300 (review)

Support the Troops

The first person who uses any aspect of this flick to justify the American debacle in Iraq is getting a swat across the nose with a copy of My Pet Goat. Which King Leonides of Sparta does not sit reading while his country is threatened and attacked.

And if that’s not enough, I point to the villains here: politicians who are in it for the money, a tyrant who thinks he’s doing the work of a god (even if that god is himself), and priests whose advice and counsel can be bought. King Leonides of Sparta holds those priests (and their crazy-ass religion) in disdain, actually, and does not invite them to the White House– er, palace.

Oh, and Sparta is the invadee, not the invader.

The point isn’t that 300 — the breathtaking new historical action comic-book fantasy flick — can’t be used to justify whatever political stance one wants to read into it. It can and will be: the whole movie is a rallying cry, a prebattle speech to buck up the troops, all a flashback related by the Spartan soldier Dilios just before he tells his troops, “This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny.” Tyranny and particularly mysticism have always been in the eye of the beholder, so there’s plenty of room for interpretation.

But it’s because of stories like this one, which fell on ancient ears the way that this one falls on modern eyes, that leaders with bad intentions can get away, sometimes, with their ill-conceived wars: because the glorification of the warrior — and the warrior-king — is at the fundamental root of human storytelling. Look: Gilgamesh, the oldest instance of written literature, is about a mighty fighting king. This is an ur-story — this is, like or not, perhaps the human story. We’re not exactly the most placid of creatures every to have walked the earth, and we know it. And all a leader has to do is invoke the magnificence of the defender, of the fighter, and the people will let him ride that sentiment wherever he wants to take it. (And what precisely constitutes “supporting the troops,” alas, appears to be in the eye of the beholder as well.)

This is one of those ur-stories that actually feels like a slice of ancient wonder and grandeur, and these are warriors — and their warrior-king (the underappreciated Gerard Butler [Beowulf & Grendel, Dear Frankie] is a fierce Leonides) — who deserve acclaim: the tiny band of Spartan soldiers that held off an army many times its size at the Battle of Thermopylae 2,500 years ago. But this is not a documentary, and anyone looking for precise historical accuracy concerning Greek warfare will be sorely disappointed. This is more Lord of the Rings than Gladiator, and still not much like either of those films, either: this exists in its own kind of mythic space much like the one that all ancient literature lived in for its listeners. Did the Persian king Xerxes really have monsters and orc-ninjas among his troops? Of course not. But that’s how it may have felt to the defenders of the Hot Gates, the long narrow pass that Leonides and his 300 soldiers held for three days against an army of one million: terrifying and unknowable. Was Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro: Love Actually, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) himself a giant? Of course not. But that’s probably what he felt like to the men facing his wrath magnified by a million.

Even more importantly, the story of the triumph of these men would have gotten exaggerated in the retelling of it: of course they defeated monsters led by a giant! That’s what great warriors do. And 300 is, it must be remembered, not merely explicitly a comic-book retelling of the story — it’s based on the book by Frank Miller, who also gave us the recently movieized Sin City — but even within itself is explicitly a version of the story that has been heightened for effect: Dilios, whom circumstance forced from his post at the Hot Gates before the end of the battle, is relating all of this to his troops a year later as they prepare to march off to battle Persians again. Dilios is deliberately heroizing the 300 even more than reality itself had done… and the eerie cadences of the voice of David Wenham (The Proposition, Van Helsing), as Dilios, in the narration is almost more effective than the gorgeously spare and saturated CGI backgrounds that create the visual spaces of the film in reminding us that this is myth, is myth created for a specific reason.

Director Zack Snyder gave us the brilliant remake of Dawn of the Dead a few years ago, which took an old story and recast it in a way that felt urgent and relevant to all the anxieties of the immediate moment. Here, Snyder (who adapted the screenplay with Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon) takes a far, far older tale and reconnects us to it in a way that reminds us of the power of myth and should, if approached with a wary, knowing eye, remind us how that power has always been used to serve other, less entertaining purposes as well.

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