PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

300 (2007)

Spartans! Simple and resonant, this call to identity comes up frequently in 300, the film based on Frank Miller's graphic novel.


300

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Regan, Dominic West
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Warner Bros.
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2007-03-23
US Release Date: 2007-03-09
Trailer

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.

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.