In pursuit of the real? Where fantasy meets history in '300'

As Amy has mentioned below, Hollywood has often been accused of fabricating or misrepresenting history in the pursuit of a good story. This is true for '300' the recent film version of Frank Miller's graphic novel about the resistance of 300 Spartans against the might of the thousand-strong Persian army. For anyone who was sickened by 'Sin City' (the first film based on one of Frank Miller's novels) like I was they will be relieved to know that this is a fraction less gory, so only recieves a 15 rating. However it is still packed with the same themes as the former, notably violence, aggressively sexual women and 'freaks' but this time transported to the ancient times. However for any who thinks this is history then think again because it comes from the same mythical stable as 'Lord of the Rings' and other sword and sorcery epics... and the fact that one of the actors from the Lord of the Rings was in it (Sean Bean's brother whose name escapes me) had me very confused. However they wore far less clothing so that helped to distinguish the difference, and this time there was no ring to speak of, instead the symbolic piece of jewellery is a simple necklace made of rope and shell.

Before I launch into everything I found disagreeable about this film can I say that I was gripped from start to finish purely because of the highly stylised method of presentation. Filmed on a blue screen, the film has been animated in gorgeous colours and stunning backdrops that help to preserve its status as a graphic novel. The figures are larger than life and this helps to remind you that in no way is this story a true one, nor is it real. So maybe you can and will dismiss all my concerns with "but it's only a film, it is meant to be entertaining, nothing more." And that is fair enough because on the level of a spectacle the film scores highly. But... but... Firstly, the story is based on a 'true' story (if we can claim with any certainty that events which happened in the dim and distant past are true); when 300 warriors from Sparta, under King Leonidas, suicidally faced the Persian king Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae. As you would expect from an entire film based around one battle there is a lot of fighting... however there is also an introduction to the society of Sparta and a plot running alongside where the Queen attempts to drum up more support for her husband's illegal decision to go to war amongst the Council. The lack of plot suggests I should not say too much in case I spoil it for you and instead I will launch straight into my reflections on this film.

What I found interesting is that we are watching a film about a relatively (to us) barbaric people - the Spartans - and asked to identify with them in their struggle against the Persians, whom they consider barbaric. So this films seems to be saying to me it is okay to throw babies from a cliff if they are deemed too weak to be warriors, it is okay to subject young children to horrific violence to make them strong, it is okay to take their 'liberty' and subject them to social engineering on a huge scale... just as long as you believe in freedom and justice etc etc. This rings a little hollow to me but it fits in completely with the world Frank Miller creates, the world of the anti-hero who is little better than a thug in some respects but has a curious sense of honour which gives him (and it is always him) moral authority.

There is much mention of the Spartans enmity against being enslaved by the Persians - they also deride the Persian warriors for being 'slaves' although as a Spartan you too have little choice over what you will become. They all must be warriors (although there are also politicians which makes me wonder if they have to go through the same ruthless initiation as it is never explained). However as almost every reviewer of this film has pointed out, the Spartan society was based on and driven by slavery. Ahem.

This film was dripping in so much testosterone that I felt the need to wear pink and be all girly in response. The Spartans are MANLY because they fight in only leather y-fronts (yes really) and boots - the Persians are 'girly' because they cover themselves from head to foot in armour and robes. This gets me nicely onto the horrible stereotypes that litter this film and are so blatant as to really surprise me that this film can be taken seriously. The West (Sparta) is good because it represents freedom of the individual, manly virtues, dedication, honour, commitment, brutal honesty, simplicity, strength... The East (Persia) is bad because it represents effeminacy, greed, tyranny, decadence, corruption, bribery... the most ancient of stereotypes abound and leave a sour taste in my mouth. The fact that Sparta represents an ideal aesthetic which cannot be compromised in any way (the strong, butch white male) is made to be all in this film; only the sick and the weak are fit for the Persian army but the acceptance by Xerxes of the (what we would call) disabled is made to look wrong, to look bad... and my response is 'urgh'.

And this is the trouble, here in this world of black and white (ironic I know considering its graphic origins) beauty means good and ugly (e.g. anything that is not white, straight, even limbed) means bad. No grey, no question. Maybe it is irony but it responds to every sick stereotype, xenophobia, racism... everything that is wrong in Western ideology, the overwhelming arrogance and the superiority complex which often floats beneath the surface. It just becomes stupid when the Persian elite, who wear masks, are found beneath to look like demons from hell... or rather orcs from the Lord of the Rings (which was also questionable in its equation of ugly = bad and good = pretty little Hobbit). But then it's only a film and filmmakers should be allowed to be creative with history, yeah?

