300 (2006)

"My 300 friends and I would like to have a word with you. About tolerance."
"My 300 friends and I would like to have a word with you about tolerance and multicultural pluralism."

In spite of all the horrible things I’ve said about him over the years, I can’t really find it in myself to hate Zack Snyder. He is, in many ways, what we’ve always hoped for: a director who stood by his promise to faithful translate one of his favorite comic books to the screen…and succeeded. Unfortunately, he chose to translate this one, and I’ve got more than enough hate in me to spare some for Frank Miller. Despite everything he’s done to change the face of modern comic books, the man’s creative juices just don’t flow the way they used to, and there’s no better picture of the arid waste that lives in Miller’s head than this: his fantastical re-imagining of the battle of Thermopylae.

300 begins with an extended bit of ancient Spartan propaganda, following the long journey of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) from birth to adulthood, narrated (like the rest of the film) by Leonidas’ friend and comrade-in-arms, Delios (David Wenham). Delios’ narrative selectively edits any embarrassingly-accurate pederasty or slave-killing out of the Spartan agoge in favor of gratuitous slow-motion wolf-killing. Because that’s really so much better. More dramatic than slave-killing, really…especially when the wolf is safely CGI.

Ascending to the throne, Leonidas provokes the wrath of the Persian God-Emperor Xerxes by throwing his messengers down the bottomless pit the Spartan’s keep in the center of town…just in case. Bound by Spartan law to avoiding open war during the regular August festivals, Leonidas departs with three hundred “body guards” to hold the endless Persian hordes back at the one narrow coastal passage where numbers will count for squat and the film becomes a hack-and-slash video game. With a lot of slow motion.

"And look at that form. Sure to get a good turn form the judges."
"And look at that form. Sure to get a good turn from the judges."

It’s like Devil May Cry without the swords the size of aircraft carriers…or the sense of participation in epic, fantasy violence that only comes from hack and slash video games…something I would imagine Zack Snyder’s seen far, far, far too much of in his lifetime. Through it all, Snyder intentionally over-relies on slow motion, attempting to draw his audience in and force them to consider the images he depicts. More often than not, it’s the image of a nearly-naked Spartan stabbing somebody with a spear or hacking them up with a sword. And while the “thousand nations of the Persian Empire” are represented by a steady stream of varied and interesting grotesques, the Spartans are, to a man, chiseled specimens of unreasonable musculature, pounded into their equally-grotesque shapes by the inhuman workout regimens the actors had to endure in the lead-up to filming.

And that’s really it. Oh sure, some “surprise” betrayals crop up…and all of them fall flatter than Gerard Butler’s new abs. There’s a whole subplot concerning Queen Gorgo’s (Lena Headey) attempts to raise the rest of Sparta’s army and counter the machinations of Persian collaborators that’s as predictable and route as the titular 300’s death. Because only a dirty, rotten, un-Spartan, terrorist-sympathizing traitor corrupted by money, false gods and money could fail to realize “freedom isn’t free at all.” It, like Ares, apparently requires regular blood sacrifices.

And that’s really it. Interchangeable characters spewing platitudinous dialogue over digitally color-corrected pieces of heavily-stylized artwork, inexplicably set in motion. There are no surprises in store, no drama to speak of, and ultimately no real point to it all. This is sixty-five million dollars of casting, exercise, blood, and CG backgrounds.

All of which would be fine if it weren’t so boring. It takes forty minutes to get to the “good” part, and our valiant eugenicists spend the last hour of this flick brutally slaughtering their way through Persian ninjas, giants, elephants, rhinos, and anonymous, turban-wearing schlubs. All of whom fight with blood pressure somewhere north of 3,000 over 2,126. In slow motion. Frankly, I hate everything about this film on a visceral, gut level. Among many other things, Sin City was an unrepentant testosterone injection, but this…this is something more. This is a testosterone hurricane wrapped in clouds of faux-patriotism, and like all thinly-veiled bits of nationalistic pretension, it gets boring after about an hour and a half. At that point, the best thing I could say about 300 was, “Thank Zeus there’s only thirty minutes left.”

Never mind that the “freedom” Sparta fights for is the freedom to toss babies off cliffs. Never mind that the “reasonable” and “civilized” Spartans allow diseased, child-kidnapping fortune tellers to dictate government policy. Because they really don’t. King Leonidas is the Imperial Monarch, doing what he wants, when he wants, and fuck all that “democracy” jazz when it doesn’t allow you to do what you want, right this minute. In fact, he counts on the deliberative character of the Spartan assembly, manipulating Spartan law even as he monologues about it being inviolate, and the last best hope for justice and reason. In the end he gets away with the whole thing, since, at the very least, he got a good story out of it. Delios’ powers of oratory and Gorgo’s willingness to shank anyone who disparages her husband’s good name vindicates Leonidas’ efforts on behalf of all lying, two-timing Executives throughout history. He got exactly what he wanted, since we’re still talking about him today. What more could a Greek ask for?

