I have seen 300 twice now, and the second viewing was crucial. Not because it was on an Imax screen – a very impressive way to watch the film – but because I came into the theater without the kind of expectations I had my first time through. I knew that 300 wasn’t as crazy as I had been hoping since first seeing footage at Comic Con last summer. It’s almost a counterintuitive complaint coming from me, the guy who slams the very concept of popcorn movies, but I was initially disappointed that 300 had so much story and so many scenes where the characters weren’t engaged in brutal battle.
The movie is often remarkably faithful to Frank Miller’s original graphic novel, which is a very stylized retelling of the true story of the 300 Spartan warriors who made a suicidal last stand against an invading Persian army at the Hot Gates of Thermopylae. The narrow pass allowed the 300 efficient fighters to hold off far superior numbers for days before finally being overwhelmed and slaughtered. While lines of dialogue and even shots are lifted whole from the pages of the book, director Zack Snyder, who adapted the comic with Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon, decided to flesh some things out, especially the homefront storyline. As King Leonidas of Sparta leads his men to the Hot Gates for the battle (the oracles decreed that the Spartan army would not be allowed to fight during a festival for the gods), his wife, Queen Gorgo, tries to convince the Spartan council to mobilize the troops before the Persian army breaks through the small band of defenders. I understand, intellectually, why this is all here – you give the lone female character more to do, something that will appeal to the women initially brought to this film by their boyfriends or attracted by the half-naked dudes in the ads. It also gives the film a little more weight; in Miller’s graphic novel the focus is only on the 300, and once they get to the Hot Gates it never returns to Sparta. This new plotline breaks up the action, but it also has the effect of slowing everything down. Most of the homefront material feels sub-Rome in nature, and is especially unwelcome after Snyder spends some time wowing us with his visual bravado in fight scenes. None of this is helped by the fact that while the 300 warriors are in a very beautifully rendered CGI fantasy world, Gorgo spends most of her time on very pedestrian looking sets.
After seeing the film once and finding out that it was in no way as over the top as I had expected and hoped for, the second viewing helped me to appreciate what is there. Snyder is a visual genius – of this I’m sure. The guy creates so many gorgeous moments that you find yourself admiring how things look and falling out of the action a little bit. It’s not the worst problem to have, and even after being distracted by a particularly wonderful shot, Snyder is skilled enough as an action director to bring you right back in. It’s quite impressive – 300 identical looking Spartans fighting against hordes of identical looking foes would, in the hands of most modern directors, be a nightmare of confusion, but Snyder doesn’t go for the quick choppy editing technique. He allows the action moments to play out in very, very long shots, using a mildly annoying reliance on speed ramping – everybody’s fast! Now it’s super slomo! – to create the dynamics of a fast edit. The long shots are especially fantastic because you are watching the actors going through multiple moves and multiple opponents – you can tell me all day how tough the Spartans are, and what good fighters they are, but what really sells it are these actions scenes where I can see how tough they are, where I can see what good fighters they are. I don’t know if I am ready to say that Snyder is the best action director working today – the competition is fierce – but 300 definitely gives one some serious ammunition for an argument.
In reality it’s unfair to complain that the movie isn’t crazy enough; this isn’t experimental cinema, where the whole running time can be stylized wackiness. The movie is heightened, but it’s a mainstream action film, and as such needs to adhere to moderately standard narrative and cinematic conventions (and to be honest, I don’t think I’d want to see Snyder speed ramping the hell out of every scene where someone walks across a courtyard). What’s interesting is how Snyder deals with the heightened nature of the story – in action scenes, he’s completely at home, but in all the slower moments the heightened aspects feel very, very silly. Snyder seems to miscalculate the line between heightened and ridiculous more than once; David Wenham’s voice over constantly strays over this line, and what’s worse than the silly tone in which he delivers the lines are the lines themselves. Much of the voice over seems taken directly from Miller’s graphic novel, and Miller writes in the sort of hard boiled way that a 17 year old in black nail polish might write. In conjunction with his art, this stuff actually works (sometimes) but spoken out loud it’s just outlandish. When Leonidas takes his leave of Gorgo, Wenham speaks Miller’s dialogue like a parody of a pompous Shakespearean actor: ‘There is no room for softness. Not in Sparta. No place for weakness. Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans. Only the hard… Only the strong.’ I mean, that’s just wretched, and I almost wonder if any filmmaker could make that work.
I’m the kind of guy who laughs at extreme violence in movies. Sometimes I applaud. 300’s action scenes had me laughing and applauding often. As audacious as the action choreography and cinematography are, Snyder’s just as bold with the grue. Of course the violence is as stylized as everything else, and the blood that splashes out of wounds looks like the ink that Miller splattered on his pages. But it works, and it works beautifully well. Legs are chopped, heads are severed, chests are filled with arrows – this stuff never disappoints.
There’s another important element to 300, one that the studio has played down a little bit, but one that has to be discussed. And one that, frankly, is most interesting to me. 300 is a right wing pro-war screed. But coming now its message is wonderfully confused, and can easily be read in a way that completely goes against the original obvious intention.
