By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007
The chance concurrence of two movie phenomena is responsible for this Thought for the Day. First, there was the scorching tide of e-mails from across America as people deeply angered by my take on last Friday's film "300" vented themselves. Folks, folks, settle down: Just keep telling yourself it's only a movie review.
Second, witness a reminder, also by e-mail, of the AFI Silver Theatre's ongoing Fred Zinnemann Centennial through April 24; the actual date of the director's birth in 1907 was April 29. During the celebration, eight of the Austrian-born Hollywood uber-professional's quiet, self-effacing masterpieces will be shown: "The Search," "Act of Violence," "High Noon," "From Here to Eternity," "Oklahoma!," "The Sundowners," "A Man for All Seasons" and "The Day of the Jackal."
What's so remarkable about these two occurrences is what they have to do with each other, which is . . . absolutely nothing.
They represent opposite approaches to the same goal, which is the entertainment of millions. And I'm betting that if Fred were alive today (he died in 1997), he'd be utterly baffled by the extravagances of "300," the largely computer-generated, comic-book-driven re-creation of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. between a gazillion Persian invaders and a handful of Spartan grunts.
Of course, there are many technical differences, the most important of which would be the computerized moving image that has given today's filmmakers an unprecedented freedom to represent on screen all that can be imagined, while poor Fred could only get on screen all that could be photographed.
But there's a deeper difference that is not only enabled by the technology, but sits right at the border between old school and new school. It's what Zinnemann (and possibly film fans of my generation) would find and do find so annoying about "300." For Zinnemann, the point of the movie was to pretend it wasn't a movie -- it was real, it was happening, it was there. You were looking at the actual through a magic pane of glass, a window in the side of the universe. This is even true of his most stylized work, the musical "Oklahoma!," where he effortlessly segues between the stylized dance numbers and the real-world setting.
For the makers of "300" and others, the point of the movie is to be a movie. You glory in the things you can do that amplify the intensity of the image, from slowing it down to making it monstrous, to filling it with blood spatters and torture made endurable by the stylizations themselves (realistically photographed, much of "300" would be unendurable, although that is true of all films of extreme violence).
Where Zinnemann's great works were meticulous, humane, brilliantly crafted, powerful and moving, they were utterly unself-aware. "300" -- like most other teen-oriented, computer-generated films ("Sin City," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," etc.) -- are completely self-aware.
So let me take a few minutes to describe a great addition to the battle movie canon -- directed by Zinnemann circa 1959, starring Burt Lancaster as King Leonidas and Anthony Quinn as Xerxes, shot in Spain with 10,000 Spanish extras and a brief appearance by Jean Simmons as Leonidas's queen -- that was never made. It never happened. But let's just allow ourselves a little movie-style flashback. I think it would have gone like this . . .
If you compare this brilliant film -- let's call it "Thermopylae" to "300," you notice certain things right away. First, Zinnemann has the deftness to keep his viewers informed without overloading them. Notice, for example, in "From Here to Eternity" how quickly and easily he evoked the infantry company politics: First Sgt. Warden (Lancaster) held Capt. Holmes in contempt as an idiot but was pleased that Holmes wasted all his time on the company boxing team. In "Thermopylae," as opposed to "300," we learn that Sparta and Athens had a twisted red state/blue state kind of relationship, had fought each other many times, but understood in the presence of the larger threat from outside that they had to work together. It wasn't about hegemony, but survival. "300" gets none of that; it is famously based on a comic book, and like a comic book it simplifies the issues to the most basic level of communication: the image. Thus its context, history and evocation of culture is reduced to rebus: We have no idea why Persia means to invade Greece (no memory of a long history of Persian failures in Greece, culminating in Marathon a few dozen years later). Frank Miller, the original comic artist, and Zack Snyder, "300's" director, fear knocking their overwhelmingly young audience into ZZZZ-land with all those borrrrringgggg explanations.
But note that Zinnemann doesn't lecture either. And to argue that context and history are necessary isn't to argue for a documentary. It's to understand that the historical doesn't dilute, it intensifies the drama. (What would "A Man for All Seasons" be without Henry VIII?) More important, this, after all, was a significant moment in western history and though some revisionists disagree, it really fell to the Spartans to hold the Persians off while the Greeks, namely the Athenians, figured out how to beat them. (Hint: sea power). The key was unity -- the farmer and the cowman could be friends, as Zinnemann argued in "Oklahoma!" The brainy, refined Athenians and the spear-chucking Spartans understood, both of them, that they had to hang together or they would hang separately.
Zinnemann uses this context to make you realize how important the battle was. Snyder and Miller, shearing off the context, make it just a spectacle. It's like comparing a tragedy to a circus. We have no idea, in their movie, what's at stake except for some idealized visions of the majestic wheat fields of Sparta that no historian ever noticed. It seems to be a fight between handsome guys with great abs and swarthy perverts from overseas (many liberal critics hated it for being, in that instance, racist).
