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Tonight's Feature Presentation

300 (2007)

Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender

Written By: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon Directed By: Zack Snyder

The Short Version

This may very well be the most overhyped and overrated movie of the past decade.

300 is less an action or adventure movie than it is flat-out propaganda.

Fancy camera effects are no disguise for one-dimensionality.

The slow motion, however, does make the combat tiresome very quickly, especially since it doesn’t vary much.

How much you buy into the military mindset may well determine whether or not you find 300 worthwhile.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Yeah, it’s soft, but it is the signature cheese of Greece, and Greece includes Sparta.  (I also really hope I’ve made someone’s head metaphorically explode at the idea of soft Feta being compared to 300.)

Pairs Well With...


If 300 doesn’t scream “cheap, shitty beer by the 30-pack,” I don’t know what does. Tonight, we drink in Hell!

“Give them nothing, but take from them everything!”

More than any movie I can think of from the past ten years, 300 is the one about which I had the most people telling me “you should see it; I’ll think you’ll like it.”  I am not cynical enough to automatically assume that anything that is brought to my attention with such assurances will in fact be horrible, so I took these good natured suggestions, and after a while, I went ahead and watched the movie, which I admit had not sufficiently captured my interest while it was in theatres.

After about twenty minutes, I could see the “why” on both accounts: why my initial instincts were to pass it by, and why so many people thought I would like it anyway.  Alas, by the time it was all over, I came to the conclusion that I’d been right the first time, and that my friends and acquaintances who’d thought I’d enjoy it were wrong.

For those who thought I’d enjoy it because they knew that I enjoy history, they didn’t consider and frighteningly enough in many cases didn’t even know that 300 is not based on history, but rather on a graphic novel which in turn is itself just a piece of fiction that takes its cue from a historical event and warps it into something barely recognizable.  (To be fair, they get a pass; real history almost never makes it to the movies, and I accept that.)

For those who thought I’d enjoy it because they knew that I enjoy action movies, they didn’t consider and probably didn’t even notice that 300 is not really an action movie.  It blusters about action quite a bit, but bluster doesn’t make for an action movie, and neither does constant slow motion.

As for what those things do make for…

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, aren’t we?  First, let’s review the story.

If you’ve at least made it to the eighth grade and had an even halfway decent Western Civilization class at some point, you’re hopefully already aware that once upon a time, 300 Spartan warriors (cough along with six and a half thousand others that everyone forgets to mention cough) successfully defended a narrow pass at Thermopylae against a vastly superior Persian invasion force for three days before finally being killed (legendarily by treachery).  Flash forward a whole lot of centuries, and graphic novelists Frank Miller and Lynn Varley decided to do a story that used said event as its basis, highly fictionalized and stylized.  From this source, Zack Snyder in turn further fictionalized and stylized things, so that the navy is essentially forgotten, the Spartans get just a few hundred “amateur” allies instead of a few thousand, and the Persian forces are made up of demons.  The end result is the telling of the heroic stand of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, Law Abiding Citizen) while politicians argue back home.

First and foremost, 300 is, above all other things, a recruiting and propaganda film.

It doesn’t matter which branch of the military or other armed service one might choose (even though perhaps “Marine Corps” seems most likely, any will do); 300 is a recruiting film.

It doesn’t matter which country or cause is being represented, either; Sparta can be taken as an analog for the United States or the People’s Republic of China or the Militia of My God Is Better Than Your God or the former Soviet Union equally well.  Take away the flags, and all propaganda is pretty much the same anyway.

All that is required is a military mindset, and a view that your country or cause is the greatest in the world in a fashion that transcends patriotism and steps into the territory of fanaticism.  If you don’t have that quite yet, well… propaganda and recruiting films are there to give that extra push now, aren’t they?

