Friday, March 23, 2007


I really, really enjoyed this film but it has seriously divided critical and popular opinion. At the moment audience opinion on the BBC site is at 3* but divided almost entirely between 5* and 1* ratings and the reviews largely reflect a similar divide. I'll try to examine what other people are saying as well as giving my own two cents which will, I'm afraid, make this a long film review. I'll go through some of the stock criticisms first before moving on to the positive case for this film. There aren't many plot details in this review and I expect most people already know how Thermopylae ended so don't worry too much about spoilers.

Mr. Eugenides has already done a great job fisking the ignorant Comment is Free article accusing this film of preparing the ground for strikes on Iran but I think the charge this is 'about' Iran is more broadly weak. When films want to draw parallels to the present day they're rarely coy about it; V for Vendetta is an example of what happens when film makers want to draw parallels to the present day. While Persians are, ethnically speaking, Iranians that fact could hardly be avoided in a retelling of Thermopylae. For all the Iranian government's solipism this story isn't about them. In order to chart just how thoroughly the film differentiated its Persian horde from modern day Iranians I've drawn up, just for you my loyal readers, this special graphic illustrating the differences:

There's a lot of male flesh on display thanks to the Spartan habit of fighting sans clothes. However, it seems somewhat ironic that this leads supposedly liberal left-wing commentators to, in a rather schoolyard manner, call the film homo-erotic. If the film does excite the gays I'm not going to begrudge them their arousal but the nudity is an old fashioned design motif (as old as the Ancient Greeks themselves) designed to build up the idea of Spartan contempt for physical danger. Such great warriors of the classical age are likely to have stayed in good shape.

This film isn't anti-war. Left-wing reviewers have spotted this and are so proud they almost make it sound as if that isn't patently bloody obvious. Very few people are unconditional pacifists and most believe that war can be just and necessary. Why should films always take the anti-war side of the debate?

Particularly as the war portrayed in the film is a pretty just one by most standards. Even under modern international law I'm pretty certain the Spartans are in the right as they defend Greece from an invasion. The Spartans in the film are pretty close to the ideal that the "noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war's desolation". As a result the film does not, as any film of Alexander should for example, have to grapple with the morality of aggressive warfare.

The BBC review describes it as a "valentine to violence" and finds this disturbing. Calm down, that's what an action film looks like. Audiences have been enjoying them for years and society has not collapsed. While the body count and gore was spectacular it is hardly beyond the norm established from Rambo to the Matrix and Saw. While it got an 'R' rating in the US it has a 15 certificate here. The scale of violence is necessary to make the achievement of the Spartan warriors clear. It is only gratuitous if you don't get the point of the film and only scary if you think that it is actually talking about the US and Iran.

Now, on to the positive.

Visually the film was absolutely stunning. The cinematography and blue-screen CGI work was genuinely artistic and a far better use of the technology than Sin City. It was perfectly suited to embracing the mythical nature of the story. It is hard to pick out particular scenes as the whole thing was so constantly impressive. However, the scene where the Spartans are having some kind of explosive thrown at them was a particular favourite. The entire screen lights up as if the Spartans are surviving a trip to the centre of the sun.

It should be noted that I saw this film at the IMAX. If you're able to try and do the same as this film really justifies the big screen and powerful sound. It'll give you a much better sense of what IMAX is capable of than a documentary account of Kate Winslet's opinions on fish. Equally, it is the very best showcase of the sheer splendour of this film.

The action had a hi-octane power to it. Certainly, it was the first film I've ever seen which made a phalanx feel genuinely dangerous rather than merely cumbersome. Although the action does lose this character as it goes on and there are more individual skirmishes it retains its own character. The "Asian martial-arts vibe" which troubled Mr. Eugenides seemed muted enough that the film remained distinctive and the action wasn't formulaic. In particular, the relative focus upon co-operation felt appropriate.

The story device of having the film be a flashback as Dilios inspires the troops before the battle at Plataea is very appropriate. It focusses attention upon the real importance of the battle at Thermopylae as an inspiration to the other Greeks, and the West down the ages. It also offers a ready explanation for the fantastic elements of the story.

Finally, the politics. I disagree with those who argue for divorcing film criticism from politics. A lot of art does have political or philosophical implications and refusing to discuss them in favour of "was it fun" is demeaning. What was the political importance of 300?

I must first disagree with Marc Sidwell for the New Culture Forum and Masoud Golsorkhi (the article Mr. Eugenides is rebutting) who both argue that this film casts the West as the underdog but disagree over whether this is good or abominable. 300 ends on Plataea as a large Greek army, only outnumbered by three to one, charges in the confident expectation of inflicting a crushing defeat on the Persians. In 300, as in reality, while the West may be outnumbered it is rarely outgunned.

Thermopylae's true political importance is that, along with Salamis, it forms the heroic origin story of the West. Retelling this for modern audiences is vitally important. There is no longer the serious prospect of the West being militarily defeated as could plausibly have happened without the three hundred's heroism and our struggles are neither as heroic or as demanding. However, we do need to be prepared to sacrifice in defence of the rational, free and prosperous world that is the West. Sometimes compromise with our enemies is impossible or wrong. An obvious example of where most of us massively failed this test is in the response to recent threats to freedom of expression where we preferred cowardly appeasement to risky but vital defiance. To paraphrase the Team America cliché freedom really isn't free. It is genuinely inspiring to see a film unashamedly celebrating sacrifice in the name of the civilisation which is both our most precious inheritance from past generations and can be our greatest legacy to the future.

This kind of conservative political film is far rarer than it should be as the huge box office figures suggest that the audience are receptive. Instead of tapping what is obviously a huge appetite for films appreciative of the West and sacrifice in its name film makers prefer narrow, unimpressive critiques or ugly allegories on transient political issues. Zack Snyder may just have wanted to make a cool action film but he has, along with a few others, broken the consensus that Hollywood is a vehicle for a particular, left-wing view of the world. While there have always been films in which right-wingers can find their own meaning if they care to look this shows that conservative politics are nothing to be ashamed of. If the rest of Hollywood, perhaps even the British film industry, is paying attention we might see some amazing stories being brought to life.

300 is technically astounding, creatively groundbreaking, politically important and great fun. Watch it.

1 comment:

Jackart said...

Yup. Just what you said.

Fuck me, the IMAX is Cool.