Frank Miller’s 300, the comic, is a gorgeous fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. It is a hyper-epic, in the way that Sin City is a hyper-noir. The battles are visual essays on unrelenting force, the grace and power of a body forged to fight with weapons deriving their energy from human motion, and the waves of absolute oppression crashing against the rocks of self-determination. It is a stylized homage not to the specific ideologies of the Spartans, but to their truly staggering will and strength, obtained through a cultural dynamic of constant, brutal testing of the self. To read 300 is to marvel at the possibilities contained within humanity, to witness the raw harshness of human existence forge societies and soldiers of unparalleled might. 300 is an ode the magnificence of human spectacle, as manifested by the players on the stage of the Battle of Thermopylae. The forces at work on both sides of the battle are both horrifying and magnificent. 300 the film builds upon this base, pushing all of these aspect further and amplifying them beyond reality. Miller never shies from hyperbole to convey his message, and the film gladly obliges.
Spoiler warning: While I don’t give away much of the film, or its ending (which is a matter of history, by the way), I show a lot of content, which may give you an inkling of how things go. All images are from the trailers.
The film expands on Miller’s relatively simple arc from the comic. It tells the tale with a bit more depth as well as some extra baggage, about which I’m still a bit ambivalent. The extra content pushes the film towards a becoming a lesson, setting up the Spartans as heroes meant to be emulated, or perhaps as a not-so-subtle shot at the governmental and religious figures of the Middle East. Given the situation with the current U.S. administration and its military and political actions in the Middle East, it’s easy to draw metaphorical connections between the film. But in spite this easy read, I have a hard time believing that 300 is presented as any sort of model for behavior, particularly since it plays it so fast and loose with history. However, every time I come a conclusion about the film’s intent, the opposite conclusion seems to present itself equally.
300 is an odd beast, particularly for someone like myself who’s read and re-read the comic since its release in the ‘widepage’ format hardcover in 1999. It is a beautiful film, and as with much of Miller’s work, it’s an examination of extremes. This is partly why I have a hard time swallowing the assertions that 300 is anything more than a hyper-epic meant to entertain and astound, and perhaps spark interest in the actual tale. For example, as I asserted in my post on Sin City, not all stories contain lessons. Some tales simply spin a unique yarn that is fascinating to behold in its own right, because it stands apart and thrills us. Interestingly enough, the interpretation of the Spartans as America fighting the ‘evils’ of the Middle East as the Persians is thin and facile when compared to the interpretation that Alisa posited to me after we watched the film together: that the opposite is true.
The Spartans are a group that cleaves to a harsh philosophy of tradition, honor, and strength, drawing their fortitude from their moral and philosophical totality and clarity. Alisa suggested that they are more akin to the smaller groups of Islamic nations banding together to stand against the allied strength of the nations of the Western world, who use their superior strength foolishly and depend not on true internal strength and battle-tested mettle, but on the threat of overwhelming force to create a demoralizing fear. In addition, the fictionalized version of Xerxes, the god-king of the Persians, has at his command the most terrifying and obliterating marvels of military might and technological force. The more that I turn that comparison over in my head, the more I see it as a richer, truer metaphor. But the film takes a great deal of time (more than it should have, in my opinion) delivering monologues on the righteous nature of freedom and liberty, and its defense by honest soldiers willing to die to protect it. The connections can be drawn, but ultimately I believe they simply don’t fit. The film borders on cartoonish (some have referred to it as more like a videogame than a film) in virtually every respect, and as such trying to draw real-life lessons from it is only fruitful to a certain point. There are honorable notions presented in the film, but both the Persians and the Spartans demonstrate a ruthless absolutism completely out of sync with the ideals of much of modern American society. As such, I don’t believe that Miller is seriously suggesting we act as the Spartans did, or that his version of the Persians is particularly accurate. So, from this vantage point, I enjoyed 300 immensely in retrospect.
While I watched the film in the theater, I couldn’t make up my mind about this issue, which severely dampened my ability to immerse myself fully in the tale. I kept backing out through a hole I couldn’t close, so to speak, and as a result I found it hard to move with the movie’s rhythms. My liberal tendencies continually kicked in and I found myself asking “is this saying what I think it might be saying?” I’ve now concluded to my satisfaction that it is saying some things that are morally suspect, but this does not matter, because it isn’t serving up the Spartans as a model or a parable. It is presenting the ideas of the characters who exist in the fictional world it has created in a manner that is faithful to their nature. These characters hold extreme ideals, many of which have reprehensible aspects. While they are based on societies that existed and are documented in the historical record, they are presented in an exaggerated way for our entertainment. And while we are clearly meant to sympathize with one group over the other, the over-amplified righteousness of one and the bottomless evil of the other are actually tempered by the fact that they are both practicing orthodoxies which carry terrible consequences. Watching 300is not dissimilar from watching the Olympics, in my mind. It’s incredible that a person can bend their body and mind so completely to the performance of one task with such skill, but it would not be beneficial to humanity if we all tried to follow suit.
Alisa, despite my expectations, really enjoyed 300. I had a harder time with it for the reasons I mentioned above, and because I know the comic so well. This happened to me when watching V for Vendetta as well. I think subsequent viewings will allow me to move past the similarities and differences and truly enjoy the film as its own entity. But as I go back over it in my mind, I’m filled with a strong urge to watch it again and really revel in the visuals and the intensity of the tale. I recommend 300 highly to anyone who can separate themselves from the belief systems on display and the historical truths that are distorted to create an entertaining tale.
OK, enought talk. As 300 is such a feast for the eyes, it only seems right to cover the rest of it visually:
Stelios, in one of the cooler moments of the film, leaps at a Persian emissary who does not show respect.
Ad Exec Review: Prepare for glory!
MPAA Review: Graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity.