Reviewed by: Michael Karounos
|Featuring||Gerard Butler (“Phantom of the Opera”), Lena Headey (“The Brothers Grimm”), Dominic West (“The Forgotten”), David Wenham (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), Vincent Regan (“Troy”), Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro (“Love Actually”), Giovani Antonio Cimmino, Stephen McHattie, Greg Kramer, Alex Ivanovici, Kelly Craig, Eli Snyder, Tyler Neitzel, Tim Connolly, Marie-Julie Rivest|
|Director||Zack Snyder—“Dawn of the Dead,” “Watchmen”|
|Producer||Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Virtual Studios, Hollywood Gang Productions, Atmosphere Entertainment MM, See all »|
|Distributor||Warner Bros. Pictures|
“Prepare for glory!”
Here’s what the distributor says about their film: “Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300 concerns the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, where the King of Sparta led his army against the advancing Persians; the battle is said to have inspired all of Greece to band together against the Persians, and helped usher in the world’s first democracy. 300 Spartans fought to the death against Xerxes and his massive Persian army.”
Sequel: “300: Rise of an Empire” (2014)
“300” is one of those films that is difficult to summarize because there is so much that is interesting about it and so much that is offensive. The short review for this film, as regards a conservative Christian audience (or a pacifist non-Christian audience), is don’t see the movie.
There are several prolonged scenes of female nudity: one of a writhing, bare-breasted oracle; one of a husband and wife making love; and one of Xerxes’ harem. The first two are tolerable for a mature Christian audience; the latter is perverse and pornographic in its characterization.
There are also graphic scenes of slaughter, decapitation, and dismemberment. Some liberal reviewers (Dana Stevens) argue the film is homophobic in its portrayal of Xerxes and the lesbians in the harem, while a gay reviewer (David Foucher) liked the movie very much. That kind of critical dissonance, on both the left and the right, seems to be a common reaction to the movie.
I found all of those elements objectionable and unnecessary, but most disappointingly, from a Christian point of view, is the harsh tone of the movie as reflected in its portrayals, its speeches, and its action sequences. There is a way to portray nudity, violence, and even mayhem in an “artistic” manner that strikes a balance between realism (e.g., “Gladiator,” “The Patriot” and degradation (e.g., “Seven,” “Reservoir Dogs”), which a mature Christian audience can watch without feeling soiled. It is on this point that the movie fails because the tone is angry, hateful, and often debasing. The portrayal of the Persian army is very negative and is referred to as a “monster” at least twice, with a specific comparison being made to an earlier scene with a demonic wolf. The use of a troll-like giant, unhistorical battle rhinos, and a nipple-pierced blob with lobster-claws instead of hands was distasteful, to say the least.
I don’t espouse moral or cultural equivalence, but speaking as an ethnic Greek whose father was born in Sparta and fought against Greece’s latter day invaders (Hitler’s Nazis), it is important to point out to viewers who may not know ancient history that the Persians were a highly socialized civilization. They were accomplished in everything, except the one virtue that the Greeks alone of the ancient peoples were able to weave into the fabric of their society: democracy. The Persians were indeed tyrannical: they enslaved entire nations, treated women like things, and slaughtered city populations, as in the numerous accounts we read about in the Old Testament, but they weren’t physically monstrous.
But the main reason I didn’t like the portrayal of the Persian army in the movie as containing freaks and monsters is because I felt the Greeks in the movie must become, in some measure, monsters to defeat them. In a sense, one is defined by one’s enemies, as well as by one’s friends. Had the movie portrayed the Persian army as glorious in its own right, as it must have been to have defeated almost all the known world, it would have magnified the Greek accomplishment without debasing the Persians.
For example, a Spartan warrior witnesses his son killed in battle and his epiphany, after much reflection, is to say that his “heart is filled with hatred.” Then there is a dramatic pause in which we wait for the response of the most moral character in the movie, Leonidas, who replies “Good.” This was a little shocking to me. Besides being an inaccurate portrayal of how Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would characterize irrational grief, it is a spectacular failure of the movie’s moral vision. Up to this point we had heard speech after speech which emphasized “justice,” “law and order,” “liberty,” “hope,” and above all, “reason.” Over and over in the movie, “reason” is cited to characterize the Spartans and the Greeks in general. But this is not a reasonable response, and the ancient Greeks did not fight with hatred.
When told that the Persian arrows would blot out the sun, Herodotus records that Dieneces, the Greek reputed to have fought with the greatest glory at Thermopylae, replied: “Then we shall fight in the shade.” That moment is in the movie. As Victor Davis Hanson notes, “the Spartan mystique was a product of singular discipline and organization, and the ability to stay in rank” (A War Like No Other, 138). Other armies charged in masses; the Greeks marched in order, singing to the martial music of flutes. Hanson notes that the Spartan general, Brasidas, rallied his troops against the Illyrians by characterizing them as a “mob” with “no order” (138). Order, discipline, and organization are all characteristics of an army that is remarkably cool-headed and professional, not hateful and angry.
These comments will seem like quibbles to some, but in a movie about justice, liberty, and reason, it is the tone that informs the selection of images, the delivery of the lines, and the portrayal of certain characters. Whether or not the movie is a conservative response to contemporary terrorism (as some reviewers on both sides of the spectrum claim), or a libertarian, anti-religious, anti-terrorist response, as I would further argue, the tone strikes a harsh, discordant note that contradicts the intention of the movie. This is most evident in how the lines are delivered by Gerard Butler, who shouts in almost all the key moments of the movie. Whether this is his fault or the fault of Zach Snyder, the director, is unclear, but the result is a portrayal of an angry man rather than a passionate man. Again, people will disagree on this point, but it is how it struck me.
