mea culpa and all that, because I was finally driven by boredom—and also the fact that The Shooter, a pulpy action feature starring Mark Wahlberg, didn’t play on my DVD player—to watch it on a recent Saturday afternoon, and I loved it. So, how did Snyder do it despite remaining true to the book—except for a little Hindi-movie-like subplot involving Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and Theron (Dominic West)?
There are several things that work for 300: The acting, the narrative style of storytelling, the cinematography (although the music, oddly reminiscent of the wailing-pipes stuff that made up almost all of The Gladiator’s soundtrack, is irritating), but the thing that makes this a mini-modern-masterpiece is, strangely enough, not a part of the movie at all.
That’s right, it is John Woo who makes 300 what it is; John Woo and his depiction of physical violence which has changed the way Hollywood and Bollywood look at any form of armed or unarmed combat.
The biggest strength of 300 is the choreographed beauty of its violence: Simple hops and jumps become gravity-defying leaps; severed limbs sail across the screen following some kind of terpsichorean physics; and blood and flesh (and their spilling) never looked as beautiful as they do in it. Even the way the Spartans fight with spear and sword and shield has a certain Wudan touch to it. And all these (much like the Burly Brawl in The Matrix) are John Woo touches.
Zack Snyder, take a bow.
P.S: I reread 300 after watching the movie and must admit that it read a little better, but it still doesn’t work for me.
Write to Sukumar at firstname.lastname@example.org