(But let’s not forget the Athenians, who defeated the Persians in the naval Battle of Salamis and on land 10 years earlier at Marathon. When the great playwright Aeschylus died, he had written on his tombstone that he fought at Marathon. Forget the Oresteia or Prometheus Bound, he wanted people to remember that he helped kick the Persians’ ass.)
300 does a good job telling this story. It builds to a nice climax that I won’t spoil here. The movie is stylish and visually stunning. The director avoids a pet peeve of mine in action movies, that of making the action scenes an incomprehensible, Heraclitean blur of motion in which you can’t tell what is going on. There is none of that in this movie, perhaps because the visuals follow a comic book, which is by nature static, non-moving pictures.
I went to a 10pm showing on Monday night, thinking I would waltz into an empty theater, as I usually do. I was stunned to find a 30-yard line at the box office. The theater was packed – at 10pm on a Monday night! A quick check of Box Office Mojo confirms that the movie is an enormous hit:
300 was anything but spartan, reaping $70.9 million on around 4,800 screens at 3,103 theaters in its opening weekend. That eclipses all previous ancient battle pictures by a wide margin, including Troy and Gladiator, and ranks fifth among comic book adaptations.Frank Miller and the screenwriters meant well in this movie. It was interesting to hear in the dialogue that the heroes were fighting for reason, justice and freedom and the bad guys were fighting for mysticism and tyranny. No question, there is an Ayn Rand influence in the writing. I wish with Literatrix that the concepts of reason, freedom and so on were more than empty abstractions mouthed by the characters. The only abstractions that were concretized in the action were the ones King Leonidas says in his last line, “My queen. My wife. My love.” We knew what he meant by those from the action, but reason and freedom were just words.
The $65 million computer-generated battle picture conquered the March opening record, previously held by Ice Age: The Meltdown's $68 million. It's also the third-highest grossing start for an R-rated movie, behind The Matrix Reloaded and The Passion of the Christ. 300's opening included an estimated $3.4 million from 62 IMAX venues, surpassing Superman Returns as the biggest IMAX debut ever.
Of course, the real historical Sparta, a bizarre culture that glorified war, didn’t give a damn about reason or freedom. (Epaminondas of Thebes, one of the very greatest generals of Classical Civilization, finally gave the Spartan bullies what they deserved in the 4th century.) Had the movie been about Athenians – yes, the same Athenians that Leonidas sneers at as “philosophers and boy lovers” – maybe the movie could have given us some understanding of what the concepts reason and freedom mean. But this criticism is as much as to say that the script does not rise to great literature. No, 300 is not great literature, but it is a damn fine movie, which is more than I expect from Hollywood these days.
UPDATE: Let me pick a few nits with this film now that I have slept on it.
First, the decision to give Xerxes a godlike voice was a terrible choice. It sounded phony. An important part of the story is that Xerxes depended an aura of invincibility that the Spartans cracked by standing up to this "god." Part of the inferiority of the east was that they believed a man was a god, whereas the Greeks knew better. However, with his reverberating bass voice, we can forgive anyone who thought Xerxes was inhuman.
Second, the hoplites were effective because they stayed in formation. This type of warfare was all about breaking lines. Once a line was broken, the battle was over except for the mopping up. In most of the movie, though, the Spartans were shown running solo through the enemy like a bunch of berserk Vikings. If they had done that at Thermopylae, they would have been wiped out in an hour.
This lapse of historical reality is especially egregious because the movie itself makes a point of the importance of staying in line! Leonidas rejects the hunchback because he cannot fight in formation with his shield high enough to cover the man next to him. But hell, the way they ended up fighting, the hunchback would have fit right in.
Oh, well -- it's a movie. The filmmakers did what they always do: sacrifice historical accuracy for a good shot or an exciting sequence. Can't blame them for that, I suppose.