This Friday Night at the Movies, I saw 300. This should come as no surprise to those of you who have been paying attention. I am a geek in many regards, and I try to not to let a comic book movie pass without checking it out. But this movie was so mind-bogglingly awesome that it has serious crossover appeal. Maybe it was the oily sheen that glistened on the Spartan’s six packs, but the crowd here in San Francisco seemed especially receptive. As long as historical fact doesn’t count as a spoiler, I think its safe to say that the 300 Spartans didn’t have a happy ending. They were tough, but I can’t help but wonder if the Spartans in the movie wouldn’t have been better fighters if they spent more time practicing with their weapons instead of doing crunches and oiling their pecs.
The story of the film is more fully fleshed out than the graphic novel that inspired it, but it is still pretty light on things like narrative, characterization, and plot. That I have no problem with these absences is a testament to how visceral the action is. As far as the story goes Sparta is about to be invaded by the Persians, whose army vastly outnumbers the Spartan force. Politics and corruption keep the full Spartan army from entering the fray, so part-time wolf-slayer and full-time bad ass King Leonidas leads his personal guard of 300 men against the invading horde. He uses strategy and superior fighting skill to make a stand against Xerxes and his army in a narrow pass between tweo mountain peaks, called the “Hot Gates.” That’s about it. Its essentially a two hour battle scene, with a few breaks in the action to check in on the home front where Leonidas’ wife is trying to rally political support for the war. But its a very pretty battle scene, with lots of leaping and well-choreographed decapitations. Its not weighed down with realism. I never knew how much I would enjoy watching elephants fall off cliffs until 300 showed me.
The blood splatters just right, and the disciplined Spartan warriors have a variety of tactical tricks. One of my favorite scenes was when our 300 heroes squared off against the enemy special forces, the Immortals. The Immortals were some kind of ninja vampires or something. I dunno, but they gave the Greeks a run for their money. It could get a trifle repetitive, and I could see some viewers get a little tired of the bloodshed. But I didn’t. Visually, the movie had lots of green screen imagery not entirely unlike Sin City, which was written by the same guy (Frank Miller). Its all very pretty, especially an early scene involving a whacked out, half naked oracle.
There’s been a great deal of speculation about what political message, if any, this movie may contain. You could read it either way, with Leonidas as either a determined leader willing to instill democracy at any cost, or as a rebellious insurgent standing up to a massive invasion. Also, the invading army is from the Persian empire which included Iraq. In the film the Persian army is full of brown-skinned people, deformed slaves, and Xerxes himself seems particularly effeminate especially when contrasted with the tough-as-nails and oh-so-pretty noble Greeks. If you wanted to do a post-colonialist interpretation of the film you’d have tons of premise fodder, but I think you’d be wasting your time. There are also notions of honor and heroism being linked directly with a willingness to eschew diplomacy for unpopular war. (Even Rumsfeld wouldn’t throw an ambassador down a bottomless pit). Not to mention the fact that Leonidas has to break (or at least bend) the very law he is so keen on defending. At the same time, Xerxes presents a real threat and promises nothing less than the enslavement of the entire Spartan kingdom, and if Leonidas had chosen not fight he would have been consigning his people to “slavery and death.” But I don’t care. At the end of the day, the film isn’t about allegory, subtle or otherwise. It’s not about politics or religion. Its about stabbing people in the face with a spear. And that is a message I can get behind.