I forgot where we are dining tonight

Just got back from seeing 300 and for some reason I feel like I have a great deal to say about a supremely pulpy film.

If you can imagine an entire movie pitched at the level of intensity and coolness of the lobby assault at the end of The Matrix, you’ll get a fairly good impression of 300. Dramatically the film is one-note, to say the least. This is a story which is all climax: every scene is bold, dynamic, exaggerated. Now I know what you’re thinking, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. On its own terms 300 largely succeeds brilliantly. Seldom less than entertaining, its sheer testosterone-fuelled momentum carries you along even though you may feel strangely unengaged on an emotional level1.

Crucially it’s a film with truly beautiful visuals: the images and frame composition dazzle the eye in an overtly artistic way. The film creates its own reality in a way that makes maximum use of the potential offered by new technology. George Lucas may talk a good talk about the digital revolution, but at the end of the day all he’s done is to populate his deeply staid and anaemic narratives with extra visual clutter. In contrast 300 genuinely does take the opportunity to craft a kind of film that would have been impossible (outside of pure animation) a few years ago. Those who argue that the film feels unreal as a result of the saturation-use of CGI environments are really missing the point. The film isn’t aiming to mimic reality but to achieve a kind of hyper-real epic grandeur which unnaturally apes yet also transcends Frank Miller’s original graphic novel.

Usefully for a film that throws restraint to the wind in every department, we’re clearly not expected to regard what we’re watching as a factual account of events. Propelled by David Wenham’s fervent narration what we’re watching is a tale of myth and legend. Told and retold around the campfire from Spartan to Spartan the events of Thermopylae are distilled down to mythic archetypes, the story honed and exaggerated to reflect the Spartans’ own sense of cultural identity. Indeed it’s really a Spartan propaganda piece, emphasising all that they value in the most manipulative fashion imaginable. It’s a rallying cry. That this is made more or less explicit in the film goes a long way towards excusing its po-faced bombast.

While I can understand the political readings that have been imposed on the film, at its heart the story is a very old one and is (at best) a highly inexact parallel to current world events. The Spartans may spout off about fighting for freedom at the drop of a hat, but fundamentally they are the invaded not the invaders. For all their uncompromising, near-fascistic devotion to military and physical perfection they are doing no more than repel a ruthless invader to save their people and values. These are not the Americans “exporting” freedom, nor do they easily fit any reading of them as terrorists, fundamentalists or half a dozen other modern comparisons. This is at root a simple, timeless, iconic tale of an indomitable group of villagers and their symbolic triumph over adversity.

Perhaps the only thing that bothers me in this respect is the depiction of the Persians; it’s here that the film (and the comic) does itself no favours in fending off allegorical readings. The Persians stand in the Spartans’ tale for every dark, strange, heathen, perverted and – let’s face it – foreign thing in the world. More than just another culture the Persians are shown to be socially, morally and physically corrupted. They count among their forces many borderline human warriors – variously eight foot tall, tusked, fanged or scarred – who would make Lord Sauron proud. While I can understand this to a degree, since the Spartans are quite literally demonising their enemy, there’s an uncomfortable level of xenophobia here. Most unforgiveably, there’s a feeling of pandering to racist stereotypes in some of the leering Persian characters. While it can be argued that in this borderline-fantasy setting they’re nothing more than a direct parallel with the kind of monolithic evil represented by Sauron’s Orcs, Goblins and Trolls in The Lord of the Rings, the difficult fact remains that these are not purely mythic characters or events. Persia was a real place, Thermopylae was a real battle, and you can’t simply depict the historical middle-east in this fashion without leaving an uncomfortable after-taste.

One area that the film doesn’t suffer as badly as I’d expected is its treatment of female characters. While certainly designed and shot with a lascivious male eye, there’s no great amount of female nudity here and nothing more sordid than you’d find in an episode of HBO’s Rome. Even the nominally provocative dance of the prophetess is so divorced from anything naturalistic as to be strangely beautiful and abstracted. Moreover, Lena Headey’s Queen Gorgo is actually one of the most rounded, sympathetic and strong characters in the whole film–which admittedly isn’t saying a great deal. She gets more and better scenes here than in the comic, if memory serves. Plus the sheer number of oiled, near-naked (and knuckleheaded) men must put the film somewhere near neutral on the gender relations scale.

Overall I enjoyed the film a great deal. The acting, while undeniably “large”, is nowhere near as bad as the trailers had led me to believe, and even Gerard Butler’s shouty dialogue occupies far less of the film than expected. While the men do talk a great deal in pithy one-liners (much as the film is really a series of visual pithy one-liners) the depiction of the Spartan culture beds the characters in a context which makes this explicable and intentional. The film is visually beautiful, stylish and epic. While a great deal of it would seem risible under any other circumstances, perhaps its greatest achievement is allowing you, for most of its two hour running time, to uncritically immerse yourself in something entirely ludicrous.

1 Although it’s an extremely linear tale and the characters are not in the least bit well-rounded, I must confess that I did mist up, slightly and unexpectedly, at a pivotal death scene. But then I’m a sucker for people yearning for their lost love on their death-bed.

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