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.
The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.