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March 30, 2007

In 300 the Spartans are presented as defenders of the West, yet it is the Persians who exemplify Western values in the film, argues David Womersley: 300 - Zack Snyder

Posted by David Womersley

Directed by Zack Snyder
certificate 15, 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews 300 and finds the film's message confused. 300 wants to make itself relevant to today by showing the West - in the shape of Sparta - standing against the massed hordes of oriental irrationalism, despotism and fanaticism. Yet it is the Spartans who seem to display the qualities of the West's contemporary enemies.

The ancient world is suddenly big box office. In recent years we have been offered cinematic treatments of Troy and Alexander. At the same time, advances (for want of a better word) in the technology of film have meant that what once could only be imagined now can be displayed. The Lord of the Rings trilogy show-cased this technology in a spectacular, but also perhaps slightly simple, way. The special effects were extraordinary, but the effort had been devoted to concealing their status as special effects. As art-forms ripen, they tend more to reveal than to conceal their artifice. In 300, these two developments merge.

The subject of the film is the heroic stand taken by Leonidas, king of Sparta, and his three hundred companions, against the overwhelming army of Xerxes, king of Persia. The invading Persians were held up at Thermopylae, the "Hot Gates", a narrow gorge leading into Greece from Asia Minor. Eventually the Persians prevailed, but not before the Spartans under Leonidas had refused either to retreat or to surrender, and so performed an extraordinary act of heroic defiance which has resonated down the centuries.

The cinematic style of 300, however, interacts with this subject matter in a curious way. The palette of the screen is reminiscent of Sin City - dramatic shadows, sombre lighting, an overall ambience of menacing chiaroscuro; and the images in 300 share the slightly simplified, slightly grainy quality of Sin City.

The digital technology displayed in the film is extremely impressive, but unlike in Lord of the Rings - it has not been directed towards achieving an impression of naturalism, but rather to create a distinctive style, a cross between comic books and computer games. The violence in 300 is unremitting and at moments graphic - there is a high incidence of spatter, which is another feature reminiscent of computer games. But the fighting is extraordinarily stylised, even to the point of being choreographed and balletic. In part, this is intended to suggest the impeccable military discipline of the Spartans, as compared with the more "free-form" style of the Persians. But it also tends to diminish the sense of realism.

We know what happened at Thermopylae from Book VII of Herodotus, and, given the well-known shortcomings of his writing when judged against a strict standard of accuracy, there would be even less point than usual in complaining about the variations between what we are shown in 300 and what Herodotus says. The whole visual style of 300 announces the fact that it is not intended as an historical essay. Nevertheless, and taking it on its own terms, there are still some noteworthy tensions in the film.

In the first place, the Spartans' resistance at Thermopylae and their refusal to abandon their position even when all hope was lost, is presented, not simply as an immensely symbolic action, but also as an action which marks an historical watershed. Leonidas tells his men that their defiance of the Persians will inaugurate a new age of freedom. It is left unclear whether this means that their defiance will nudge history down the path towards the age of freedom, or whether it will simply indicate this deflection in human affairs. But Sparta itself is no image of the liberal state, as Leonidas's contempt for the Athenians itself shows. The paradox that these of all the Greeks should be the champions of freedom is left hanging in the air.

Secondly, the characterisation of the Persians, who seem hardly to be men at all. Xerxes is an epicene giant with lavish piercings and a gold jock-strap (contrasting with the utilitarian leather jock-straps of the Spartans). His army consists of hordes of men of variously oriental appearance, as well as the sweepings of the gene pool - gigantic, monstrous inbreds, reminiscent of the orcs in Lord of the Rings. They also have a giant rhinoceros and some woolly mammoths (again, shades of Lord of the Rings). As opposed to the austerity of the Spartans, the Persians have a culture of visual display and spectacular despotism. Even Xerxes's messenger to the Spartans is dragged across the battlefield on a golden throne. Edward Said would perhaps have been embarrassed to encounter such a vivid and unabashed expression of his thesis, that the roots of orientalism lay in the accounts of these ancient clashes between Greeks and Persians. Much that we are told by Herodotus about Persian culture, and in particular their respect for those who fought well against them, finds no place in 300.

At one point, Leonidas characterises the conflict between East and West as a conflict between eastern mysticism and western reason. It is a puzzling remark, because one might easily say that in 300 these qualities are distributed in quite the opposite way. Spartan culture has its own roots in irrational, cultic religion, in the persons of the deformed and depraved Ephors, whom Leonidas has to consult before leading his expedition northward. The Persian ambassador to Sparta, dismayed by Leonidas's intransigence, exclaims This is madness!, to which Leonidas retorts

Madness? This is Sparta!
At one level - and here one senses a trace of contemporary application - 300 wants to show us the West standing, and ultimately prevailing, against the massed hordes of oriental irrationalism, despotism and fanaticism. And yet if we apply to the film the criterion of meaningful as opposed to meaningless death, it yields surprising results. The resistance of the Spartans, given the odds, is surely a kind of suicide entered into for a cause to which they believe the future belongs. The words of contempt and defiance which the enemies of the West today use to taunt us are, in 300, to be found in the mouths of the Spartans; and it is Xerxes who expresses one of the commonplaces of Western bien-pensant liberalism, when he tries to entice Leonidas into submission by conceding that
our cultures have much to learn from one another.
If one were to apply 300 to the present predicament of the West, the take-home message would be that we have to become more like our current enemy, because we have allowed that enemy to take possession of the values which were traditionally ours.

These entanglements give 300 an intellectual dimension which one suspects those who made it were not trying to achieve. Nevertheless, if you are not of a nervous disposition, this is a provocative film about the roots of the West, and about how oddly those roots sit alongside some of our current ideas about Western identity.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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The author seems to have missed the point. Obviously Sparta was no hotbed of reason and civility -- as the movie makes clear in one particularly funny and ironic moment on the battlefield. The point was that the seeds of reason and democracy had sprouted tiny shoots, and they had to be protected by "rough men standing ready to do violence on their behalf."

When Xerxes says "our cultures have much to learn from one another," it shows how the words of the "bien-pensants" are fundamentally anti-Western, and how those words are used by our enemies against us. To me, 300 was a hymn to the West and its imperfect beginnings.

Posted by: Jennifer Kerns at March 30, 2007 10:31 PM
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