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05 September, 2009

DVD Review: 300

Title: 300

Year of Release—Film: 2007

Year of Release—DVD: 2007

DVD Label: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


This might seem like an odd film for me to review, a historical epic about the Battle of Thermopylae 2,500 years ago. However, anyone familiar with Frank Miller’s work, especially the fantastic SIN CITY, would realize that he could make the dictionary fit into the genre category.

For those unfamiliar with this most pivotal battle in the history of western civilization, it occurred as a massive Persian army (best estimates place it at around 250-300,000 men, not the one million mentioned in the movie…) invaded Greece in the 5th Century B.C.
A force of 6-10,000 Greeks, led by 300 Spartans under the command of their King, Leonidas, met them at a narrow coastal pass that commanded the exit from the invasion beaches, a pass called by the Greeks “The Hot Gates”—Thermopylae. With the Thespian and Phoecian armies covering his back and flank, Leonidas positioned his personal bodyguard of 300 handpicked men—all the Spartan council would allow him to take—astride the pass.

Over the next three days, 300 Spartan soldiers held the pass against the combined might of what, at the time, was the largest empire on earth. On the third day, a local shepherd named Ephialtes led the Persians to a small path behind the Spartans. The Phoecians defending Leonidas’ flank scattered, and a contingent of Persian infantry encircled the doomed Spartans.
The Spartans, remaining true to their beliefs, refused to abandon their positions and retreat with the Thespian army. Earlier, when asked to lay down their weapons, the Spartans replied “Molón labe…” “Come and take them.” They honored that statement, dying to the last man. That simple phrase is still the motto of the Greek Army. At the site today lies a simple marker that reads, “Go tell the Spartans, passersby, that here in obedience to her laws we lie.”

That is the history. And as inspiring and heroic as it is, Frank Miller managed, in his graphic novel 300, to inject steroids straight into the bloodstream of the historical facts. Then Zack Snyder got a grip on it. He hit it with 1,000 volts of pure energy, and zapped it with a little gamma radiation for good measure. The result is history, mutated.

Snyder, whose last genre work was the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, does a spectacular job here of transferring Miller’s graphic novel directly to the screen. The look and texture of Miller’s artwork has been perfectly captured by Snyder’s camera, giving the film a look unlike any other.

The acting is superb, especially that of Gerard Butler as Leonidas, the Spartan king; Lena Headey, as his queen, Gorgo; and David Wenham, as Delios, the lone Spartan survivor, sent back to rally support for the king. Dominic West, as the traitorous Theron, also deserves special mention, as in Theron he creates one of the slimiest villains to slither across the screen in some time.

If this film has a flaw (and that’s a big IF…) it’s that the history of Thermopylae is often buried under layers of surrealism, from a 7½-foot tall Xerxes, to a Persian court that resembles a traveling circus side-show, to the use of elephants and a rhinoceros in the Persian order of battle. Scenes excised from the final cut of the film were even more bizarre, with dwarf Persian archers riding giant humans into battle.

But these excesses are faithful to the graphic novel, and do nothing to detract from one’s enjoyment of the movie. To be frank, only a serious student of history will care about such exaggerations; and in the core of the story, where it really matters, the filmmakers stay fairly close to Herodotus, the first chronicler of the story of the 300.

My DVD is the Widescreen 2-disc Collector’s Edition, and is absolutely perfect. Subtitles, menu design, graphics, video and audio quality… There’s nothing more I can say—everything is simply perfect.

As you might expect from a DVD labeled as “…Collector’s Edition” there’s no shortage of special features here, and contrary to the norm, none are ‘throw-away’ bits added just as filler. The best, at least to this history buff, is a detailed look at the history behind the fiction, the true story of Thermopylae. Hosted by historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson (who was advisor to the production…) this nearly half-hour long documentary examines the film in relation to the factual accounts of the battle, most notably Herodotus'.

There are also multiple looks at the making of 300, including the short clips that were originally posted to the movie’s website during production. These detail some of the fascinating techniques used to bring Frank Miller’s vision to life, and such insights are always a favorite of mine.

There are more bonuses than the norm on this set, for which I’m extremely grateful. When I’m as big a fan of a film as I am of 300, then I want every special feature I can get in connection to the movie… with this set, I feel like that’s what I’ve gotten.

Let me end the suspense now: Barring something truly spectacular on the part of the genre films yet to be released this year, (and I think I’m safe on that score…) this movie will be my Movie of the Year for 2007. It has everything you could possibly want in a film of this type, from fantastic action to tremendous special effects, all captured in stunningly beautiful photography. Miller’s art is extraordinarily unique, and it seems to compel filmmakers to try to transfer it intact to the screen; as in SIN CITY. I for one am thankful for that.

I grabbed my DVD from BestBuy the day it was released, and paid about $25.00 for it. And it’s selling at Amazon.com right now for about $2 less. But whatever you pay for it, pick it up now… and thank me later.

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