This isn’t really Sparta: a close look at “300”

300” is a film about, well, 300 Spartans fighting the famous “battle” of Thermopylaye, or maybe it’s about any number of different subtextual things which will probably be argued about for years. It’s a very odd, somewhat interesting curiosity of a film. It’s not very good, and yet it’s somehow memorable. Why this is, unfortunately, requires a spoiler warning and a page break. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is.
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300” – d: Zach Snyder/w: Zach Snyder, Kurt Jonstad, Michael Gordon/based on: graphic novel “300” by Frank Miller, Lynn Varley – dist. Warner Bros.

I don’t know what I really think about “300“, but I think I might be with Mark Kermode.

Is it a pretty movie? Yes. Is it well-made? Yes. Is it the most homoerotic movie made since Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in “Commando“? Oh, yeah. And does it contain some truly abominable acting? Unfortunately, the answer to that is yes – Lena Headey being by far the worst offender, with David Wenham not far behind.

Now, I’ve not seen Zach Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake – I considered it sacrilegious at the time, although I’ve heard it’s OK – and as such I’m not sure how good he is at directing actors not on a blue-screen, but it’s obvious from “300” that he really doesn’t know how to direct them on one. Whole sections of the movie are stilted, with truly dreadful disconnected acting; it sort of feels like they’ve been asked to overact as much as possible.

Admittedly, a lot of the blame can be shouldered on the script. This is an adaptation of a comic book I haven’t read by Frank Miller (Sin City), and the visual style is very much a “Sin City“-style mimicking. It contains some truly corny lines; Lena Headey’s character actually, entirely seriously, delivers the line “Freedom isn’t free” (anyone who’s seen “Team America” knows why this is a problem), and the script doesn’t really get better than that – the entire thing is summed up by the “This…IS…SPARTA!” clip that’s been shown everywhere by now, a totally spectacular overreaction.

It also visually rips off “Gladiator“, and the style of the ending is straight out of “Braveheart” (and that’s not good). Worse, it’s full of every single bloody action-movie cliché: for instance, there is a point in the film where one character is celebrating, having slaughtered his way through a large number of Persians, when suddenly someone turns up behind him who he doesn’t see but of whom the others try to warn him… This elicited a large groan from me at the time, and it really does wreck the good work that the movie has done before that.

Because despite Lena Headey and despite the overacting from all the thing bloody works, and works bloodily. It’s a collection of stunning visual set-pieces pieced together into a movie. Snyder shows that while he has problems directing actors on a blue screen, he can direct action; the running battle sequences, flicking between slow and fast motion, show a director confident in his skill and with the ability to thrill the audience, and the movie doesn’t pale from showing gore (to a point where I was very surprised that the BBFC gave it a 15.)

Many of the critics took a great dislike to the movie, Metro going as far as claiming that the whole thing was a racist attempt at Iranian-bashing. And, let’s face it, it can be seen that way – the Persians are shown as a bunch of suspiciously dark people with piercings, especially their king Xerxes. It probably does want to be seen as a combat between democracy and tyranny (PZ Myers hilariously riffed on this in his review of the film), but in reality any society that abandons babies to die because they’re not physically “correct” probably leans more towards the latter.

But, on the other hand, the even more obvious subtext is the one pinpointed by Mark Kermode in his podcasted review of the film – that the entire thing is about big, strong men sticking very large swords into other big, strong men, and the whole film is an excuse for semi-naked torso shots, gleaming muscle and flaunted sexuality. There’s a lot to be said for this – the sex scene between Gerald Butler and Lena Headey is the most obviously added-for-the-straight-audience sex scene since “Top Gun“, going into the whole thing in suspiciously leering detail.

So what’s my opinion on the film? The acting’s dreadful all round. The writing isn’t up to much either. The film is beautifully made and very well designed. The homoerotic subtext is hilarious, and almost has to be deliberate (as per Swarzenegger’s “Commando“, a film which contains a villain who looks suspiciously like the winner of a Freddie Mercury lookalikes contest and has some of the best awful one-liners of all time.) Politically, it could be seen to be dodgy; however, it must be said that the USA is not Sparta, in rather a lot of ways. Really, it’s a film you need to see for yourself to decide; it did at least entertain, and that’s all I ask.

Myself, I’m hoping that Zach Snyder won’t screw up “Watchmen”; if he films it on real sets, uses better actors than David Wenham or Lena Headey, doesn’t mess up the script and tones some of his style down, he’s got at least a sporting chance of not doing so. And I can only give him that.

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2 thoughts on “This isn’t really Sparta: a close look at “300”

  1. Hey, you spamming asshole! I really like the fact that you’re spamming a gay-themed link-hole through homophobic death threats on a weblog – very professional. Shame I’ve defanged it.

    Your IP address is 24.128.153.117, which is c-24-128-153-117.hsd1.ma.comcast.net. Probably an open proxy or a r00ted box, which is a shame.

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