Spartans! Simple and resonant, this call to identity comes up frequently in 300. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), a Spartan through and through, roars the name whenever he needs to rally his 299 fellow warriors to beat back invaders, defend their city-state, and honor their fathers. Trained from childhood to respond to the call, they do so with fervor and without hesitation. Spartans! On hearing this word rendered loudly, the 300 feel and act as one.
They certainly all look alike. The premise of Zack Snyder’s film is at once thematic and aesthetic, and a stultifying sameness is central to both. The saga retold here is more or less the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae by way of Frank Miller. The battle is famous for the Spartans’ essentially suicidal effort over three long days, as they held off by ingenuity and stunning brutality a gigantic army of Persians — or, as your narrator Dilios (David Wenham) puts it so colorfully, “a beast made of men and horses, swords and spears” — that mostly blends into the landscape as little digital dots. The Spartans tend to resemble their leader Leonidas: bearded and grim-faced, they all have abs of steel, on display incessantly. “Only the hard and strong,” says Dilios, “may call himself Spartan. Only the hard. The strong.”
The Persians — who are soft if not weak — make an early effort to conquer Sparta without bloodshed: an emissary deemed on “The Persian” comes to meet with Leonidas, offering a smooth transition into slavery and “worse.” The King exchanges a brief glance with his equally sculpted and hard-assed wife Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), and then tenders his response: he kicks The Persian into a bottomless-looking pit that he just happens to be standing near, thus sending his fellow Spartans into a frenzy to do likewise: one by one, the party of conciliatory Persians are kicked into the pit, their robes flying in slow motion, their helmeted heads all alike.
The leader of the Immortals, Xerxes’ elite fighting force, brings his troops to a halt when confronted by an unimaginable obstacle on the battlefield
With this gesture of resistance against a superior though plainly soulless power, Leonidas knows his die is cast, but he follows tradition and visits with a squad of gnarly mystics who live atop a mountain and keep a beautiful young girl as an oracle. Their dictate is simple: you can’t win, so don’t fight. And with that, even as his fellow Spartan and political rival Theron (Dominic West) insists he stand down, the king makes his decision. He has a moment of wondering whether he should sacrifice his men as readily as he is willing to sacrifice himself –for honor and freedom, which are not precisely what define life in Sparta. But he consults his wife, who insists that he ask himself, “What would a free man do?” and then feels fortified. The next morning, he and his 300 warriors head off to kick some Persian ass. Along the way, they find some Arcadians also eager to fight back the bullies, but this group, though numbering more than 300, is comprised of blacksmiths, potters, and sculptors, meaning, they’re wussies. The real fighting is left to the Spartans!, who take up the charge with gusto.
The Spartans! surely dress the part. They all wear leather-looking short shorts and crimson drapes that billow brilliantly during their bullet-timey battle scenes, offering accents on blood spilled and spurted. Thus they identify themselves and recognize others as such. Still, it’s not as if they need too much help in seeing who’s not them: their enemies are instantly visible. They’re Persian (here, black), misshapen (here, hunchback), and “Oriental” (identified by music cues and ninja-style outfits, complete with silver masks).
Xerxes (RODRIGO SANTORO) vents his rage at the losses sustained by his army while facing 300 Spartans
The Spartans’ chief enemy, the king of the Persians and so set off as Leonidas’ opposite, is a giant named Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, digitally enlarged and boom-voiced), a self-proclaimed god-king with an affection for mascara and facial piercings. His abs are not nearly so defined as those of the Spartans!, suggesting that he spends his time not working out but instead wallowing in a perverse and girly way. Insisting that the Spartans! and Leonidas in particular kneel before him, Xerxes recalls Jaye Davidson’s Ra in Stargate, evoking manly men’s anxieties about transsexualism and unfathomable desire. (All this deviance is made manifest during an orgy scene presided over by Xerxes: lesbians dance and kiss, a hunchback traitor gets some, and the much-displayed skin is overwhelmingly dark: the lack of imagination that goes into this demonization is depressing.)
Anxieties about masculine identity lie at the heart of 300, though the film doesn’t exactly resolve them. During his early tête-à-tête with the Persian emissary, Leonidas scoffs at the Athenians, whom he calls “philosophers and boy lovers,” as they were unable to stave off the Persians. He means to go down in history as something else, fighters for a cause, namely, their manly rep. That this rep is so overtly eroticized here is hardly original: the ripped bodies and guttural soundings (and Leonidas’ hetero assignations with Gorgon) mark them clearly as leaning one way. But everything else about them leans the other way, which suggests why they fight so fiercely to kill of the others they can identify external to themselves. They thrust and assert themselves, they puff their chests and are spattered with bodily fluids. They are fierce.
Captain (VINCENT REGAN), Leonidas (GERARD BUTLER) and the Spartans stand ready to halt the advance of the Persian army
All this gayness is premised on a love for beautiful sameness: Leonidas rejects a wannabe soldier who’s a hunchback and so cannot raise his shield to match the height of the others (though the king does observe of his swordplay, “You have a fine thrust”). The devotion to sameness means that a disappointing subplot involving Gorgo, the only woman who speaks dialogue in the film, is set off awkwardly: she doesn’t fit aesthetically the rest of the tableau.
That is, she doesn’t have much to do except wait for word of Leonidas, though her waiting is fraught, as she endeavors to make her own deal with Theron, in order to send supporting troops to the site of the 300’s battle. Her battle is framed as sexual assault, making her the sign of her husband’s heterosexuality (because you might need reassurance) as well as the reason he’s doing all this homoerotic acting out: her body is his, and its loss to a churlish knave like Theron is tragic, a matter of property, honor, and even, in abstract terms, freedom.
All this only makes the much-remarked current affairs subtext creepier. Whether you read Leonidas or Xerxes as the stand-in for George Bush, whether you align him with the male victim or the perversely femme bully, the rampant display of bodies and blood and brutality is, at the end, tedious, frustrating, and more of the same.