On Tuesday night I went with my friend and colleague Nathan Rabin to preview screening of 300 an adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel about the Battle Of Themopylae in which (all together now) 300 noble Spartans fought off a horde of Persian soldiers at a narrow mountain pass. On the way back we couldn't decide if what we'd just seen was thrillingly repulsive or repulsively thrilling.
One thing's for sure, it's a fairly faithful adaptation of Miller's book, at least superficially. Like Sin City it tries its best to mimic the look of Miller's art, shooting on soundstages, filling in the backgrounds with CGI effects, and opting for stylization over realism. There are a few notable additions: On their way to Thermopylae the Spartans, led by Gerard Butler's Leonidas, stumble upon a village that's been destroyed by the Persian army, leaving only one small child to tell the tale. Before dying. See, these are the bad guys. And there's a lot of business with Leonidas' wife, who's left behind to try to persuade the Spartan Ephors that maybe standing up to the Persians wouldn't be such a bad idea. Both bits feel a lot like padding and they play into the most disturbing aspect of the Zack Snyder-directed film: Somehow in the translation from page to screen it's become a screaming cheer for fascism.
That's not a word I want to throw around lightly and I know I'm not literally correct, since Sparta wasn't fascist. But the film doesn't dwell on the finer points of Spartan statecraft. What it offers is a vision of society in which one's value comes only from one's devotion to the preservation of the state. The Spartans worked toward one purpose, strengthening their city state through raw might. They practiced a brutal version kind of eugenics, discarding any babies found to be flawed. Miller's remarkable book portrays all of this with an unabashed admiration for its barbaric integrity. But admiring aspects of ancient principles isn't the same as endorsing them and that's something that gets lost on the way to the screen.
I'm not suggesting that the filmmakers are calling for a return to Spartan virtues, exactly, but in moving from one medium to another, 300 has gained a layer of glamour with some disturbing implications. The fight scenes are brutal but, as our own Tasha Robinson points out in her review, so completely divorced from realism that they become oddly bloodless no matter how much blood fills the screen. Snyder shoots the battle scenes with a dynamic intensity, slowing them down to dwell on the good bits. It's thrilling. And it's only thrilling. There's no sense of danger. Death comes with no feeling of loss. The drawings on Miller's pages seem more human. Part of what bugged me so much about Troy a few years back was that, even while telling the original war story, it shirked its responsibilities as a war movie, boiling down a devastating, decade-long conflict to what looked like a bloody spring break. Here it's like a weekend with the boys gone slightly awry.
Nathan said he couldn't remember a movie so unabashedly pro-war. I can't remember one so unabashedly pro-nationalism. The Spartans here constantly define themselves by what they are not. When an envoy from Xerxes mentions Athens, Leonidas dismisses them as "boy lovers." (There's an inconvenient truth about that distinction.) When Xerxes meets Leonidas, the film plays up his ambiguous sexuality and not-so-ambiguous body language. And it's not just behavior that's un-Spartan. The Persian army consists of Middle Easterners, East Asians, and Africans. If the film never quite treats the other races as repulsive, it doesn't hesitate to emphasize their exoticism, danger, and loose morals, elements that clearly have no place in an ordered, Spartan society.
Any resemblance to our own may not be entirely coincidental. Miller's book was released in 1998, years before our current conflict in the Persian Gulf. But a film's a product of its time and it would be hard not to draw parallels even if the screenplay didn't throw in touches to make the connection even clearer. There's a lot of bellowing about "freedom" (never mind all that compulsory military service), a feckless, corrupt anti-war legislative body to deal with and the film ends with Sparta leading all of Greece in a battle against "mystic" forces from the East. A shameless recruiter would spend this weekend trolling the multiplexes.
300 plays like Starship Troopers without the irony and it closes on a note of triumph that shuts out the great irony of history. The repulsion of the Persian army paved the way for a golden age, one that allowed for Sophocles, Plato, Euripides, Heordotus… you name it. Of course, all that took place away from Sparta. And it lasted about 80 years until a fairly pointless civil war between Sparta and Athens wound the golden age down to a sudden close. But that would have to be the subject of a very different sort of movie. Don't expect a sequel.
Look, I know I sound like a hopeless, braying liberal here and that's not a position I'm comfortable occupying. But watch the film then let's talk. And seriously, I'd recommend watching the film. For all that I found repulsive about it I enjoyed it on some lizard-brain level, even if I felt guilty about it even as it unspooled. It looks like nothing else, the action unfolds at a breathless pace, and its clear moral universe is pretty seductive, even if it exists only in the space between when the lights go down and when they come up again.