The Reeler


March 8, 2007

Spartan Cinema

The Snyder/Miller collaboration could be the beginning of a beautiful, bloody friendship

(L-R) Vincent Regan and Gerard Butler prepare for glory (i.e. imminent death) in 300, opening Friday in New York (Photos: Warner Bros.)

Monsters rule the earth... it is a dark time, a dark age. Hope is a phantom dream, a fragrant memory. Of joy there is no remembrance... only fear and pain and disease and death, endless death. Yet still, in human hearts, there is fire. There is courage."

It may have seemed a strange choice for director Zack Snyder to follow his very modern update of Dawn of the Dead with 300 (opening Friday in New York), a sword-and-sandal epic about a bunch of haughty, barrel-chested Greeks. But then, it probably also seemed like an odd choice for 300 author Frank Miller, a graphic novelist best-known for his street level superheroes and noir-inflected crime stories. In retrospect, 300 became something of a Rosetta stone for Miller's career, and if the first two films are any indication, it could become one for Snyder's as well. The above excerpt reads like an introduction to 300; in fact, they come from Miller's samurai cyber-punk Ronin, but they could preface almost anything he's written as well as everything Snyder has directed.

Though published in 1998 (20 years after his first published work), 300 was, by all accounts, the book Miller had wanted to draw his entire life. His obsession with the material began as a young boy, when Miller's family went to see Rudolph Maté's 1962 film The 300 Spartans, about the eponymous band of soldiers who resisted the Persian king Xerxes and his empire long enough at the Battle of Thermopylae to inspire the rest of Greece to mobilize against their enemy. Miller saw through Richard Egan's stiff acting and Maté's rote storytelling and found himself mesmerized by what he has consistently described as "the best story [he'd] ever encountered." He was particularly impacted by the Spartans' deaths, arousing the notion that a hero did what they did "because it's the right thing, not because he gets a medal at the end."

In 2001, Miller told The Onion AV Club that 300 had "informed so many of the narratives I've come up with," proving just how important the story had been to his creative life. In the two decades between the time that Miller became a published comic artist (in the pages of a Twilight Zone comic and another book called Weird War Tales) and 300's debut as a miniseries from Dark Horse Comics in 1998, Miller created many of the era's most popular and important comic books and graphic novels; all of them owed some debt to his treasured Greek warriors. Like the Spartans, Miller's characters typically battle tyrants in tales set in bleak, unforgiving landscapes. The back cover of the aforementioned Ronin, promises a "fight for the soul of a dying civilization" another statement that describes 300 with equal accuracy. Miller even went so far as to include references to Spartan leader King Leonidas and The Hot Gates, the Aegean cliffs where his men made their last stand, in the Sin City novel The Big Fat Kill. His fixation is not limited to his own creations either; in his landmark mini-series The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Miller all but transformed Batman from a campy pop icon into the ultimate, pitiless crime stopper. In short, Batman became a Spartan (a porn star named Hot Gates also makes a brief appearance).

Many of Miller's protagonists die a glorious Spartan death, including several of the subjects of his Sin City series as well as one of his most famous creations, superhero Daredevil's ninja ex-girlfriend Elektra. It's a particularly important distinction in Miller's work because comic books are particularly notorious for their loose adherence to the laws of mortality; characters die and are reborn as often as those in soap operas, often with as much disregard for history, logic, or basic common sense. Indeed, Miller's successors on the Daredevil comic quickly reinstated Elektra to life, something Miller would never do.

Death is equally impermanent in a zombie movie -- unless, of course, that death comes from a sharp blow to the head. If Frank Miller were to make zombie movie, it would probably look an awful lot like Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead. Boiled down to its narrative essence -- a small band of survivors hopelessly outnumbered struggles hopelessly against an endless horde of obdurate enemies -- the plot is nearly identical to that of 300. The slightly celebratory tone Snyder's film assumes whenever one of the characters dies an honorable, heroic death reeks of Miller-worship. Dawn of the Dead's famous tagline -- "When there's no room left in hell, the dead will walk the earth" -- doesn't sound too far removed from Miller's introduction to Ronin. No wonder, then, that Snyder chose 300 as his sophomore feature.

300 creator and executive producer Frank Miller

It seemed that everyone on the planet (this author included) assumed Snyder's Dawn of the Dead would be an embarrassment, and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of simply remaking Romero's movie, he reworked it, taking the basic story and setting and building in new characters, new problems, and new, more horrifying zombies who ran instead of shuffled at their enemies (Snyder went into production with no knowledge of its similarly toned contemporary 28 Days Later... ). With 300, Snyder takes the opposite approach by meticulously recreating Miller's book on screen -- often panel by panel, line by line. His attention to detail exceeds even that of Robert Rodriguez with Sin City. Rodriguez (with Miller's assistance) translated Sin City; in essence, Snyder visually transcribed 300.

Snyder did make one major change while adapting 300, by significantly enlarging the role of Leonidas' Queen, Gorgo (played by Lena Headey), who appears in just one scene in the novel, but plays an important role throughout the film, working for an audience with the Spartan city council to argue for further military intervention on behalf of her husband. Interestingly, when Snyder has characterized this addition in interviews he never mentions Gorgo's nemesis in these scenes, a politician named Theron (Dominic West), or the way that their struggle lends the film a political message far more overt than its source. Written years before 9/11 or the war on terror, Miller's 300 was a more generic call to heroism and sacrifice; Snyder's addition of a Spartan political landscape, one where society at large goes about its comfortable lives while a small faction willingly die to protect them, has very strong echoes to a certain view of the American volunteer army currently serving in Iraq.

Miller didn't intend any of that when he wrote 300 but is surely pleased nonetheless. In the past few years, he has become an increasingly outspoken conservative voice; speaking to NPR after President Bush's 2007 State of the Union address, he found himself most concerned about the state of the home front, and decried most Americans for "acting like spoiled brats." The civilization on the brink in 300 is saved by the expanded military action that comes in the wake of the Spartans' sacrifice and, one suspects, Miller sees that as the only option for America as well.

It remains to be seen whether either Miller or Snyder will collaborate again, but neither are showing any signs of moving into new areas of interest. Snyder's next project is an adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen, another story of a tiny band of heroes who live (and mostly die) to prevent an apathetic civilization's end. Miller has another Sin City movie on the horizon as well as a new graphic novel that will surely be even more political and even more hotly debated: a Batman story where the Caped Crusader takes on Osama Bin Laden. The tentative title is Holy Terror, Batman! though Batman: Monsters Rule the Earth might do in a pinch.

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