Then there's action. The two movies, taken together, prove that less is more and more is sometimes too much. As he did in "High Noon," with one of the best action sequences in the history of cinema, Zinnemann's ability to evoke action, keep it coherent, keep it flowing, and never overdo it -- while working within the constraints of a modest budget and the limitations of photography of the time -- is on fabulous display in "Thermopylae." His battle is fought, as the original must have been, in clouds and clouds of dust, and in the dust we see the shadowy shapes of men, almost like an abstraction, struggling. Then he cuts away to dynamic close-ups -- a warrior with an arrow through the eye; a Persian, his flimsy armor pierced by the heavy Spartan thrusting spear, going down, with just a trace of black on his chest; the rearing of a horse; a close-up of Quinn's Xerxes watching in rage; then a close-up of the catlike, dynamic Lancaster as Leonidas, his face smeared with dust, sweat and blood, as he dispatches a Persian immortal. Meanwhile, the rhythm in the cutting increases, then slows, suggesting fatigue. It's remembered as one of the best battle sequences ever filmed, even though, sadly it was never filmed.
By contrast Snyder isn't thinking in film terms at all. There's no sinuous continuity in his film, which is mostly geared toward re-creating images from the comic book, as if that's enough. He seems also influenced by video-game imagery, another tribal frolic that separates action from story and presents its players with something like a highly stylized, pain- and risk-free place in the front of the Spartan phalanx: It's all action, completely disconnected from any larger issue.
Still, if you read the comic (I did, standing up in a bookstore), you see that it's an extraordinary piece of work -- and better than the movie. Miller has a remarkable gift for suggesting action as it forces your eye to leap from image to image across the page, and uses all sorts of conventions -- shape of frame, for one -- to enhance and control the rhythm until your eyes reach a giant, climactic full-page frame containing a shattering image. In his infantilism, Snyder tries to duplicate that, following almost exactly the same sequence of images, reaching the same riddled-with-arrows climax. But it doesn't work, the movement seems dead; it's like a tracing rather than a spontaneous thing.
Then there's gore. In 1959, of course, and by personal preference, Zinnemann had to keep a lid on the gore. He couldn't have heads being lopped off ("300's" "high point") or big clots of tissue floating through the air as liberated by sword hacks and spear thrusts. But he got more out of a few well-placed splashes of chocolate syrup. At the end, there's Leonidas with all the Persian arrows in him (an image Akira Kurosawa ripped off a few years later in "Throne of Blood," except that, of course, "Thermopylae" doesn't exist) and a track of black jigging from his eye down his cheek before he falls.
Meanwhile, Snyder, who can show a virtual anything, can't help himself. The movie's most vivid moments involve slaughter. One is an elephant, knocked over a cliff into the sea, dragging men and equipment with it. Not even in '59 would Zinnemann kill an elephant for a movie, but since it's on a hard drive, Snyder lets Dumbo go bye-bye. It's shocking but somehow looks more like a CD album cover than anything in real life.
Then there's the beheading. This really displays Snyder at his worst. The essence of the battle (which Zinnemann certainly would have gotten) was claustrophobia. Given the immense numbers involved, the actual point of impact was quite small and unphotogenic: armored infantry and unarmored infantry crushed together in the geographical confines of the pass. Snyder knows how dull this is, and quickly violates the logic of not only history but his own movie and has the Spartans absurdly break themselves out of the pass so that they can fight more graphically and visually. This sets up the sequence where a young fighter gets his head chopped off by a Persian cavalryman. Hmmm, what is wrong with this picture? Well, the boy doesn't notice the horseman charging him. He doesn't notice 2,000 pounds of raging animal, hellbent for leather rider, he doesn't hear the incredible noise, the shaking of the ground, he just doesn't notice it. Thus is he perfectly sited for that one-in-a-million blow and the tumbling cranium that everyone was talking about in fifth period Monday.
In other words, Snyder doesn't know enough to get the power of violence without the gore, but he so needs the gore that he engineers a scenario that for all but the crudest of viewers is mind-bogglingly stupid.
Finally, look at the issue of character: Zinnemann had the ability to draw full portraits of complex men -- Lancaster in "From Here to Eternity," Montgomery Clift, same movie, as the troubled boxer-bugler Robert E. Lee Prewitt; even in Zinnemann's last great one, "Day of the Jackal," the lead is a man of complexity and charisma. In "Thermopylae" he gets the best out of the great Lancaster: the macho braggadocio of "Elmer Gantry," but also the clever professional warrior of "The Professionals." The graceful acrobat of "The Crimson Pirate" with the powerful, just leader of "The Train." (Zinnemann also had the good sense not to hire Kirk Douglas, whom the studio would have tried to push on him, had there been a studio.)
By contrast, Snyder can only show us men from the outside; he has no feel for psychology or motive. His Xerxes is far from the subtle, nuanced Quinn, and really a fashion show: He's like a perverse rock star pretending to effeminacy because he knows it'll shock the parents. He's Alice Cooper as pre-Common Era satrap, festooned with needles and rings and pins. You loathe him not because he seeks to destroy western civilization but because he has really bad taste in facial jewelry.
Alas in 1959, Fred Zinnemann didn't make "Thermopylae," he made "The Nun's Story." And double alas, in 2007, Zack Snyder did make "300."