The role of women is equally disappointing - no Spartan warrior women here to redress the balance. Mostly they are sex objects; the heaving breasts and writhing movements of the teenage Oracle especially disturbed me especially when it is hinted that the priests who interpret her words are ancient, inbred and... paedophiles. You begin to see that 'graphic' is a just term.

I think you should still see the film (especially if you have a strong stomach for gore, battle scenes and writhing Oracles) and it is stirring stuff with all its talk of defending the homeland, justice and liberty (there is one scene where you can see the actor reeling off a list of significant verbs which convince us this war is for GLORY). It is interesting however that most reviews do dislike/argue against the lazy stereotypes perpetuated by this film and I find myself agreeing with most of them that this film is enjoyable fluff. But can ‘fluff’ be dangerous – too much can be suffocating that is certain but by allowing these stereotypes into our subconscious, are they simply being perpetuated for future generations? We know it’s not ‘real’ but does a part of us wish it were real? Do we long (as Frank Miller seems to) for a world where men are ‘men’ – brutal but honest - and where you know whom your enemy is because he looks uglier or is inhuman or has the most jewellery?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts.


Amy said…
My brain has packed up, so I can't think of anything intellectual to say in response to your brilliant (as ever) review Ceri ('though I will try tomorrow). Instead, I found this on Times Online and thought it might amuse you (and everyone else, of course). :)
Ceri said…
thanks Amy :) I read an interesting article by Baudrillard about history last night which compared it to a dustbin and asked where all the 'waste' from history goes, the old ideologies, old traditions etc. They are endlessly recycled is the answer... blatantly by Hollywood :) (I will try and remember the name of the book it comes from but at the moment it escapes me)
Ceri said…
Ha! Cosmo Landesman of the Sunday Times gave exactly the review I was looking for - it is a spectacle and meant to be so - to hell with the history!!!
Amy said…
Okay - finally got my brain in gear...

It amazes me how easily the old orientalist (as in Saidian discourse) sterotypes get trotted out time and time again. It's hard not to consider this film against the current political climate and - while I think it's just a bit too convenient that the Iranian authorities have seized upon the film's representation of the Persian army as a reflection of contemporary Western anti-Islam/Middle East sentiment - the potential propagandist value of the film's narrative is unmistakable (even if this wasn't the original intention of the screenwriter - which I might add I seriously doubt), especially because of the reworking of historical events (which is a feature of state-sponsored propaganda after all - not that I'm suggesting that that's what '300' is, just that it could - as a result - be interpreted as such). Guess I should go and watch the film now!
kostis43 said…
Thanks Ceri for this very interesting review.

I watched the movie as well and I left the cinema satisfied with what I went to see: a fiction movie based on the comic of Frank Miller, which in turn was based on a historical event. I didn't go to have a history lesson. Was the movie full of stereotypes? Certainly it was, as most movies are. But, this was fine with me, because the movie did not pretend to be anything else. However, I do see your point that such stereotypes may get into the subconscious even if we rationally ackowneldge them. I don't have a formed opiion about this and I would definitely need the assistance of psychology here...

It is interesting that you say you would be surprised if this film can be taken seriously, because if I recall correctly, Frank Miller (or was it the movie director?) has said in an interview that the movie should not be taken seriously! And I certainly didn't!

But I did definitely took seriously the art of making this film, which I found extraordinary. Even the most violent scenes seemed less violent, because they were not realistically depicted (as in other movies), but rather artistically.

And about the point of this (or any other) fiction movie being used for political propaganda &c. I think the more we give to fiction movies significance that they don't claim to have, the more movies may be used for political (or any other) propaganda.
Ceri said…
Before I respond to comments I will add a link to another review from spiked online which addresses some of the issues raised. The author is John Dennen, who read classics, and he points out this film films firmly in with the Greek view of the battle and since they are the ones who wrote history this is the source material Frank Miller has used.

Okay so Miller has said that his film is merely for entertainment. That is true. The film is entertaining, that is also true, but I feel we are, through this assertion of 'innocence' ("it's only a film") to agreeing or even supporting some sterotypes that I would find disagreeable if they were to be as overt in this film as they are in our society (I would argue they still exist especially the equasion of ugly=bad). Are we to think 'okay its in the past' so we are removed from these people as we watch them being carved up, munching our popcorn? I don't know, I just felt ashamed of enjoying a film that entertained lots of ideas I find repulsive and it made me wonder if the two are compatible.

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