One from the vaults: 300 movie review.

The following is a review I wrote of the movie 300. It has been revised and updated…and, unfortunately for the reader, expanded. I had no idea just how long this post was until now: a shocking eight pages! Still, it’s one of my favorites. If you didn’t read it in its past incarnation, then here’s your second chance.

Last year, I saw the movie V for Vendetta. Although I considered it a fun and exciting movie while I sat in the theater, afterwards after having time to reflect upon it I considered it simplistic, moralistic, and, worse of all, undeservedly self-congratulatory. I bring that movie up now because I think V for Vendetta and 300 would make a good boxed set. Both movies are ultimately reactions to the “War on Terror” as well as the policies of George W. Bush and his administration, although they approach the subject matter from diametrically opposed points of view.

300 is a visually stunning film. It uses the same “digital backlot” technology used in the production of the superior Sin City. However, unlike Sin City, it is impossible not to notice the visuals; instead of being lost in the story, the viewer is always aware that he or she is watching a movie. Also unlike Sin City, it is difficult to identify with or care for the fate of the characters. Whereas the characters in Sin City were deep and complex, those in 300 are one-dimensional comic-book characters brought to life. This difference is remarkable, since both Sin City and 300 are based on graphic novels by the same author, Frank Miller.

300 is dramatically and symbolically clumsy. It is hard not to see the parallels the movie wants to make between Leonidas, king of the Spartans, and George W. Bush. In fact, these parallels smack the viewer in the face and are almost insulting in their obviousness. Leonidas attempts to win support for his defense of Thermopylae, just as Bush sought to win support for his invasion of Iraq; both are met with refusals and not-so-subtle mockery. The movie uses the priests of the Oracle at Delphi, the Ephors, as stand-ins for the United Nations Security Council, and presents them as corrupt and in the pocket of the enemies.

300 is presented in such a way that, although it takes inspiration from actual historical events, it cannot be considered an attempt to portray them in a realistic fashion. Rather, it should be regarded as historical fantasy. Ultimately, this only adds to the movie’s symbolic and ideological clumsiness (for example, the Persians are depicted as almost universally subhuman). It is unlikely that most viewers, not having read up on Greek and Persian history, will be aware of the reality behind the movie, and will leave the theater with the wrong impressions. It is hard to imagine that this was accidental on the part of the filmmakers: 300 comes across as a proto-fascist propaganda film.

Boy Lovers

It is difficult not to be appalled at Leonidas’s dismissal of the Athenians as “boy lovers”. Although this is properly a historical reference to the practice of pederasty, in a modern context it conjures up images of homosexuality in general. It is debatable whether pederasty was truly a form of homosexuality; nevertheless, the line clumsily conflates the two, tainting homosexuality with the smear of pedophilia.

This is particularly evident in that it seems Leonidas’s decision not to accept the Persian request for surrender is based on his not wanting to be seen as weak, since those “boy-loving” Athenians have already turned the Persians down. Here we encounter the old trope of the homosexual as weak and effeminate: a sissy. Thus, in order to prove their own manliness, the Spartans can do no less than march to Thermopylae to fight the Persians; to be blunt, they go to war so that people won’t think they are gay.

However, this raises an interesting fact about the Spartans. It is true that the Athenians practiced pederasty, but so did the Spartans. In fact, the whole training aspect of a boy’s life which the movie makes so much of was based around pederasty. Pederasty was the foundation of Spartan society to a degree unimagined by the Athenians.

Moreover, the Spartans not only practiced pederasty with their young novices, but Spartan soldiers maintained same-sex romantic relationships with their comrades, a precise parallel with modern homosexuality between consenting adults. This was part of the reason that the Spartans were such an effective fighting force; the man next to you was not only your friend but your lover and romantic partner, and therefore you had even more reason to provide him support. Of course, the movie makes no mention of this; the Spartans as depicted in the movie are all good heterosexual men with a wife, 2.4 kids, and a dog at home – the conservative ideal of the “nuclear family”.

Finally, the character of Persian King Xerxes himself is depicted as a stereotypical homosexual. He wears gaudy jewelry, moves in an effeminate manner (particularly obvious when he softly places his hands on the manly shoulders of Leonidas), and speaks in a dignified, measured fashion (one almost expects a lisp). Though tall in stature, he is shown being borne about on a mobile throne, implying physical weakness or perhaps an unwillingness to get himself dirty. He is also shown to be petulant, and his hairless skin (particularly in contrast to the bearded Leonidas) suggests femininity.

