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300 [ Friday, 01 Feb 08 | 10:15 ]
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[My Location |El Masnou (Barcelona) España]
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Recently I saw on DVD 300 and I almost didn’t finish watching the film. I hadn’t seen so much gratuitous gore since The Patriot. One gets bored with all that CGI blood and violence. I realize that 300 is a film adaptation of a graphic novel (read comic book), but I deplore the depiction of the ancient Spartans and Persians.

The central theme of the movie is that of "free" and "democracy loving" Spartans against "slave" Persians. In fact, one reason why only 300 Spartans were available for combat is that Sparta had so many slaves that they were in constant fear of their rebellion and had to keep soldiers at home for control. So much for freedom. Sparta was a militaristic monarchy with a council of elders which decided political matters. So much for democracy.

The Persians were depicted as a monstrous, barbaric and demonic horde, and king Xerxes was portrayed as androgynous, or worse. This stands in stark contrast to the hyper-masculinity of the Spartan army. Such manichean portrayals are rarely accurate. And I find it troubling to over-simplify these “East versus West” clashes and touting war as the solution, especially considering the targeted audience.

I asked Ruben who he thought the movie would appeal to and he said 16 to 180-year-old males. Too bad the film’s classification in Spain made it not recommended for those under 18.


[User Picture]From: fingertrouble
Friday, 01 Feb 08 | 10:17 (UTC)
Yes I hated that when it came out - the history side of things being TOTALLY wrong, and people started to connect the Band of Thebes (wrongly) to it with the simplistic Persians = gay subtext - was 100-200 years difference I think - and then people respond when you correct their lack of knowledge frustratingly with 'but it's only a comic book' or 'it's only entertainment' - neglecting the fact that a lot of people use films etc. about history as sources and fact, thinking they are recreations of real events, rather than realising it's fiction.

They probably think Gladiator was based on real people...although if the fiction is based on fact (as was a lot of Gladiator) then it can be useful; but 300 makes Spartacus look like a history textbook!

AAARGH! Sometimes I think people want to be dumb about such things.
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[User Picture]From: muckefuck
Friday, 01 Feb 08 | 16:48 (UTC)
How much would this really matter if history instruction wasn't such complete ass in most (all?) of the world? It's hardly more distorted than what I've read in actual textbooks in use in various countries.
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[User Picture]From: fingertrouble
Friday, 01 Feb 08 | 17:16 (UTC)
True; most of the history of any interest I learned myself, learned lost of ideologically-biased 'junk' history on my History GCSE.

If they'd taught the interesting stuff I'd have probably loved the subject more.
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[User Picture]From: ursine1
Saturday, 02 Feb 08 | 07:00 (UTC)

If history instruction wasn't such complete ass...

I can concur with that observation. Living in Spain I get a different viewpoint on European history, especially Spanish history as it relates to the New World. Education in the US is colored (or maybe I should say "coloured") by a decidedly British perspective.

Probably the biggest distortion is the marriage of Isabel I of Castilla and Ferran II of [Catalunya]† y Aragó, which resulted in "uniting both crowns under the same lineage." That's the English version from Wikipedia. In the catalá version, it describes the marriage produced as "la unitat dinàstica entre Castella i Aragó, però totes dues corones van conservar l'organització independent." It's that second part that is left out that helps explain present-day regional politics in Spain.

For those of you who don't recognize the names, that's Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon often called the "Catholic Monarchs". They were responsible for sending Columbus/Colon/Colom on his trips, conquering Granada, and expelling the Jews, all in 1492.


† Ruben's input
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[User Picture]From: fingertrouble
Friday, 01 Feb 08 | 10:20 (UTC)
And the other thing that annoyed me was that we know almost nothing about the Spartans apart from secondary sources; so the hypermasculinity thing we don't know; we have Athenians saying that they were disgusting because they weren't into boy/man relationships; but I think they were at war with them at the time.

We simply do not know - they didn't write anything down I think (not first-hand sources).
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[User Picture]From: pink_halen
Friday, 01 Feb 08 | 14:23 (UTC)
I, too, recently watched the film. (In a room of straight men, no less.)
It was a choice between that or Cloverfield.

I hadn’t seen so much gratuitous gore since The Patriot.

Well, according to IMDB they only killed 858 Men. King Leonidis personally killed only 33 but who is counting. ;-{}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}

I thought it was interesting that the Spartians wore almost nothing while the Persians were covered from head to toe. I kinda felt sorry for the straight guys who only had the Queen and the Oricle to ogle at while I enjoyed hunky men in "Man Panties" as my friends called them. It was eye candy for days, sort of like Folsom Street Fair without the Lesbians.

