“This is Sparta — we’ll just set aboot ye.”

Watched “300” at last. I’d been wary of it and reluctant to spend money on something I expected to disapprove of. But a friend loaned us a copy with the suggestion that it was more politically nuanced and ambiguous than we thought, and since it was free, we thought, “What the hell.”

Leave your head at the box office

The ambiguity was supposed to stem from the portrayal of Sparta as a nation funded on institutionalized child abuse — but I’m not certain how much weight to give this. On the one hand, the film is literally about a historical conflict, and that aspect of Spartan society is pretty well-known. In a populist film, you don’t ignore the one thing your audience might remember about the subject from school. Then again, the film’s attitude to infanticide and child abuse, via its narrator, is broadly approving — so I think we have to see a level of irony at work (or else get really angry that Frank Miller and Zak Snyder are pro-child abuse). If we DO see the film as a right-wing tract (and a glance at Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns should be enough to clear up any questions about his stance, though it also shows that he likes to mix things up and add some questioning liberalism here and there) then the ritualised brutalising of Spartan children can be read as metaphor: “a nation must be tough (not quite like this but you get the idea) to protect itself.”

Snyder's Oracle in 300

Bava's Oracle in Hercules and the Haunted World

Snyder’s Oracle in “300”. Bava’s Oracle in HERCULES AND THE HAUNTED WORLD.

The plot: Xerxes of Persia (eight-foot tall mutant) leads an army of millions to attack Greece, and demands that King Leonidas of Sparta kneel before him. But Leonidas — a Scotsman — refuses to bend the knee. Hampered by a corrupt senate and other political/religious forces, Leonidas leads an illegal mission of three hundred crack troops to defend his borders.

I think this reads as a fanciful replay of Iraq: instead of invading, Sparta is defending itself. Instead of being a bullying giant, Sparta is cast as the underdog. Persia stands in as a good geographic substitute for modern Iraq, and the Persians are portrayed as inbred mutant subhuman orcs, or else as very very ethnic. (And anybody who’s “ugly” or “weird-looking” in this film is automatically a bad guy.) The VO, most of which is badly written, badly delivered and unnecessary, constantly stresses their “darkness,” even referring to Xerxes’ “dark will”. Even as a portrait of ancient Persia this is offensive, leaving aside any modern connections.

(It doesn’t matter if the comic book source predates the present conflict. Tolkein likewise predates the Iraq mess, and Peter Jackson’s Frodo franchise looks irresistably like the heartwarming fantasy of good versus evil that GW Bush tried to sell the world.)

And the language of the film implicitly implies that the Greeks are modern and reasoning, their religion akin to Christianity (“Tonight we dine in Hell,” not Hades) and the Persians are mystical, superstitious, pagan, with all the western value judgements that implies.

Caged Wheat

There is quite a bit to be said in favour of the film-making, when you ignore politics (or better, when you keep politics in mind but look at the other aspects). From the trailer I expected to find the constant CGI and digital retouching claustrophobic and airless. In the movie I didn’t. It is what it is, but the constant magic-hour lighting (it’s always either dusk or dawn in Greece, apparently) smears everything into a misty Impressionist glow, which is much more effective and attractive than the pin-sharp greeting card look of BEOWULF. We accept that nothing is real and nothing exists outside the frame, or even in it, but that goes with the territory. The fight scenes are impressively coherent — Snyder entertains himself nicely with visual tricks and impossible stunts, but we don’t lose out on spatial awareness, we can see who’s hitting whom (unlike in GLADIATOR, BATMAN BEGINS etc) and even when figures are knocked flying through the air like skittles, they maintain a believable sense of heft and meat— there’s none of the obviously-rendered, weightless digital maquettes we’re used to. And the filmic choreography of it all, with time slowing down and speeding up in spurts of violence, is beautiful in itself.

There’s even humour. Although Leonidas is annoying from his odd beard to his drawn-on six-pack to his constant ROARING, he has a certain dry wit, delivered by Gerald Butler with a touch of Sean Connery’s wryness (and a Greek King with a Scots accent echos Connery’s turn as Theseus in TIME BANDITS. Listening to Butler is like being tickled all the time from an unknown direction.) It’s much more effective than the stabs at comedy in Zemeckis’ BEOWULF, or the LORD OF THE RINGS films. There Peter Jackson, by nature a humorist, struggled to find any light-hearted expression that wouldn’t render his whole myth-cycle absurd. Lame jokes about cow-pats and dwarf-tossing violated the pompous tone and derailed the movies from their inescapably simplistic route.

