Taking a graphically bloody stand

There is an intelligent movie to be made about Spartan warrior culture, but 300 is not it.

300 b 298.88 (photo credit: )
300 b 298.88
(photo credit: )
'300' Historical (117 min.) Rated R for graphic violence throughout and some sexuality 3 stars Call it the first ancient Greek snuff film. It's impossible to glean even a faintly serious message about parallels between our situation today facing a menacing, soon-to-be nuclear Iran from 300, the story of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.E., in which 300 Spartans and a handful of other Greek warriors held off hundreds of thousands of Persian warriors for two days. First and most important, 300, which has enjoyed a huge box-office success in the US from the day it opened a few weeks ago, is based not on Herodotus, but on a graphic novel (we used to call them comic books) by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley (another comic by Frank Miller was the basis of the movie Sin City). 300 isn't meant to be a history lesson, but rather warrior porn. No clich of movie heroism is omitted, and the gleaming Spartan fighters' muscles are fetishized by the camera from every conceivable angle. Although they hold spears and carry shields, the buff Spartans fight in leather loincloths, capes and helmets, leaving their chiseled chests and abs in plain view at every moment. Although the movie is filmed in a stylized sepia-toned color, it's a black-and-white story of good versus evil, with good represented by the free, manly men and proud, feminine women of Sparta, and evil personified by the Persian slave army and its evil masters. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the Persian leader, is portrayed as an effeminate, even swishy dandy, dressed in a kind of silver diaper and wearing metallic body paint with jewelry pierced through nearly every part of his body. The sexcapades of his kinky and diseased entourage recall the most laughable moments of Oliver Stone's ludicrous 2004 epic, Alexander. For those who enjoy this kind of thing (and you know who you are), 300 provides a steady diet of beefcake with a small side order of cheesecake thrown in. The main course at all times is blood, as bodies are impaled and disemboweled in a high-tech combination of fast and slow motion, which resembles the "bullet time" fight scenes in the Matrix movies. Director Zack Snyder, whose previous movie credit was Dawn of the Dead, has the polished style of someone who has spent years making music videos and/or commercials. But 300 tells a dramatic story and one that will resonate with an Israeli public reared on the myth of a secular warrior culture based on the Spartan ethos. Although it portrays the Spartan high priests as gnarled, corrupt lechers who make decisions based on the gyrations and mumblings of the Oracle, a topless female teen who has apparently trained with a modern dance company, and the politicians as cynical creeps, it will evoke nostalgia for a time when we Israelis felt we could depend for our safety on a well-oiled, incorruptible war machine, run by selfless heroes who led by example. The dialogue drives home this idea of the morally and physically superior few who will triumph morally against the decadent Persians. The Persians are led by an elite who care only for their own well-being. "I would kill any of my own men," to achieve victory, Xerxes tells the Spartans' King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), who replies, "I would die for any of mine." Although the tiny Spartan fighting force is clearly doomed, Dilios (David Wenham), the narrator, says they were fueled by the hope that, "Against Asia's endless hordes, we can hold our ground. We can win!" in "this narrow corridor where numbers count for nothing." While the Spartans hold off the Persians for days by employing the strategy of diverting them through a narrow pass, they know there is little chance they will make it home and don't whine about it. "Freedom is not free," Leonidas' wife, Gorgo (Lena Headey), tells the Spartan senate as she pleads with them to send more troops to reinforce her husband's fighters. No one actually says, "It's good to die for our country," (Trumpeldor's famous last words), but they might as well. All of this makes for an undeniably entertaining film (although it's not for the squeamish), but the slickness of the production undermines any genuine emotion the story might have stirred. Whenever I started to feel moved, the filmmakers would throw in a grotesque touch, such as a shackled and scarred Persian giant who breaks free of his chains to rampage against the Spartans and is eventually felled by a knife wound to his eye. Every cruel death you can imagine (and some that you can't) are shown in slow motion and at moments 300 seems like pro-wrestling with spears. Even the credits are blood spattered. But what this epic has going for it that other recent movie versions of Greek history have lacked is a truly heroic hero. The commanding Gerard Butler, a British stage and screen actor (he was the Phantom in the movie version of The Phantom of the Opera), accomplishes what sulky Brad Pitt in Troy and pouty Colin Farrell in Alexander could not: He makes you forget he is speaking English. You can believe that he could inspire other men to risk their lives to defend the values he represents. It's a star-making performance and I look forward to seeing Butler again on screen once he washes the blood off his hands (and his sculpted torso). US audiences may have responded to this movie because it is a thinly veiled metaphor for the struggle of America and the West against Islamic terror. Although the pagan Spartans might not seem well suited to represent America, at the end, there is an unabashedly Christian image as Leonidas lies, his arms outstretched like the crucified Jesus, his body riddled with arrows like Saint Sebastian. The Spartans, says Dilios, were fighting "mysticism and tyranny." For Americans fed up with their government being vilified by the left for US policy in Iraq and appalled by Iraqi insurgents' violence against their fellow citizens as well as American soldiers, 300 may have come at just the right time. There is an intelligent movie to be made about Spartan warrior culture, but 300 is not it. It is a fun ride, though, as long as you don't see it on a full stomach, both so you won't get sick watching and so you can run to the gym right afterwards to work on your abs.