During this years’ presidential primaries, right-wing pundits attempted to smear Barack Obama using many of the same tropes 300 uses to depict Xerxes. Some pundits have all but suggested that he is gay. Others have suggested that voters should select John McCain because he is the “manly” candidate. Could the sexual allusions be any clearer?

Sexual Perverts

It is also noteworthy that Leonidas’s other enemies are presented as sexual perverts. The film suggests, for example, that the aforementioned Ephos are pedophiles by the way they leer at the underage Oracle.

In Sparta, Leonidas’s wife and queen Gorgo attempts to enlist the support of councilman Theron. Theron, it turns out, has also been paid off by the Persians. However, before we learn this, we are treated to a disturbing scene in which Theron requests sexual favors from Gorgo, who reluctantly complies. Just before Theron rapes her, he states that she “will not enjoy this”, and, as he has turned her around with her back to him, there is the suggestion that he intends to penetrate her anally. This recalls the movie’s condemnation of homosexuality, as male homosexual sex necessarily involves anal penetration.

Finally, as Xerxes tempts the hunchback Ephialtes to betray the Persians, he is surrounded by an orgy of young women. There are close-ups of these women caressing Ephialtes’ misshapen body, a combination of deformity and sexuality that is meant to be seen as perversion.

Together with the movie’s attitude toward homosexuality, these scenes reveal the movie’s attitude toward anything but “normal” heterosexual sex. The movie tramples historical reality to portray the “good” Spartans as masculine, heterosexual men, and conflates anything but the missionary position (with the lights off, of course) as evidence of moral (and political) evil. This sort of thing would be fully expected in a propaganda film – the reactionary right-wing has been trying to “restore” traditional gender roles and sexual inequality for decades – but it is remarkable that the film ties sexuality so closely to its pro-war message. This is just the sort of thing that characterized fascist propaganda throughout the twentieth century, and it is more than noteworthy that is crops up here.

Ironic Iconic Freedom Fighters

As various points in the movie, the Spartans are presented as exemplars of the ideals of freedom. In essence, they are the movie’s stand-ins for the citizen soldiers who have played such a large role in America’s military history, willing to give up their own lives so that others may live free from the shackles of tyranny.

However, the Spartans in reality were not very good exemplars of such freedom. In fact, the movie itself tells us as much. There was no room in Spartan society for individuality; all male Spartans were soldiers. There was no room for debate on this issue; the individual had no choice but to comply.

Indeed, the Spartan soldiers are depicted as almost physically identical. This is not a trait of a free society but of a fascist society. In fact, this depiction of physical perfection would be in keeping with the Nazi ideal of the perfect Aryan German, the Nietzschean uebermensch or “superman”. Nazi Germany was dotted with statues depicting such physically perfect specimens of Aryan manhood, and this was the ideal to which all Germans boys were expected to aspire. The Nazis’ genocidal activities were not only an attempt to exterminate racial and ethnic minorities from the country, but to exterminate “defective” Germans as well, including those suffering from mental disorders, the developmentally disabled, incorrigible criminals, and the like.

Much as the movie wants to make the Spartans stand-ins for the American citizen soldier, there is one scene that shows this to be a lie. This is when Leonidas’s force encounters a separate force of Acadians who have also answered the call to defend Greece from the Persians. Leonidas all but openly sneers at the Acadians, for they identify themselves as blacksmiths, artisans, and other such professions . Leonidas leads his force in answering with their own shouted profession: they are soldiers, and nothing more. The archetypal citizen soldier was willing to lay down his normal life and do what had to be done to preserve the freedom of his loved ones, with the hope that he could return to a normal life after the job was done. The Spartans have no such normal life; they exist for one purpose only. The movie wants to have it both ways, using the Spartans as analogues for the American citizen soldier, while, at the same time, aspiring to a fascist ideal. This is very revealing of the political ideology behind 300.

This should cause the alert viewer to ask how the Spartans maintained any kind of society if they were nothing but soldiers. The movie gives us loving shots of beautiful fields of wheat, but never addresses the question of just who planted, tended, or harvested that wheat. The movie had time to mention pederasty, but just glosses this over.

In fact, these fields were tended by the Helots. The Helots were the Spartans’ slaves, and they lived truly miserable lives, without any sort of political rights and without any type of security, even of their own lives. The Helots were bound to the land, and were inherited by the Spartans when they came of age; they were commodities to be used and thrown away when exhausted. A Helot could be killed by a Spartan on a whim. The Helots are remembered today primarily due to the suffering they endured at the hands of their masters.