Am I suggesting that Zack Snyder and company actually set out to make a propaganda and recruiting film?  In part, yes.  In the course of explaining that his movie was not meant to be taken in any way as a cinematic interpretation of the true history of Thermopylae, Snyder also pointed out that it is being told from the very skewed perspective of a pre-battle pep talk: in other words, propaganda meant to fire up the troops.  So yes, he and his team very consciously knew that they were making a recruiting-type film.  However, there’s no question they also set out to make a testosterone-laden action movie where even the women have balls the size of grapefruits.  (Well, the right women, anyway, but hold that thought.)  Unfortunately, once the testosterone showed up, they stopped trying.

In most action movies, the testosterone comes in the form of things that go “boom”, bones that go “snap,” and blood that goes everywhere.  300 has one explosion, and it’s not impressive.  If a bone cracked, I missed it.  As for the blood… that’s subject to interpretation.  In theory, after almost an hour of bluster, 300 is a festival of it, to the point where that’s what the title is supposed to be written in.  In practice, it’s almost if not entirely computer generated.  The effect is so extremely stylized that it no longer carries the impact of what it’s supposed to be...

…just like the rest of this “style over substance” move.

The overt style is that of trying to make 300 look like a graphic novel with live actors, accomplished through the extremely heavy use of computer-generated effects and post production.  (Almost everything is done over a blue or green screen, then the contrast is altered and effects drawn in.)  It’s not as innovative as it was hyped up to be; and in this case, the end result looks something like a computer-oriented reverse of rotoscoping, leaving the actors whole, save for some additional enhancements of their constantly bared abs.  [By the way, this is actually a bad physique for bare flesh sword fighting in the ancient world.  Archaeologists have shown that ancient warriors and gladiators cultivated a layer of fat so that the likelihood of a surface cut being debilitating was decreased; a body of all muscle and sinew is essentially guaranteed to be damaged by the first cut.  But of course, that’s not stylish.]  More importantly, though, the filmmakers are so proud of the visual style that they’ve come up with that they little everything else slide in its favor.  As a result of that, this allegedly action-packed movie doesn’t have one real action scene in it.

Yeah, you heard me.

Oh, there’s plenty of talk about action.  If bluster were a functional substitute for action, every individual Spartan character in this movie could have defeated the entire Persian army with a single breath.  But when we finally do get to a battle, after fully half the movie is already over, the filmmakers decide to ruin it by showing the entire thing in slow motion.

Um, yeah.  Memo to the crew: action involves movement.  As in faster than the average grandmother in a grocery store line kind of movement.  But in 300, from the moment a battle starts, the camera slows down.  These aren’t fights; these are dance interpretations.  These aren’t battles; these are canvases for the post-production crew to use to say “hey, look at the way cool stuff we can do!”  And they show the same moves and techniques over and over and over again.  Very.  Damn.  Slowly.

It’s a trademark of many Hong Kong style directors to slow action a few times to showcase a move or two, but the entire scene, every time?  This is not action.  This is boring.

But hey, there’s always the bluster.  This brings us back from the overt style of self-congratulatory post-production to the thematic style of propaganda.

In propaganda, the enemy is always subhuman.  Look at the Jews in German films of the 1930s (or the “bad Jews” in a certain Mel Gibson film of more recent vintage) or the Japanese in American political cartoons of the 1940s and you’ll see what I mean.  The same is done here.  The Persian army which of course must really be human men is instead portrayed as being peopled by legions of demons, and those men who are amongst them are all deformed or effeminate or both.  Allies of the Spartans, though human, are berated for actually having other jobs besides killing people for a living, and are openly ridiculed as pointless blade fodder even as they provide Leonidas the aid he requires to survive.  Furthermore, even in Sparta itself, any man who is not a full time professional soldier is either old, a child, or hideously deformed, save one, and that man is a traitor.  The message is clear: the only true human beings are the ones of our tribe, and even then, the only worthwhile men of prime age are soldiers.  Others are worthless.

Try saying that’s not propaganda, and try keeping a straight face.  You can’t if you’re being honest.

Double pause here.

