300 was only Zack Snyder’s second feature as a director. On the basis of its success, he was able to finally push Watchmen into production. Is there any director whose career is more directly tied to the rise of the comic book movie? Even when he is working with material that is not from a comic book — Sucker Punch, Legend of the Guardians, Dawn of the Dead — a graphic novel’s sensibility permeates his narratives and visuals.
There are, I suspect, people who feel the same way about Watchmen and Man of Steel that I do about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films — more angry that others think them good than disappointed that they fail to embody a beloved source text. For them, 300 might be the first domino that led to Snyder being the custodian of cultural properties that are more than just pitch-ready tent pole vehicles.
That’s not me, exactly. If I don’t much care for 300 — and I don’t — it isn’t because ten years later the film got me a version of Batman v Superman that wasn’t as popular as any equally muddied Marvel movie. Snyder may not have been who I would have picked to reboot Batman after Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful but ideologically muddled version of the Caped Crusader, but neither was his vision of what makes superheroes super all that different from what we get in the three to four Marvel films that now shape our film year.
Neither is it because the film’s hyper-violence helped usher in another stage of ratings creep and envelope pushing gore. In fantasy worlds (be they historical or alternate universe), the depictions of pain are both more massive (the destruction of worlds) and more intimate (the ripping, tearing, and crushing of human bodies) than what we might tolerate in a film set in or about the world we currently live in. A beheading on Game of Thrones or 300 is a cool special effect or an emotional punctuation mark — it holds little of the horror we would feel at the thing in real life. (The same might be said of rapes, impaled bodies, or children in jeopardy.)
My problem with 300 is that it is a thematic mess, and if I am going to subject my already blunted sensibilities to two hours of cool-as-hell movie violence, I want there to some context for that violence that makes me contemplate its meaning, not just marvel at its (false) aesthetic beauty.
“Remember why he died,” the injured and thus spared Dilios says of King Leonidas. “Why” is the most important word in that sentence. Sparta knows well that he is dying, so the Camelot-like gesture of sending a bard to sing the tale ought to be about a clear articulation of principle and values. But Leonidas’s motives are as opaque as Wonder Woman’s in the Justice League prequel.
The film’s first act, detailing the rigorous training of the boys in Sparta is meant, I suppose, to offer some clues, but it only answers the “how” not the “why.” Certainly to modern sensibilities the use of “rod and lash” to make the boy a man comes across as a brutal lesson in evolution rather than a valentine to a system, long forgotten, that should be preserved or resurrected. That the sacrifice is not about or for Sparta seems equally evident as the craven politicians scramble to consolidate their power and rape Leonidas’s wife in his absence.
“Good-bye, my love” the narrator intones as Leonidas leaves Gorgo, specifically telling us that the king doesn’t say these words because there is no room for expressions of love of family in the Spartan system of masculinity. Yet when a Spartan soldier sees his son killed he “goes wild” and “breaks rank.” Having established in the first act a code that is all about discipline above all, the film uses this moment to suggest the opposite — that filial love is stronger than even Spartan discipline.
There’s nothing wrong with that message, of course. It’s just that the film’s competing values never actually compete. One is trumpeted as supreme in one scene, another in another scene. Of Xerxes, the narrator sardonically intones that the king “fancies himself a god,” implying that there is something corrupt and corrupting about the Persians and their way of life…as though the Greek emperors never claimed the status of deity. Athenians are called “philosophers and boy lovers,” implying that whatever virtues the Spartans have are unique to their city-state and not engendered by the political or religious foundations shared by the West. (I’m tempted to call the “boy-lovers” line a little bit of sexual panic from a film that luxuriates as it does in the bare-chested masculine form.)
When I teach critical approaches to literature (or film), I find that it is often difficult to get students to distinguish between readings that are deconstructive and those that are simply contrarian. The former imply a text at odds with itself–one that undercuts the ideas or values it is genuinely trying to promote. Such readings are different (and about something different) from those that simply reject the surface values of a text or suggest a subversive reversal. (An Ayn Rand disciple who criticizes George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life for not being selfish enough reveals her own disdain for the text’s values, not the text’s equivocations.)
For that reason, it’s pretty hard to offer a deconstructive or subversive reading of 300. Like the love story that is more about championing love than depicting two characters actually in love, it is a film that champions the idea of sacrifice without ever stopping the ask whether such an act must have an object in order to be noble. “His only regret,” the narrator says of Leonidas, is that he has so few to sacrifice.”
Never mind that in the previous scene or the next his soldier will say that death is more glorious than victory or that victory is only impossible because of internal betrayal rather than overwhelming opposition. Never mind that “never retreat, never surrender” creed leaves Sparta, as near as I can tell, worse off than it was before the 300 made their inspiring gesture. Through most of 300, I kept hearing George C. Scott as Patton reminding us that the purpose of was was to make the other guy die for his country.There may be nothing more glorious in the Spartan code than death on a battlefield, but does that mean all deaths are equally glorious and equally meaningful?
There are great films that depict the horrors of war and honor those who sacrifice themselves as part of it. Saving Private Ryan and Fury come to mind. There are many as well about civilians who sacrifice money, career, and even lives to promote the progress of a cause or idea greater than themselves. Sacrifice is a noble thing. Of the one who sacrifices his life, the Bible says there is no greater love. It may well be that the Spartans at Thermopylae knew what they were fighting for and found the battle a perfect vehicle to express the values around which they ordered their lives. This review is a critique of their movie, not of them.
What we get in 300 is not an illustration of this concept but an invocation of it. The film is not bad because the Spartan values are bad but because it is remarkably indifferent to those values, unwilling to interrogate or even examine them, lacking the confidence that an intelligent audience might be more moved by the loss of a hero than by the assertion that losing is heroic.
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