300

7 04 2007

Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West
Zach Snyder (dir)

For a trashy sword’n’sandal epic, 300 sure packs in a wealth of subtexts. It’s tub-thumping, rousing hack’n’slash stuff, but it’s probably more fun picking apart the politics than it is thrilling at the blood’n’thunder carnage-porn nonsense on screen.

300 Greek warriors, the elite of Sparta led by King Leonidas, set off to stand in the face of the all-conquering Xerxes and his vast army. This they do. There is much lopping of limbs, and also quite a bit of frankly ridiculous musclebound preening. As Leonidas, Gerard Butler chews the scenery from the depths of his Captain Haddock beard, defying giant monsters, ninja dudes, and swarming archers with equal self-absorbed swagger.

Inexplicably David Wenham as Dilios, whose voiceover frames the story (and whose spin-doctored version of the tale we are in fact watching), chooses to pitch his performance somewhere between Alistair Sim and Alfred Steptoe, and is nigh unwatcheable. Thankfully then, Lena Headey as the Spartan Queen is just breathtakingly easy to watch.

300 seems a highly fascistic vision: in Sparta, might is most definitely right. As one character states, “All men are not equal in Sparta.” Male children are pitched against each other in tooth-spitting kiddie carnage, until they return to society forged from rock, like a good Frank Miller hero should be. The Spartans are all white, smooth-chested men’s men, all the more contrasted against Xerxes and his hordes.

Perhaps this is simply another iteration of the age-old concept that society cannot function unless it separates the means to protect itself. The values of love and compassion for the fellow man and woman are inherently at odds with the capacity for violence. So the Spartans exemplify the distinct corps that protects society yet is not truly part of it, brutal and brutalised men with the capacity for violence. They’re the gunslingers who can ultimately never settle down. Sure, Leonidas has a wife, but look what happens to her, punished for his hubris when she attempts to help. As is the Captain, whose son is killed, the suggestion being that his grief is weakness. He cannot stand alongside his son as a father: they must be two warriors and no more.

The exaltation of this elite corps skews the values of society, creating in the Spartans a fascist fetish for fighting. The deformed Ephialtes is cast out by society at birth, and rejected again by Leonidas. He defects to the Persian side, and his price is, basically, a uniform. He just wants to belong.

The Persian multitude is one lumpen mass of otherness: the differently abled, of every colour, of fluid sexuality, of every stripe. The 300 are brave, principled men willing to take a stand against diversity and degeneracy (conflated here in the superhuman figure of Xerxes.)

Much is also made of the conflict between Greek reason and Persian mysticism. It’s easy to see this as a conflict between supposedly rational Western renaissance values and unreconstructed, backwards Eastern values. The Persians could be seen to represent the mystical Islamist world. Interestingly, the right-wing/Conservative vales of Sparta are tempered by a general distrust of organised religion: the Spartan religious apparatus are themselves degenerate and corrupt. It must be noted, though, that Leonidas won’t do anything to end the practise of gifting a beautiful young girl to the priests for religious, and not so religious purposes. This amounts to state-sanctioned kidnapping and drug-rape. Perhaps another contemporary analogy: the leader who keeps his attention on the external instead of sorting out the problems of his own country?

And yes, His. The strength of extreme masculinism is the basis of the Spartan society, and therefore the strength of patriarchy. Queen Gorgo is an extremely strong character, respected by all, but still marginalised from the decision-making process and relying on the patronage of weaker men to even get her voice heard in the Spartan senate.

She only needs to get her voice heard because Leonidas took his warriors off to battle the Persians without official sanction. One of the core themes of 300 is the idea of personal integrity and honour in the face of politics or expediency. The 300 start fighting because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of what the government thinks, and don’t stop fighting regardless of the fact that they will surely die.

This resonates with the situation in Iraq: a war that is justified but not technically, y’know, legal. And a war that the men in charge won’t stop, even as the clouds of arrows darken the sky over our doomed sons and daughters in another land.

The messianic ending suggests a Christian bias, but the distrust of organised religion and religious figures points to faith as a continuation of personal integrity. This fits with the themes of honour and self-sacrifice, and just plain doing what’s right because you know it to be, no matter what weaker men do or say.

And all this in an extended video game take on antiquity. The CGI fast/slow motion echoes the elaborate beat-em-up finishing move, like if you watched the film again each fight would climax with a different bloody denouement. The vulgar CGI blood spatters add to the video game feel, having completely the opposite cartoon effect to the blossoming CGI spatters of Takeshi Kitano’s samurai opus Zatoichi.

Worth seeing on the big screen, then, for the bruised palette and the spectacle of the thing, but not worth taking entirely seriously. Dine in hell, sure, but with a healthy-sized pinch of salt.

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