Home / Movie Review: 300 Spartans vs. The Modern Media-cracy

Movie Review: 300 Spartans vs. The Modern Media-cracy

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300, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, which was inspired by Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, tells the tale of Leonidas, King of Sparta, who led 300 Spartan soldiers against the hitherto undefeated Persian army. At great cost the Persians won the battle, but ultimately lost the war, creating a turning point in world history. The movie has received mixed reviews both from people who wish to dismiss it as a video game brought to life and those who would like to wrest from it a modern political allegory.

Blah, blah, history, politics, blah! This movie kicks ass! It is entertainment of the highest order. By the time the first battle scene started, I was grinning ear to ear. I have not been as genuinely and joyfully entertained by an action flick since they shot up the marble lobby in The Matrix. When the movie ended, it is only because I am a grown mature adult that I did not bounce up and down in my chair and cry "Again! Again!"

“So how do you explain all the crappy reviews?” my brother asked me, based on my breathless adulation of the film. “I really have no idea,” was the best I could come up with.

The number of sources who are trying hard to drag modern politics into the film of a 2500-year-old battle is growing. When it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, the Germans booed the film and walked out. The New York Times and Newsweek have both come out decrying the racist and politically insensitive subject matter. Now the President of Iran has joined in, declaring the film an American act of war on Iranian culture.

Since 18 of the top 25 grossing films in Germany last year were from the Beast known as Hollywood, it’s hard to take German disdain seriously. Maybe they were late for a Leni Riefenstahl retrospective. As for the President of Iran, taking him seriously presumes that he is actually speaking to us. He’s not talking to us. He’s talking to the same group of people they got to riot over drawings of Mohammed in a Norwegian newspaper six months after they were originally published. They never saw those drawings. They’re never going to see 300. I doubt Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has seen it.

To the U.S. media-cracy, I can only offer this one thought: How arrogant are you? Seriously, how arrogant and self centered do you have to be to see American history reflected in every story? There’s a whole lot of human history, most of which has taken place totally without influence of the United States. In fact, it’s only been about sixty or seventy years that the rest of the world felt it was necessary to even invite us to the table.

Cinematographically speaking, the film is an artful combination of live action and computer animation, using the same techniques as critically lauded Sin City. Color is layered upon black and white images, creating something vibrant and unearthly, like something transmitted from Hades itself.

Adding to this effect is the main character, King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler. Leonidas looks like a relief of the ideal Greek man rendered on an ancient Grecian urn, but then his handsome face will transformed into a mask of glaring eyes and gnashing teeth. The effect is unsettling and great for reminding us that Spartan culture was hardly a utopian one. Boys were taken from home at the age of seven and beaten into soldiers. As we all learned in the story of Oedipus, weak infants were left on a mountainside to die. Spartans may be the heroes of this film, but that does not make them excellent role models, and the film does not whitewash this fact.

Butler is definitely an actor to watch. By that I mean he is definitely an actor I like to watch. I’d like to watch him chew gum, or tie his shoes. I first became aware of him in a sweet movie called Dear Frankie, which could not be more different than 300. He is, unfortunately, best known for playing the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, a movie I tried, unsuccessfully, to watch just because it had him in it. My opinion of Phantom was really expressed best by SNL: “Phantom of the Opera is the best musical ever about a burn victim who rapes an opera singer.”  

Leonidas leads an army of 300 soldiers who are, among other things, r-r-r-r-r-r-ripped like Jesus. That’s 600 pecs and at least 1800 ab muscles for those of you who are counting, of whom I am not one, of course. That would be objectification, and wrong. The soldiers wear leather BVDs, red capes, and gladiator sandals; an outfit that is totally practical for fighting and not even remotely gay.

The film has taken flack for being homophobic, in part because the Persian God King Xerxes is portrayed as being aggressively androgynous. While hardly historically accurate, the decision to portray him that way is a legitimate artistic choice. Ancient gods often had androgynous or hermaphroditic qualities, and the character definitely amps up the fantastical quality of the story.

Along with some really amazing action scenes, there is a secondary plot dealing with the politics going on back in Sparta. Leonidas and his wife, the unfortunately (yet historically accurate) named Queen Gorgo have a surprisingly complex relationship for a battle movie. I actually found myself wondering if they were overdoing the Grrrrrl Power bit while watching the movie, but then I looked it up when I got home. Apparently women in Sparta were unusually powerful compared to their contemporaries elsewhere. When the men are away at war all the time, someone has to keep things running.

Oh dear, there I go again with the history. For a wild action movie, they did include a remarkable amount of historically accurate detail, but it would be silly to call this history. In fact, one element of the story is the idea of storytellers sitting around a campfire, spinning a yarn that is intended to inform, inspire, and entertain, with emphasis on the latter two. The story of King Leonidas and his band of Spartan soldiers has been told and retold untold thousands of times since the battle occurred, because it’s a great story. It makes me sad to imagine we've become unable to simply appreciate a good yarn. 300 certainly creates a fantastic vision which does the tale justice. I encourage you to leave your politics in the car, buy an extra large bag of popcorn, and enjoy it.      

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About Kati

  • A very useful critique. I haven’t seen 300 but I will be lining up, God willing. I’m sure it will be right up my street.

    However it would be surprising if this film didn’t arouse some controversy. And why not? Are we the battle-avid Norsemen of the 13th Warrior or are we 21st Century humanitarians? It’s an understandable dichotomy that we’re not likely to resolve in a hurry. Nietzsche said we were weak to succumb to Christian ideas such as ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘Suffer The Little Children’.

    From the penning of the Iliad and the Odyssey a section of us (humans) have been thrilling to the narration of sagas of the bloodletting inherent in the eternal struggle between Us and Them.