One, the blatant dehumanization of anyone who isn’t Spartan or closely allied with them and the reduction to insignificance of any man who isn’t a Spartan soldier goes too far to be entertaining.  Make the enemy a bunch of aliens, or admit they’re men with mean dispositions.  Maybe if the movie didn’t go the extra mile to make the priests into relatives of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family, it might have just hit the line instead of crossing it, but as it stands, it’s really too much.  If you’re missing the point, that word you haven’t yet grasped is “racism.”  (Go ahead.  Replace the word “Spartan” as used in this movie with the name of a race or religion or lifestyle.  Or if you’d rather, just go ahead with “Master Race.”  Frighteningly easy, isn’t it?)

Do I think Zack Snyder meant it?  No.  However, he poured it on so thick that that’s what he got.

Two, if you’ve taken an unsanitized history class of any value that covers the period, you probably find it somewhat hilarious when Leonidas chides the Athenians as “boy lovers.”  Though especially since the release of this film, there have been revisionists – often American, go figure – who try to deny it, homo and bisexuality were prevalent in ancient Sparta, and indeed, pederasty – that’s a fancy term for an older man pairing off with boys; civilized countries prosecute that now – was institutionalized as a normal aspect of a boy’s growing up.  But since one of the other things the movie shows is how effeminate and decadent the Persians are supposed to be – go ahead and try to deny the homosexual and S&M overtones assigned to Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) – 300 just goes ahead and not only ignores that, but goes the classless route of hurling it as an insult.  Not only is gay-bashing not appropriate in this century, it wasn’t in that one, either.

Alas, I think Zack Snyder did mean that one.  For shame.  Even Dirty Harry Callahan knew better.

And as for that oh-so-popular keyword to any propaganda presentation: “freedom…”

Um, yeah.

Whatever their homeland, soldiers always have it drilled into them that they represent freedom.  It’s true of Americans.  It’s true of the former Soviets.  It’s true of these Spartans.

The only freedom being fought for here is the freedom of one set of iron fisted kings in a ruthless state to maintain their power rather than hand it to another iron fisted king.

These “free” Spartans, we see immediately, murder all babies who are not born in perfect health, by law.  In the propaganda of the film, this is to keep the people strong – and indeed, it justifies itself later by having the traitor be one who should have been killed by this practice and wasn’t – but in reality, we call people who do this monsters.

Wait… aren’t the Persians the monsters?

These “free” Spartans are required to give up their children at the age of ten to decades of compulsory military service, by law (because there’s no honor in being a carpenter or whatnot), including deliberate starvation and trials to the death before they even see a battle.  [By the way, the movie sanitizes it; real Spartans were sent to murder men, not animals, in their trials.]  The scene near the beginning with the wolf is portrayed as a challenge of honor; today, we call this and the treatment that comes before it child abuse.  But there’s no choice… that’s the law for “free” Sparta.

Free, my ass.

Leonidas may be a decent guy overall, but the land he represents is no less monstrous than that of his enemy.

But never tell a soldier that about his own country.  Or, unless it’s the one he’s currently an enemy of, any country.  Ideas like that tend to spoil the whole strength and honor and duty thing.  And that, in the end, is the determining factor of whether or not 300 will strike the right chord with you.  The more of a militaristic mindset you have and the easier it is to get you to cry out “oo-rah!” or something similar in unison with a large group, the more you’re likely to enjoy 300.  The less you’re into that mindset, the less likely you are to enjoy it.

Because whether or not any of what I’ve mentioned above is right or wrong in a grand sense, how you feel about such things in part defines what entertains you (why yes, I do remember that this is just a movie, thank you), and 300 goes to such extremes that it is rather hard to let these things go as insignificant.

If you can let them go, what you have left is eye candy, style that ruins the action, and a whole lot of one-dimensional characters who bluster a lot.  Either that, or you have a wicked urge to go to some recruiting center or other.

Bottom line, 300 is all style and little substance, and what substance it has speaks to a very certain mindset.  It has nothing to do with violence or action – this is not an action movie – but rather, a visceral response to a frame of mind.  In the end, it will grab you or it will repel you.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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