One of my fans (actually, my youngest brother) wrote to remind me that 300, like Pan's Labyrinth, would soon be gone and he and all of BwP's readers would be deprived of my opinion on it. "NPR isn't even that late," he scolded. "This is in your wheelhouse."
Well, of course it is. And so I saw it today, though I still kind of wish I hadn't.
300, a dramatic take on the stand of the Spartans against the Persian Empire at Thermopylae (the "Hot Gates") in 480 BC, is a movie that makes folk like me wonder if time has passed them by. When it first came out my students crowed about it and told me I should go. "Isn't it violent?" I asked. "Yes, but it's like a comic book," they said. "It's so awesome. You should go."
The first reel is rather attractive in its sepia tones and Gladiator-style wheatfields, but then the fighting starts.
It is violent. It is like a comic book (It should be-- it started out as a graphic novel by Batman author Frank Miller). There's this thing they do in the movie-- they spatter rust-red pixelated globs all over the screen when folks are fighting, to indicate that someone's gotten hurt. This is in addition to the beheadings and the dismemberments and the stabbings, which proliferate as the movie goes on, in direct proportion to the moviegoer's increasing level of emotional numbness.
Also, the movie specializes in the beautification of mass corpse montages, none more lovely than the Saint Sebastian-like final overhead shot of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his men pincushioned by the Persian arrows that first blotted out the sun and then blotted out the Spartans' lives.
It all makes you want to believe the psychobiological arguments about how, through a freak of evolution, men are very simply oversexed, overaggressive testosterone machines that have competed well for survival.
Also, the disheartening but probably true psychological proposition that human civilization is based on making sure enough human beings die horrifically so that some of us can go on living.
Is 300 authentic? In some ways, yes. There really were 300 Spartans in the narrow pass of Thermopylae who held off the Persians for three days. Also 6,700 other Greeks.
In the larger scheme of things, this battle did not mean much. It was the Athenian navy, at Salamis a little later on, that broke the back of the Persian thrust into Greece. 300 doesn't bother with that little detail.
More interesting to me is the in-your-face Conservative versus Liberal allegory, by which the freedom-loving and democratic Spartans (they were actually an authoritarian nation), who are universally white, European, superior warriors, and British-accented, fight off the various hordes of soft, non-white, Asian and African, variously-accented Persians and vassals, along with their Spanish transvestite queen-- I mean, king-- Xerxes, who does a great imitation of Agador Spartacus from The Bird Cage.
Oh, also on the Persian side, we have a disabled person, Ephialtes, a Spartan who turns against Leonidas when Leonidas reasonably suggests that a hunchback would not be able to fight in a Spartan phalanx. No matter that half the time the Spartans are freelancing like kung-fu masters.
Plus, the Spartans get to kill elephants and rhinos, animals now on the endangered species list.
Why, I kept thinking, couldn't I just sit back, turn off my brain, and be entertained?
Probably because there is no story.
The outcome is never in doubt here. In a doomed subplot, Queen Gorgo, played by Lena Headey, who looks like she's spent a day at the beach and needs a shower, attempts to sway the Spartan council to send reinforcements to help Leonidas, against the wishes of the traitor Theron, who has taken Persian gold and bribed the priests to say that it is religiously incorrect to attack the Persians in August.
She eventually has a triumphant moment, but it makes no difference to Leonidas. There is no Calvary-over-the-hill style rescue here, only Gerard Butler in a Saint Sebastian pose. That the Persians finally are defeated does get mentioned, but even the screenwriters can't shoehorn in a reference to Leonidas' valiant struggle buying the Greeks valuable time. It didn't.
Herodotus, our primary source for the battle, explains that it was possibly a prophecy that led Leonidas to make his stand: at the beginning of the war the prophecy stated that either Sparta would be laid waste or a Spartan king would die. Herodotus presumes that Leonidas ensured the continued existence of his beloved country through his own death.
So that's the opinion of this left-leaning, blood-queasy blogger. But I should not close before noting that our staff on the Greece trip this year, Greeks all, assured me that the Greeks themselves loved 300. So chalk up a point in its favor, and wash your hands. You've got a spot of blood on your pinky.