Frank Miller has always celebrated fascism in his comics. Might makes right to him, and while he likes to examine the effects that an ethos of moral correctness through violence has on characters like Batman, he doesn’t question the rightness of the path of hitting and killing people (what’s interesting is that 300 sees a big change from where Miller seemed to stand during the Dark Knight Returns era, in which Superman is working for the government and seen as a sell-out. The 300 Spartans die blindly at the side of their king and are seen as heroes of the highest order). The Spartans are like a nation of Batmen – they are rigorously trained and live lifestyles so spare and devoted only to battle that today it’s called being Spartan. They value strength above all else, going so far as to kill babies that are puny, weak or deformed (another interesting side note – I’ve met Frank Miller a couple of times. I don’t think that he came out of the womb as the Spartan ideal). They relish the idea of dying in battle, which brings them the greatest glory possible. And if you’re telling a story about Spartans, there’s no way around their militarized culture. But the fascinating choice that Miller has made in his version of the Battle of Thermopylae is to make Ephialtes, the goat herder who betrayed the 300 Spartans by showing the Persians a secret path that allowed them to outflank the fierce group, a crippled and deformed man who was raised outside of Spartan society and is rejected by Leonidas when he offers his sword in battle. The modern Hollywood playbook has a character like that coming through in the end, showing that he’s just as worthwhile to the cause as the able-bodied men. Miller’s take has his outer deformity representing an inner one as well, and the Spartans are proven right to try and purge the physically impure from their ranks.
Snyder has been coy about his own politics in the wake of the release of the film, but looking at the extra scenes gives you an idea of either where he stands or how well he has channeled Frank Miller. Gorgo’s speech to the council in the third act could be given by Republicans on the House floor to argue in favor of the next troop ‘surge’ in Iraq, and it’s hard to believe that the words were written after 9/11 and after the invasion of Iraq without the echoes of modern debate ringing in the writers’ ears.
Of course the whole thing echoes. The forces of Western logic and reason must make a stand against the hordes from the Middle East. The Persians – now known as the Iranians, by the way – have a seething mass of subhumanity to throw at the Spartans, and all of the Persian forces are fighting for a false god, in this case the tyrant Xerxes (it’s worth noting that Leonidas and his men think their own religious establishment is full of shit as well). Lots of lip service is given to freedom (which is sort of silly, since the Spartans held slaves, but it’s all depending on your point of view I guess – they wouldn’t want to be the subjects of Xerxes) and Gorgo actually says at one point that freedom isn’t free – it’s like she just came from a showing of Team America.
It gets better when you have Leonidas talking about how he must break the laws of his own country to save it by getting it into war – this is the kind of rationalization George W Bush might have made about the pre-war fabrication of intelligence if he had the self-awareness. This is another new scene, by the way, so while Miller’s book came out in the last years of the 20th century, this dialogue is pure post-Iraq.
Some of you reading this might think I’m criticizing these elements. I’m not at all. 300 is very much a movie John Milius could love the shit out of, and I appreciate that. Films don’t need to reflect my personal political viewpoint for me to enjoy them, and 300 is not so blatant as to be propaganda or so unsubtle as to take you out of the movie. And to be honest, you can’t tell a really good story about a bunch of guys fighting to the death without regrets from a liberal standpoint. I wouldn’t want to live in Sparta, but I can appreciate their point of view. And I’m not enough of a liberal to think that we can wish away all of our problems – I know that it takes unpleasant men, like these Spartans, visiting violence upon enemies to clean up situations every now and again. Plus there’s no way to argue that the Spartans are wrong; while Leonidas gets the blame for starting the war (he kills the Persian messenger who comes to demand fealty to Xerxes), the Persians were coming anyway. This doesn’t gibe with the Iraq situation at all, of course, unless you’re making the false connection between 9/11 and Saddam.
There are other, more troubling, critiques to make. Xerxes is presented as a huge, effeminate figure. In a moment directly from the graphic novel, Xerxes is at his most threatening not when facing Leonidas but when he comes up behind him and places his massive hands on his shoulders. The frame drips in homophobia here, and later, when Ephialtes visits Xerxes in his camp, we’re shown the kind of sexual deviancy the Persian godking gets up to. Among the horrors are lesbians and people of indeterminate gender; I don’t think this is a scene that reflects a conscious homophobia and puritanical streak – first of all, it’s mostly straight out of the book, but mostly it just feels like an extension of fascism’s disgust with sexuality. It’s a juvenile attitude, and one that Miller’s work is filled with – his male characters have to stay heroically celibate (Snyder does add a sex scene between Leonidas and Gorgo, and makes sure to show them going at it in most of the positions, which is sort of admirable (especially in Imax)). The truth is that I would rather hang out with the Persians than the Spartans – the parties are much better, and you probably get to sleep in.
But what’s funny about the whole film is how it is unable to control its own metaphors because of the ambiguity of the Iraq situation. Is Leonidas a stand in for Bush? Or could Xerxes be Bush? After all, he’s the invader, coming in with a multi-national coalition with more forces and better technology than the Spartans have. The Persian comes from a corrupted culture of depravity and sexuality, while the Spartans are all about moral rectitude. And being a smaller force, the Spartans are very willing to engage in savage tactics that the Persians see as outside the rules of war. It’s not hard to imagine an insurgent in Iraq strongly identifying with Leonidas and his men. And it’s actually harder for us in the audience to really identify with these guys – I mean, who among us is the least bit interested in dying for our beliefs?
That’s all secondary, and it’s mostly subtext, but it’s the kind of subtext that makes 300 a lively movie to see in a group. There’s a lot to discuss when you’re walking out (including how much of the political stuff is on purpose, but like I said, I think it has to be judging by the political content of the new scenes), and the amazing action scenes work terrifically as a communal experience.
I think that it’s the modern relevance of the story that pushes 300 up beyond being just diverting eye candy. I wish Snyder had been able to do better work with the homefront moments, but I give him credit for trying to add some depth to a very straight forward version of the Battle of Thermopylae. There’s a moment in Boogie Nights where Ricky Jay turns to Burt Reynolds and says, ‘We’ve made a real movie,’ and I think that’s what Snyder was going for, trying to make eye candy action porn a little more respectable. I could have done without it, but in the end it doesn’t sink the film. 300 is an intermittent spectacle, and when it’s really moving and humming it’s among the best examples of kinetic filmmaking in recent memory.
8 out of 10
8 out of 10