dir: Zack Snyder
It’s history as the backstory for a deliciously violent computer game. Games with a solid backstory
are always more enjoyable; it makes the slashing and dismemberment all the more entertaining and meaningful.
See, there was a Battle of Thermopylae. And there were 300 Spartans who fought and died in
battle against a much larger army of Persians. But I doubt any of it looked as pretty as this.
The Spartans, proudly led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), are incredibly handsome and ridiculously
buff. They are noble, strong, resolutely heterosexual, fearless and fabulous in their leather codpieces.
The Persians are sexually ambiguous, freakish, have tattoos and multiple piercings, and are inhuman
The Persians come to enslave all Greeks. The Spartans, lovers of freedom that they are, fight for
honour, for freedom and for justice.
The Persians use rhinoceroses, elephants, bombs and arrows, and all sorts of nasty tricks in battle
because they have no honour and they fight like cowardly girls. The Spartans, warriors to a man,
fight with vigour and honour, fronting their foes face to face before rending them limb from limb.
Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the self-styled God-King of the Persians, cannot understand why the
Spartans refuse to subject themselves to his divine rule. He towers above mortal men and asks
them to kneel before him. Leonidas refuses, since he gets on his knees for no man. And what a
handsome man with such a lovely wife (Lena Headley), why would he kneel, why would he after all?
For three days and nights the Spartans face the barbarian horde and keep the forces of despotism
at bay. Do they know that they are making the most famous Last Stand in history, that it will be
referenced for centuries to come as a time when 300 warriors faced a million opponents and refused
to bow? Did they know they were providing the signature foundation myth for every army that
would come from then on?
I mean, what’s not to love about the Spartan society as depicted in 300? They are all free
men, their women are gorgeous and hearty, their fields of CGI wheat glow golden in the
monochromatic glow of CGI sunlight, they throw defective babies off of cliffs and they train as
warriors from the moment they can stand up. They never retreat from a battle, they have
never surrendered to anyone and they’re not about to start now.
I’m trying to think of a group of people in the last century who worshipped physical perfection
(and racial purity), who believed in the inherent nobility of war and warriors, who started toying
with eugenics and ethnic cleansing and did a good job of it until some more powerful armies
came along and put paid to those ideas: nah, it’s not coming to mind.
The martial ethos of the Spartans has been admired for centuries because it really appeals
to the powers that be who want to send men to their deaths in the service of their ambitions.
These aren’t just soldiers who have been forcibly conscripted and who fear death at the
hands of their own army only fractionally more than they fear dying at the hands of opposing
armies. Nor are they mercenaries who fight solely for coin. They fight because they love to
fight. They are warriors above all else, and their entire society, family structure and value
system is structured around the waging of war.
So this noble king, who has fought and killed a giant wolf before he’s even grown a single pube,
and his Spartans are a product of this golden age of warriordom and warriorness. So when their
values are called into question by the encroaching barbarian hordes, they can do nought else
but fight a doomed battle with the intention of inspiring the rest of Greece with their example.
I have to say that my feelings towards the film could best be categorised as ambiguous. I enjoy
stories loosely, very loosely based on history. I enjoy hack and slash action movies with
fascist overtones and undertones. I enjoy scenery chewing by actors who grab a role and
beat it into submission. But I have to say that 300 doesn’t really resonate with me
on any deeper level.
The look of the film is superb, and truly matches the graphic novel in the same way Sin City
replicated both the visual sense and specific panels from its origins. The only real stuff on
screen is the humans with their over-developed abs and their, in the case of the womenfolk,
extremely perky nipples. All the rest is computer generated, from the giant gay pirates who
face the noble Spartans, to the hunchbacks, rhinoceroses and the fleets of Persians oncoming
in their desire to swishify Greece.
I’m not sure if it’s the complete misrepresentation of what Sparta was like that bugged me, or
the lionising of their virtues whilst ignoring the fundamentally inhuman elements of their culture
which assured its eventual abandonment. I don’t go to films for history lessons, since I don’t
want to be lectured to during a movie. I’m happy to be lectured to via documentary, but not
an obviously fictionalised big budget rendering based more on a graphic novel than the
writings of Herodotus.
So it’s not in the veracity stakes that it lets me down. Perhaps it’s the action itself, which I
enjoyed watching as it happened but would forget seconds later as to what occurred to
whom. Of the Spartans themselves, none of them are characters except for Leonidas, Leonidas’s
captain (Vincent Regan) and Delios (David Wenham), who also serves as narrator. Other
non-Spartan Greek characters are treated with contempt. In a telling scene, Leonidas
compares his warriors with those led by an Arcadian captain, who, whilst greater in number,
are not “true” warriors to the Spartans. The silly bastards. Let’s ignore that history records
that there were 300 or so Spartans, but that there were thousands of other Greeks also
willing to lay down their lives at Thermopylae. As titles go, The 300 Spartans and the
Thousands of other Greeks isn’t as short and punchy as the one chosen.
As a mild B-story, Leonidas’ wife Gorgo, who’s left behind to keep the home fires burning,
tries to win support in the Spartan council in order to compel the nation to go to war.
How a situation like this would arise is a mystery to me, since Leonidas was king, and Sparta
was a monarchy crossed with a brutal military dictatorship, of which he was Top Dog.
Still, one of the councilmen, Theron (Dominic West) is clearly paving the way for the
Persian invasion, and Gorgo, who is meant to be a woman every bit as noble and hard as
her king, does something pretty stupid in order to get her way. She machinates behind
the scenes in order to be able to speak to the council, but I have to say, as nice as she
was on the eyes and ears, this subplot is the height of dumbness personified.
For a film so clearly aimed at American teenage boys, the script doesn’t generally dumb
down too much. There are in fact several exchanges which brought a smile to my face.
