U.S.A. • 2007 • directed by Zack Snyder • 117 minutes • Warner Bros.
300 has one of those previews that seems to say: if you’ve seen the preview, you’ve seen the movie. The teaser to the adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel is a barrage of gorgeous images, silhouettes flying through the air, slow-motion carnage, and pro-wrestler screams like “This––is––Sparta!!” The funny thing is there’s actually a movie behind it all, and director Zack Snyder doesn’t seem to be aware of the extraordinary power of this imagery.
If the movie’s visual style is screamingly new, its story is old, very old––about 2500 years. 300 re-creates the battle of Thermopylae from 480 B.C., in which 300 Spartans, for a while, fended off horde upon horde of Persians, in a match that may have given birth to the idea of the heroic last stand. The Spartans are led by their king Leonidas (Gerard Butler), who spends the same proportion of the movie bellowing things like “Prepare for glory!!” that he does in the preview. The Persians throw armies at them, and then turn to rhinos, elephants, and explosives, but the Spartans hold their ground.
It isn’t hard to see why. Trained for combat from birth, every Spartan man is a bronzed walk-on for a Gold’s Gym ad, complete with official Spartan battle gear, a cape and Speedo. They are trained to feel no fear, cherish their freedom, and defend it at all costs, and Leonidas never tires of grunting about the value of such things.
In fact, after a while, the king’s ponderous speechifying begins to sound vaguely familiar, in a Patriot Act kind of way. And when you notice that the Persian king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is about the most metrosexual villain since that guy from The Silence of the Lambs, and that all of his minions are dark-skinned while the noble Greeks are comfortably Anglophone, and when you consider again the enormously sensual way in which the movie is presented, you begin to wonder if Iranian cultural advisor Javad Shamaqdari wasn’t on to something when he called the movie “psychological warfare” against Iran. The irony is that I would bet my Spartan headgear that Mr. Snyder was as clueless about the impact of his work as all the geeks who were shocked to find that the movie contains far more man-porn than breasts.
300, on a purely sensational level, is fantastic. The problem is that it’s also deeply irresponsible, because when you marry a culturally-loaded historical event to a L’Oréal-commercial visual style, you find yourself with something that verges on propaganda. And while calling it “warfare” is probably taking things too far, the undercurrents of 300 run deep. It’s easy to forget that movies, those orchestral arrangements of simple images, can sometimes resonate despite our best efforts to insist that it’s all just a bit of Hollywood fun. Snyder’s is a bit of fun that pits white, WWF masculinity against an adversary not only exotic and effete, but deceptive in the same way as the most villainous Shakespearean women, a distillation of everything that is evil-feminine: seductive, manipulative, and weak.
There’s a sequence in the beginning that reveals the truth about the Spartan’s physical supremacy: at birth, they throw all their imperfect babies off a cliff. This, like everything in the film, is glossed over as just another bit of all the epic mystique flowing around. Yet the movie asks us to adore the sleek adult Spartan masculinity… which thus owes itself to a primitive Aryanesque eugenics? Even as the film trumpets the birthplace of democracy, the culture and gender roles that 300 asks us to embrace have one foot comfortably in the kind of fascist aesthetic that marked Leni Riefenstahl’s career. This may seem like it’s all buried safely in action escapism, but then again most of 300 was shot at a frame rate of 50 images per second, which is more than twice as fast as the human eye can register. Talk about reading between the lines.