I thought it was copying Gladiator quite a bit, as if one influenced the other. Xerxes had a quality of the Stargate monster. He was such a queen in his jeweled battle codpiece. That amplifies the homoerotic themes by pitting the evil gay king against the good pure hunky king who is a personification of every straight mans self image. The closing scene has a cistine chapel painting quality to it. Here is the Noble straight man done battle to save his family and humanity.

They sort of missed that fact that many warriors during that time were partners and lovers fighting together with no wife and family at home.

I didn't have desire to see it when it was first released. I'm glad I have now seen it but I really don't want to watch the entire thing again. (Perhas I can sneek a few scenes to fuel my fantasies.)

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[User Picture]From: ursine1
Saturday, 02 Feb 08 | 06:34 (UTC)

It was eye candy for days

To me the "eye candy" didn't look very Mediterranean. I see Mediterranean men all the time since I actually live next to the Sea. Too buffed and too "cloned" for my tastes. Just too "Northern European" to be believable. And the person who played Xerxes is Brazilian, what were they thinking?

And yes, they completely ignored the fact about many warriors at that time were "partners and lovers fighting together", as you said. But this was to allow the straight audience to more strongly identify with the Spartans. It was a East vs. West, Gay vs. Straight "smack down". A RNC/neo-con dream vehicle to promote their values.

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[User Picture]From: muckefuck
Monday, 04 Feb 08 | 19:33 (UTC)
And the person who played Xerxes is Brazilian, what were they thinking?

Um, that perhaps this is not intended to be a scholarly documentary? Or to quote director Zack Snyder:
My movie is more like an opera than a drama. That's what I say when people say it's historically inaccurate. You have to understand the convention I'm working in.
Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I've seen productions of Otello where the title role is actually played by a Spaniard! What's up with that?
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[User Picture]From: ursine1
Tuesday, 05 Feb 08 | 05:06 (UTC)


Some of the world's greatest tenors have sung the role of Otello. Plácido Domingo has appeared in more video productions of the opera than any other tenor. Many consider him the definitive modern-day Otello.

In contrast, there are lots actors who could play the role of Xerxes in 300. And I would call the movie a drama, just not in the way Zack Snyder thinks.

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[User Picture]From: muckefuck
Tuesday, 05 Feb 08 | 15:03 (UTC)
I think what Snyder is getting at is that the term "drama" in modern usage tends to be associated with kitchen-sink neo-realism--the polar opposite of the extreme stylisation of 300. He seizes on the comparison to opera because that's the highly-stylised art form most familiar to English-speaking readers.

If you'd like another comparison, take Shakespearean drama. Although there have been some innovative attempts to recast it in realistic contemporary garb, you can't entirely dispense with the Elizabethan language and dramatic conventions without de-naturising it. How many actors could play Othello? Hundreds of thousands, only very few of them actual Moors.

The point remains: 300 is not intended to be a documentary or anything remotely approaching it. So criticising it for its failure to adhere to the conventions of that genre is as deeply misguided as criticising An inconvenient truth for not having any really good battle scenes.
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[User Picture]From: ursine1
Tuesday, 05 Feb 08 | 18:10 (UTC)
I know that 300 is not a documentary. I would have the same complaint if a film had a modern day setting and used the same simplistic good and evil depiction of two groups. I think Snyder knew he was going to be criticized and responded withl CYA remarks.

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[User Picture]From: muckefuck
Tuesday, 05 Feb 08 | 18:50 (UTC)
I disagree with your assessment of Snyder, but that's neither here nor there. Whether he's being sincere or cynical, the point remains that the simplistic depiction of the two sides is part of the very stylisation that he's referring to. Again, do you criticise fairy tales because the heroes are all noble and fair-haired and end happily and the villains are all vile and ugly and die horribly?

It helps to understand the film if you keep in mind that 300 is a propaganda piece. You know that narrative voice you hear from time to time? That's Dilios, the one soldier who survives Thermopylae. At the end of the film, it is revealed that he's been relating the events of the struggle to the Spartan army right before the battle of Plataea (the definitive confrontation between the Persian army and the Greeks). He's quite deliberately denigrating the Persians and lauding the manly deeds of the Spartans in order to fire up his fellow combatants.