Favourites include Leonidas and Delios discussing one of the latter’s battle wounds.
Delios respectfully informs his king that it is but a scratch, and is only an eye at that.
Since the gods have seen fit to grant him a spare, he claims he is more than able to
The film’s beginning cruises along pleasantly enough until an emissary from the Persian
Empire bids Leonidas a warm welcome before telling him that Xerxes asks for only
two things: earth and water as a show of subjection to the greater empire. Leonidas
brings up the fact that, to his knowledge, such an offer was made to the Athenians
as well, and if those philosophers and boy-lovers saw fit to reject the offer, why
would he accept it?
Clearly, the film makers want us to know the mettle of Leonidas’s character when be
bellows “THIS IS SPARTA!” in a heavy Scottish brogue before kicking the messenger
to his death. It’s the film’s signature moment, which will probably be borrowed and
parodied for years to come. Every teenage boy in the audience will premature
ejaculate at that moment, and then comfort themselves whilst watching the multi-position
sex scene between Leonidas and Gorgo with the tremulous assertion that they’re
not gay. Especially later on when they have spent so much time marvelling at the
sculpted bodies of the noble Spartans. Mmmm, beefcake.
In a later scene, evil gay Xerxes seeks a meet and greet with Leonidas, where it
is clearly implied all the conflict will end if only Leonidas gives him a blowjob. Prior
to the offer Leonidas tells his captain that he hopes Xerxes is stupid enough to have
him killed, because that way all of Greece would rise up to defend the country.
Xerxes also has an interesting mode of transportation, never letting his feet touch
the ground unless there’s a slave underneath his mighty tootsies.
The fighting is made up of multiple slow-mo scenes of the kind of money shots nerds
are supposed to expire in a heap over after seeing. Some of them are pretty
impressive, if entirely CGI. One sustained sequence has, uh, one of the Spartans taking
on Persian after Persian in a sustained sequence of dismembered limbs and sprays
of blood. It all unfolds with that sped-up, slow-down kind of editing that emphasises
the moments when sword or spear cuts flesh and bone and doesn’t mess around
with the transition stuff. It looks okay, but it lacks… something.
The Spartans, with their gold-coloured shields and their flowing, red cloaks, which
you’d think would be more of an impediment on the battlefield than anything else, are
shown as the absolute classical Hellenic ideal of the male body and the warrior spirit
all rolled up into one juicy, manly package. As such, it is imagery so incredibly homoerotic
that denying this fundamental aspect of classical Greek man-worship requires a level
of denial not seen since Mary convinced Joseph that the father of her child was some
invisible guy who called himself God.
Sure it was. To counterbalance that aspect of it, the Persians, who are the evil Other,
are themselves sexually decadent and bisexual, as far as I could tell, and accept into
their numbers a hideously deformed character because they, unlike the noble Spartans,
tolerate and celebrate deformity. They’ll even have sex with it, the dirty fiends.
As appalling as the characterisation of the Persians is, anyone who tries to argue that
it is a comment on contemporary Iran for the purposes of furthering some kind of war
agenda is barking up the wrong neural pathway. These are fantasy villains, no more real
than anything in Lord of the Rings, and their vileness is used to show how far
away they are from Our Heroes on the spectrum of light and dark. Like bleach, it makes
whites brighter and colours lighter.
Even more irritating is the manner in which they make the obvious parallel that the
Spartans are also the ancient equivalent of the US Marine Corps. This is made explicit
with the idiotic hooting they perpetrate every time Leonidas talks to them. ‘Hoo-hah’ is
not an ancient Spartan battlecry, of that I can assure you.
Of the other anachronisms in the flick that do bug me, the constant iteration that the
Spartans are fighting for freedom, liberty, justice and the American Way does grate on
my nerves. It’s not just the historical inaccuracy of it; it’s the fundamental way in which
it completely misrepresents how any of these people, some of whom did exist, could ever
have thought about or said anything in regards to these issues.
As my Canadian friend who I saw 300 with pointed out to me, it’s like saying the Russians
at Stalingrad were fighting for freedom and justice when they tried repulsing the German
invaders. Suuuuuuure they were.
Spartan society was made up of a large proportion of slaves. Being a society that was
backwards in terms of commerce, the arts, trades and crafts, at least compared to other
Hellenic contemporary societies (considering its singular martial focus), it was massively
reliant on slaves. The tiniest proportion of its population were free men. The notion that
the Spartans fought to preserve their lands against subjection to a foreign power is one
I can easily handle. The notion that the 300 Spartans fought for the ideals of civilisation,
democracy, reason, freedom and liberty for all Greeks, as mentioned several times is a
level of historical revisionism David Irving would be proud of.
When Queen Gorgo tells a councilman that the message she wishes to give the rest of
the council is that “Freedom isn’t Free”, I wondered whether the flick had regressed
into self-parody. They might has well have included the power ballad from Team America:
World Police that asserted the same noble sentiment.
Still, it’s an action film, I have to keep telling myself that, with no greater significance or
resonance in a contemporary climate in which war is ever present but never unambiguous.
There’s no point reading too much into anything, it should just be enjoyed as an aggressive,
adrenalin-heavy modern depiction of a mythic battle where Few stood against Many, and
didn’t triumph, but won the day, kind of.
It’s enjoyable enough yet not really memorable, but it’s not without its charms. I felt
goosebumps on my arms a few times, so that has to count for something.
6 times perhaps the clear knowledge of the conclusion drains some of the enjoyment out of
any other experience apart from sex out of 10
“We Spartans have descended from Hercules himself. Taught never to retreat, never to
surrender. Taught that death in the battlefield is the greatest glory he could achieve in
his life. Spartans: the finest soldiers the world has ever known.” – yes, but can any of
you dance well or make a decent margarita? - 300