Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Preparing for 300

When it comes to historical dramas, one often wonders what the thoughts of scholars of a particular subject think about films depicting that subject. When watching a film about the Crusades, one wants to know what medieval scholars think about the film as a whole product.

No one expects historical dramas to be perfectly accurate, but one does expect them to capture the feel of the times and to be compelling stories. There are exceptions to the above statement, especially with regard to biblical films where some people do expect perfect accuracy, but by and large the audience wants to know that a film is entertaining and not a mockery of the era it is representing. Let me give what I think are two good examples. Kingdom of Heaven has many historical inaccuracies, but the more I watch the film, the more I am drawn in by the sense of the film and its imagery. The film genuinely transports me away from the present and into a faux version of the Crusades. Timeline has an almost opposite effect. As much as I enjoyed Crichton's book which provided the foundation for the movie version, I dislike the movie more each time I view it. Sadly, I have seen this film around six times because I have friends who enjoy the movie, and friendship is more important than agreeing whether a film is good or not. For me, Timeline's problem is that the film completely ignores the underlying argument of the book, chiefly that the "Dark Ages" weren't anywhere near as dark as the Renaissance claimed it to be. Every time I see Timeline, I keep asking myself, "Where did the $80 million go?"

Next month sees the opening of Frank Miller's 300 on the big screen. The Battle of Thermopylae has been one of my favorite subjects to read about/watch for a long time. My first exposure to the famous battle was Rudolph Maté's 1962 classic, The 300 Spartans. I saw it at a tender young age when I was cutting my teeth on all kinds of Sword and Sandal films, most of which had some kind of supernatural element. The 300 Spartans was different. The heroes didn't win the day, they died heroically. I have watched the film numerous times since and, while it does seem dated, it inspires me every time. I guess you can't go too wrong as long as you include the "big lines" from Herodotus.

I am excited about Frank Miller's version. The graphic novel was good, though there was significant artistic license. The previews look beautiful and Gerard Butler, who was the best thing about Timeline, looks to be a very good Leonidas. Being excited, I did what I usually do and surfed the internet searching for speculation by scholars familiar with the subject. I was pleasantly surprised to find more than mere speculation. Frank Miller, and film director Zack Snyder, gave classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson a preview screening. Both claim to be big fans of VDH, a fandom which includes me.

In an interview with Rebecca Murray, Zack and Frank were quoted as saying:

Zack Snyder: He’s a frickin genius. He’s a Greek historian and we showed him the movie because I wanted him to write a forward to the Making Of book. I was a little nervous to be honest, because I wasn’t sure how he’d react. And Kurt Johnstad who he and I worked on the screenplay together, he actually also is a huge fan of Victor Davis Hanson. He went up to show him the movie at his house.

Frank Miller: I mean, jumping back to Victor Davis Hanson, it was right in the middle of maybe our first conversation that Zack brought his name up, not realizing that he was citing my favorite non-fiction writer in the whole universe.

When I read these words, my excitement increased. But it was upon reading Victor Davis Hanson's review of 300 that the film went from "must see" to "will murder to see." VDH gives the film a glowing review over at his site (though it should be noted that the graphic novel is being released by Dark Horse and not Black Horse). He states in the summary of his review, "most importantly, 300 preserves the spirit of the Thermopylae story. The Spartans, quoting lines known from Herodotus and themes from the lyric poets, profess unswerving loyalty to a free Greece. They will never kow-tow to the Persians, preferring to die on their feet than live on their knees."

I can't wait.

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