Tuesday, March 31, 2009

300 Is a Far Better Film Than It's Given Credit For

In 2006, a film called 300 was released by a little-known director by the name of Zach Snyder. I've seen an awful lot of commentary about this film, ranging from the nation of Iran formally protesting its treatment of the Persian Empire to a number of reviews that focused mainly on its over-the-top carnage. But in all of this, I've yet to see any review that covered what I saw in the film, and what I consider to be the primary purpose of the film: political commentary. Let's backtrack a bit.

If you haven't seen the film, it's the tale of the legendary battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans (along with a much larger force of other Greek slaves and soldiers) held off a radically larger force of Persians due to the tactical advantage provided by a narrow pass. In the end, all but a few died, but the delay allowed preparations to be made, and the next year, the Persians were defeated by a large army of allied Greek city states.

The film, on the other hand, nearly deifies the martial prowess of the Spartans, casting them as supreme combatants to a man, and each of them the physical embodiment of the human ideal. During the course of the film you will see many things that even a casual observer will immediately recognize as ludicrous from legs being hacked off with a short sword (the femur is the largest, and strongest bone in the body) to a man being knocked off a horse and thrown back many yards by a hand-thrown spear. The Persians are either deformed or sufficiently covered as to look inhuman, and are characterized as hedonistic brutes (except for their women who are writhing objects of lust).

So what could redeem this film after it finished savaging one of the most important battles in history? Well, you'll want to read this after seeing the ending of the film... I'll give you a chance to go watch.

OK, so the film ends with Dilios (a soldier who had been sent back from the front lines to tell the tale of the battle, based loosely on the historical character of Aristodemus) recanting the tale that we've just seen to a massive Greek army that is preparing to face the Persians. In this moment it becomes clear, but is never stated, that what we've been watching is in no way an attempt to tell the tale of what actually happened, but an attempt to vilify and dehumanize the Persian army while glorifying the dead Spartan 300, specifically to rally this larger Greek army. The film turns itself into commentary on the nature of wartime propaganda, and it provides a unique opportunity to see its effects.

Looking around the theater, during the film, I saw many younger men on the literal edge of their seats, attention entirely caught by the action. They were ready, I'm sure, to jump in with the 300 and give their lives to stop these monstrous Persians! But it's not a film about the Persians, is it? In fact, it's not really a film about the Spartans either. In essence it's about the timeless art of propaganda and its continued use today. Had this film been about Iraq or Afghanistan it would have been too obvious, but casting it as an ancient battle between Europeans and Middle Easterners made it just hard enough to see through. The majority of the audience was taken in, and I have to admit that I was one of them. I very nearly walked out of the theater in disgust at one point (I think it was when the spear knocked a horseman onto the ground several yards from where he started), but I was rewarded for keeping an open mind and sticking with the narrative until the end. I hope you did too.