The digital epic look of “300”, interestingly enough, was nearly prefigured by Oliver Stone’s sprawling arse-marathon ALEXANDER.
That lacklustre blockbuster had a long and involved gestation, as Stone tried and failed to set the colossal project up at different studios.
The film was going to cost 400 million, and that was deemed TOO MUCH by one interested-but-not-THAT-interested studio. So it became a question of shaving off 100 mill, and that was attempted by looking at different countries to shoot in. Hungary? Morocco? Thailand? But there IS no country where you can shave off 100 mill just by going there.
The assistant director boarded a plane to fly to a meeting with Stone. His reading material was the new draft of the script. The first thing he noticed was that it was now fifty pages longer…
He arrives at the meeting. Stone bursts in, possibly flying high on a variety of herbs and spices. “David Lean is dead! I don’t want to make this film out of some third-world hotel — we’ll shoot it in L.A. and C.G. everything in.”
The AD gently tried to explain: “What you’re doing there is, you’re adding ANOTHER $100 million to the special effects budget.”
ALEXANDER finally happened, at another studio, minus the CGI and with a different AD. And so did “300”, a movie conceived from scratch as a CGI reinvention of the epic. Jettisoning any idea of reality and scale, it concentrated on flash and sizzle and pop-promo panache. It also ignored historical reality and conjured an aesthetic that, however hamfisted, works. As my costume designer says, whatever you think of the hotpants look modelled by King Leonidas and his Spartan leather boys, it’s an effective aesthetic that suits the film. The historically correct nappies modelled in ALEXANDER do nothing for the characters’ dignity, and the real sets and locations and elephants give the film that cumbersome quality we associate with so many bad historical epics from Hollywood’s past.
A sad thing about “300” — it has its origins in comic-book writer childhood Frank Miller’s viewing of the old Rudolph Maté movie 300 SPARTANS, a smarter-than-average ancient world romp. As the movie rumbled to its inevitable Carthaginian solution, little Frank started to fear the worst. “Are they all going to die?” he asked his dad. It was a revelation to him that a movie, and indeed history, could end that way.
300 SPARTANS ends with the glorious defeat. The 2006 “300” ends with the beginning of another battle, one that we are told will be victorious. It’s the same Hollywood Ending as BRAVEHEART and PEARL HARBOR — follow a historical defeat with a grafted-on victory to create a spurious hapy ending that’s literally strayed in from a different movie or a different page of the history books.
The result of this bowdlerisation is that little boys seeing “300” (and despite certification we know they’ll see it in their millions) will be denied the transfiguring experience little Frank shared with his pop all those years ago, when he realised the cathartic force of tragedy (Hollywood style).