300

300.jpg
Warner Bros. Ent.
Zack Snyder/United States 2007

An orgy of gore and a blood-letting on a titanic scale, 300 is a ballet of butchery in which half-naked men and the torrents of blood they elicit move in perfect, slow-motion choreography to a thunderous soundtrack.

And I loved every minute of it.

Like all good Greek stories, this one has a chorus. Dilios (The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s David Wenham), a Spartan warrior with the gift of storytelling, narrates the action. The tale is simple – this is not a film you go to for intricate plots and nuanced storylines. The year is 480 B.C. as the colossal Persian army descends upon the Greek city-state of Sparta, a region of Greece renowned for it fearsome warriors. Though King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) knows war is the only option, the priests and other throwbacks from Greece’s pagan past (this is Greece on the cusp of becoming the nucleus of reason, logic and democracy for Western civilization that we know it for today) forbid the war on account of an upcoming religious festival (a Greek Sabbath, if you will). Leonidas, who is torn between saving his people and obeying their laws, decides to leave his army behind and gathers only 300 of his finest soldiers to meet the enemy. His hope is that while he is away, his stalwart queen (Lena Headey) can muster support from the naysayers led by the malignant, appeasing politician, Theron (Dominic West).

These reinforcements, of course, never come. It is not a spoiler to say that each and every one of the 300 perish in battle. If you didn’t know that, don’t blame this review. It merely means you weren’t paying attention in high school world history when you covered the Battle of Thermopylae. Though the 300 are lost, their sacrifice emboldens the other Greeks, and in a closing scene reminiscent of the final moments of Braveheart, they take up their arms and push the Persians back into the sea.

Many have read a throbbing political subtext into the film, extrapolating their particular ideology and coming out on the other side with a film either in support of or in condemnation of America’s war in Iraq. The film is drenched in language extolling the audience that freedom is not free and that in defense of that freedom sometimes a nation’s most precious blood must be spilled. Others see the valiant Spartans as the insurgents. Brave and vastly outnumbered, they continually obliterate tidal wave after tidal wave of an enemy a mad king continues to order into battle without regard for the catastrophic loss of life.

Whatever your interpretation (and both are plausible), the demarcation line between good and evil is vibrantly clear. The Spartans, fighting against the enslavement and eradication of their people, are the ultimate examples of manhood – as naked as an R-rating will allow, musculatured like steroid-enhanced GI Joe action figures, devoid of feminine sentiment, with beautiful women and virile children hovering in their shadows – while the camera looks upon the sexual and physical deviants of the Persian army, led by the towering god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) with an indisputable queer-eye. His armies are a Borg-like assimilation of various conquered cultures, each as wildly debauched as they are exotic.

Do not go to 300 if you are interested in an accurate history lesson. This is a film in which history appears subservient to the aesthetics. The film is based more on the Battle of Thermopylae as mythology than as fact. It takes place in an alternate, hyper-stylized world in which mutated humans – more monster than man – do the bidding of their masters like giant trolls at the command of Orc armies, in which the world is divided into the breathtakingly beautiful and the retchingly grotesque. Everything here is bigger, scarier, uglier, deadlier.

Based upon Frank Miller’s (Sin City) graphic novel (comic books for the uninitiated), the film is shot in an entirely CG environment. Director Zack Snyder and his CG artists have crafted a feast for the senses and the result is an undeniable technical achievement. Here, actors perform against blank screens on which backgrounds are later painted to represent the distinctive look and motion of comic book panels.

Every pixel has been manipulated to create a world of heightened, accelerated reality. Mountain vistas and ocean-battered shorelines like these exist only in the minds of master animators. The images have been drained of their color, reduced to browns and rusts and, of course, the vibrant crimson of flowing Spartan capes and geysering Persian blood. Some have said that 300 plays like a video game. I didn’t see it. The film is the lovechild of graphic novels and 21st century cinema utterly in lust with its computerized toys and the worlds they’ve wrought. As spectacle, 300 is nearly impossible to beat, rivaling, at times, some of the best The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s animators could come up with.

Do not even remotely consider this movie if you are repulsed by violence. The film is violence as pornography. Blood-drunk, the film revels in its body count. To watch it is to be baptized in gore. If the sight of blood, much less gushing torrents of it pinwheeling from impaled chests, amputated limbs and decapitated heads makes you squeamish, do not set foot in this theater.

That said, most of the brutality in 300, lovingly lingered upon though it may be, is the sort of over-the-top violence that blunted the more traumatic aspects of such films as Kill Bill. By taking things to such excessive, Kurosawa-esque extremes, the filmmakers moved beyond genuine revulsion (the sort one might encounter in a brutally realistic film like Saving Private Ryan or The Passion of the Christ, for instance) and into a realm usually reserved for cartoons.

Because of this, 300 never really touches our emotions. It works on our eyes but never our hearts. I don’t think the filmmakers see that as all that much of an indictment. Fanboys (and let’s be honest here, men in general) will still find it irresistible. After all, this is a film crafted for the sheer enjoyment of our baser pleasures – the modern equivalent of an ancient Roman coliseum show in which we cheer the blood-soaked carnage and tell ourselves that was money well worth spent whilst dabbing blood from our clothing.

© 2007 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

2 Comments

  1. Brandon, I thoroughly agree with your excellent exposition, and the warnings to those expecting other than what the film has to offer. I would add a literary note that may add to an understanding of the film’s intention and orientation.In the thick of the mayhem, in I think the Spartans’ second or third encounter with the hordes, the narator quotes from Macauley’s poem ‘ How Horatio kept the Bridge’. He describes the enemy as so ferocious, ‘Those behind cried ‘Forward!’ whilst those before cried ‘ Back!” It reminded me of the the best -known lines of the poem:

    ‘For how can man die better, than by ffighting fearful odds,
    For the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods.

    There was also a strong suggestion – the bling-draped Xerxes and the debauchery of his court – that the Greeks had grown effete and relied on monsters and ‘magic tricks’ ie aerial bombardment, for their success, whereas the Spartans were ready to die in hand-to-hand fighting for their cause, How much of this was in the original graphic novel I am not sure, but in my view the filmmakers point of view was sgnalled by these soundtrack references.

    Sheila

  2. Sorry, I meant Persians, not Greeks, were effete.

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