Finally, as mentioned above, the movie wants to draw a parallel between the valiant King Leonidas and George W. Bush. This is perhaps one parallel that the movie should have avoided. Although Leonidas died at the hands of the Spartans, his successors went on to overthrow the Athenian democracy. There, they installed a military and aristocratic dictatorship. Leonidas may not have lived to see the Spartan dream fulfilled, but it is certain that Bush would be around to watch his successors follow in the Spartans’ footsteps.

Survival of the Fittest

300 makes much of the Spartans’ demand for physical perfection among their members. In fact, the movie opens as a child (Leonidas himself) is being examined for any and all physical defects. The camera pans down to show us the bones of children who fails this examination and were hurled into the canyon below. The movie spares no opportunity to show us the Spartan men’s perfect abs.

This falls squarely in line with the fascist ideal described above.

Contrast poor Ephialtes. Deformed at birth, his father chose to hide him away rather than submit him to the examination that would surely have ended in the child’s death. Ephialtes grew up isolated, but nevertheless continued to think of himself as a Spartan. He studied Spartan tactics and trained himself to use a sword. When the Spartans march to Thermopylae, he patriotically offers Leonidas his services.

Leonidas rejects him due to his physical deformities. It simply does not matter to Leonidas that Ephialtes has the passion to stand with his brothers at Thermopylae; all that matters to Leonidas is that Ephialtes cannot hold his shield above his head. Perhaps Ephialtes would not be good in the phalanx, but he could have played other vital roles; in fact, after the initial stages of the battle, the Spartans never return to the use of the phalanx, and Leonidas shows no hesitation in allowing the Acadians to fight in their own traditional manner.

The movie glosses over this point as well, but it is this obsession with physical perfection which ultimately dooms the Spartans. Rejected and heartbroken, Ephialtes later betrays the Spartans to the Persians by revealing the hidden goat trail that allows the Persians to outflank Leonidas and his men.

That this fact goes unremarked upon would be an excellent example of the sort of subtlety that characterizes truly great films, except that I don’t think the filmmakers intended it in such a way. Like the Spartans, the filmmakers believe in a fascist ideal of physical perfection, and thus choice to ignore that it was the Spartans’ excessive pride that was their Achilles’ heel. Nazi propaganda posters always showed the most beautiful specimens of Teutonic perfection. So do modern military recruiting posters, for that matter. And TV commercials. There is no room in this framework for those who don’t fit the ideal.

By the way, I can find no evidence that the real Ephialtes was deformed, or that he possessed the moral integrity of the movie’s Ephialtes. In Greek tradition, Ephialtes plays much the same role and has been the recipient of as much scorn as Judas in Christian tradition. I am not defending the real Ephialtes, who was undoubtedly a true traitor who betrayed the Spartans for material gain, but the movie’s Ephialtes, who betrays the Spartans from a broken heart, giving them exactly what they deserved.

The Per(ver)sians

300 is not historical fact, it is historical fantasy. However, it is rather outrageous that the Persians are almost universally depicted as subhuman monsters. They are little different from the orcs of The Lord of the Rings, charging forward in a faceless mass. True, they are villains, and the faceless, disposable henchman is a trope of many forms of fiction (compare the endless legions of Stormtroopers in the Star Wars films). However, the movie has not established that monsters are real in its fantasy world. The depictions of the Ephos and of Ephialtes as disfigured and deformed represent what the movie considers to be their moral inferiority (fair in the case of the Ephos; completely unfair in the case of Ephialtes). Thus, the deformities of the Persians must also represent their moral inferiority.

There are a handful of Persians, however, who are not subhuman monsters. A few of them are fully human. There is something astounding about them, though: they are all black! Yes, that’s right: in 300, all the good guys are white, and all the bad guys are either subhuman trolls or black. If it weren’t so outrageous, one could perhaps forgive the film for its depiction of the Persian masses as subhuman; that could be considered authorial license. However, this is too close to reality, and we must turn to historical reality for comparison: in reality, there were no black Persians! Persia (modern Iran) is nowhere near Africa, and there were no trade routes between black African states and Persia. This is not only appallingly racist, but it is revealing of the mindset behind the movie. In effect, 300 conflates the deformities of the subhuman Persians with being black; by this logic, deformity and blackness are both external physical expressions of moral inferiority.

