'300': A Losing Battle in More Ways Than 1

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007

Go tell the Spartans that their sacrifice was not in vain; their long day's fight under the cooling shade of a million falling arrows safeguarded the West and guaranteed, all these years later, the right of idiots to make rotten movies about them.

The story has been told and will be told again as long as there are tellers and listeners, because most people get it. Even kids get it. But "300" -- the new cartoonified version of the hard day's work at the Hot Gates on the coast of Greece, where 300 stood against a million-man march of Persians--is clueless.

The theory of Spartan greatness argues that the Spartans bought time with blood, and allowed the other Greek city-state armies to slip away and fight another day and eventually triumph. Thus this frail bloom we call Western civilization continued to survive in the rocky Attic soil. And thus we speak English, not Farsi, and trace our government back to a neighbor of Sparta's. The argument also dramatizes a continuing reality in democratic societies that, while it's nice to have Athenians around to invent government and theater and the sandal, every once in a while it's necessary to dig up some Spartans to get in real close and bayonet the bad guys right smack in the guts.

"300," alas and to its shame, makes no argument at all. It's entirely an overblown visual document with an IQ in the lower 20s. It doesn't even bother to mention the strategic context of the Battle of Thermopylae or to follow the story through to its end at Salamis, where the Athenians sent the Persian minions to meet Mr. Jones at the bottom of the Aegean, and drove the Persian Big Boy Xerxes back to his harem where he ultimately perished on an intriguer's knife. Meanwhile, the Greeks went on to invent the rest of history.

Instead, we get a Spartan culture that seems notable primarily for one thing: the invention of the ab machine. You never saw so many six-packs in one place outside of a Budweiser warehouse! So the movie isn't set in history or in time but in some dank, feverish swamp of the imagination that betrays its comic book origins (it's based on the graphic novel by "Sin City's" Frank Miller). Some of the problem is a result of the technical: Like Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City," the movie is one of those computer-painted jobs, in which real men do real stuff in a big blue room, and then digital artists invent a world around them, which can be manipulated, tweaked and turned to infinite perversity. Who can care about history when you can spend a hundred hours tuning a geyser of Persian blood until it resembles a tulip opening on Mars?

There's also trouble in the staging: The action is all showy and stylized, never quite realistic, in a kind of van-art gray-brown patina. The director, Zack Snyder, hasn't a gift for kinetic action and the battle choreography is stilted. He overdoes the slow-mo until it becomes comic and the whole package aestheticizes violence, leaching its meaning, distancing us. There's nothing like the horror of the close-in stuff in "The Seven Samurai" or "Zulu," to name two great battle movies.

Anyway, the film begins with -- and ends with, and uses pretty much as a one-man band -- Leonidas, the king, played by brawny Scotsman Gerard Butler, who has enough charisma to pull it off. (He's a lot better than Richard Egan in 1962's campy "The 300 Spartans," I'll tell you.) He bellows and struts and declaims -- he once played Attila! -- and he looks good in spandex and velvet.

After establishing Leonidas as a stud among studs (he looks like he's got a seven-pack!), the movie gets to its setup: the arrival of Persian emissaries to warn the Spartans to give up or face annihilation. The movie plays it one-on-one, Sparta vs. Persia to the death, and the Spartans make the gathering storm inevitable by kicking the Persian emissaries down a well. So much for diplomatic immunity.

In Snyder's conceit, the Persians represent effeminate decadence. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) looks like Geoffrey Holder in a photo by Helmut Newton. There's an androgynous quality to all of them, as if their secret mission is to blur the sexes and turn the Spartan studs into women; it's unsettling and undoubtedly effective, though it would probably bring a smile to Ann Coulter's lips.

As for the masculine Spartans, they could be NFL wide receivers. But . . . oh, endless, fascinating coils of life! -- they're also kind of gay. The movie has an unmistakable homoerotic undercurrent, ripe as the smell of sweat in a locker room. All those hard Nautilus-tortured bodies, gleaming, greasy, smeared with blood, those sinewy arms, the vein patterns, as the camera notices things about the male body that John Ford would find scandalous.

Quickly enough, Snyder gets us to the action. The Persians land on a Greek beach a million strong but the only way to the heartland is through a narrow pass. That is where they will run into Spartan bronze. In the tight confines of the pass, when the men are face to face, it's pretty equal. Only 300 Persians at a time are able to try the Spartan line, so we get war as Ohio State football; three yards and a cloud of blood.

Meanwhile, and for reasons not historical but purely dramatic, the script cuts back to the capital, where Leonidas's wife, Gorgo (Lena Headey), is holding the fort against cut-and-runners led by leering Theron (Dominic West of "The Wire"). The politics here are strictly BYO: Are the cut-and-runners Democrats betraying Leonidas-Bush as he fights the scum of the East, or are they moderate Muslims betraying Leonidas-Osama as he fights the scum of the West? You get to make that call.

But a bigger question remains, and that's why? Why this movie? It's kind of a ghastly hoot, but it flees from history and it mocks men who gave so much, and while I suppose it does no harm, it also contributes nothing. It's a guilty unpleasantness. I just think some moments, when history turned on guts and bronze, deserve more than a comic book.

300 (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for revealing costumes and battle gore.

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