Back when this writer was a young and bloodthirsty lad, one of the major sources for entertainment were the Italian swords-and-sandals flicks being produced by the truckload in '60s. Us gladiatorial gorehounds each had moments in these movies that we favored, but the bit we all looked forward to was the Arrow in the Eye scene.
You probably know it. We're in the heat of the big battle; hordes of soldiers are charging against each other; and suddenly some extra stumbles out screaming in front of the camera with his hand to his eye, a big ol' arrow poking out between two fingers. Perhaps, if there's enough money in the budget, you even get to see some stage blood dripping from his hand. An obvious effect, to be sure, but that's the way movie violence went in those dull, dim days. As an audience we kids were satisfied – somewhat – by the bloody spectacle on display, even as we knew there was so much more that we weren't being shown.
Watching the new DVD release of 300 this weekend, I couldn't help recalling my boyish pleasure at the horrid deaths once bestowed on movie spear carriers and thinking that the creators behind this work – original graphic novelist Frank Miller and writer/director Zack Snyder – are the kinds of former kids who once looked at Arrow in the Eye scenes and thought, "That's not enough!" Now that they have the age and tinsletown status to do so, these guys are producing entertainments that revel in the way they surpass the simpler movie violence of yore. Arrow in the Eye? Pshaw. We're gonna give you slow-mo beheadings and gallons of computer-generated arterial spray; we're gonna show (twice) a sky with thousands of arrows raining down on our Spartan heroes. So much for your piddly li'l injury to the eye.
300 retells the movie story of the Battle of Thermopylae, the grandly sacrificial fight between 300 doomed Spartans led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and an unimaginably vast army of Persians under the rule of "god-king" Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Though 300's story has historical basis, as retold by the story's one surviving Spartan (David Wenham), it's as much fabulist fantasy as it is a gritty ancient battle reconstruction.
Xerxes' personal guards, the Immortals, for instance, prove to be sharp-toothed demonic figures, while the biggest of the Immortals – a battle-scarred giant fiercer than the Son of Kong – tosses Spartans about like he's just been exposed to a massive dose of gamma rays. When he hovers over Leonidas, large flecks of drool trailing off his mouth, we can't help thinking of, oh, Sigourney Weaver facing off with the mother of all Aliens. Leonidas ultimately gets the Uber-Ultimate to back off with a dagger in the eye (yes!), the preferred method of disposal in more than a few Harryhausen-esque dinosaur flicks.
While scriptwriters Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon make occasional nods toward contemporary relevance – Spartan king Leonidas speechifies more than about fighting against the Persians to "rescue the world from mysticism and tyranny," even though we earlier saw him dutifully climbing to the temple of the Spartan priests for their support – the primary thing that lingers from this flick is its visually striking bloody-mindedness. As with Sin City, immense effort has been made to replicate the look and tone of Frank Miller's original graphic novel source material, but where City drew from a character-rich pulp tradition, the Spartan figures in 300 are more calculatedly stunted. These are men, we're told, who've been raised since childhood to revel in the art of war, and those few small moments of honest emotion that pop up are quickly muzzled to keep the focus on the fight ahead. We get occasional bits of banal between-battle banter ("You still here?" "Somebody's got to watch your back."), but on the whole Butler's Leonidas and his crew are a pretty grim lot.
To vary the visual palette, the movie occasionally returns to Sparta where Leonidas' lady Gorgo, played with steel rod resolve by Lena Headey, struggles to convince the Spartan council to fully commit to war with Persia. Her primary opponent is a smarmy councilman named Theron (Dominic West), and while the Spartan warriors are all of a loudly chest-thumping type, the oily Theron is portrayed as a more duplicitous figure. It's no accident that West, an actor best known for playing flawed modern protagonists like The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty, was chosen for this part: he's meant to be contrasted with more straight-ahead manly warriors like Leonidas. There were still times, however, where I felt Theron's slimy politico belonged in a different movie altogether.
Too, the Sparta scenes, occurring as they do far away from the sight of the movie's soldier narrator, add yet another layer of unreliability onto the story. How does Spartan soldier Dilios know what happens between Gorgo and Theron? It's not as if Gorgo would later describe Theron's taking sexual advantage of her during her attempts to win him over to Leonidas' side. Still, the scene where Gorgo takes down Theron in the middle of council chambers, coins from his betrayal oh-so-conveniently spilling onto the floor, is pure comics. Why is Theron keeping all that heavy coinage underneath his toga? So it can visually damn him in the eyes of his fellow councilmen at just the right moment.
But the bulk of 300 remains focused on our boys at the front: with occasional brief moments devoted to interchanges with Xerxes and his messenger minions, all of who deliver their lines with the affected arrogance we've grown to know from decades of ancient movie civilizations. We also get a pathetic John Merrick-indebted hunchback, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), who betrays his countrymen after Leonidas refuses to let him fight in the 300 and whose primary function seems to be to serve as a cautionary example of what happens when you go against Spartan custom and don't kill defective babies during their infancy. Waitaminute – who are we supposed to be siding with again?
The climactic battle is inarguably grandly staged — Leonidas standing up to that second hail of arrows after humiliating the self-proclaimed god-king Xerxes, his silhouette heroically centered in the screen. Definitely a Miller moment. When the camera pulls back from overhead to show our hero, we see his body riddled with arrows, though not a one comes anywhere near his eye. We understand. He's not some disposable extra; he's the movie's hero. Wouldn't wanna mess with his features too much…