I remember going to White Horse comics in Villa Park about 9 or 10 years ago and picking up this massive book called "300". I looked through the pages and was floored by the intense artwork it contained. Contrasted and dynamic flows of brutality that read more like the fever dreams of psychotic Greek history enthusiast than a “comic book”. But alas, it cost more money that I tended to spend those days and as I left that comic book store, so faded my memory of "300".
Fast-forward to April 2005, Sin City, an adaptation of another brilliant Frank Miller book, is released in theaters. Seeing Frank Millers style translated flawlessly to the screen was one of those benchmark moments in my life, something that I’ll never forget, and something that I’ll point to the next time someone asks me why I love movies so much. That same contrasted and dynamic style painted itself across the screen in a blaze of neo-noir glory, like a Dashiell Hammett acid flashback. In the wake of Sin City’s success a movie got greenlit based on a story I hadn’t thought about in ages, and when the first trailer was released for 300, my mind immediately flew back to the one feeling I can still remember from that day in the comic book shop so many years ago: sheer awe.
When I sat down in my seat at our local IMAX, my knees were practically shaking at the excitement. I was nervous, as most of my kind (nerds, geeks, dorks, etc. etc.) can get sometimes. We devote loads of our conscious thoughts to movies, and generally we’ll devote them to one movie in particular. Most of my waking moments prior to March 9th, 2007 had been spent thinking about that night and the opportunity I would be granted in the form of a motion picture. Were there ever a movie made that earned the title “motion picture”, 300 would certainly be it.
The first images that flashed on the screen forced back my nervousness and flew me into a state of geek nirvana. A wide-eyed smile painted itself on my face as a spear punched through the head of a wolf was painted onto the screen. I was at my church.
I mentioned 300 as being a motion picture, and I say that in its most literal context. Motion suggests movement, while a picture suggests the lack of movement, something static. Movies at their base form are a series of pictures flashed in front of your eyes, creating the illusion of movement. With 300, the audience is afforded the opportunity of absorbing every detail of the scene with the films masterful use of slow motion. Just as with a picture, photograph or painting, with 300 you are given tremendous amounts of time to scan the frame and analyze its composition.
Imagine a golden grassy field with a sun on the horizon, a rumble gets louder and over a hilltop a cadre of men on horseback slowly march towards you. A typical movie could illustrate this event in a matter of seconds. 300 makes you feel it, it makes you feel it in your bones. What do these men bring? Are they to be feared? Loved? Are they the harbingers of death and tyranny that a sovereign city-state such as Sparta was built to defend against? Anyway you slice it, when they finally arrive at the city gates, your skepticism of these strange visitors is not only heightened, but it is also felt deeper as the camera slowly pans across the denizens of Sparta.
I don’t think the point of the using of slow motion was just to make it look cool (though it certainly helps). Nor do I think it was used to bring it closer to Frank Miller’s interpretation of the story. It was used to give the audience a sense of importance, that the events happening on the screen mean something. Think about this in the context of King Leonidas, the decision he made to bring 300 of his best soldiers to defend his city against the invading Persian hordes was not as easy one. It was a decision, in fact, that based on the laws of Sparta, was entirely illegal. But based on his ideals and his personal way of life, it wasn’t that much of a decision at all. It was more of a reaction or reflex. What would you do if someone had threatened your freedom in the way the Persian messenger threatened Leonidas’? You’d fight. You’d fight for your life. So the slow motion is used to highlight scenes of great importance. The approaching Persian messenger, the bloody battles, and the finale’s spear toss. The slow motion is telling you: “Pay attention.”
The movie is all about King Leonidas and the Spartans perspective. So in that sense, the slow motion is a perfect way to show you that perspective. Now a days, we all know that Xerxes wasn’t 10 feet tall, that Rhinoceros’ and Elephants weren’t that big and that there weren’t gigantic monster men fighting for Persia, but from the perspective of the Spartans, that’s what it looked like. There was the invading mass of people that were completely and utterly foreign to them. I doubt they’d ever even seen a brown-skinned person let alone an exotic animal. In the hands of a less skilled director, this concept could have been overblown and worthy of the hysteria that it caused in Iran. If this were a Michael Bay picture, the Persians would practically be aliens driving spaceships, thankfully Zach Snyder didn’t take it quite that far. It was exotic enough with out being entirely ridiculous.
I suppose that were the audience full of a bunch of goons and lummoxes, they might take Snyder’s and Miller’s interpretation of “crazy foreigners” all too literally. But then again, I think the people who would take that seriously are also the people who think that their Judas Priest record told them to kill somebody or that video games caused Columbine. There’s a point where Hollywood should be relieved of responsibility and the actions and thought processes of individuals should be further examined, but I digress. That isn’t the point of this movie or what I’m trying to say about it. Beyond all the grandiose images and storytelling I think that there is fairly clear message to 300, one that is entirely relevant today.
Since 300 was released I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to Bush and Iraq and blah blah blah. Is Bush Sparta and Iraq the Persians or vice versa? One could argue both sides. Bush equals Sparta as a triumphant display of power or Bush equals Persia as a ruthless invading horde lead by a narcissistic dictator. By making those comparison’s, I think the point is missed entirely. Whether or not the Spartans were truly “free” or even democratic, and despite the fact that Xerxes armies were generally paid, the movie didn’t portray them that way. If you’re pissed about that, then you take things too seriously. It’s a movie and a story, one that never claimed to be real or accurate.
Anyways, the movie is about freedom, and deciding what you are going to do when your freedom is threatened. Will you listen to those whose influence over you is more inspired by politics than personal choice? Or will you listen to what you know is right? In today’s world, we are being constantly told what is right and what is wrong, even if what we are being told goes against every concept of those terms that we’ve ever heard. Politicians over-speak it and the media over-reports it. As a people and society we’re full of a lot of confusion and conflicting thoughts. But each of us knows inside what is right and what is wrong. Whether it was learned from your religion, your parents or whoever else inspired you, morality is a concept that each and every one of us has a grasp of. 300 isn’t just about fighting for what you believe, it’s about making that choice. It’s about standing and watching as your freedoms and concept of what’s right being eroded away, and ultimately deciding to do something about it.
I walked away from 300 having my concept of what cinema can be blown out of the water by the thunderstorm that was that film. Not only that, but my concept of the philosophical aspect of what a film can achieve was altered as well. At its base 300 is a perfectly passable, if not immensely elegant interpretation of the action-movie historical fantasy genre. But beneath it’s sheening gloss of blood and brutality, swords and stones, I felt something slightly deeper. I’m an American through and through, I haven’t got enough of any one European ethnicity in me to claim allegiance to any other country or ethnicity. I’m what America is supposed to be, everyone and everything. I’ve never seen or experienced anything that made feel proud of being American, and in today’s political and cultural hailstorm of attacks on America’s politicians and it’s people, can you really blame me? 300 didn’t make me feel any more “American” than I had before I walked into the theater, but it did stir the pot of my appreciation of freedom and what it means to me. I appreciate the fact that I can go to the theater and watch a good film and interpret it how I choose. I appreciate that fact that my morals are my own. I know what is right and what is wrong. At the risk of sounding all “Rah-Rah! Go America!” about it, knowing that difference is what America represents to me.