'Prepare for Glory!'
The most recent ancient battle film, 300, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, is the story of 300 Spartan warriors led by the noble and glorified King Leonidas (Gerard Butler). After a messenger of Persian ruler Xerxes rides into Sparta carrying four crowned skulls of past Spartan kings, insults Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), and demands that Sparta allow itself to be conquered without resistance to Xerxes’s empire, Leonidas becomes furious and forces the Persian messenger and his party into a gaping, dark abyss. Thus, Leonidas has declared war upon the enormous Persian Empire, but without the consent of the atrocious beasts that control the oracle. Knowing that Sparta’s counsel would not authorize a Spartan army to assemble without the oracle’s consent, Leonidas assembles his own troop of 300 ridiculously, even inhumanly buff, Spartan comrades. The army of 300 valiantly fights off the endless swarms of Persian forces for a few days. In the end, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), sporting about 50 pounds of gold jewelry and little else, offers Leonidas riches and power in exchange for the captivity of Sparta and its people, which Leonidas denies in the name of Freedom. Before all the Spartans, including Leonidas are killed; Leonidas hurls his spear towards Xerxes, just scraping the side of the Emperor’s mouth, symbolically showing the slight, yet memorable impact the Spartans had on Xerxes. Back in Sparta the queen kills the counsel’s traitorous leader, Theron (Dominic West) who deterred the council from sending an army to Leonidas’s aid even though he promised the queen he would do so. A year later, the Spartan army has been assembled to defeat the Persians in the name of honor and freedom and in the memory of the 300.
While major film critics from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly have dismissed the film on the whole, saying “300 is about as violent as Apocalypto and twice as stupid” (Scott, Newyorktimes.com, Mar. 7, 2007), the public audience has rushed to view and acclaim the film. The film garnered $70.9 million in its opening weekend, conquering the March opening record previously held by Ice Age: The Meltdown, which drew $68 million. It’s also the third-highest grossing opening R-rated movie behind The Matrix Reloaded and The Passion of the Christ (boxofficemojo.com).
Maybe this extremely serious period of war, oppression, and lack of valor that we face in real-life today, audiences are looking for a film based on the themes of glory, freedom, and honor that they wish they could find in the world. Maybe audiences are looking for a film that is neither factual, nor will make them think too hard, but addresses these themes while creating artful images with every scene. If that’s it, 300 is the perfect film. Even Kenneth Turan wrote in the March 9th LA Times that, “The film has a striking visual panache, a distinctive style of putting images on film that heightens reality.”
The film, “using little more than actors, a bluescreen, and a massive, computer-based post-production army,” according to Entertainment Weekly, charts new aesthetic territory. Each scene, powerful and artistically appreciative, appears to have been artfully constructed from the scenery to the movement to the costumes. Yet, using computer generated images (CGI) to such a large extent in creating this film is disconcerting for some movie-goers. It’s incredible to see what amazing work can be done with CGIs, but at what cost? Will CGIs eventually take over film-making entirely? The film’s creative authenticity comes into question when viewers are aware that the scenes they are viewing are almost completely generated and fabricated. Will actors eventually be replaced by computers? If this film is just the beginning of Hollywood’s use of the CGI, it is reasonable to be concerned that films will become less personal, and less authentic, and therefore more difficult to truly appreciate. Knowing that the images in 300 are, however beautiful, computer-generated takes away a bit of their sometimes breath-taking appeal.
Where critics deviate from the mainstream audience is in their expectations of this film. While many critics seek a deeper meaning than this film aims to convey, most of its audience take the film and appreciate it for what it is: comic book come-to-life. The film does not try to offer deep resolutions to the world’s problems or try to leave the viewer with more than a memory of its fantastic imagery and costumes. Its classic ancient war movie themes of glory, valor, and freedom/independence are not particularly developed, nor are its characters and their relationships. For critics, this can be problematic, as it can and should be for movie-goers seeking to take away some lasting lesson or profound knowledge. As critic Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly wrote on Mar. 7th, “This is dazzle for the head, not the heart…Look, but don't be touched: There is much to see but little to remember in this telling of a battle we are meant never to forget.” For audiences looking for a two-hour escape, albeit not a light-hearted one, this film is satisfying.
Even though the film should not be taken too seriously, the portrayal of some groups in the film should be discussed and acknowledged. First, there is the depiction of the Spartans (white Europeans) versus the Persians and their armies of “the other.” While this is just a comic-book story, the images of each group that are projected are important. The Spartans are portrayed as honorable fighters seeking justice and the protection of their freedom. On the other hand, the only Persian character developed to any extent is Xerxes, who is a self-righteous tyrant. All the other members of the Persian forces in the film are faceless, literally. The warriors wear masks and do not get any chances to verbalize. The audience is easily able to dehumanize these characters because of this.
Second, the depiction of women in this film is notable. The only female character who is developed at all is Queen Gorgo. While she is actually quite headstrong, her actions from “offering herself to Theron” to addressing the counsel are out of devotion to her husband. She lives in reference to her husband. She and all the other women in the film, from the oracle girl to the Persian women, are extremely sexualized. There is even a distinction between the Persian and Spartan women in their sexual portrayal. The Persian women are depicted as being much more vulgar and “exotic” than Spartan women. They existed in the film solely to be objectified. Xerxes offered the Persian women to Ephialtes, the dejected and traitorous Spartan, to make the objectification clear. Even if the comic portrayed women and Persians in such an unfavorable light, this film seems to go over the top in bringing these images to the big screen.
Even though the portrayal of some groups is poor, and the characters and themes are not heavily developed, this film is worth seeing. It is stylistically and technologically innovative, and the imagery is really something fantastic.