“Prepare for glory”
Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West and David Wenham
In 480 BC a small Greek force, lead by 300 Spartans under King Leonidas, held off a far larger Persian force at Thermopylae for seven days, while getting off a variety of good lines while under pressure; when King Leonidas was told that the Persian archers were shooting arrows in such vast quantities that they were blotting out the sun, he allegedly replied ‘won’t it be nice that we have shade to fight in’. In the end they were nearly all killed, but their epic bravery was well recorded by the Greek historians, with accounts in both Plutarch and Herodotus.
Then, probably because Frank Miller loves nothing like he loves testosterone, it was made into a comic in 1998, only with added homophobia, but some very nice artwork. As is the way with Frank Miller.
After that, a film version was almost inevitable. The plot of the film is, by the way, basically, the same as the synopsis I gave of the battle of Thermopylae. It’s a bit like a very well oiled and slightly more homoerotic version of Herodotus.
What’s wrong with it?
OK. There is technically an awful lot wrong with 300. I mean, you start with the history (Spartan soldiers did actually wear more than leather speedos to fight in, King Xerxes of Persia probably wasn’t that into gold body paint, and I’m sure history would have remembered had he, or any classical ruler, actually had their own battle rhino), continue with the racism (brave
Americans Greeks yell about democracy before slaughtering deformed foreigners who look like orcs but are apparently Persians), perhaps pause to examine the sexism (no matter how powerful or plot important a female character, it doesn’t mean she can’t be sexually abused at least once), and then amble on through the gratuitous violence, tripping over a plot hole every now and then (why did Theron take bribes in Persian gold he couldn’t spend? Unless there was a secret Spartan bureau de change somewhere…) before finally coming to rest, overwhelmed by the sheer macho nonsensicality of it all.
What’s right with it?
…Leonidas would have loved it!
No, really. Every time I see this film I can’t help but imagine Leonidas sitting there, in the Elysian Fields, gleaming with pride. Every time he gets off a snappy line (and to be fair, if they were invented, they were invented by enthusiastic ancient Greeks, not enthusiastic Hollywood script writers) I can see him nodding smugly. Every time his enemies flinch, he probably flexes some undead muscles and I am totally and utterly convinced that if you were to show him this film and ask him about the battle rhino he would swear blind that he killed that thing with his own two hands and if you doubted him, well, you weren’t there, man.
In general, one of the hardest things about historical drama is that we, as a society, are not very good at empathizing with people who’s basic understanding of the world and who’s concept of right and wrong was very different to ours. We find it especially hard when it comes to popcorn flicks, where we don’t want to see women who couldn’t leave the house unaccompanied or cheer for heroes who believed absolutely in the divine right of kings, so most film makers tend to end up making their historical heroines feisty and their heroes pro-democracy, and everyone learns to believe in themselves until it’s all OK in the end. But 300 actually doesn’t do that. OK, so I’m not saying Dick Cheney’s fantasy life doesn’t look like this too (well, maybe not quite as many heavily oiled and scantily clad young men, although I don’t want to judge) but I am also pretty certain that this is closer in spirit to the Spartan perspective than any earnest young man with plumes on his helmet, questioning whether the helots really needed to be kept as slaves, before facing a number of conflicted and three dimensional Persian enemies would have been.
Also, Frank Miller’s idea on history is way more like Herodotus than Eric Hobsbawm. I bet Herodotus would have thrown in a battle rhino.
How bad is it really?
I think it depends what you’re looking for. If you want a history lesson, it’s bad. If you want a subtle nuanced portrayal of real men torn apart by the horrors of war, it’s bloody awful. If you object to sexual violence, racism, orientalism, or just strangely narrow cliffs which soldiers have to be pushed off one at a time in dramatic profile, you probably should avoid it.
If, on the other hand, you have a soft spot for Frank Miller style cinematography and can swallow a lot of testosterone with your popcorn, it’s an awful lot of fun and probably the least apologetic depiction of Greek warriors doing appropriately obnoxious yet spectacularly Greek warrior-y things you’ll find outside of the strangely detailed imaginings of a certain kind of classics student.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Ooooh….so many quotables, so little time. Do I start with the Persian Ambassador famously being kicked down a well (“This. Is. Sparta!” shouts a strangely Glaswegian Leonidas)? Perhaps Queen Gorgo snarking that “only Spartan women give birth to real men” (another historical quote)? And of course there’s the famous “we will fight in the shade” line.
Plus no matter what you think of Frank Miller’s politics, man, he makes pretty comics, which pretty much gets used as the storyboard for the film. It’s visually stunning.
What’s up with…?
- So, the traitor Theron sells out Sparta to the Persians for gold, which he conveniently keeps about his person in easy to recognize gold coins, nicely stamped with Xerxes very recognizable face? Why? And also, where? He’s wearing a blanket for most of the film. Man must have had amazing muscle control.
- I understand that the Spartans were body fascists extraordinaire, but did Leonidas have to kick the earnest little hunchback, Ephialtes, to the kerb quite so firmly? Couldn’t he have given him a bag to carry or something? Or just killed him if he must? Him running off to Xerxes in a fit of pique did seem rather inevitable.
- I get that battle rhinos improve almost any given story, but could maybe some of Xerxes exciting shock troops (which include Africans, Indians with elephants, and the oft mentioned rhino) have maybe come from the actual Persian Empire?
- What happened to all the other Greek forces at Thermopylae? According to Herodotus the total number of troops opposing the Persians numbered in the thousands (still massively outnumbered by the Persians who modern historians estimate as being in the tens of thousands) and included troops from Thebes, Arcadia and Corinth amongst others. Did they just…stay home?
Production values: Whatever 300’s faults, it’s a very very pretty film and beautifully put together. 4
Dialogue and performances: I might be being harsh here. There’s not really much for the cast to work with here, and they actually do pretty well with what they’ve got. Gerard Butler is consistently macho and stern. Lena Headey is scornful and imperious. Dominic West oozes whenever he comes on screen (seriously, Sparta, how did you not notice he was evil for so long?) and whoever is played Xerxes is…convincingly pierced. It just isn’t really a film you can perform in. 10
Plot and execution: I mean, there isn’t a lot of plot to cram in, really. There is a Persian army. They go to war. There are some oracles and a bit of politics along the way, but really, how can you mess up a bunch of dudes stabbing each other with spears now? 8
Randomness: And that was mostly because the film occasionally just throws something totally insane from left field in. 12
Waste of potential: 300 is exactly what it says it is going to be from beginning to end. Madness? No! SPARTA! 2