I’m just guessing here, but he might’ve liked a smarter film than this one as his monument. At one point, a deformed Spartan named Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) attempts to join the 300 on their march to Thermopylae. He informs Leonidas of a narrow path the Persian’s might use to surround the Greeks and overrun their position. Leonidas thanks Ephialtes for this intelligence, apologetically (for a Spartan) points out Ephialte’s hunched back make him unsuited for standard hoplite warfare, and walks out of frame. Ephialtes tosses his shield (a gift from his father) over a cliff and begins howling indignation at his dead parents and Leonidas. In the very next scene, Leonidas turns to Delios and says, “Sure hope nobody tells the Persians about that goat path, Scoob.”

I may be paraphrasing there but…good gods, man, the guy who just told you is standing right the hell there! Behind you, Gerry. Poseidon’s balls, you just pissed him off not one scene ago. Fucking dumbass.

I don’t know how anyone took this seriously enough to consider it an apologia for fascism. Joseph Goebbles would’ve ground this garish, mongrel American production into the dust with his heel and spit on whatever was left. He would’ve made a big pyramid out of 300‘s workprints and set the whole thing on fire in front of five thousand people. And they would’ve all cheered. This is adolescent wish fulfillment, too ponderous to be anything but. Considering how tightly this film’s wrapped in melodrama, slathered in sepia filters and basted in stage blood (both practical and digitized), I’m amazed it can be this soulless. This empty. I can’t care about any of these cardboard standies-who-walk-like-men. I don’t care about the thousands they’re unrepentantly slaughtering. It’s a film full of fake Greeks with no catharsis. Somewhere, muses are crying into their see-through gowns

You can’t binge at a empty buffet so there’s nothing to “purge” from ourselves once the Spartans abandon all pretense of historical accuracy and switch to ballet-like, bullet time battle sequences. Here 300 sacrifices its Ethos, Dianoia, Lexis and Melos in the name of Opsis, the spectacle.

We should’ve expected this. As a book, 300 was nothing if not pure spectacle. I can see where a director might like that, since directors are so obsessed with optics. But the book bored me, so why shouldn’t the movie? The droning narration, the too busy artwork, the fact that every. Single. One of its pieces was a two-page spread…300 began life as a monument to excess and Frank Miller’s disappointment with the movie The Three Hundred Spartans (because it wasn’t bloody or homoerotic enough). And that’s just like ringing Hollywood’s dinner bell.

What’s this? you ask. DeMoss calling hyperstylized violence “stupid?” This from the man who’s favorite films star a radioactive dinosaur who survived into modern times (somehow) only to get caught in a nuclear blast. This from the man with fond memories of King Kong Escapes and even fonder memories of certain anime I could mention

Shut up.

300 is one of those rare cases where faithfulness to the source material became a bad idea, because the material was substandard bullshit to begin with. This may shock quite a few Moral Guardians, and maybe a few fans as well, but I don’t read comics for their hyper-stylized violence. Really, I read comics to see how sequential art, as a medium for storytelling, can help illuminate aspects of the human condition. If I want to get my violence on, there’s always film. Hyper-stylized violence has been the norm in movies since before Errol Flynn even knew the name Zoro. 300 adds nothing to this proud tradition, taking it’s own sweet, goddamn time to do the same old thing you’ve see at the end of Braveheart. Or Gladiator. Or Troy. Or…[insert your pick here! It’s fun!]. In slow motion.

With the slow motion, Zack Snyder’s camera lavishes acts of human cruelty with the same loving attention films usually reserve for strip teases. And as anyone who’s spent time in a strip club knows, after a few hours, reality has no choice but to slap you across the face. You realize how pathetic it is that you have to actually pay women to take their clothes off and leave feeling worse than you came. That’s 300: a violence-tease.

And that’s Zack Snyder: a one-trick pony at the best of times, he turns that one trick out with all the desperation of a pimp strapped for cash and deep in debt to the Sin City mob. At least this film gave me cause to remember the far superior Bad Movie No Retreat, No Surrender, which starred Jean-Claude Van Damme as a heavy for the Russian mob…among other things.

