film

Coming through slaughter, gladly

No wonder Hitler loved these guys—Spartan supermen celebrate the joy of war in '300'

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 19 2007
film

Coming through slaughter, gladly

No wonder Hitler loved these guys—Spartan supermen celebrate the joy of war in '300'

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 19 2007

Coming through slaughter, gladly

No wonder Hitler loved these guys—Spartan supermen celebrate the joy of war in '300'

film

BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON • Movie audiences have become so inured to carnage that instilling shock and awe with a battle scene these days is next to impossible. When Mel Gibson tried to raise the bar with Apocalypto, the buckets of gore seemed more ridiculous than horrific. But 300 is a war movie unlike any other. Take this scene: after slaughtering countless Persians, Spartan warriors stack their bodies into a mountainous rampart, a vertical mass grave. Then as a fresh wave of enemy troops tries to scale this blockade of corpses, the mountain begins to move, pushed from behind, and suddenly the Persians are crushed by an avalanche of their own dead.

Loosely based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller (Sin City), this bloodthirsty blend of history and fantasy pushes the sword-andsandal epic into digital overdrive. It tells the story of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE, when 300 Spartans fought to the death against a vast force of Persian invaders, inspiring the rest of Greece to unite against a common foe. In an age where every war movie is an anti-war movie—Jarhead, Troy, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima—300 is an anomaly. There’s not a whisper of pacificism in the entire film, which heartily embraces the Spartan ideal that there is nothing more exquisite than killing and being killed on the battlefield for the glory of one’s country.

Although the battle is ancient history, the movie recasts it as stylized fable. And it’s hard not to read some contemporary resonance into 300’s tale of buff superheroes saving Western democracy and freedom from what it calls “Asia’s endless hordes.” Of course, the Lord of the Rings trilogy could be viewed through the same geopolitical prism. And with its blight of satanic sultans, leprous storm troopers, and rampaging elephants, 300’s apocalyptic view of a few good men fighting an Eastern scourge is reminiscent of the Tolkien epics. But what’s unique about this picture is how blithely it embraces the joy of war and the severe beauty of violent death.

Director Zach Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) gets away with it by leaving realism in the dust. Shooting almost entirely on sound stages, in a painterly world forged by computer graphics, he mimics Miller’s haute-pulp vision with tableaux of slashing, impaling and decapitation that splatter the screen with Jackson Pollock blood. The visuals have more depth than the characters. Although Snyder uses live actors, they have the unearthly lustre of special effects—a legion of near-naked, Herculean warriors in black leather briefs who wear their rippling abs like suits of armour. They are led by Scottish hunk Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera, Beowulf & Grendel), who plays Sparta’s King Leonidas with a muscled ferocity that makes the Terminator look like a girlie man.

It’s hard to say just who this pageant of testosterone is designed for. 300 doesn’t quite cut it as a chick flick (too brutal), or a gay flick (unlike the real Spartans, these ones seem firmly heterosexual). But, as if to broaden its appeal to young men, the filmmakers have fleshed out the novel’s slender narrative with slick sideshows of soft-core porn. Leonidas gets pre-war sex from his queen (Lena Headley), who later fights off political treachery with carnal favours. And Sparta’s oracles are a writhing harem of nubile babes ruled by a cabal of hideous, carbuncular elders.

There’s something brazenly fascistic in how 300 champions muscularity, militarism and physical purity over ugliness and disease. But then Sparta’s warrior nation was a model for Hitler’s Germany. And with its stunning choreography of shields, swords and spears, 300 plays like the bastard offspring of Braveheart and Triumph of the Will.

Unlike the Nazis, the Spartans were defending their freedom from foreign tyrants, not laying waste to the world. But as 300’s messianic hero happily leads his troops into what is essentially an act of mass suicide, it’s hard not to think of fascists, suicide bombers and fundamentalists who promote the righteous beauty of marching off to a perfect death. Some are remembered as monsters, such as Jim Jones, who led over 900 followers to the grave in 1978 (and is now the subject of two new films). Others, like Leonidas, are heroes. Today we associate martyrdom with Islamic terrorism, but much of Western civilization, and Christianity, is founded on the idea of brutal self-sacrifice. And the image of Leonidas submitting to the artful slaughter, his sculpted body pierced by arrows, recalls paintings of the Crucifixion—300 could well be subtitled The Passion of the Spartans. M