300 and the Lord of the Rings
I watched the movie 300 for the third time today. I really didn’t want to, but a friend dragged me and we walked out about half an hour before the climax. But watching the movie today in a very distracted atmosphere did lead me to contemplate some interesting things.
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a remarkable set of movies. (Tolkien has said that the LOTR is hardly a trilogy. Rather it is a book that happens to have three parts. I would say the same for the movies also.) The storyline is, undoubtedly, one of the best modern myths that we have. However, the movies themselves go ahead and create a visual vocabulary which is of epic proportions. We had not seen such a spectacle on screen before and now that we have, we automatically associate these images with the fantastic world that Tolkien has created.
The world that Tolkien creates is simple. There is honor and valor on one side and people who believe in them. Kindness and pity are virtues. Bravery and sacrifice are ideals that everyone is trying to live up to. There is evil and treachery, malice and lies on the other hand. The darkness of the Dark Lord lies in his hatred and abrogation of all things fair and just.
These ideas would appear quaint to the modern man who has grown up learning that things are not black and white but there are shades of grey. He is delighted at a tale that shows him these shades of grey. Perhaps that is because it makes him more comfortable about his own inadequacy.
And these blacks and whites in the Lord of the Rings movies are depicted by Rivendell and Mordor. One place that is fair and just and another that is evil and dark. And as the story progresses we get more of these coin like visuals. Elves vs. Orks, lembas vs human flesh, horses of Rohan vs the winged steeds of the Nazgul. Even the atmosphere itself becomes an incessant play of light and shade as the battle fields of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith are overcast and gloomy.
The movie 300 uses a lot of this visual vocabulary. In the very beginning we have a beast that appears animated, not a like a real beast at all, whose eyes glow and which walks with a steady choreographed motion. The beast has a air of unreality around it which is emphasized by its shining eyes in the dark. However, it is merely a wolf and there is nothing out worldly about it.
Next we have the Persian messenger riding down in slow motion across the rolling Greek farmland. Reminds one very much of the White Rider riding down to the help of those trapped and holding fort in Helm’s Deep. King Leonidas then has to go consult the Oracle who wreathes and sways in her intoxicated state as if she’s a fairy from another world.
Leonidas then gathers his 300 loyal men and marches off to his death. What we see as he departs is not a realistic countryside but a highly stylized landscape done in very much the style that Rivendell was.
Next we get the battle itself and all its excitement. Notice, though, that the Xerxes’ elite are called Immortals and ghosts – ones who do not die. Yet they are just warriors in reality. They wear masks that do not show eyes or mouths. Much like the Nazgul We are faced with beasts and men who look like supernatural beasts out of any run of the mill fantasy. Yet, 300 really did happen and there was no way that Xerxes could have had those other-worldly ghosts to fight for him. Xerxes himself is referred to as the God-King lending and air of fantastic to him. And yet, it merely turns out to be a very human battle in the end.
What Does It All Mean?
Fine, so 300 uses a vocabulary, visual and otherwise that a fantasy movie would use. What does that achieve for us? What does it tell us?
It tells us perhaps that the way the story is told has a very deep impact on what the story becomes. The battle of Thermopylae is an ordinary battle. Yes, it was a battle of great courage and valor but a human battle after all. Narrating the tale in this manner lends it an air of being extraordinary in some sense.
And unquestionably, there is nothing special about this observation. It has been shown time and again that the ordinary can indeed be turned into the extraordinary by a careful and crafted use of the medium. That is what advertisements do all day on television. So what really does the film tell you when they do this?
Perhaps the fact that the medium can do this transformation becomes very express in the way the film is crafted. The viewer is constantly given a high where he is expecting the extraordinary and then given a jolt to reality as he realizes the medium is playing tricks on him. Perhaps that is the point. To make it clear how the medium can do that. And that, perhaps, is the magic of Frank Miller.