As promised I saw ‘300’ on Saturday night. The IMAX was sold out, so I saw it in “digital cinema presentation,” which was of noticeably higher quality than a regular showing.
I really liked the film (Anthony Bradley gives it a ‘B’). The visuals are quite striking and impressive. The action sequences alone are well worth the price of admission. Gerard Butler gives a powerful performance as King Leonidas, and his wife, Queen Gorgo (played by Lena Headey), does more than hold her own. When an emissary from Xerxes arrives in Sparta, he is taken aback that a woman dare speak in the counsel of men. Gorgo responds that only Spartan women are capable of birthing “proper men.”
In the strength of her performance, however, Headey stands above the rest of the cast, which are constantly in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer forcefulness of Butler’s portrayal. In particular the portrayal of Delios, the narrator and witness to the events of ‘300’, by David Wenham (who also played Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) suffers notably in comparison to Butler’s Leonidas.
There is a fair bit of titillation, from the sensuality of an “drunk adolescent” oracle to the lurid temptations faced by the Ephialtes, and once the violence starts it is quite graphic. This film certainly won’t get the Dove Foundation’s approval.
The grim gallows humor of the dialogue lends itself to numerous memorable one-liners, mostly from the mouth of Leonidas. He tells the self-proclaimed god-man Xerxes, for instance, that he cannot kneel in submission because his legs are cramped from killing Persians all day. At other times the dialogue seems a bit uneven, perhaps because of the notable difference in verbal requirements between a graphic novel and a screenplay.
The film has received mixed reviews, in large part due to the facile comparisons that could be made between Leonidas and George W. Bush. A leitmotif of the film is the battle between the free citizen warriors of Sparta and the slaves under the tyrannical domination of Xerxes. Thus, says Leonidas, “A new age has come, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.”
Particularly suited to contemporary comparison is the scene in which the other Greeks abandon Leonidas and his Spartans to their death at the hands of Xerxes’ forces. It is almost impossible at that point not to think of the splintering of the coalition forces in Iraq. Of course there are many reasons that the movie shouldn’t be taken as an allegory for the modern situation, but the ease with which parts of the film can be interpreted in this way no doubt explains much of the media’s ambivalence toward the film.
It’s worth noting what Lord Acton observed about the character of freedom and democracy in particular after the united Greeks were victorious in the Persian wars. This ushered in a period where Athens dominated the confederation of city-states, and whose abuse of power (from the perspective of the Spartans) led to the Peloponnesian War.
Acton writes of Athens and their democracy, “But the lesson of their experience endures for all times, for it teaches that government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and most powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, and requires, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that shall protect it against itself, and shall uphold the permanent reign of law against arbitrary revolutions of opinion.”
We can see this danger in the film itself, as the commitment of the warrior-state of Sparta to the purity and strength of bloodline leads to the practice of eugenics and infanticide. This practice comes home to roost in an ironic fashion indeed, playing a direct role in the demise of Leonidas himself. And so perhaps there are some contemporary lessons to be learned from ‘300’ after all beyond the obvious ones about the value of bravery, fortitude, and commitment.
This review has been cross-posted to Blogcritics.org.