And I’ve pretty much run out of things to say about 300. It’s hammy acting, pretensions of epic-ness and facile, fantastical raping of history turn one of the most important events of ancient times into a plodding waste of ours. This is not Sparta…it ain’t even Chinatown. This is just more of the same old crap that’s paid Frank Miller’s light bill since he went mad. So I guess this is madness after all.

G

11 thoughts on “300 (2006)”

  1. I’m a little baffled as to why so many historical epics insist on having their protagonists claim that they are fighting for FREEDOM! I’d be perfectly okay if they were fighting for the King, or their country, or to kick the dirty foreigners out. Those reasons would give me less cognitive dissonance than FREEDOM! Not that I watch historical epics for historical accuracy or anything ­čÖé

    1. Part of me thinks, “Well, why the fuck shouldn’t we be able to rely on historical epics to present an accurate picture of the past (in so far as that’s possible)?” They don’t have to be obsessive about it; I’m not asking for The Truth the Whole Truth and Nothing But. That’s impossible. All I’m after is the same thing I think you’re after: verisimilitude. Historical characters that are true to themselves and true to their place in histories. Hell, “true” history is noting but a collection of stories, verified (in so far as that’s possible) by the dedicated work of hundreds, if not thousands, if not millions of story tellers. Poor bastards kept confined to academic ghettos by labeling them “historians” and pretending they have the same job as, say, biologists or mathematicians.

      But we both know the cries of “FREEDOM” are modern anachronisms, slotted in to cause a knee jerk reaction in we modern audiences. It’s a shameless, manipulative ploy to get we moderns to give a shit about our pasts, and an admission (in thsi case) on the part of 300’s creators. Their way of saying, “We can’t think of any better way to make this bullshit interesting.” So they pulled out the Bob’s Big Book of Buzz-Words (American Edition) and started plugging them in. “Freedom.” “Reason.” “Justice.” I swear they would’ve put “Equality” and “Fraternity” in there if only they’d had the balls.

      1. I watched 5 and a half hours of Red Cliff last weekend. The protagonists never mentioned FREEDOM! once and I was still on their side. They were defending their country from invasion by a superior military force commanded by a Bad Guy. That was all I needed to root for them.

  2. It’s worse than just an anachronism. Fighting practically naked is the sort of thing that made the Romans an empire. Which is to say, they armored up and slaughtered the naked fighters. The Greek hoplite was encased in bronze for a reason. These 300 Spartans wouldn’t have lasted 20 minutes against actual hoplites, let alone the Persians. But they can hardly cover up all of those Hollywood faces and muscles, can they?

    1. Not after the hellish course of self-abuse they put the entire cast through. Honestly, I think Snyder focuses on their torsos to the degree he does in order to stave off all the death threats he received during the pre-production “training” process. If I spent eight weeks killing myself for some director, he’d better point the camera at my hard work…replica swords and spears can always be sharpened.

    1. Yes, and hopefully people will realize it now that Sucker Punch‘s bad word of mouth is shooting across the internet. It probably won’t derail Snyder’s plans for the Superman franchise, but hopefully it’ll make him think twice before he gratuitously slow-motions us to death….again.

  3. It warms my heart in a sort of melancholy way that someone out there cherishes the same heartfelt loathing of 300, both the comic and the resulting movie, that I do.

    I was still finishing up a Classics degree in San Diego when Frank Miller’s 300 came out in print. Herodotus was required reading for the curriculum as you might imagine and I was excited to see what the author of Year One would do with Greek history. I was disgusted beyond belief to see Miller transform an exciting historical event into some grotesque personal grudge match between Leonidas and a ludicrous, bald, beringed apparition that we were supposed to think was the Persian king. The movie makes it all worse somehow. I think it’s simply because it takes much longer to endure the movie than it takes to skim, and then promptly attempt to forget, Miller’s wretched comic books.

    And don’t get me started on the “boy-loving Athenian” slur. Miller obviously hadn’t consulted that other famous and tiresome Spartan-worshipping fanboy, Xenophon.

    More generally, I daresay that all of Frank Miller’s work has aged poorly. Even The Dark Knight Returns looks a bit silly these days.

    1. So, of course, that’s the next property (as of this writing) that Warner Animation intends to adapt into a direct-to-video Batman movie. Because we’ll buy it. I’ll certainly have to review it, if only to keep the Bat-filmography somewhat close to complete.

      As to 300…yes, the act of watching all this can become a hemorrhage-inducing chore very quickly. Snyder couldn’t resist the bullet-time loving impulses that someone on the Dawn of the Dead remake managed to keep in check. It’s clear he loved these images as much, if not more, than their author. Certainly as much as Rodriquez loved Sin City. I’ll never be able to fathom why, and have long since learned to take that as evidence I’m still sane.

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