Film review by: Witney Seibold
“300” was released a while back, and I’m just now getting around to seeing it. When it was playing, I was very, very resistant to seeing it because, well, it was a piece of crap. It looked like an obnoxiously over-stylized, needlessly ultra-violent, morally irresponsible piece of pro-military propaganda that used the “cool” of the comicbook world, and the skill of special effects technicians to sell the concepts of chest-thumping fratboy testosterone-soaked military might to ignorant teenage boys. I pictured the same teenage boys exiting the theater showing “300:” They would swallow their 44-oz. Dr. Peppers, belch the remnants of their cheese-like nacho snacks, slap each other on the backs while telling one another how awesome that one scene was when they cut that guy’s head off, and then (and for some reason they’re using the word “boner” a lot) they trek their way to their local armed services recruitment office. “I just saw ‘300!’” They would shout “It was AWESOME! Sign me up for the army, bro! I want to go kill me some brown people! THIS – IS – AMERICA!”
That was just my prejudice, though. I didn’t actually go to see it. Now that I have seen it, it turns out I was all wrong. It was also really gay as well.
“300” tells the story of the battle of Thermopylae where, according to the old stories, a mere 300 Spartan soldiers, led by King Leonidas (the overacting Scot Gerard Butler) faced off against Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his massive Persian army and were able to hold off for much longer than expected. Comic book artist Frank Miller (the man behind The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City) got a hold of this story and, as is appropriate to his storytelling style, wrote a comic that took every detail to it logical extreme. The Spartans were all muscle-bound, battle-minded warriors who were bred for battle, and the Persians were all overly pierced weirdos with giants and rhinos and mutants to help then in their unholy cause. I’ve read much of the comic and while the stark violence can be a little over-the-top at time, it does reach a strange delirious level of action deliciousness that boys raised on superhero comics can really understand.
The movie version, directed by Zack Snyder (who did the remake of “Dawn of the Dead”) keeps all the posturing and over-the-top elements in tact. And, clearly inspired by Robert Rodriguez’ film version of “Sin City” filmed most of “300” against a green screen, adding backgrounds and sets in post-production. The result looks, in many shots, exactly like the comic book, but not necessarily in a good way. The skies are a butt-ugly cloudy brown, calling up a septic spill, and the Hollywood sets look far away from the actors. Not since “Gladiator” has a sword-and-sandal epic looked so ugly and indistinct. The dialogue is delivered in a volume that would be inappropriate in live opera, and the costumes and weapons, while looking wicked and harmful in a Frank Miller drawing, are made into ungainly and impractical real-life objects.
Also in tact from the comic are the following story elements: The “elders” of Sparta (a race of pustule-encrusted monks who live on top of a tall mountain) claim that going to battle against the Persian army is blasphemous (as it would be during a holiday) (?), the politicians are weak and are given very little screentime, and Spartan children (the ones who are spared from being cast into a pit of babies who might show any sort of birth defect – the film shows an old man standing on a precipice waiting to chuck a live infant onto a pile of bones) are savagely beaten and thrust out into the wild in order to make them “hard,” and make them ready for fight. Oh, and there’s a subplot about the Spartans being sold out to Xerxes by the last remaining Spartan hunchback (Andrew Tiernan).
I’m not going to criticize “300” for being unrealistic; that’s clearly not the film’s M.O. The over-the-top comic sensibility was obviously its goal, and while it may seem like sensory overload for sensitive souls who are more at home in the ultra-violent misogyny of “Sin City,” “300”acheieved what it set out to do.
I’m actually not even going to criticize the film’s gayness. The homoeroticism that comes hand-in-glove with any sort of hypermasculine activity is in full force in “300,” and is to be expected, really.
I am, however, going to criticize the film on its ethical stance. Clearly the Spartans are depicted as the film’s heroes. Mythic superheroic demigods, in fact. They are strong, strong men who value physical strength, tenacity in war, and the harmless brand of (non-gay, but still sorta gay) battlefield camaraderie that soldiers are always talking about. The Spartans defy the corrupt politicians and mutated clerics to kick the ass that needs to be kicked in order to defend tier land from evil. They come down on “Boy lovers,” and “mysticism.”
The evil doers, meanwhile, are swarthy, brown-skinned nutjobs with unnatural alchemy, weird piercings, and mutant monsters. They conquer and destroy, and have no other motivation other than to steal the rights the Spartans have.
But how heroic are the Spartans really? They beat and murder children, they have a bottomless pit in the town square where they throw people from time to time. The military are all death-minded rogues who defy the horrific leaders that the people have foolishly elected. Is Sparta, a land led by corruption and horny mutants, really worth saving? The Saprtans are clearly fascists. And the Persians, the film even points out, are benevolent rulers. They add to their empire by might, but ultimately make the world better for the inhabitants.
“Alexander” showed the title character conquering land after land, and he made the places better and he was shown as a hero for it. The Persians are only ever villainous. Are they evil, or benevolent?
Also, I was disturbed by some of the real-life applications of “300.” Films don’t exist in a political vacuum, so seeing a bunch of military-minded white guys going out into the field to bravely slaughter a large group of brown Middle Easterners… Well, it’s not Iraq per se, but…
If one can ignore this, and I’m sure most “300”-happy audiences can easily do so, then it’s a rollicking and ultra-violent adventure film; almost a perfect form of escapist entertainment full of enough blood and hot guys to keep your eyeballs satisfied. It’s movie junk food through and through. So much sugar and salt that your mouth is happy, but your body gets zero nourishment.