Written circa 2007 [Re-edited June 2013]
If right-wingers deluded with dreams of global empire can’t win their endless War Against Terror in the actual world, they can be consoled through victory on the silver screen. Adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel, 300 is an epic clash of civilizations blood bath set during the 480 BC Battle of Thermopylae, (Greece) where a group of 300 or so Spartans battle a much larger army of the Persian Empire; although they lose the battle, they win the war for God and Country.
The film traffics in such bigoted stereotypes as to shame a Klansman.
Our hero, King Leonidas, must protect his family as the Eternal Aryan Father, forever and everywhere at war against swarthy enemies above and below, outside and in. The antagonist, the Persian King, Xerxes, with his modern piercings and tattoos comes off as a swarthy, southern gender bending Other. A childlike hunchback volunteers to fight beside Leonidas, but is rejected by the Nietzschean warrior. The hunchback suggests a backstabbing internal (Jewish?) enemy. A scheming member of the Senate blackmails the hero’s wife into copulation so as to sabotage the heroic defense of the Fatherland–a feckless politician in need of a Coup d’etat if there ever was one.
It is the only War Against Terror anyone will ever win.
As if directly out of a propaganda film from World War II, all Persians in this film are depicted as sub-human monsters. So completely is the “other” rendered different that it is difficult to conceive of the them as human. The Spartans are all-to-human–scrubbed and clipped, clean and bright, and democratic. While I understand this exaggeration to be a staple device of cinematic fiction—this movie drenches moviegoers in enough blood to blot out the sun–real political ramifications come into play. Consider the broader geo-political context where nuclear option scenarios are planned for Iran by the Pentagon and the ongoing carnage in Iraq.
The swarthy hordes are death riders with mystical powers as out of a Lord of the Rings movie and Xerxes stands about 9 feet tall, his soldiers often hideously deformed. His entire army has only the most tangential connection to homo sapiens. Just when you are about to argue that this exaggeration for effect helps distance the moviegoer from identifying these Persians as actually existing Iranians and thereby completing the circle of bigotry, the film does just that: the Warrior King describes his fight as against “Asian hordes,” and “mysticism and the East” (or was it “Orient?”), leaving little room for ambiguity.
I have to ask, jokingly: Was Samuel Huntington an adviser for this film?
After Leonidas rejects the hunchback’s offer of service, Xerxes entices the hunchback with flesh pots so as to discover a Spartan military weakness. In a clever twist, this rejection of the hunchback will come back to haunt Leonidas–illustrating the Achilles’ heel of the Spartans: Their pride and purity is both their strength and their undoing. But this is largely lost on an American audience enthralled with the spectacle, and besides, we know who eventually wins this battle.
Sex in the Spartan camp is shown once, between husband and wife, in the one scene of soft glowing light, ensconced within the loving romantic embrace of a nuclear family. Sex for Spartans is all love, God and Country. Sex among the others is lust, death, and betrayal.
Protagonists are Aryanized and the evil others black, deformed and monstrous.
David Denby of The New Yorker (April 2 2007, “Men Gone Wild”) describes 300 as a “porno-military curiosity—a muscle-magazine fantasy crossed with a video game and an Army recruiting film” and elsewhere, the product “of a culture slowly and painfully going mad.”
While Denby gets much right about what is so wrong with this film, he doesn’t get how race is crucial to the development of a fascist worldview–how in American popular culture the swarthy hordes are simultaneously black, Arab(?!), Iraqi, gay and Jewish. This “other” can only be completed by an opposite “us.”
Much has been made of the Spartan men in tights in this film, as if ham-handed homoeroticism gives the film a camp quality and inures it to serious criticism. But this film wallows with pleasure in the extermination of gays. I think Mick LaSalle in his review of 300 (San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2007) misunderstands the bonds that form between men when they commit mass murder, an essential element to all fascist men of action since Mussolini’s Black Shirts in the 1920s. To add insult to injury, LaSalle doesn’t even suss out how the Spartans so clearly represent an idealized American Heartland and the Persians a dusky, Sodom and Gomorrah.
I mean, you missed that? What the fuck were you watching?
The transmogrification of the Other in 300 suggests a fear of multiracial, pluralistic, urban America.
Having allowed the creators of this film their day in the court of aesthetic opinion we can now render judgment: 300 is a film that shamelessly traffics in fascist aesthetics and values. It thereby joins D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as a place marker delineating an American popular culture in the throes of yet another inept, murderous and unjust war abroad, and a casino economy propping up a corrupt political elite at home.
Compare 300 to the other cinematic adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel, Sin City. Here corrupt Catholics, a depraved serial killer and dirty cops are opposed by—get this—virtuous prostitutes and classic noir anti-heroes. If Sin City embraces a culturally progressive, if somewhat ambivalent, multi-racial urban populism, 300 gets down with the extermination. 300 smacks Quentin Tarentino’s hip, hyper violent moral relativism around like a rag doll, politicizing what had thus far been relatively apolitical. In this respect 300 breaks new ground
I’m going to pick on Mick LaSalle again. Elsewhere, in a response to a letter to the editor taking him to task for a movie review of 300 not suited for CNN Student News, LaSalle manages to miss everything noteworthy and instead, through a Herculean contortion of logic, actually argues (kind of half-assed, a bit self-consciously as though he is dimly aware he’s full of shit) that Xerxes could be said to represent George W. Bush and Leonidas the oppressed Middle Easterners.
Wow. I must admit, I hadn’t thought of that.
300 unintentionally suggests the real roots of so-called “Western” democracies are in the ashes of a society so militaristic and devoid of pity as to ritually dispose of new born babies by tossing them into pits. Now there might be an interesting parallel to be made here between ritual sacrifice and the ideology of the War Against Terror–after all, 300 does consecrate the still birth of democracy in a frenzy of bloodletting. More to the point, it is obviously not the intention of the film-maker. One needs to watch this film in a movie theater with a mess of middle Americans to get the full xenophobic, misogynist slobbering it inspires. After all, in America, with infotainment reining supreme, it’s not really the opinions of Denby, LaSalle or, much less, my own that make a difference. It’s the fourteen-year-old with a historically unparalleled power to influence commerce who increasingly determines the meaning of culture.
Contemporary political reality raises the question of artistic values and responsibility: If Iran is invaded in the near future, should the creators of this film be subjected to war crimes prosecution?
I am reminded of that stirring scene in the film version of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America where Al Pacino, playing Roy Cohn, hears a dark, yet beautiful poetic ode to gay San Francisco that he takes for a description of Hell, only to be told by his interlocutor that it is a vision of Heaven. The irreducible gulf here is between the values of empire and domination and those of pluralism and multiculturalism; this conflict is not fundamentally about East vs West.
300 also brings to mind my experience in the early 1990s in Portland, Oregon viewing the film Patty Rocks. The movie was difficult to watch, but some (male) members of the audience made it more so—their reactions to what can only be described as cringe inducing, excruciatingly sexist scenes were despicable. They were laughing when I was appalled; their crass merriment coming at the expense of another’s suffering. The irony and schadenfreude that are revealed at the end of this film were completely lost on these moviegoers.
I cannot recall a film so utterly opposite my political and aesthetic sensibilities as that of 300.