The tribes lay hidden behind sand dunes under the scorching sun waiting patiently for some activity on the train tracks that lay ahead of them. As time piles on, so does the fatigue on the hundreds of people, trying to remain motionless. And the moment arrives - a coal powered train comes chugging along, billowing clouds of thick black smoke from its exhaust. The crowds immediately become alert. When the train crosses the mark, Lawrence puts his entire weight on the plunger to detonate to explosives laid on the tracks to witness, what is now one of most spectacular sequences ever captured on celluloid - the train comes down on its side, as the tracks lay waste, and pushes its way through the hard sand, until resistance of the dunes ultimately wins the battle. And there was no single special effect shot in the entire episode to boot, just months and months of meticulous and detailed planning of every minutae, culminating in what is now revered as film history. "Lawrence of Arabia", made in 1962 by David Lean, belongs to a genre that now has all but become obscure and almost extinct - Epics. Large canvasses, larger than life stories, sweeping and exotic locales, wide vistas that can only be gawked (awed, marvelled) at only in widescreens - all the unique features that cannot be created on sound stages and painted sets, and ones that distinctly identify, glorify and celebrate the big screen format. Epic movies are rare nowadays, and the last that justified the tag was Gandhi, in 1982. Budgetary concerns, paucity of subjects that are iconic in nature were some of the reasons, but the coup de grâce was the advent of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) film making.
The attack of the Normandy Beach by the Allied Forces on the D-day in "Saving Private Ryan" and the climax battle sequence were some of the rare moments that were captured entirely on raw film stock, without having to be fed through super computers and sanitized for enhanced effects. The ease of their use and the viability - commercial and financial - made CGI a poor maker's rich colorful palette, painting the screen in multi-layered pixels, and commandeering his troops, through mouse moves and keyboard clicks. Until the successful marriage of the "sandals & the toga" stories to the "click and mortar" fundamentals in "Gladiator", age old Greek and Roman mythical and historical stories lost of the patronage of both the makers and the viewers for pretty much the same reason - the epic stories cannot be justified on smaller canvasses.
Which is why it becomes very amusing to note that it is bare bones comic books that has revitalized epic film making, and there is no better example than "300", based on a graphic novel, to stand testament to the fact. From among the comic books, graphic novels have an identity of their own, in that they primarily deal with more mature elements - including violence, sex and gore, than everyday comic books, and it is precisely for this reason, that they are readily accessible and easily translatable to the big screen with almost little or no changes to the original material. Though the popularity of the super-hero comic books in Superman, Spiderman, Batman, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Hulk and many such have overshadowed what many consider the purer form of the game - the graphic novels, the genre has certainly appealed to serious filmmakers, willing to pit their craft against the more serious themes of the novels, than simply ride on the coattails of family-friendly super-heroes. "Road to Perdition" by Sam Mendes, "Sin City" by Robert Rodriguez, and now "300", by Zack Snyder stand as prime examples Of Hollywood taking the graphic novel genre seriously, embracing the dynamic vibrant world with open arms. Setting the darker tones and serious themes aside, graphic novels greatly exaggerate the "KAPOW! BAM!" nature of mainstream comics to make violence more than realistic to approach to the levels of gore (like when a head is dismembered, the blood jets out in a gush, when a blow lands on the face, the teeth rattle out of the mouth, the skin under the eye turns black with blood clot, the lips swell grotesquely), all in a series of contiguous frames.
Though it was "Road to Perdition" which got there first, bringing the fantastically composed frames from a 3"X3" to a 35mm film, projected many times bigger and wider (the shootout sequence between Michael Sullivan and his boss and henchmen in a downpour comes to mind), it was in fact Robert Rodriguez, who showed how creative, inventive and exciting can a filmmaker get, given the right material with "Sin City". It is not so much about the substance, as it is about the style. Consider Tarantino's sword-fest extravaganza "Kill Bill". The sequence where the story cuts to the flashback (suddenly from live action to animation) of how O-Ren Ishii's parents were brutally murdered right in front of her eyes when she was a kid, and how she exacts revenge on the Japanese mafia boss when she gets a little order, all captured in the Japanese animé format, offers a glimpse into the wonderful ways the format liberates the makers into pushing his boundaries of story telling. When the long sword digs deep into the heart of the mafia boss, the blood that springs up in a fountain, as the pupils of the eyes of both the murdering girl and murdered boss, dilate almost simultaneously - one, in glee, and the other, in glum - can never be recreated in live action to elicit similar response, without wandering into the territory of gratuitous excesses (Case in point, Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers").
300, in the way it captures the spirit of the graphic novels, and in the way it marries the recent advances in computer technology to the art of story telling, remains the first legitimate foray of graphic novels into mainstream Hollywood, after having waited on the fringes long enough, appealing only to auteurs and amateurs. The story of "300" is as simple as a regular comic book - 300 Spartans try to stave an invasion from the mighty Persian army, and is ultimately a tale about valor, sacrifice and self-respect. But the themes gives way to the mechanics that unfold unlike any other that has been projected on the silver screen. Having had the advantage of controlling the production down to the tiniest aspects (like how the principal actors are shot against green and blue screens and the rest of the portrait - the background, the sets, the extras, the props, every moving/still detail of the frame - built completely inside the computer), "300" becomes the quintessential outcome of the director's vision. Gone are the production designers, gone are the set dressers, gone are the hordes of people that hover around the shooting spot to make a movie of this scale. Instead, replace it with an army of computer wizards, to depict mighty African elephants with large unforgiving tusks, mercilessly cut at their feet to fall off a cliff into the deep sea, to portray rushing Rhinoceroses felled to the ground with sharp pointed spears hurled from hundreds of feet directly into their eye balls, to create a battlefield with severing heads, falling torsos, chopped off limbs, and maimed bodies that comes as close to any real pre-histoirc battlefield as can be cinematically possible.
Years ago it was an advertising company to first take advantage of the time-freezing photography technique (where motion and time could be separated in a series of frames, to cause action to stop as the camera moves around the subject), but it wasn't until "The Matrix" and its stunt sequences, did anyone realize the potential of it, and put it to good use in different circumstances for varying results. What "300" was built upon wasn't really new. What "300" was based on wasn't seminal piece of writing (even in the graphic novel genre). But the way "300" combines the elements of technical wizardry to the unfettered story telling of comic books is certainly breath-taking and path-breaking. Three cheers to the latest entrant into the pantheon of pioneers.
Ramblings on films
Lage Raho Munnabhai
The Da Vinci Code
Rang De Basanti (Hindi)
Mangal Padey (Hindi)
Anukokunda Oka Roju
Batman Begins (English)
Mughal E Azam
Kakha Kakha (Tamil)
Mr & Mrs Iyer
Srinivas Kanchibhotla how you liked the article