300 stirred up a lot of controversy in 2007 owing to the escalating wars in the Middle East. The outright jingoism espoused by Zack Snyder’s comic book adaptation was called a lot of things, justification for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan not the least among them. Of course, said comic book was published in 1998, long before the events of 9/11, and was inspired chiefly by The 300 Spartans, a film made in 1962 and inspired by the legendary Battle of Thermopylae, which took place in 480 B.C. Now you can read into 300’s politics all you want, but be advised that few people have ever accused Frank Miller or Zack Snyder of subtlety. It is in fact the profound lack of subtlety that makes 300 so enjoyable to watch.
I make no excuses for Zack Snyder. I have already gone into great detail on this site concerning the man’s shortcomings as a director. But I won’t let that stop me now. He is without question one of the most bombastic visionaries working in the business today. He can, without fail, pull tedious performances out of otherwise competent actors. His emotional palette consists of slow motion choreography and tight, tight focuses on teeth. His musical ear, as attested in his woeful adaptation of Watchmen (2009), runs the gamut from blatant to banal. The scripts to his films could be written by children, but then that insults children. The scripts to his films are obvious, unoriginal and almost totally devoid of pathos. They are bathetic, which is to say they are the pinnacle of Hollywood mediocrity. It is an overused expression, but Zack Snyder is the perfect storm of trite filmmaking. Only Uwe Boll and Michael Bay come to mind as more irritatingly prolific hacks, and if there is a god of Western filmmaking, truly Snyder is the son of this antediluvian trinity, a three headed beast which hearkens back to something sinister and carnal in our collective funk. How else can we explain the man’s meteoric rise to the top of the movie mountain but as the antithesis of our greatest American myth, that with hard work and integrity a man can succeed? Snyder exists as the living embodiment of Lewis Black’s mordant observation that in Hollywood one simply “fails upward.” No quarter should be asked of the man, and none is given here.
With all of that said, 300 is a spectacularly on point film. It is meant to be, quite obviously, an electric infusion of adrenaline into the eyes of moviegoers, a spectacle for the brain so extreme that the higher brain functions simply short out. It is a grunting, puffing, slashing, smoking gravity bong of machismo. Its attempts at emotionality are ludicrous and only tossed in as an after thought. Its cleverness is as absent as its nuance, its sanity is tucked in a leather thong and cannot breathe. It is not a subtle movie.
300 depicts the second hand story of the Battle of Thermopylae, told by the only Spartan survivor of the last stand of King Leonidas against the invading horde of Persians, led by Emperor Xerxes. With three hundred of the bravest fathers taken from his city state to head off the million man army, Leonidas (Gerard Butler) establishes a beachhead at the “Hot Gates,” a narrow mountain pass, for three days of epic badassery that will live in infamy forever. What’s astonishing is that the basic story is completely true. There was a real King Leonidas, he did lead three hundred Spartans (along with hundreds of Thespians, Thebans and Athenians), and they did kill several thousand Persians. The tale is a testament to bravery, the military ethos of the Spartans, and the absolute importance of geography in deciding battles. It is not a testament to much else, however, as a great deal of the subsequent victory over Persia depended on the Athenian navy. But let us not let complex history get in the way of our simple entertainment. (This should also be our refrain when hearing King Leonidas disparage Athenians as “boy lovers” when the Spartan military more or less institutionalized pederasty. Also when we begin to question where the hoplites’ armor has got to. Or where their supply trains are. Or why they break their phalanx so often.)
I’ll be honest, if you’re a man, or almost a man, there is something that is insufferably imperative about 300. Zack Snyder has completed enough films in his resume now that we know him for what he is, and that is obsessed with the sort of ball swinging bellicosity that gets one thrown out of polite parties. But Snyder doesn’t wanna go to your polite parties. There’s something very pure about 300, something very gristly. You can literally launch any argument against this movie and, if you’ll forgive the French, the counter argument in every case will be, “Fuck you! Hoo-rah!”
Yes, the Persian army is made of slaves, the deformed, elephants and outright monsters. Yes, Emperor Xerxes is a giant sissy. Yes, the traitor Ephialtes is a miserable hunchback. But yes, the whole story is being narrated by Dilios. War changes our enemies into monsters, our traitors into monsters, our soldiers into golden gods with rippling abs. 300 is never dishonest about what it’s doing. It is a feverish acid dream of violence and frankly it looks beautiful.
No, Snyder is not a director that deals with human beings very well. But 300 is never about human beings. It is about characters that are larger than life, who speak in spartan aphorisms; it is about stark and high contrast vistas that are more akin to moving paintings than moving pictures. It is a fully realized acid dream and that is what Snyder does exceedingly well. He is a paragon of the superficial, and the surface of this movie is glorious.
Yes, the fact that the characters all constantly harp about freedom and free men fighting oppressors and enslaved soldiers is diabolically hypocritical, but I very much doubt that even the ancient Greeks could square their own slave economy with their high minded ideals. We couldn’t. We still can’t.
No, what we have to boil this movie down to is its essentials. Actually, the movie’s already done that for us. It’s a movie about screaming macho men going to war because they’ve been born and bred to war, made for quiet moviegoers like you and me who have never been invaded or forced to contemplate impending slavery, or a draft. It’s a celebration of violence and blood envisioned in the boldest way possible. It is Zack Snyder’s one true masterpiece.
May it live forever as a testament to what we were in 2007.
Based on the comic 300 by Frank Miller & Lynn Varley
Directed by Zack Snyder
Warner Bros. Pictures
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