Seven inches of plastic pleasure

Where “300” does create ambiguity, or at least confusion, is in its sexual politics. While the only prominent female characters are shown nude, both are politically powerful. While Queen Gorgo (Gorgo? Really?) is sexually humiliated by a corrupt senator, she gets to avenge herself in a punch-the-air “feminist” moment.

And while the Spartan males are all bred to be dead butch, and speak scornfully of the “boy-lovers” in Crete, they are portrayed in a blatantly homo-erotic fashion. The innate contradiction has the same amusing quality as the queer sexuality of Italian peplum films. Something that seemsintended to be read as super-straight comes across as inescapably super-camp. The climactic massacre looks like the death of Saint Sebastian re-staged as a Busby Berkeley number. Even the fact that Leonidas screws Gorgo (his other beard?) from behind, seems suggestive of sexual ambivalence. This aspect of the film is what caused many critics to sneer, but it’s actually the most interesting and nuanced thing on offer.

An 'arrowing experience

It’s quite possible that Snyder doesn’t consider his film right-wing or allegorical or possessed of any particular meaning at all. Defenders on the IMDb talk of how it’s “a shame” that people have to “spoil things” by looking for racism or politics or, like, meaning. Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, which also had very good bits, was remarkable for the way it stripped the Romero mythos of any subtext or resonance whatsoever (while Romero’s own films have been getting more and more strident and direct). And his next film is an adaptation of the seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which was written by Alan Moore, an anarchist of the left. But politics tends to creep in, whether a director intends it or not. I won’t be altogether surprised if Ozymandias, the super-rich industrialist who manufactures a fake war on terror, emerges as hero of Snyder’s WATCHMEN.

17 Responses to ““This is Sparta — we’ll just set aboot ye.””

  1. “It;s quite possible that Snyder doesn’t consider his film right-wing or allegorical or possessed of any particular meaning at all.”

    And that’s my cue to quote my second-favorite line in all cinema — whihc is the opening line of The Wild Bunch : “I know what you meant to do — it’s what you did that I don’t like!”

    Peplum is intrinsitcally homoerotic yet blinkered about its homoeroticism. 300 is blatantly homoerotic AND homophobic at the same time. It’s a bi-polar combo special whose like hasn’t been seen since that most maudit of all Altman films O.C. & Stiggs.

  2. In the words of my buddy Dean
    “300 is retarded, see it on IMAX”

  3. dcairns Says:

    Simon — yes, the way you have to see Beowulf in 3D or you’re not seeing ANYTHING.

    David — Ah, OC and Stiggs — I saw a little of it on TV as a youngster, and got a very bad vibe off it. Since knowing more about Altman, and having seen most of his GOOD films, I’ve become curious to see this properly.

    The problem with people consciously trying to make dumb entertainments is their politics creeps in anyway, unmediated by the liberal forebrain. I’m sure Peter Jackson doesn’t consider himself a racist, but Lord of the Rings has sinister undertones and King Kong sees them come right to the surface in a way that’s actually far worse than the 1933 version.

  4. >The problem with people consciously trying to make dumb entertainments is their politics creeps in anyway

    Absolutely, as I once said, there’s no such thing as “a film where I don’t have to think”, rather, there are films where you think *less* whilst on cruise control… and it’s when you’re in this state that intrusive morals seep their way into the sub-conscious… even that Apatow fella, with his “no sex before marriage” Catholic nonsense concluding THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN and “pro life” stance in KNOCKED UP, is a guilty party.

    Just watched SIGN OF THE CROSS. Truly awful, were it not for the Christian slaughter sequences in part 2 (De Mille seems more comfortable with spectacle), I don’t think I would’ve made it through the entire film. With regards to performance, character and overall content, he could be compared to Ed Wood Jr. although I quite enjoyed GLEN OR GLENDA.

  5. I’d say there are films where you are asked to think less so the film can do all the thinking for you. This is the primary condition of propaganda.

  6. Um. I thought 300 was one of the top movies of 2006.

    How can you even begin to make it out be pro-Bush? If anything, it’s easier and less contrived to interpret this as anti-Bush and pro-Iraq. After all, it’s the tiny city-state of Sparta going up against the largest army ever assembled. Persians with slaves from every part of the world (multiculturalism) and various hideous beasts (machines of war) against a tiny nation of mere men, making its last stand.

    Even the perception of Xerxes as God by the Persians plays on this if you consider Bush’s claims that he speaks to Jesus and the similar claims of his generals and staff.

