Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A few hundred words on 300

I saw 300 on DVD the other night. I'm not particularly a fan of the book, nor much else of Frank Miller for that matter. I certainly wasn't hoping for the movie to be a timeless classic, or even a decent historical actioner. Exactly the opposite in fact: it slots neatly into my Netflix queue between Hawk the Slayer and, oh sweet reason, Ator, the Fighting Eagle. I expected violent, I expected dumb, I expected sword-hacking, shield-bashing and streams of gore. And sure, 300's got all that. With sandals and a fringe on top.

300 is at its heart a story about valiant warriors fighting to win glory or die with honor against deadly odds. I'm a complete sap for scenes of heroism and sacrifice. Everything from Boromir redeeming himself at Parth Galen down to a damn show on Animal Planet about a chihuahua saving a little girl from a rattlesnake will choke me right up. They're tears, but they're brave tears, don't dog me. But 300 left me dry-eyed and searching for the Visine.

The movie goes to absurd lengths to separate the good Spartans not only from the decadent Persians and their faaabulous King, but from the "boy-lovers of Athens" and even the brave volunteers who fight with the Spartans. The Spartans are tumescent; all others limp. The Spartans are statuesque, sculpted, proud-blooded and erect; their foes not merely dark-skinned but grotesque, bestial, lamed. Among the Persian forces I noted orcs, Frankenstein, and a Cenobite apparently wandered off the set of a Hellraiser sequel. And between all the fighting is a lot of bellowing and brow-beating about the free men of Sparta defending freedom which, we daren't forget, isn't free.

But what of the freedom of Sparta? What of this city of free men and strong women? That's the question that movie and book alike fail to answer. The city is barely sketched, a few columns and fountains, plain stone walls. There are no scenes of everyday Spartan life, no merchants or musicians. The chief freedom afforded Spartan boys, we're shown, is the freedom to study the arts of battle and war:

"At age 7, as is customary in Sparta, [a] boy [is] taken from his mother and plunged into a world of violence, manufactured by 300 years of Spartan warrior society to create the finest soldiers the world has ever known. The agoge, as it's called, forces the boy to fight, starves him, forces him to steal... and if necessary, to kill."
Slaves unnumbered are cut down like grass, and Spartan blood is the price of each inch of the Persian advance, for this? A city whose only arts are the phalanx, the whetstone and, on the film's evidence, the ab crunch? The place hardly seems worth saving. I was unmoved, and not much entertained.

See also: Dave White takes this much less seriously.

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