This! Is! (Still!) Sparta! How '300' Spartans Lowered the Bar for Historical Epics


Just as the forms of storytelling have evolved across the eons, so have the ancient myths, tales of bravery and defiance spanning from mortals to the Gods which have endured as spoken lore, epic prose and -- with the onset of cinema -- visual splendor. In the case of 1959’s “Ben-Hur,” this meant thousands of extras occupying lavish sets. For 1981’s “Clash of the Titans,” it entailed groundbreaking visual effects from the likes of Ray Harryhausen. Then, after a lull in historical epics, Ridley Scott’s Best Picture-winning “Gladiator” brought them back to the forefront in 2000.

“Troy” followed to considerably less fanfare, but the status of modern sword-and-sandal pictures was all but solidified by the since-topped record-breaking opening of Zack Snyder’s “300,” a slavish, stylized adaptation of Frank Miller’s exceedingly graphic novel. Love it or hate it, the reproduction of individual comic panels was a striking and distinctive move, an unrelenting parade of hyper-violent money shots devoid of 3D’s supposed advantage responsible for breathing new life into a supposedly musty genre.

Nothing would succeed like excess, it seemed, and yet “300” only had a reported budget of $65 million. While “Gladiator” certainly was not without its own fair share of digital augmentation, what studio wouldn’t rather achieve similar spectacle with the biggest green-screen on the cheapest soundstage and a fraction of the cast at hand? The approach would mark a sea change in the industry; to make an epic film no longer required an equally epic production. A transparent imitator like 2011’s “Immortals” could earn a considerable amount of bank based not on star power, but its nigh-identical slow-motion swordplay and exaggerated environments. Hell, even a garish cut-rate parody like Friedberg and Seltzer’s “Meet the Spartans” could manage to replicate the style with relative fidelity.

In fairness, it’s a maneuver hardly limited to the big screen. Miles away from Stanley Kubrick’s sturdy take on “Spartacus” is Starz’ TV series of the same name, a coarse entertainment with intentionally gaudy production values that still found an audience by way of its explicit sexual and violent content. Compare that to the similarly New Zealand-produced shows of the ‘90s: “Hercules: The Legendary Journey” and spin-off “Xena: Warrior Princess,” jokey and practically chaste affairs which double as unwitting capsules of pre-“300” historical fantasy. Now, years after the reign of Sorbo, we find ourselves staring down two different Hercules pictures. Kellan Lutz stars in Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules” this Friday, while The Rock gets a proper summer slot for Brett Ratner’s “Hercules: The Thracian Wars” this July.

Marketing for the former already demonstrates a flagrant aping of Snyder’s signature style, as do trailers for February’s “Pompeii” and March’s “300: Rise of an Empire” (with all three seeing a 3D release, of course). Scenes from each appear all but interchangeable in their hyperbolic displays of mayhem, and if their predecessors are to be believed, none will be as exciting, inspired or just plain memorable as the historical epics of old. These days, anyone can create a Kraken and any stud can swing a sword against a supposedly stormy sky. At the time of its release, “300” stood out for better or worse because it brought a renewed appeal to enduring legends, and yet less than a decade since, that aesthetic sensibility already feels played out, due for its own eye-popping update by some other up-and-coming visionary. Barring that, what is the future of the past on film if not more of this?