Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 20, 2007)
When a hit movie based on historical events appears, we inevitably get a rash of related programs. In the wake of 300’s blockbuster success, we get a History Channel production called Last Stand of the 300. This takes us back to 480 BC to examine the Battle of Thermopylae.
King Xerxes rules the Persian Empire and its massive fighting force. Xerxes plans an invasion of Greece. This takes his army to Thermopylae, the pass where the Greeks plan to stage their resistance. Though outnumbered about 50 to one, the Greeks use strategies to better even the odds. Led by Spartan King Leonidas, he takes his soldiers against the Persians. We also see the part played by the Greek navy and other aspects of the legendary battles along with history that teaches us about the Spartan society.
Stand uses a variety of techniques to tell its tale. We see dramatic reenactments of events, all shot to resemble 300, of course. We also get narration, computer-generated illustrations, and interviews. The participants include Empires at War author Dr. Richard A. Gabriel, Saint Anselm College assistant professor Dr. Matthew Gonzales, archaeologist Dr. David George, Gates of Fire author Steven Pressfield, lecturer in classics Dr. Linda Rulman, and Western Connecticut State University Chair of Hellenic Studies Dr. Guy MacLean Rogers.
Good things first: Stand tells the tale of its subject very well. It gets into the important sides of the battles and backs them up with solid information. We don’t just discover notes about the events themselves. Instead, Stand digs into background elements to flesh out the topics.
This means a lot of useful subtext. We hear about the lifelong training endured by Spartan boys as well as biographies for participants like Xerxes and Leonidas. Stand offers a broad view of the issues and throws out enough information and depth to make this a rich examination.
The various participants all certainly seem to know their stuff. Though they’re mostly the usual gang of middle-aged white men, they bring enthusiasm to their comments and make sure that the “talking head” bits aren’t dull. They add lots of good details and do so in a positive manner.
On the negative side, the presentation of Stand leaves a lot to be desired. While I appreciate the desire to avoid a stiff collection of “talking head” shots, Stand makes a mistake and goes too far in the other direction. This becomes a rather hyperactive production that assaults us with multimedia elements, many of which attempt to emulate the visuals of 300.
The biggest annoyance comes from the producers’ refusal to let any moment pass without lots of audio. Music and effects attack us at all times and become awfully distracting. They usually remain in the background, so they don’t prevent us from hearing the necessary information. However, their constant presence means that they get on our nerves.
Those aspects of Stand contribute to the program’s aggressive nature. I get the feeling that those behind the documentary feel they need to take an approach as over the top as the movie 300 to maintain our interest. That’s not true, and the approach actively detracts from the information. The whole thing comes across as so overwrought and excessively dramatic that it takes away from the facts.
The frequent use of historical reenactments is more of a mixed bag. On one hand, I like the attempts to “bring history to life” with these visual elements, as they present a more involving visual representation of the material. Again, it’s good that Stand doesn’t stick us with a bland style.
However, the quality of the reenactments seems less than stellar. The actors come across as hammy and broad, so their scenes often generate more laughs than drama. The quality of the computer visuals also appears pretty low rent. Obviously I don’t expect feature film quality CGI from a cable documentary, but the flaws of the graphics make them a distraction. Their simplicity means that they can be a little goofy.
These problems make Last Stand of the 300 something of a mixed bag, but I come away from it with a positive impression. I think it needs to rein in its visual and auditory excesses, as they detract more than they help. However, the show offers a fine examination of its subjects and gives us a solid overview. We learn a lot in this consistently interesting program.