August 18, 2007


Just saw 300, the violent action movie about the white guys dying to protect their freedom from the brown people, who hate freedom.

Whoops, I seem to be telegraphing my conclusions in advance. Let me back up.

The premise of the show is that Persia is expanding its sphere of influence, and the god-king Xerxes is currently trying to take Sparta and the rest of Greece. Leonidas, the king of Sparta, wants to bring out the army and go fight, but a contingent of the council doesn't want him to go (because the inbred, lecherous priests told them that the gods did not want them to, though it turns out they were corrupt and in the pay of the Persians). Since the threat of the Persians was obvious, Leonidas flouted the law and brought 300 of the best warriors out to battle—and it's a good thing he disregarded the law, because the very freedom that Sparta so valued was at stake. Despite the lack of support from home, and the active work of traitors in the council to degrade their sacrifices, these 300 fight against incredible odds and hold off an enormous army many times their size. The sacrifices of the fallen were not in vain, because in the end the traitors in the Council were exposed, and Sparta was able to send its whole army, and behind them the other free cities of Greece, to defend against the Persian threat. The movie is based on a graphic novel, which is itself very loosely based on the historical battle of Thermopylae.

I'll certainly say this for the movie: the cinematography was very skillful and considered. It gave it a thoroughly surreal look, although on occasion the matte work was poor, moving from "comic book" into "sloppy matte lines". Considering that the aim was a film version of a graphic novel, they were rather successful, and the overuse of the bullet-time effect can, in this instance, be forgiven.

I also have naught but praise for any scene involving Lena Headey, playing Queen Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas. She plays one of the strongest female characters to grace the screen in recent years, and does so without straying into the trap of "strong woman" meaning something like "unemotional" or "manly".

Ok, that's pretty much it for good things I have to say.

This was really an awful movie. Its least unsuccessful aspect was on the surface level, where it was a hack-n-slash action movie. Though not gory in the "intestines spilling out" sense, there is an abundance of sword-and-spear violence, with limbs flying and blood spraying everywhere. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing, although the heat of battle scenes follow the current vogue of cutting the shots so quickly that you can't actually see anything.

On the next level, it's irritating because of the way it glorifies everything about Sparta; the discarding of defective babies was perhaps an incidental point, but there is almost a wistful nostalgia for the raising of kids to fight from the time they can walk, and actively training them to beat each other up from the age of seven. The movie is unabashedly positive about the "with your shield or on it" admonition. The Spartans gave no quarter, and it was even set up as a comic moment when one asks why they can't be civil in a diplomatic meeting with the opponent even as another is plunging his spear into a wounded enemy after the battle. I certainly don't dispute the historicity of these things; but that doesn't make them practices to be put on a pedestal.

Especially when the nation-state practicing them is so clearly meant to be identified with us. By far the most disturbing part of the movie was its transparent allegory, defending those who flout the law and go to war, and linking this with rhetoric about dying to defend freedom and other deep-seated elements of the American national mythos. When Leonidas decides to assemble a tiny army, in contravention of the law, we root for him and against the law, because clearly he's just trying to defend his nation against this grave, imminent threat from Persia. Why are they fighting with a force so inadequate to the threat? Oh, because of traitors to the city of Sparta that have prevented the full military might of the nation from being deployed, but those few are willing to face near-certain death to fight for their liberty.

There was even an "I'm proud of his sacrifice, but I never told him I loved him" moment.

And where the propaganda veers from disturbing into downright offensive is when you notice that not only are all the good guys white (which makes sense, since they're all Greek, although they're perhaps a smidge more northern- and western-European white than most Greeks) but that every single bad guy, other than the traitorous Greeks, is brown or black—you know, what you'd call "Muslim-looking", if you were one of those people that thinks that "Muslim-looking" would mean something. Nevermind that Persia itself as well as most of the lands they controlled were occupied by peoples who would look "white" to us and indeed, in some cases, lighter-skinned than Greeks! No, Xerxes's army was not cast to look like Persians and Persian subjects, but rather to tap into a racist idea of a scary other.

So basically, 300 struck me primarily as a violent, bloody piece of pro-war propaganda. It pays lip service to virtues we approve of and appeals to more base emotions like revenge and fear of the other, in an apologia for militaristic leaders who live outside the rule of law.

"The secret of success in designing the backdrop is originality: once you can imitate that, all else will follow." --Graham Nelson

Posted by blahedo at 12:57am on 18 Aug 2007
I've been reading Herodotus for my Shimer classes and one of the things I was struck by was the description of the Persians as practicing the kind of rough and ready ascetic lifestyle we generally ascribe to Sparta. 300 portrayed them as indulgent and soft... quite a strange inversion if you view this as an allegory for the current situation. Posted by Michael at 3:36pm on 27 Sep 2007
Dude, you're missing the point of 300 -- the movie deconstructed itself! The Spartans' patently unfree lifestyle was exquisitely examined, to the point of violent child pornography. The Spartans' battle plans were held hostage to an unaccountable religious sect which was corrupted by both flesh and cash, and the Spartans themselves were tremendously poor compared to the Persians. The Spartans murder a group of unarmed emissaries. Leonidas' defense was undone by his heartlessness toward a devoted putative subject, who would have been killed at any rate under Spartan law had his parents not fled. And this is a fight for freedom and civilization? No, this is a fight, period, between two peoples who are capable of both great nobility and terrible foolishness. 300 isn't about any sort of allegory; it is about the lies we tell ourselves in day-to-day life in comparison to the clean loyalties associated wtih battle, and why one might prefer the latter to the former. Posted by Kimmitt at 7:11pm on 29 Sep 2007
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