THEME FROM SPARTA F.C. : Zack Snyder’s ‘300’ [6/10]

There is dust everywhere. Little gullies leading back into the cliffs are marked with low stone walls that look ancient but are recent structures made by farmers and goatherds. If you go to the Hot Gates, take some historical knowledge and your imagination with you.
                                               William Golding
Though denounced in certain quarters as a "Fascist spectacle", 300 is – on closer inspection – rather more Paul Verhoeven than Leni Riefenstahl. As with Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997), the film – which recounts the legendarily brave resistance of the Greek armies, led by 300 hardy Spartan warriors, against myriad Persian invaders at the 5th century BC Battle of Thermopylae – is on close inspection about the power of propaganda, rather than being an example of propaganda itself.
   Starship Troopers (itself infamously denounced by the New York Times as "fascist" on initial release) was rather easy to 'misread': it was based (albeit extremely loosely) on Robert Heinlein's notoriously right-wing novel, and didn't feature any kind of 'framing device' to tip the wink to the audience that they were shouldn't take everything they saw at face value. 300, however, deliberately puts more of a distance between the film and the viewer: like Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, the whole thing is an overtly 'narrated text'. From the first scene to the last, and at many points in between, the character of Dilios (David Wenham) is present – sometimes in vision, more often than not in voiceover – describing the action and its implications, his interventions so frequent and lengthy that they occasionally end up disrupt the story's build-up of narrative momentum.
   In the prologue, Dilios informs us that what we're going to see is specifically the story of Leonidas – ruler hero of Sparta, (inadvertent) protector of democracy – from his birth, through his childhood (Eli Snyder) and youth (Tyler Neitzel), to his manhood as King (Gerald Butler), and his eventual death at the Battle of Thermopylae in the 5th century BC. Dilios is shown relating Leonidas's biography to an audience of soldiers – around a campfire at night, and later out in the field. The end of the film is also the conclusion of his tale – at which point the camera pulls dramatically back, and we see that Dilios's audience is the Greek army at the Battle of Plataea.
   What had started as an intimate chronicle has by this stage become now a bellowed war-cry, an inspirational call to arms: the point of Thermopylae being not the battle itself, but its impact upon future developments in the Greco-Persian Wars. The famous epitaph of Simonides, engraved on the site of the battle, reads (according to Frank Miller in his graphic novel 300, on which the film is based) "Go tell the Spartans, passerby, / That here, by Spartan law, we lie." Dilios – a fictional creation, combining some elements of real-life figures Aristodemus and Pantites – is in the film with "telling the Spartans": Leonidas sends him away from the battlefield with the words "You have a grand tale to tell."
   The reason why Dilios is "excused" from the final battle is because he has suffered an injury to his eye: the "grand tale" is thus told by a one-eyed man, which perhaps indicates that what we're seeing on screen shouldn't be taken as as gospel. And The "tale" is indeed subject to wild distortions and exaggerations, including in relation to the size and nature of the Persian army which includes numerous monstrous and/or fantastical creatures among its ranks (not to mention a showstoppinly bizarre goat-headed entity glimpsed playing a stringed instrument at the insanely decadent Persian court).
The Persian King, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) stands nine feet tall – thanks to the wonders of CGI – and, in his gold-dripping epicene 'fabulousness', bears little relation to the Xerxes of archival record. This could be taken as an objectionable bit of dramatic license (even in the terms of history being written by the winning side) and the scene in which he tempts the exceedingly butch Leonidas with promises of riches and power does have more than a whiff of homophobia. But any homophobia is surely Dilios's, not the filmmakers'. Likewise, many have taken umbrage at presenting the Spartans as the defenders of "liberty, law, justice, order, [and] reason" against the encroachments of the slave-dependent Persians – when in fact Spartan society relied heavily on slave labour. This is, however, surely another example of Dilios – a spin-doctor avant la lettre – handily bending awkward facts to fit the requirements of the day.
   That said, it isn't so easy to excuse the way Snyder and Miller (and Snyder's fellow scriptwriters Kurt Johnstad and Michael B Gordon) gloss over the Spartans' well-chronicled pansexuality. Leonidas at one early stage snortingly denounces his fellow (non-Spartan) Greeks as a bunch of "philosophers… and boy-lovers!" Unless Dilios was that rare Spartan to disapprove of "boy-loving", it's very hard to ascribe this sentiment to the guiding narrator – especially as few of his Plataea audiences would have appreciated the quip. A more likely explanation is that Snyder and Miller were worried of offending their target audience – teenage and post-teenage boys, primarily in North America. According to Snyder*, the film is "a graphic-novel movie about a bunch of guys that are stomping the snot out of each other."
   Snyder is on safer ground in terms of the film's application to the current political scene: "You know, when I see… someone use words like 'neocon'… or 'racist' in their review, I kind of just think they don't get the movie and don't understand… As soon as you start to frame it like that, it becomes clear that you've missed the point entirely." So, we now have three diverse "audiences" for the film: (1) the multiplex crowd who just want to see snot-stomping guys, (2) snippy critics who can't enjoy the film (which pits a very racially homogenous crew of bemuscled Spartans against Xerxes' multi-ethnic forces) because it seemingly endorses a neo-con 'world-view' ("freedom isn't free at all! it comes with the highest of prices! the price of blood!") whose disastrous consequences are on view every day in Iraq, and (3) those who can see that the film is as much about Plataea as it is Thermopylae but Plataea, that Dilios is the crucial figure rather than Leonidas, and that a film really can be about propaganda without necessarily being propaganda.
   It must be said that, so far, audiences (1) and (2) easily outnumber (3). In contrast to Starship Troopers, which underperformed at the box office, 300 has been a runaway success around the world – surprising those who reckoned that it might be too bloody and too visually distinctive to appeal to a mass audience. The performances help: Butler (belatedly) ascends to leading-man status as the bellowingly virile Leonidas, and it's also a plus to see Wenham (nearly a decade after The Boys) in such a high-profile role – ditto Lena Headey, whose Queen Gorgo proves crucial to the plot despite never venturing anywhere near the battlefield.
   And even the film's harshest critics admit that it's something of a marvel to look at – carefully stylised in pretty much every detail, a series of eye-popping spectacles which, alongside the barrage of Wagnerian blood and thunder, also includes moments of surprising grace (the Oracle at Delphi resembles an underwater Pina Bausch routine – as performaned by Tori Amos) and genuinely sublime grandeur (a slow-motion mass shipwreck, presented as a kind of Gericault-ish tableaux vivant). But if 300 goes to such extravagant pains to avoid ever looking realistic, quotidian or dull, that's surely another hint that what we're witnessing is a text that has been deliberately and painstakingly mediated – Dilios's expert "spin" on events closely paralleling the way Snyder and Miller adapt the material they've been given for the sensibilities of their 21st-century audience(s).

Neil Young
21st May, 2007

300 : [6/10] : USA (US-Can) 2006 : Zack SNYDER : 117 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Gate complex, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 19th March 2007 – press show


I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.