One doesn’t have to go very far to connect the film’s attitude toward black people with the way black people fit into the conservative, right-wing narrative. From the Southern Strategy in the sixties that welcomed white supremacists into the party with open arms, to the modern War on Drugs and America’s exploding prison population (predominantly comprised of black men), the Republican Party has long held black people as inferior to whites. It was a moral taint of the Negro that led white people in the fifties to find rock ‘n’ roll music so socially corrosive, just as it was the unstated fear of “angry black men” that led to the reaction against rap music decades later. It was this right-wing mythology that dreamed up the “welfare queen”, draining the resources of “hard-working” (i.e., white) Americans while contributing nothing but more and more fatherless children to society.

Fascism is inherently racist. Every fascist movement has chosen its inferior groups, and persecuted them in the name of its own perverted morality. It was no coincidence that it was white racist animosity toward the Civil Rights Movement that formed the foundation of this contemporary right-wing fascism. It is remarkable that 300 was so willing to depict it, but not so remarkable that fans of the movie simply took its depictions for granted.

The Persian Iranian Reaction

It might seem bizarre that the Iranians would be so offended that 300 depicted the Persians in a negative light. After all, in Islamic tradition, the cultures that predate Islam were not simply wrong and misguided, but evil and depraved. (There is even an Arabic word for such cultures, but, sadly, I cannot recall it at the moment.) Pre-Islamic ruins in modern Iran have been reinterpreted in such a way to exaggerate this depiction of their polytheistic builders as essentially demonic in motivation.

In Islam, there simply was nothing of value prior to Islam, and nothing of value outside of Islam. Thus, the Iranians, who have been some of the most vocal proponents of a radical political philosophy based on Islamic ideals, are the very last people to complain about negative depictions of the Persians.

However, it is impossible for an honest viewer to watch 300 and not realize the film’s intent. The film depicts the Iranians as subhuman monsters, undeserving of sympathy or pity. It is no coincidence that this is the precise model used by fascist movements throughout the twentieth century to depict the state’s enemies. Even in modern militaries, soldiers must be trained to think of the enemy is inhuman before he can kill them. Such depictions are the first step in creating a national threat, and the right-wing has been trying to create that threat for ages.

Even prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Christian leaders depicted Islam as particularly evil and dangerous to American society. Of course, this is merely the latest example of the long antipathy each religion has maintained toward the other. During the Bush era, however, there has been a renewed attempt to cast “Islamofascist” – and Muslims in general – in the most negative light possible. The right-wing has attempted, with moderate success, to connect the concepts of Muslim and terrorist in the American imagination. 300 is merely one part of that effort.

It was evident to the Iranians, however, that the United States, having overthrown Saddam Hussein and occupied Iraq, was turning its eyes to the east. Militarists have been predicted war with Iran for years, and recent saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf has only exacerbated the situation. The US has even tried to present falsified evidence of Iranian influence in Iraq as a pretext for attack. Until recently, the Bush administration refused even to acknowledge the Iranians in a diplomatic sense – the only option they afforded for dealing with the Iranians was military – and even its recent diplomatic outreach is half-hearted at best.

The Iranians may have been hypocritical in defending the Persians, but they were well aware that 300 was not about the Persians anyway. The American public is overwhelming opposed to our present war in Iraq, and even more opposed to starting a new war with Iran. This hardly fits with a goal of perpetual warfare, and steps must be taken to counteract public resistance. The Athenians eventually threw off their Spartan rulers; without broad public support for its goals, even the most rabid fascist movement is doomed.

In Summary

300 is a flawed film, but that is a minor issue. The problem with 300 is that it is blindly fascist, drawing unrealistic parallels between a real historical event and contemporary issues, and then painting it all in a gloss of fascism. As other reviewers noted, this is the kind of movie that Leni Riefenstahl would have made had she had access to computer graphics.

Perhaps my commentary seems overwrought, but the very fact that this movie so accurately captures sentiments openly expressed by right-wing pundits and politicians should be worrisome. The word “fascist” is thrown around with abandon anymore, and that has robbed it of much of its power; it is easy to dismiss allegations of fascism as exaggeration and hyperbole. In this context, however, all the parts fall into place. Many people have attempted to define fascism over the years, and a set of characteristics shared by all fascist movements has come together. The policies of the Bush administration and its right-wing supporters fit these descriptions perfectly, and the film 300 gives them widespread expression.



Chasity said...


Anonymous said...

Last comment on the eleventh of September, hmm clearly the works of Frank Miller with his racist, fascist and homophobic undertones that do not exist and clearly this movie is an exaggeration for entertainment purposes. I hope to god this review was some comparative exercise for college cause otherwise you're just talking pure shit pal!