Hollywood loves a great underdog story, even when the underdog ultimately fails, showing those standing defiantly and refusing to bow in the face of what is certain defeat. There is probably no greater historical battle of a small force resisting an overwhelming force than the Greek Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.
Most of what we know about this battle—which is still studied today for military strategy and tactics, and is especially beloved by Special Forces operators—is from the Greek historian Herodotus. And while 300 is certainly a fictionalized, heavily
fantasized retelling of this battle, it gets a surprising amount of the history of both the battle and Spartan culture right.
The Spartans were trained warriors nearly from birth. When a child was born, he was examined for any defect that would make him unfit to be a warrior, and if any was found, he was put to death. At age seven, all male Spartan citizens were pulled from their families to undergo a rigorous training and education program known as agoge. Sparta was a warrior society. The occupation of all Spartan men was soldier, and they devoted their lives to military service and improving their fighting skills to serve the state, with the motto that “Spartans never retreat; Spartans never surrender!”
Persian Emperor Xerxes amassed a significant army and navy (estimated by Herodotus to be over 1 million men, but thought to be between 120,000 and 300,000 by modern
300 AT A GLANCE
This glories-of-battle graphic novel come to gory life gets the 4K HDR treatment with a new Atmos mix to fill your home with the din of combat.
The extremely stylized images have tons of detail but can also be a little soft, thanks to the heavy reliance on blue screen.
The mix enhances the sense of wall-to-wall carnage, aided by the atmospheric use of the height channels.
accounts) in order to invade Greece. In response, Spartan King Leonidas took a small group of 300 Spartan soldiers and met up with a Greek force to block Xerxes’ invasion at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae (also known as “The Hot Gates”) where the mountain terrain narrows to a funnel, effectively neutralizing the advantage of Xerxes’ far larger army, and working perfectly for the Spartans’ phalanx fighting strategy.
The battle lasted just three days, but through superior tactics, training, and skilled use of the terrain, the Spartans managed to inflict massive casualties on the Persian army. The film presents this series of battles in almost videogame-like stages, with increasingly difficult—and more fantastical—levels of soldiers leading each wave. Ultimately, the Spartans were betrayed by a citizen who informed Xerxes of a path around Thermopylae that allowed his army to flank and defeat the Spartans.
300 relies so heavily on Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novel of the same name that it likely served as a ready-made storyboard for writer and director Zack Snyder. Many of the panels and much of the dialogue are lifted straight from Miller’s novel, and this new 4K HDR transfer delivers the inky blacks and bright crimsons of Miller’s work. In lieu of any expository text bubbles, we get occasional dialogue from Dilios (David Wenham), the sole surviving member of the 300 Spartans, who serves as narrator. It also features a lot of stylized and graphic violence, with many dead bodies, and severed limbs and heads, along with enough blood splattering and spraying that you’ll likely want to mop your theater when it’s all over.
King Leonidas is the perfect role for Gerard Butler, as he is able to bark-growl most of his dialogue and put his physicality—and physique—to use in the many battles. We also get to see Lena Headey playing another queen—Leonidas’ wife Gorgo, who wants to save the Spartans by sending an army north, and who is willing to make some Cersei Lannister-like moves to get her way.
Originally shot on 35mm film, 300 is now offered in 4K HDR from a transfer taken from a 2K digital intermediate. The movie has also been given a new TrueHD Dolby Atmos soundtrack.
Wanting to have the look of Miller’s novel, images throughout are heavily colorized and enhanced. Many scenes are tinged in golden hues, sepia-toned, or colored in steely blues, whereas others are almost completely desaturated to just blacks and greys. Some scenes—especially those that are brightly lit—have not only a lot of film grain but also what looks like digital noise or possible overexposure. This was far more noticeable viewing on a 115-inch screen via my JVC 4K projector than on a 65-inch Sony LED, to the point that it was a bit distracting at times. (Even still, I’d trade a bit of more noticeable grain for the far more cinematic presentation of 115 inches!)
Images have tons of edge sharpness, and there is plenty of facial detail in closeups, revealing all the stubble, dirt, lines, and creases of the Spartans—or the unnatural smoothness of Xerxes (an unrecognizable Rodrigo Santoro), and the texture of
fabrics or the battle-wear on weapons, helmets and armor. But much of the movie was filmed against blue screen with the look heavily engineered in post-production—razor-sharp clarity is not what 300 strives for.
What really makes this new transfer shine is the HDR grading, which gives ultra-contrast to nearly every frame. Blacks are inky-black and clean, and whites are pushed to their brightest limits, with specular highlights of sun sparking off shields or streaming into rooms glinting brightly. Many scenes are filmed in extreme lighting conditions, either lit by moon- or torchlight, and have massive contrast. The wider color gamut also provides greater punch for the crimson of the Spartan cloaks and the gold-pushed images.
The new Atmos mix also gives 300 more room to fight around your listening room, and offers a lot of demo-worthy moments. Beyond the big fight scenes, there are plenty of hard-panned effects throughout, along with loads of atmospherics to place you in the scene. For example, as Leonidas goes to meet the Persian emissary, he pushes open and walks through some heavy doors that creak and then crash into walls behind you.
The height speakers are also used extensively to not only elevate the musical
score, but provide appropriate sounds like swirling winds, crackling fires, or falling rocks. During combat, the room comes alive with the din of battle: Cries and screams are heard from all around, along with the sounds of shields clanging, swords striking, spears thrusting, and blood spurting. The Persian army’s promise to fire so many arrows it would blot out the sun is a great demo, as it has arrows whistling all around and thunking into protective shields overhead.
Bass is also appropriately deep and weighty when called for, such as the Persian army marching, or their large creatures charging, and dialogue is clean and clear throughout.
300 is a heavily-stylized telling of an incredible historical last-stand battle, and for those not squeamish about some brutal combat, it makes for an entertaining night at the movies, especially with the new Atmos soundtrack and ultra-contrasty HDR transfer. Forget your old Blu-ray, this is Sparta!
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.