As everyone probably knows, the movie was filmed primarily against a blue screen, similar to the look of the field scene at the end of “Gladiator” in which Maximus is re-united with his dead family. The reason special effects are “special” is because they are used in a selective manner. When movies are made with unceasing explosions, unceasing sexual content, or unceasing visual effects (e.g., rotoscoping in “A Scanner Darkly”), the “special effect” risks becoming banal and trivializes the intended effect. I think “300” was successful in maintaining the freshness of using the technique for the whole film, but others may not. At least, in no place did I find the use of the technique ridiculous. However, it begs the question of how the film might have looked in a conventional format. Is a dream-like blue screen aesthetic more effective than simple realism? I’m not sure. Personally, I prefer my realism to be realistic.
When Xerxes approaches on a throne platform carried by slaves and says “Let us reason together,” the irony is obvious. A man who thinks himself a god and demands slavish servitude from the entire known world is not someone who “reasons” in a conventional sense. This is historically accurate. The real Xerxes had his admirals beheaded after the naval loss at Salamis and beheaded those who dared contradict him. Alexander the Great, under the influence of his Persian advisers in the late part of his campaign, did the same thing. This was how Eastern satraps conducted themselves. By contrast, the Greeks arrived at decisions by argumentation and held their generals (and kings) accountable for their actions.
As Hanson notes, the foundation of freedom is free speech, and the Greeks had two words for free speech: isegoria, the freedom to speak in an open assembly, and parrhesia, the freedom to say what one liked (Carnage and Culture 51). Indeed, Hanson observes that the Athenians worshiped the gods of Freedom and Democracy, named ships after those ideas, and even named one Free Speech (“Parhhesia”). Thus, it is characteristic that when the time came for the Greeks to decide what to do when they learned that the Immortals were behind them, they held an assembly which Herodotus recorded as follows:
“Then the Greeks held a council to consider what they should do, and here opinions were divided: some were strong against quitting their post, while others contended to the contrary. So when the council had broken up, part of the troops departed and went their ways homeward to their several states; part however resolved to remain, and to stand by Leonidas to the last” (The Histories, VII.207).
This council included representatives of all the men and was not a decision made by Leonidas himself. The point I am making here is that the movie’s emphasis is on reason and discourse. As such, it is pure Enlightenment and Modern, as opposed to postmodern. This is also reflected in the movie’s clarity of values in portraying good and evil, free and slave, right and wrong.
Secondly, the movie is anti-religious. When Leonidas is told to “trust the gods,” he replies “I’d prefer to trust reason.” The early scenes with the Spartan ephors show priests who are deformed and depraved. The voice-over describes them as priests of the “old gods,” “corrupt,” “diseased,” and “worthless.” Physical deformity, as in the case of Ephialtes, the Ephors, and the freaks of Xerxes, is typically a metaphor for moral deformity, as in some of the stories of Flannery O’Connor.
So when Xerxes, who calls himself “god” and “lord,” says “Let us reason together,” we must understand his statement in its famous context as a specifically Judeo-Christian phrase, as an old-style “god” speaking as God did in the Old Testament:
“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD, “Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool. If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, You will be devoured by the sword. Truly, the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 1:18-20 NASB).
Xerxes is offering Leonidas a last chance to be his vassal, and he is doing so in the language of the Old Testament. Frank Miller, the author of the graphic novel 300 portrayed Christians negatively in his graphic novel Sin City. I have read neither, but I am willing to bet that Miller, based on his portrayals of Christians, and his on-the-record comments against Islamic terrorism, sees all religion as fundamentalist and a threat to the religion of “reason.”
And that’s fine. But from an intentional Christian perspective, which is how Christians should view everything, there are Christian responses to the ugly tone of the movie and its worship of “reason.” The response to content with such an unchristian tone can employ one of three strategies: avoid it (James 4:7); counter the desire to enjoy what is bad by actively seeking out that which is good (Philippians 4:8); and use good judgment in what you see. Good judgment is where grace comes in, but in grace is implied the imperative “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16 NIV).
“At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted. ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’ ‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied. ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable’” (Acts 26:24-25).
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres… And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (NIV).
Love is the ultimate rationale.
Although the battle sequences relied too much on slow motion and stop action, they were beautifully filmed. Gerard Butler did an excellent job in the choreographed fight scenes which showed how the Spartans fought as a team. Many of the speeches were straight from Herodotus and lent the film historical authenticity. The portrayal of Leonidas’ wife, Gorgo, was feminist in a positive way while maintaining the relationship of husband and wife as full partners (although one of her actions is unrealistic and degrading). These and other elements of the movie were pleasing and satisfying. There is also an interesting Antigone-like moment in which Leonidas must choose to obey his conscience or the strict rule of law. This could potentially be read in a contemporary political light, because it portrays the internal bickering of the country’s apathetic and traitorous rulers as hampering the generals and the war effort.
These and other quality moments counterbalance the tonal and visual offences. However, one measure of a film’s worth is how it leaves you feeling, and I left the movie feeling unholy, unheroic, and, ultimately, unmoved.
Nonetheless, as a chronicle of a pivotal moment in Western history, when the new lights of democracy, liberty, and reason were being threatened by the “old” ways of tyranny, slavery, and superstition, “300” is still an instructive object lesson for our time. Herodotus concludes his account simply, stating: “Thus fought the Greeks at Thermopylae.” What he meant is, this is how they “thought” when they fought. Leonidas and the 300’s epitaph at the site of the battle reads:
“Go, stranger, and tell the Spartans that we lie here in obedience to her laws.” The ultimate act of sacrifice is to rationally die on behalf of someone else in accordance with a greater principle. This both Spartans and Christians can equally understand.
Violence: Extreme / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: Extreme
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.