The legendary soldier culture of ancient Sparta and its battle at Thermopylae provided the perfect subject matter for comic book creator Frank Miller, an ideal story through which to express his manly-man worldview, his penchant for arresting violence and his increasingly right-leaning politics.
The former Batman and Daredevil artist tackled the topic in his late ‘90s graphic novel 300, and now writer/director Zack Snyder (he of the Dawn of the Dead remake) has turned it into a feature film, closely following Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City formula of sticking as close to the source material as possible, and doing most of the work in front of green screens.
It’s hard to imagine a more slavish adaptation. Snyder seems to have used the graphic novel as storyboards, and he’s lovingly re-created whole panels from it. He and his three-person screenwriting team have transposed all of the narration and dialogue, for the most party word for word. Absolutely nothing is subtracted from Miller’s comics, and relatively little is added or changed.
Gerard Butler plays King Leonidas, the bearded, bad-ass ruler of bad-ass Sparta, an entire city state of men with perfectly sculpted, possibly CGI washboard abs. When an emissary from Persian “god-king” Xerxes, played by Rodrigo Santoro as a ten foot-tall drag queen who talks as if he’s swallowed a vocals effect pedal, visits Sparta and asks for a token of submission, Leonidas kills the messenger. Because that’s how Sparta rolls.
This, naturally enough, leads to war, but the corrupt religious and political leaders refuse to let Leonidas take Sparta to war against Persia during a religious festival, so he has to settle for going for a walk to stretch his legs, with his personal bodyguard of 300 men. They decide to head in the direction of the invading Persians.
Using Greece’s rocky terrain, their culture’s centuries worth of study of the art of kicking ass, and their unparalleled abdominal strength, the 301 are able to hold off the superior forces of the Persians long enough to die a glorious death, one which rallies the rest of Greece to show the crazy Middle Eastern tyrant that light-skinned democracies are not to be fucked with.
The washed-out color palette, heavy usage of special effects and faithful adaptation of Miller’s flat, 2D graphics to a 3D medium all combine to give the film a sheen of unreality that serves its graphic violence well—limbs are hacked off, blood flows by the buckets and corpses pile up by the hundreds, but it’s all so artfully artificial that we know it’s all just in good fun.
Because the crazy-ass legions of Persia have been culled from every corner of the earth, Miller and Snyder can offer up bizarre battles involving Asiatic kung fu orcs known as “The Immortals,” what looks like a cave troll from Fellowship of the Ring, a charging rhinoceros, a couple of stampeding elephants and even actual bomb-throwing Middle Easterners. It’s all one long battle scene full of exhilarating action and hallucinatory visuals.
If a two-hour fight scene sounds dull to you, Snyder apparently thought so too, and he adds some romance and political intrigue that further muddles the already shaky and confused political allegory.
Miller’s not exactly known for his realistic portrayal of women (note all of the women in Sin City are whores, except for the lesbian parole officer, who spends most of screen time topless), and Snyder gives Lena Headey’s Queen Goro quite a bit more to do than Miller had originally.
In the film, she mouths off to Xerxes’ messengers, participates in her husband’s decision to take the country to war and, later, rallies the corrupt political officials to send the rest of the army.
Of course, Snyder also includes a scene where she has a casting couch moment with a political rival of her husband’s, so maybe his view of how best to depict female characters in pop culture isn’t all that different from Miller’s after all.
As for the politics of the piece, they’re impossible to ignore, but still awfully hard to untangle.
Xerxes and his generals are all comically effeminate, decked out in lipstick, eyeliner, jewelry and, in his majesty’s case, a gold lamé codpiece. Their forces consist entirely of people of color (one evil black Persian even turns from brown to inky blackness with glowing white eyes at the end of one scene). And, in the weirdest of many rather weird scenes, a Spartan turncoat visits a weird Persian orgy, complete with writhing, limbless lesbians and an, um, goatman flautist. Persia, we’re lead to believe, contains people from every country of the world, but it’s also full of weirdoes, monsters, deviants and, of course, non-whites.
Sparta is, naturally, all-white and perfectly formed, but then, they practice a brand of retroactive eugenics, tossing imperfect babies over a cliff.
Now, we know which is the good guy and which is the bad guy, but which sounds more like the U.S., the melting pot Persia or the racially homogenous Sparta?
Or how about this—Persia has the largest, most powerful army in the world and the most advanced weapons technology, and it’s the superior invading force. Sparta is a small, underdog nation, seeking to repel invaders form its homeland.
Again, which sounds more like the U.S.?
The dialogue continually refers to the Greeks as free men and men of democracy, fighting against a tyrant army of slaves, and, when Miller wrote the words in ’98, it was probably easier to see America as Sparta. Nowadays, when we’re fighting a war in the former Persian empire? Not so much.
Snyder was apparently cognizant of the fact that midway through the first decade of the 21st century, America seems more Persian than Spartan, which is perhaps why he sends the queen to “the council” (i.e. Sparta’s version of congress) to ask them to support the troops, painting her heroic husband as an idealist fighting for justice.
And lest you think I’m reading too much into it, she also voices the line that, “Freedom isn’t free, it comes at the highest cost, the cost of blood.”
The closest I can come to making sense of the film’s political allegory is that Sparta and Persia both represent the better and worse impulses and attributes of America, and it’s subtext is about the war for our country’s soul that rages between America and America. Likewise, both Leonidas and Xerxes represent two sides of our current president, the noble if reckless idealist, and the egotistical mystic who believes God is on his side.
Of course, it’s also a movie about super-buff guys in leather thongs and sandals slaughtering the holy hell of hordes of bad guys, a collection of arresting images set to the occasional whine of a heavy metal guitar. Fans of battle, beefcake, bad-assedness and baroque bizarro exotica should have plenty to feast their eyes on, even if the end product is something less than nourishing.