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Wednesday, April 04, 2007 

Film review: 300.

Out of all those influenced or inspired by the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans allied with 700 Thespian volunteers managed for three days to hold back the overwhelming Persian forces, the most infamous was how it was exploited by the Nazi propaganda ministry in the lead-up to the fall of Berlin, trying to inspire an already broken German people to further resist when all was already lost. Hitler, deluded to the last, wanted to take the entire German nation down with him.

Politics then are always going to play at least some part in any re-imagining of a battle that enabled the Greek empire to regroup and repulse the Persian invasion. A previous attempt at filming it,
the 300 Spartans, made with the co-operation of the Greek government was noted for its cold war overtones. Based on a comic by Frank Miller, not noted for his political sensitivities or his subtlety (his Sin City, filmed by Robert Rodriguez, involved one of the heroes rescuing a little girl who repays him once she's grown up into Jessica Alba by banging him) the omens were perhaps not good from the start.

The one bright spot was that Zack Snyder, who previously directed the Dawn of the Dead remake which eschewed the consumer society eating itself satire of Romero's original to go for full-on zombie action instead, was signed up to do the honours. Unlike his Dawn however, 300 doesn't just make the subtext obvious like it was in Romero's Dawn; it slices your head off and then screams it down your neck.

For 300 is so completely overbearing in apparent modern day "war on terror" clash of civilisations subtext, something that Snyder himself less than convincingly denies, that it stifles everything else in the film. The Spartans, led by King Leonidas, played reasonably well given what he has to work with by Gerard Butler, aren't just holy, beautiful, Western warriors, fighting for freedom, justice and presumably the Greek equivalent of apple pie against barbarian, ugly, mystic Asian hordes who want to overthrow the only bastion of rationalism and modernity in the world, they're the only remaining hope for humanity as we know it.

Did I mention that the Persians are hideous? For they are; in fact the only somewhat decent-looking Persian depicted here is Xerxes himself, and that's in a homoerotic, body-pierced, hulking giant form of beauty. Played by the Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, he stands at least two foot taller than Leonidas, his sculpted pectorals not quite as pronounced as the Spartans' own heavily digitally enhanced chests, but still definitely the closest that Spartans come to a mirror to themselves, albeit a greyed, evil version. The rest of the Persians are either black, smirking Arabs with strange facial hair and more piercings who quickly meet a unsavory end, masked warriors whose choice of facial covering more than resembles that of modern-day mujahideen, or the deformed Immortals, who wear steel Scream-type masks to hide their leper like faces.

There is no in-between when it comes to good and the bad, the attractive and the imperfect. The good, righteous Spartans are universally beautiful, their bodies sculpted to either being perfectly muscular or waif-like, depending on their sex, the exceptions being the elephant-man like Ephilates who betrays Leonidas for rejecting him from the frontline due to his inability to raise his shield and the traitorous, peace-mongering priests who tell Leonidas not to go to war after consulting the gorgeous, auburn-haired, nude Oracle. The Persians instead are the opposite, as described above, with even their women being bulky, their bodies pierced, and decidedly brown compared to the pale but bronzed Spartans.

The little dialogue that there is, substituted instead to get as much blood-drenched, limb-flaying, head-chopping carnage on screen as possible in the two-hour running time is dedicated to shouted impassioned pleas for/to Sparta, defending freedom while everyone else sits back and just lets these throwbacks enslave the whole of Greece. This couldn't be more symbolised by how Leonidas refers to the culture of Athens being devoted to "philosophers and boy-lovers", while the treacherous politician Theron, opposed to Grecian deployment to support Leonidas, pledges to do the opposite, but only if Leonidas' Queen Gogo submits to him sexually. Just to rub it in, he not only seemingly sodomises her, but tells her that "this will not be quick, you will not enjoy this." War, slaughter and blood-letting are for heroes, who'll be immortalised forever as the beautiful people, while those who oppose it are cowardly traitors, defined either by being in the pay of the enemy or by their resemblance to mutants.

As for the look of the film, Snyder couldn't have piled it on more thickly or monotonously. Everything is meant to make you permanently alert, at least one of the battles is introduced with hardcore power chords, and it all becomes enormously tiresome. The battles are at least to begin with competently shot, although the constant fast cutting soon overstays its welcome.

It's wrong however to see 300 as directly being a plea for war against Iran, against modern-day Iranian culture or in any way supporting President Bush: doing this in the same sledgehammer way as the film's lust for war would have been too much and take too long. What's more than apparent though is that it certainly is at the least a paean to neo-conservative ideology: might is right, defending our values of democracy in the battlefield to the death is noble, heroic, and in no way counter-productive. Anyone who opposes it is worthy of derision. In fact, 300's portrayal of martyrdom is actually closer to the fundamentalist Islamic love of death, designed to send a message to the corrupt kafir Muslims to rise themselves up in the holy jihad. It certainly couldn't be further from the dark, ugly side of American might we saw put into practice by the grunts at Abu Ghraib.

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I've enjoyed your review of 300. It's very elaborate, well written and I fully respect you both as a critic and a journalist.

What a shame that my own blogging efforts aren't nearly as successful:


I admire your journalistic integrity and look forward to a long and mutually prosperous friendship.

I too am highly motivated by your blog and not being fisted

Sigh. I really hoped that you guys had forgotten about me. I'm not sure what I've done to rile you, especially you Cheech, but it'd be nice if you left me alone much I like I've left you alone for God knows how many years now.

How depressing! It's actually a good story and with a bit of effort would make a good film. I'm still looking forward to seeing it, though from the reviews I've read so far I'm inclined to think I'll be agreeing with you once I have.

It was always going to be unbalanced as the only accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae we have are Greek, and propaganda and jingoism was rife even then (Aeschylus' Persians is still used as propaganda against Iran). I'm a sucker for these ancient history films but I always come away disappointed. I think Troy was the worst, followed by Alexander. Anyway thanks for the warning.

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