    Why not think of Iran and America when we contemplate Frank Miller’s 300 brought to the screen? Old stories will inevitably be regarded in the light of Modern Times. Shakespeare is always being re-imagined and upgraded and to his credit his work usually seems to have some grist for the contemporary mind.

    If the species were on the brink of extinction Spartan culture might be just the thing. If the Aliens of Aliens landed, you’d want some Spartans to hold the line. (Val Kilmer’s Spartan is a good film.) I can admire the Spartans now and then, but I will not be moving an inch in their direction.

    We should be grateful that some Germans did walk out 300. My take on the Germans is that they are more inclined to take up arms than shun them. It’s true that some Germans might be afraid of re-awakening past demons, but I think you’ll find that most areas of Eastern Europe will be tooling up for the next go-round. The Poles. The Czechs. The Hungarians. The Bulgars.

    The old dualistic Cold War is a thing of the past. The next phase will certainly be multi-player.

  • Candide

    “So how do you explain all the crappy reviews?”

    I think I know the reason that these old farts are popping up. They knew that every review would be beaming and they were afraid that their reviews would be outshined. They obviously do not have your way with words so they were forced to do what old farts do, if they know they can’t win, they poop in the Cheerios so that they can ruin it for everyone. It is sad really, but it is the only way that they can get any attention. LOL!

    What is so bad is that when the critics discovered that they no longer had the power to keep people out of the theater, they resorted to questioning the intellect of the audience. Some have even resorted to name calling. The critics are getting desperate.

    I think that with so many real people sharing there movie going experiences on the internet, the paid critic is becoming redundant. What other explanation is there, the critics flamed all of the biggest grossing movies this month, but it did not stop people from turning out in droves. As a matter of fact, it might be one of the reasons people went to see the movies.

  • “I think I know the reason that these old farts are popping up. They knew that every review would be beaming and they were afraid that their reviews would be outshined.”

    My brother offered a similar perspective. He believes that many of the “ahem” older critics don’t quite know what to make of these new film techniques combining live action and CGI. Sin City had the novelty factor along with direction by Robert Rodriguez to give it cache. They were willing to indulge it as a novelty, but two films is a trend! A trend with which they’re not comfortable.

    I think whenever you hear a reviewer criticizing a film for being “like a video game”, those are red flag words, indicating that the reviewer is too lazy to really examine what is going on. It’s like code for Grandpa Simpson: “It’s loud…it’s busy…it’s morally ambiguous…I’m late for the senior blue plate at Dennys”

  • jon

    300 is homophobic by omission. It omits to mention that male-male relationships were part of Spartan male culture. I suspect the movie’s producers didn’t want to include it because it might “sully” the heterosexual heroes.

  • zingzing

    homophobic? what? it’s a gay man’s dream! all those buff men, running around half naked and shiny from their exertions? come on! it’s homoerotic! it was MADE for gay men (and their women).

  • ml

    First off, I have to say that as eye candy and entertainment, I enjoyed this movie. However, to say that it isn’t politically motivated?

    First off, since when was Sparta a democracy? It never was. It was a military oligarchy that didn’t care about anything that didn’t involve protecting their lands. While the other Greek *city-states* had their rugged terrain to protect them, the Spartans had vast plains to defend, so they turned to harsh training.

    Now, let’s examine what’s different between the movie and the comic: The largest point? The comic said nothing of the Queen, beyond the line about Leonidas coming back (and there was no little wolf’s tooth necklace). It certainly (historically) was not her doing that caused more Spartan troops to be sent, and 300, as far as I know, is the first movie to ever say so. Suddenly, this movie is both about the battle itself, as well as the politics at home (which, as I’ve pointed out, is particularly contrived) about sending more troops. Sound familiar?

    So now we have “fighting for democracy” and “the battle to send more troops” as 2 contrivances of this particular movie (the comic talked of freedom and liberty–debatable but acceptable salient ideas).

    Then how about the villainization? More like demonization. Again, “300” is the first time this happens. Even in the comic, the only grotesque creature was Ephialtes (the Hunchback of Sparta). Why? Even the Immortal Elites were only men, called “Immortal” because their numbers never dwindled due to constant recruitment. Never anywhere was it said that they were mutilated.

    My point is that anyone who has seen this movie and has had a bit of classical education should have had red flags go up. Anyone who has had a classical education, has read the comic, and has watched this movie should be able to see these exact same points.

    Again I’ll say that as cinematic candy, “300” is fine, but to ignore what it changes, both from history and from the comic that it purports to be based on? I can understand if people are ignorant of these points, but certainly listening to someone who *does* make these points shouldn’t be out of the question, should it?

  • pepekpren

    patek nag!!!!!!!!!!!

  • One of the benefits of writing one’s own reviews is that one is allowed to exercize all kinds of hyperbole to make one’s argument.

    Do I think that the story told in 300 has no relevence to today? No, obviously not. Do I think that you’re silly if you see parallels to the story and some things that are happening today? No, there’s nothing wrong with a movie making you think. The history of humanity is a constant repition of themes, over and over.

    What I do think is goofy is assigning some kind of intention to the film makers, like calling them facists, for example, because they made a funky action picture.

    Enjoying 300 doesn’t mean you think ancient Sparta, with its forced military service, eugenics and battle hive society is some kind of exemplary model, any more than enjoying the Matrix makes you an anarchist.

    It’s interesting you mention the Queen Gorgo story line, which to me was the least interesting part of the movie. It was added in because the studio thought it would appeal more to women to have a storyline involving a female character. To me, that story says a lot more about the politics of movie focus groups than it does current society.