If a society like Sparta existed today, it would be denounced as cruel, inhumane, and would probably be a target for liberation by one group or another. Killing babies for having physical defects is generally considered a no-no in today's society. And yet, despite Sparta's almost complete lack of artistic culture, political science, or value of anything outside of the art of war, the city-state flourished for centuries. While their practices may seem outlandish and harsh, they did produce some of the finest warriors of the ancient world, men bound together by a code of honor and a love of their country.
It is these fraternal feelings that Zack Snyder celebrates in his visually stunning adaptation of Frank Miller's epic graphic novel. 300 tells a highly stylized tale of the Battle of Thermopylae, that famous event where three hundred Spartans (and about 700 warriors from other Greek city-states) held back the advancing armies of Xerxes I. The historical events themselves were used as a springboard for Frank Miller's fertile imagination in his 1998 comic miniseries (later collected in graphic novel form) with Lynn Varley.
After the success of Robert Rodriguez's film version of Miller's iconic Sin City, director Snyder took a similar stylistic approach. All of 300 was shot against blue-screen and green-screen backgrounds, allowing the filmmakers to add in all the details later. The result is a comic book come to life: heightened colors and contrasts give the film a feel of a moving painting. You could take any frame from a print and throw it into an art gallery without anyone batting an eye. And the Persian designs are so outlandish that they go beyond embellishment. They represent the mystic nature of the East in the most literal way. Compared to the lightly-attired Spartans, they appear as the height of excess.
And it certainly would be easy to lambaste the film as being as excessive as the villains it depicts. But Snyder dresses up the Persians specifically to highlight just what kind of men the Spartans are. For them, the battle is all. There is a lot of talk about "free men" throughout the movie, as to lose to Xerxes would mean the enslavement of all Sparta. But in point of fact, the term "free man" only meant that the Spartans were not slaves to other men; they were all slaves to the state. The strict nature of Spartan society, while hinted at, is never shown. So why would men fight and die so willingly for a country that strictly governed their entire lives from birth to death?
The answers are honor, fraternity, and the right to call themselves their own masters. In many ways, the Spartans had the first modern army. By forging brotherhood through hardship from the earliest age of a child, the Spartan army was loyal, severe, and brutally talented. Don't modern boot camps work the same way? Break down the mind, then rebuild it into a killing machine. 300 displays these methods in their noblest light. These men are not afraid to stand up against an army hundreds of times bigger than their meager force due to their camaraderie, their knowledge of their battle talents, and through their acceptance of death. Snyder comes back to this theme time and again. The whole film hinges upon it.
In many ways, I've avoided discussing the film itself. The fact is, the story here is very simple. Persia threatens Sparta, Sparta sends small force to defend itself. Persians attack, Spartans do not yield. Repeat. In between, we get a few scenes of politicking and backstabbing back at home. These scenes, while giving the story a wider context, also feel superfluous. The heart and soul of the story lies with the men who fought with everything they had in the face of an insurmountable foe. It's a simple story, told well, and while it may not be historically accurate, it makes you feel what it could have been like to be a Spartan.
"Prepare for glory!"
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.