“300” is one of the most problematic films in recent memory — both thematically and stylistically, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel is rife with stereotypes and historical inaccuracies that will make any WGSS or postcolonial lit student cringe. Oddly associating moral rectitude with physical, heteronormative beauty, this latest war film separates good from evil both ideologically and aesthetically in racist and otherwise offensive ways. “300” is also one of the most peculiarly oblivious war films I have ever seen; it seems that no one involved in the making of “300” noticed that we are in the middle of an actual war with actual Persians (or at least inhabitants of the lands the that Persian Empire once encompassed).
That being said, compared to “Sin City” — another cinematic adaptation of Miller’s work — Snyder’s film is for the most part watchable, and at times even mildly entertaining. And like “Sin City,” “300” employs cutting edge CGI techniques, though the basic story definitely predates computer animation and Xboxes. “300” is a digital recreation of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.E., during which the Spartan King Leonidas led a scant 300 soldiers against Xerxes’ Persian army, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
The visual distinction between the Spartans — paragons of all things righteous and masculine — and the Persians is perhaps the most troubling aspect of “300.” There are certainly allusions to a separation between Sparta and the rest of Greece, particularly the “boy-loving” philosophers from Athens. But Spartan masculinity is truly highlighted and defined in comparison to the Eastern Other, the Persian. God-King Xerxes (played by Rodrigo Santoro) is a larger-than-life, bald, seductively androgynous emperor with facial piercings and a strange obsession with making other men kneel before him. Even more problematic are the different groups the film conflates with the Persians (and thereby Evil): black people, brown people, East Asian people, disfigured people, gay men, promiscuous lesbians, giants, monsters with lobster claws and curiously violent elephants and rhinos all stand in, at one point or another, for the Eastern antithesis of the Spartan soldier.
Conversely, it appears that Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler of “The Phantom of the Opera”) and his men had regular access to the personal trainers, orthodontists, tanning salons and electrolysis offices characteristic of Malibu or some other Southern Californian beach resort. In “300” (true to Greek classicism, I suppose), moral excellence is inescapably intertwined with physical beauty — which in this case means young white males whose bulging muscles have been inexplicably squeezed into leather Speedos. The deformed Ephialtes, who managed to escape the early death dictated for him by Spartan eugenics, merely reinforces the idea that physical deformity is mirrored by moral weakness when he turns traitor for the Persians.
Racist imagery aside, “300” is at the very least visually interesting, at times even appealing. Unlike the black-and-white world of “Sin City,” Snyder and his adept team of camera and computer technicians have created a world burnished to a monochromatic bronze, interrupted only by the vibrant crimson of blood and the billowing red capes of the Spartan war uniform. The result is a very painterly and stylized aesthetic that is often eerily engaging. The actors worked against blank screens that were later filled in with computer-generated replicas of the panels in Frank Miller’s original graphic novel. But as visually stunning as this often is, there is something stale about “300,” a claustrophobic lack of air that, after two hours, becomes rather stifling.
Then again, it would be difficult to keep two hours of little else but carnage and violence compelling, no matter how innovative the visual style may be. And in the end, blood and gore is all “300” has to offer. Though the marketers told audiences to “prepare for glory,” I would instead warn them to prepare for a tiresome montage steeped in video-game gore.