Of course, Snyder undermines this framing somewhat by the intrusion of the tacked-on political story centring on Queen Gorgo back in Sparta. It's not in the original graphic novel (or "comic book", if you prefer) and I think it breaks tension, thereby weakening the overall impact of the film. Note that this assessment represents the kind of criticism of 300 that I consider reasonable: One based on internal coherence rather than considerations external to the project.

It's also perfectly legitimate to say that you don't enjoy watching simulated Spartan propaganda (or fairy tales or opera, for that matter) or to question the ethics of producing such a film during an unpopular war of occupation in the Middle East. But it should be possible to appreciate and criticise a work on its own terms without faulting it for perceived flaws that don't pertain to the mode of storytelling it represents.

Here's a link to a meta-criticism of 300 that I think makes many of the points I just have only better: http://thegist.wordpress.com/2007/03/12/300-reviews/. It won't make you like 300 any more than you did, but I do hope it will give you an appreciation for what it is and what it isn't and how the distinction matters.
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[User Picture]From: ursine1
Wednesday, 13 Feb 08 | 11:38 (UTC)

More thoughts

Again, do you criticise fairy tales because the heroes are all noble and fair-haired and end happily and the villains are all vile and ugly and die horribly?

Close. I criticise fairy tales when they are combined with romantic nationalism as has been done in the past. Remember Grimm’s fairy tales? After WWI romantic nationalism was taking hold in Germany, to some extent modelling itself on British Imperialism and "the White Man’s Burden". The idea was that Germans should "naturally" rule over the lesser peoples. And they used the Grimms to further their purpose.

In the US romantic nationalism is characterized by the myth of the frontier, the assertion of natural dominance over North and South America, and most recently the belief that US-style democracy should prevail over other cultures. Just look at some recent political pronouncements for examples.

It helps to understand the film if you keep in mind that 300 is a propaganda piece.

That would be fine if the film was a propaganda piece for the Sparta of its day. But that’s not what Snyder portrayed. The marketing of the film doesn’t lead one to think that it is a fairy tail opera. And Snyder pandered to the target audience.

But it should be possible to appreciate and criticise a work on its own terms without faulting it for perceived flaws that don't pertain to the mode of storytelling it represents.

And as I stated before, I don’t get off on that mode of storytelling. Not when so many aspects annoy me.

A prominent quote from Zack Snyder’s homepage:

One of the things I loved about doing the remake of Dawn of the Dead was that we got to see the fall of society because that's what I'm into and I was into having it happen really fast. I have a feeling that our whole way of life is like an eggshell that we think is so impervious, but once you put a crack in it comes apart pretty quickly.

So maybe Snyder wants people like me to become disgusted with the “message” in his films.

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[User Picture]From: muckefuck
Thursday, 14 Feb 08 | 23:21 (UTC)

Re: More thoughts

That would be fine if the film was a propaganda piece for the Sparta of its day. But that’s not what Snyder portrayed.

And we know this...how? I suppose because some experts on ancient Sparta have told us so, but I'm not sure how they can be so certain given that they've got nothing in the way of primary sources to go on.

The marketing of the film doesn’t lead one to think that it is a fairy tail opera.

Assuming we saw the same marketing, if you didn't get from that that the film is highly stylised both in its visual presentation and its narrative style, then I'm afraid I can't really lay the blame on the marketing team. It was very clear to me from the get-go that the film would not simply be a dirt-dry Classics Illustrated treatment brought to life.

And Snyder pandered to the target audience.

I'm not sure there's really a difference between "pandering to" and "making accessible to" apart from one's degree of identification with the target audience.

And speaking of the underlying ideology, one of the reasons why I linked to the critique I did is because I see you falling into the same trap as many other critics the authors holds to account: Assuming you know exactly what Snyder's political motives were in making the film (and, by implication, Miller's in writing the comic since, with the exception of the Queen Gorgo subplot, the movie is remarkably faithful to it) and, moreover, that the film is so facile it can only support one interpretation.

What I find intriguing is that if you want to draw parallels to the Iraq War, it's much easier to identify the Persian Empire with the USA--world-spanning, decadent, arrogant, multiracial, rife with senseless debauchery--than with the Spartans, who with their plucky defence of their homeland resemble no one so much as the Iraqis (particularly the Baathists, who were a haughty, secular, military aristocracy in constant fear of treachery from a subject population). I suppose it's because Leonidas et al. are the "heroes" that we assume we're suppose to identify with them, but I don't think Snyder himself does anything to explicitly signify this identification; that's a leap of faith on the viewer's part, and you don't need to make it.
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