The tempest in a teapot that has been the critical reaction to 300 has, as yet, been absent my voice. On the basis of the trailers and the graphic novel on which the film is based, I had a sense that it dealt in a philosophy of brutality and stark notions of good and evil. I was cautioned, however, against making my mind up before seeing the entire film. I hope that I went into it, finally, without this review already written in my head; doubtless those who disagree will believe that my conclusions were reached long before the evidence had been gathered.
300 is an ahistorical account of King Leonidas’ last stand against Xerxes and the Persian army. His 300 soldiers, supplemented by other city-states of Greece, seek glory rather than victory; an ideological battle for freedom and the potential represented by nascent Greek culture. These “free men” stand against Xerxes’ army of “slaves,” nevermind that the Greeks were no more above slavery than any other civilization—in fact, the Spartans’ own slaves outnumbered them three to one. They call the Athenians “boy lovers,” though Sparta was no stranger to the sexual mentoring of young men. Above all, the society that Leonidas commands seems like more of a military state topped with corrupt politicians and priests than a precursor to democracy; hardly a model from which cries of freedom ring.
Of course, it is only a movie. And it’s an active one, which recreates the book in great detail. Like Sin City (though aesthetically less pleasing to me), it is a graphic novel brought to life, and that is an interesting achievement. Great care was taken in this process, and that is impressive. To me, the art of the book is far more beautiful than the film managed to be, but that is a matter of personal taste. And while the color palate was acceptable, and the acting decent, I found the film ugly in its clumsy dialogue, awkward political subplot and laughable fake wolf. Without the controversy, I would probably dismiss it out of hand, as neither worth seeing for its brief pleasures or worth arguing about its numerous flaws.
But while it is too silly to take seriously as a socio-political statement about anything, it does not follow that the film should be immune from speculation about what cultural currents run beneath it. And there is much in 300 to worry me; so much so that I can’t understand how it could be missed. Anyone who is not a Spartan—or more specifically, is not Spartan by a very narrow definition of the word—is ugly, black, or effeminately gay (Leonidas is, by the way, Scottish). Those who look like monsters will act like monsters; those who look like Europeans may be worth trusting. Even the argument that Stelios and Astinos’ homosocial bond may be read as homoerotic does not lesson the homophobia inherent in portraying Xerxes as a beautiful and androgynous sexual predator. Homophobia can just as easily operate by informing us which kind of social transactions are acceptable and which are not. It is an old belief that men in homosexual situations are only men as long as they play a “man’s” role.
None of this means that anyone connected with the film was trying to make a political statement. Neither does it mean that the movie should not have been made in whatever manner they chose, or that audiences shouldn’t enjoy it for its visceral appeal. But the bloodthirsty imagery and the heroic golden light bathing the Spartans tells me that we are meant to side with them; meant to consider their cause worthy, their glory earned. We may not be able to say that any film is a concrete philosophical statement; but I don’t see how 300 can be read as free of any troubling social commentary.