If 300, the new battle epic based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war. Since it’s a product of the post-ideological, post-Xbox 21st century, 300 will instead be talked about as a technical achievement, the next blip on the increasingly blurry line between movies and video games.
Directed by Zack Snyder, whose first feature film was the 2004 makeover of the horror classic Dawn of the Dead, 300 digitally re-creates the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., where, according to classical history and legend, the Spartan king Leonidas led a force of only 300 men against a Persian enemy numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The comic fanboys who make up 300’s primary audience demographic aren’t likely to get hung up on the movie’s historical content, much less any parallels with present-day politics. But what’s maddening about 300 (besides the paralyzing monotony of watching chiseled white guys make shish kebabs from swarthy Persians for 116 indistinguishable minutes) is that no one involved—not Miller, not Snyder, not one of the army of screenwriters, art directors, and tech wizards who mounted this empty, gorgeous spectacle—seems to have noticed that we’re in the middle of an actual war. With actual Persians (or at least denizens of that vast swath of land once occupied by the Persian empire).
In interviews, Snyder insists that he “really just wanted to make a movie that is a ride”—a perfectly fine ambition for any filmmaker, especially one inspired by the comics. And visually, 300 is thrilling, color-processed to a burnished, monochromatic copper, and packed with painterly, if static, tableauxvivants. But to cast 300 as a purely apolitical romp of an action film smacks of either disingenuousness or complete obliviousness. One of the few war movies I’ve seen in the past two decades that doesn’t include at least some nod in the direction of antiwar sentiment, 300 is a mythic ode to righteous bellicosity. In at least one way, the film is true to the ethos of ancient Greece: It conflates moral excellence and physical beauty (which, in this movie, means being young, white, male, and fresh from the gyms of Brentwood).
Here are just a few of the categories that are not-so-vaguely conflated with the “bad” (i.e., Persian) side in the movie: black people. Brown people. Disfigured people. Gay men (not gay in the buff, homoerotic Spartan fashion, but in the effeminate Persian style). Lesbians. Disfigured lesbians. Ten-foot-tall giants with filed teeth and lobster claws. Elephants and rhinos (filthy creatures both). The Persian commander, the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is a towering, bald club fag with facial piercings, kohl-rimmed eyes, and a disturbing predilection for making people kneel before him.
Meanwhile, the Spartans, clad in naught but leather man-briefs, fight under the stern command of Leonidas (Gerard Butler), whose warrior ethic was forged during a childhood spent fighting wolves in the snow. Leonidas likes to rally the troops with bellowed speeches about “freedom,” “honor,” and “glory,” promising that they will be remembered for having created “a world free from mysticism and tyranny.” (The men’s usual response, a fist-pumping “A-whoo! A-whoo!” sounds strangely fratty.) But Leonidas is not above playing the tyrant himself. When a messenger from Xerxes arrives bearing news Leonidas doesn’t like, he hurls the man, against all protocol, down a convenient bottomless well in the center of town. “This is blasphemy! This is madness!” says the messenger, pleading for his life. “This is Sparta,” Leonidas replies. So, if Spartan law is defined by “whatever Leonidas wants,” what are the 300 fighting for, anyway? And why does that sound depressingly familiar?
Another of the Spartans’ less-than-glorious customs is the practice of eugenics, hurling any less-than-perfect infant off a cliff onto a huge pile of baby skeletons. Unfortunately for the 300 at Thermopylae, this system of racial cleansing isn’t foolproof: One deformed hunchback, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), manages to make it to adulthood and begs Leonidas for a chance to serve Sparta in the 300. Sure enough, when he’s turned down, the hunchback confirms his moral weakness by accepting Xerxes’ offer to join ranks with the Persians.
Meanwhile, back home in Sparta, Leonidas’ wife, Gorgo (Lena Headey), engages in some plot-padding political intrigue with the evil Theron (The Wire’s Dominic West, looking particularly risible in classical drapery). Theron wants to persuade the Spartan council not to send reinforcements to the desperately outnumbered 300 (what is he, a Democrat?). The noble and sexy Gorgo finally gives herself to Theron in exchange for a chance to persuade the council. “This will not be over quickly,” the villain warns as he pins her against a temple pillar. “You will not enjoy this.” It might have been Zack Snyder himself whispering in my ear, and he would have been right.