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Spartans never retreat! Spartans never surrender!

Movie

300
(2006)

 

I’ll readily admit to being surprised by the success of 300, but I guess Warner Bros were too; they expected takings more on a par with Sin City. What they got was a bit of a monster, with a total gross approaching half a billion dollars. The common link between the two is Frank Miller, a comic book writer of inclement disposition and extreme right-wing leanings; maybe a bit like John Milius without the sense of humour. Or directorial ability (see The Spirit for evidence). I didn’t care much for Sin City, but it was a comic book aficionado’s wet dream. Understandably, as it adopted the visual stylings of the medium that inspired it. Zack Snyder’s film does the same thing, just with added speed-ramping.

Snyder’s an interesting director, not so much in terms of evidencing a powerful intellect but because his films are visually so compelling. He’s like a dimmer version of the Wachowski siblings in that regard (although, arguably, there’s a thin line between intellectual and pretentious, and they teeter on the brink between the two). His Dawn of the Dead remake was a pleasant surprise, particularly during the first act where the sense of danger was ferociously palpable. And I liked Watchmen for the most part, even if it displayed a penchant for gore that distracted from the thematic content (this is why I suggest that he’s hardly cerebral in his instincts). Left to his own devices he “auteured” into existence the wet dream silliness of Sucker Punch. But, quite possibly (likely even, given the trailers), the combination of his distinctive style (much more suited to the comic book medium than his producer) and Christopher Nolan’s resolute braininess will make Man of Steel satisfying nourishment on all levels. We’ll see.

With 300, Snyder weakly argues that he is having his cake. And then attempts to eat it too. Against criticisms of the film’s thrall to the fascistic designs of its heroes, he responds that it is a tale told by an unreliable narrator (David Wenham’s Dillios). It’s an excuse for everything from the fantasy elements, to the vilification of the horrid Persians, to the disgust for anything that does not celebrate the sculpted body-beautiful. Arguing that it is “just a fantasy” about a bunch of guys kicking the shit out of each other doesn’t really let him off the hook for Miller’s overt identification with the city-state and its harsh standards. Nor it does explain some of the inconsistencies (Gerard Butler’s Leonidas isn’t just a cold-blooded killer; rather than disdain Ephialtes the hunchback he treats him respectfully – hardly the sort of image Dillios would be presenting of the King to the troops back home). The subtext is; these are a tough, callous people (except when it comes to showing a hero’s love for a wife or a son, of course) but that’s what you need to be a hero. And you should be in awe of them.

But, at the same time, Snyder has a point. This is a resolutely empty-headed film. Snyder really does stuff because it’s cool, and tries to justify it later (if he’s challenged); it’s why Watchmen (which, as I say, I like) is all about emulating the look of the comic (except where Snyder’s got something “cooler” in mind) but rarely engages fully with its ideas. Here, the characters don’t even qualify as two-dimensional (this might be why Butler is so effective). And the plot amounts to; Leonidas takes 300 of his men off to face King Xerxes because he can’t declare war. They fight. Then fight some more. Then, well, we know what happened to the 300 but I won’t spoil it. There are some lame attempts to create political intrigue at home, which involve Dominic West being an absolute stinker and Lena Headey taking her top off, but these amount to little more than casting about for breathing space between dust-ups.

While the visual palate Snyder adopts is striking, I have to admit I found it only intermittently engaging. It encourages immersion in a hyperreal fantasy landscape that is as shallow and insubstantial as all the other elements. Where Snyder succeeds is in making it seamless; he has built a self-contained world here, like it or not.

Which makes you wonder why the actors spent so long down the gym (it appears they actually did reconfigure themselves with those bodacious bods, although there’s little doubt that they were shined-up in post); all the better to sell their homoerotic camaraderie? I did wonder if Xerxes was presented as slightly effeminate in order to state to those doubting that, yes, these Spartans are all man.

The treatment of Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) struck me as the most objectionable of the film’s many less-than-salubrious statements. As mentioned, Leonidas shows great empathy with him when he volunteers to fight. Such are his deformities that he would be useless in battle, the King tells him. Ephialtes’ response is to show that weakness of body is a reflection of weakness of moral fibre; off he goes to betray the Spartans. Clearly, then, the Spartans eugenics programme was a laudable one, and Ephialtes’ parents were wrong to save him.

We see similar aberrations on the Persian side (giants with crab arms, slavering giant gimps) and in the oracles Leonidas must defer to at the outset (the Ephors, who are shown to be ethically corrupt and said to be the inbred; it is unclear how the latter is supposed to be the case, as the Spartans provide them with a steady flow of young maidens). Then there is the dismissal of Athenians as “boy-lovers”, which would like to preclude any Spartan inclinations in that direction. Snyder will no doubt claim this is all a consequence of Dillios’ narrative adornments, but this is a filmmaker whose presiding motivation is how air-punching he can make a sequence. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

There’s no doubt that Butler gives it his all in the lead role. It’s kept him in starring parts since, but since their quality has been resoundingly dubious (a supporting turn in Coriolanus aside) one wonders whether this was such a blessing. Revisiting the movie, the presence of Michael Fassbender (in his first big screen part) as Stelios is the most significant surprise. He’s okay, but one-note shouting isn’t really using him to the best of his abilities. He also resembles Christopher Lambert in Greystoke; it’s the flowing locks, I think.

The dialogue is a progressively inaner string of clichés that are punchy yet resoundingly hollow (“Give them nothing. But take from them everything!”, “Today, no Spartan dies!” – wait, I thought you all wanted to die, “Tonight, we dine in hell!”). It’s tiresomely bombastic stuff.

The staging is impressive but, like the dialogue, becomes repetitive and wearying; Leonidas’ fight with a giant gimp man is probably the highlight, as it actually produces tension. Most of the mayhem is well-choreographed but uninvolving.

You come away from the film knowing bollocks-all about Sparta, aside from a pre-amble about how the children are brought up as soldiers; more resonant are their rallying grunts, making them sound like a team of American footballers. The shame of it is, Michael Mann was planning a film about this subject for years (Gates of Fire) that undoubtedly would have had engaged with the subject with its own unique style and actually shown some insights into the Spartan people and the Battle of Thermopylae. There’s no hope for it now, alas, Meanwhile, an optimistic Warner Bros has opted for that least auspicious of follow-ups; a prequel.

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