  7. dcairns Says:

    I don’t think Knocked Up qualifies as pro-life, although it has its conservative side.

    Hawks says he looked at John Ford to see what to do, and at DeMille to see what NOT to do. I only really like Sign of the Cross when it’s flirting with sleaze. The hypocrisy is amusing. And Leisen’s designs are great.
    I saw The Godless Girl recently, and that seemed pretty sophisticated. Christian propoganda again, but shrewdly done and rather moving, even though I dismiss the arguments out of hand. There’s a school of thought that says only the silent DeMille is really good.

  8. dcairns Says:

    Elver —
    Well, I think I said the movie has quite a lot going for it, as a movie. So while I don’t have a Best Films List for 2006, I don’t mind the idea of it having a place on anybody else’s. It’s visually incredibly creative and uses the simplicity of its narrative to allow each moment to be played for all it’s worth.

    But while I acknowledge your arguments for Persia equalling the US in this story, that doesn’t seem to me an easier fit than my version. Snyder casts Anglo-Saxons (Brits) as the Greeks, while the Persian hordes are always ethnic, when they’re not actually subhuman monsters. The VO constantly emphasises their “darkness” — I mean CONSTANTLY.

    As I said, the situation of ancient Sparta isn’t a neat match for the situation of modern America, but that allows for a more heroic take on international politics. The movie mixes things up alright, but any film where all the deformed or physically imperfect characters are evil traitors is by definition xenophobic and rightwing. And all the black people are bad and all the sexually unusual people are bad and all the women get naked.

    For me, the subversive reading doesn’t work because it isn’t going to subvert anybody — knuckleheads will side with the hawkish Spartans and regard the alien hordes the same way they do the Iraqis. Your reading certainly makes an interesting film of it, but I can’t sustain belief in such a reading.

  9. […] THIS IS SPARTA: Shadowplay, David Cairn’s film blog, gives cogent reading of 300 that examines the film’s conservative politics and (perhaps inadvertent) homo-eroticism. […]

  10. David K Says:

    I love the title of this post. I know it’s a mere passing mention, but I’m delighted you mentioned the fight scenes in Gladiator and Batman Begins. Incomprehensible. The finale on the out of control monorail thing in Batman Begins looks like it was cut by Paul Gascoigne.
    And finally, I think I’ve sorted any gift problems you might have in the near future..

  11. Those fights are even more distressing when you think of the highly-skilled fight arrangers no doubt employed, and the stuntmen risking their necks — all so we can squint at a lot of motion blur. It’s a big bugbear of mine.

    Although I wouldn’t mind too much if Mike Leigh started shooting all his movies that way, it would save me shuddering at the actors.

  12. I’d avoided 300. Not deliberately mind you, just never got around to watching it and unfortunately I watched Meet The Spartans first. W
    After 10 minutes 300 I gave up because I just could not take it seriously. It is impossible to watch 300 after MTS. For all of MTS stupidity, it’s spot on in its send up, absolutely spot on.

  13. I don’t think you can take 300 seriously no matter what, but it doesn’t require you to. That’s one of its redeeming features — a shrug of the shoulders at its own absurdity. Not that it has much sense of humour, just that it recognises that it’s all pretty silly if you think about it.

  14. It’s based on a comic book, which is based on a historical event. The battles scenes are no worse in their fictional depiction than Braveheart (oscar winner that it was). The imagery is great. It’s a good vs. evil show. Which, contrary to popular belief, has been used as a motivator for war for thousands of years. The Greeks believed themselves to be a free state – at least more free than the Persians. That was real.
    Everything you see isn’t some rightist agenda to make the Iraq war more palatable. There are no new political motivating tools, there are no new reasons (good or bad) to go to war, there are no new reasons to hate. Everything has been rolled out before, and it will be rolled out again.

  15. I think the problem for me is, and this is true of Watchmen too, that Snyder doesn’t like to think too deeply about what he’s saying. And if you don’t think about things you express stuff that maybe you didn’t mean to. Like the way the crippled guy turns out to be a traitor, a fairly crude and nasty equation of disability with untrustworthiness. It’s fair enough to argue that the Spartans might have believed that, but the film suggests that it’s objectively true. And then the depiction of Persians as deformed monsters — how would you account for that? Sure you can say it’s comic book imagery, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of significance.

  16. Hi
    Is it ok to use your picture of the oracle for a piece I’m writing about Bava? I will of course link back here.

  17. Please do! No need to ask! Treat any images here as a public resource.

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