THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
12th April, 2007 0
When the first issue of Frank Miller's five-part graphic novel "300" appeared in comic book shops in May of 1998, longtime Miller fans (who are more zealous than Scientologists) knew it would never become a movie.
Miller, after achieving fame, if not fortune drawing and eventually writing about superheroes like Daredevil and Wolverine for Marvel Comics had tried his hand at writing movies. His screenplays for Robocop 2 and 3 can be credited with making those films a little better than they should have been, but he still got treated with the level of respect usually associated with Rodney Dangerfield and in-laws without money.
Marvel Comics had promised Miller, when he created Elektra while writing and drawing Daredevil, that he would retain control of the film rights to the character he created. Of course, that was a lie, as is sadly evident in the Jennifer Garner movie that was eventually made (with no input from Miller and presumably no financial remuneration).
So when Miller signed a deal with renegade comic publisher Dark Horse for a series of gritty black and white graphic novels, "Sin City", he had absolute control over movies made featuring his characters and stories.
Still the letters kept pouring in asking when there would be a Sin City movie and Frank's response was always the same. "Never."
But then fanboy and digital auteur Robert Rodriguez sold him on what the new digital technology had made possible. Miller not only agreed to let Rodriguez adapt his "Sin City" stories about Marv and Goldie and Hartigan and Nancy, he eventually co-directed the film and is now preparing his first solo directing gig, helming the long awaited adaptation of cult classic comic Will Eisner's "The Spirit".
All of this is a very long way of saying that ten years ago, Miller would never have agreed to let Hollywood make a film from "300'. But by the time production began in October, 2005 the advances in green screen digital video had made it possible to recreate the visual splendor of Miller's retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Thermopylae is not well known to the average person. And not just because the average person knows very little more about history than the fact that the Pilgrims bought condos from the Indians in return for casino rights. But students of Greek history, mostly military students and scholars, have been fascinated for centuries by the tale of Spartan King Leonidas and his band of 300 Spartans who held off an invading army of Persians at Thermopylae (The Hot Gates), using a narrow pass to render the enemies' superior numbers meaningless.
The word "Spartan" became an adjective for a reason. Spartan society was famous and somewhat infamous among the Hellenic city states. All men trained from the age of seven to fight as part of a Spartan phalanx, an almost unbreakable formation of locked shields. If other Greeks had citizen soldiers who took up arms during times of war, the Spartans were full-time warriors, Euro-samurai with a code of honor similar to the Japanese "bushido" ethic. Almost every heroic trait we associate with American Marines has its roots in Spartan discipline, bravery and honor. Spartans could marry at twenty but had to live and serve in the military until they were thirty.
And this is what makes "300" more impressive than Ridley Scott's recent epic "Gladiator" (2000). This is history. There really was a Leonidas who really did lead 300 of his best men and a few thousand other Greeks against about a half a million Persians commanded by a self-proclaimed God, Xerxes the Great.
But that's enough history. Is the movie any good? Well, to judge by the early critical response the movie was a dud with a hokey plot and special effects better suited for the inevitable Playstation 3 version.
Then the box office returns came in and "300" rakes in $70 million, more than the next ten movies combined. The biggest March opening in movie history. And this with a richly deserved "R" rating (for ultra violence and some passionate night-before battle booty Greek-style) that supposedly kept out the young teens that make up most of the weekend audience.
Critical disdain aside, there are many who will not enjoy "300". Many thoughtful and mature moviegoers are more turned off by graphic violence than explicit sex, and those persons had best steer clear of director Zack Snyder's digital wizardry.
But fans of epic storytelling with mythic elements of heroism, sacrifice, duty and honor, even in the face of certain death, as well as film fans with a hunger for visual artistry will be richly rewarded.
Amazingly most of the movie was shot on a soundstage in Canada with green screen video technology standing in for ancient Sparta. When the Spartan phalanxes shove Xerxes best troops off Greek cliffs into crashing Mediterranean waves under golden Hellenic skies, it is a triumph not of armies of men, but armies of computers.
And that's okay. Because in the end, Snyder has employed all of this technology and magic in service to faithfully adapting the amazing product of Frank Miller's writing and drawing and the sumptuous coloring of his partner Lynn Varley.
The result is a hyper-realistic style that is perfectly suited for the subject matter. It's like reading those old Classic Comics from the Sixties on a handful of mescaline. Leonidas and his band of Spartan brothers were larger than life.
Some of the most memorable lines of dialogue in the film are, according to Greek historian Herodotus, (who was 4 when the battle occurred) true accounts of Spartan bravery and wit. For example, when one of Xerxes emissaries warned that the Persians would fire so many arrows they would "blot out the sun", a Spartan is said to have replied "then we will fight in the shade".
Now that's cool. That's Clint Eastwood cool. The story of the 300 Spartans and their heroic sacrifice at Thermopylae ultimately inspired the splintered Greek states to unite and defeat Xerxes. And the story continues to inspire students of history, both military and civilian. In the film, the Spartans believe they are fighting for the triumph of reason and freedom over superstition and the tyranny of the strong over the weak.
Humorously enough, the Iranian government has made loud and angry complaints that the movie is racist and xenophobic in its portrayal of the Iranian, excuse me, Persian invaders.
But it's not hard to understand why they're mad. Their powerful king, Xerxes the Great, as drawn by Miller in his comic and faithfully cast by the film makers (who reportedly cast actors largely based on their physical similarity to Miller's drawings), looks like a big, bald Black lesbian dominatrix. Grace Jones with the voice of James Early Jones.
The battle scenes are simply breathtaking, both for their artistic choreography and the digital wizardry of the videography and editing. It astonishes the viewer the same way the effects dazzled in "The Matrix" series. "Martial arts" is a term that we've come to associate with kung fu and Hong Kong stunt men doing wire work with varying degrees of believability, but watching Leonidas and his Spartans fighting as a single unbreakable unit with only helmet, shield, spear and swords gives a whole new meaning to "martial art".
There can be a legitimate debate on the true role and motives of the Spartans and if the Persians, I mean Iranians, want to tell their side of the story with a brave heroic Xerxes contending with Greek treachery and possibly concentrating on rumored Spartan homosexuality, well, they can make their own movie.
But they'll need to find artists with the imagination and vision and timeless storytelling stills of Frank Miller and Zack Snyder. "300" is a magnificent dramatization of a timeless tale. And it might be wise for American audiences to be reminded that during war, sacrifice means more than sending calling cards to the troops.
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)