I expected 300 to be entertaining, what I didn’t expect was for it to good. 300 is actually great, containing surprising amounts of subtlety (if you’re looking for it), surprisingly convincing acting, and of course astounding visuals. 300 is, of course, also probably the most bombastic film ever made.
Any retelling of the battle of Thermopylae (here, rendered merely as Hot Gates, which is an accurate, although somehow giggle-inducing translation, but we’ll get back to that later), even one based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, is going to make me worried about a few things going in: including history, authenticity of fight sequences and its navigation of homosexual themes. Very briefly, for those not in the know, there was a tradition of homosexuality in Sparta that was institutionalized across their culture including in the all-pervasive process of warrior training.
From a historical standpoint 300 isn’t particularly accurate, but thanks to heavy doses of heightened reality (both in plot elements and film design) and a minimum of plot intricacy, nothing truly appalling is made up, so you just don’t care. The fight sequences are, as they would have to be, very very good, and one is not treated to too much illogical use of weapons. One could say there are, however, an excessive number of beheadings in the film, but if you’re gone to see 300 in the first place, that’s probably of little or no concern to you.
Which brings us to the matters of human relationships and sexuality in this really rather astoundingly pornographic film, because while there’s hardly any nudity, that hardly matters. 300 expands the relationship between Leonidas and his queen Gorgo to give us a fuller plot and the film a better rhythm. This works fantastically, as Gorgo’s characterization allows us to see that women in this world are not less, that they do not fight not because they can’t, but because they merely have other jobs to do. Lena Headey as Gorgo is muscular and spare, and you never think of her physicality as a nod to our current beauty standards, but merely as a necessity of Spartan existence. She is ferocious and funny and enduring and surprisingly three-dimensional, which is about the last thing you’d expect from any woman in a film about men that’s designed to look like a video game.
The relationships between the men in 300 are equally well done, and cleverly too — whatever you wish to see in these interactions is absolutely available to you, even with Leonidas making snarky comments about the boy-lovers in Athens (Spartans, as the film keeps telling us are “real men,” so one can easily argue, and really nearly has to in such a beefcake picture, that the criticism isn’t about gender, but the quality there of). Regardless of your take on overt queerness in the film, with very little exposition 300 effective conveys the unique love and respect these men have for each other due to shared circumstance, training and culture — friends, family, and in one case, probably lovers — it’s all there and because of the Spartan ethic all of it is subordinated to getting the job done.
Perhaps even more troublesome for many audiences of 300 will be the portrayal of Xerxes and his Persians — decadent, oddly feminine and often nearly monstrous. Is this racist? Is this the usual trope of feminizing evil characters? I’ve seen a lot of noise about this elsewhere, and I’ve been deeply hesitant to engage it. That said, 300 is a story of extremes, and the extremes of Sparta are meant to be just as shocking and affronting to our modern values as the extremes of the Persian empire, although this comes across more clearly in the graphic novel than in the film, in which we have much dialogue about freedom on the part of the Spartans. Also, as an aside, the Persian empire of that time was in fact known for disfiguring its frontline troops in order to terrorize the enemy.
Which brings us to that annoying “is this political allegory?” question. No, no, no, no. Sure, some extreme conservatives could argue that the U.S. is represented by the Spartans and ignore everything else going on in the film, just as some extreme liberals could argue that the U.S. is clearly the decadent and arrogant Persian empire, also while ignoring everything else going on the film. But the simple fact is, this just doesn’t work. The story of Thermopylae is its own and it has been retold and recounted and survived for all these many centuries for a reason — no matter how you bend it, it is an extraordinary enough story than it insists on being its own.
Watching 300 in a packed theatre was a fascinating experience. For the first 15 minutes there were lots of titters of nervous laughter because it is so astoundingly over the top and so confronting in every way, but people were soon silent and stunned. 300 is, for a brutal film, a curiously generous one. 300 invites you, regardless of gender, sexuality or anything else, to view yourself as one of the Spartans in the course of its running time. 300 doesn’t for a moment seek to say that we are weak, but merely that we are strong ad that we are actually capable of knowing how strong.
Ultimately, 300 is astounding fun, surprisingly moving, oddly relevant to a range of experience, and undeniably sexy. And, believe me, you’ll have zero trouble getting to the gym for at least a week after you see the thing. Alas, they did leave out the infamous push-up scene from the graphic novel. As for now, I can only run out and see 300 again and wonder what the unrated director’s cut is going to look like.