300 February 26, 2007Posted by smiffy in Film and Television.
When the first trailers for the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 (about the Battle of Thermopylae where a small band of Spartan warriors held their own against a huge Persianinvastion force) began to appear in cinemas, the geek excitement was palpable. Effectively a Sin City with Sandals, the trailers contained some incredible visuals, big battles, shouty macho men and the hint of ultraviolence. And, based on a comic (or ‘graphic novel’, if you want to be like that about it). What more does one need in a film?
Unsurprisingly, it received an early showing at the unpleasantly titled ‘Butt-Numb-A-Thon’, a kind of mini-festival held in Austin, organised by the equally unpleasant Harry Knowles (whenever you see a film marketed with an excerpt from anAint -It-Cool-News review, watch out). It then received its official premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this month where it was apparently very well received. Now, last night, it was the surprise film at the Dublin International Film Festival and smiffy happened to be in the audience.
So is it, in fact, any good? Well, yes and no. Visually, it’s pretty stunning. It uses CGI to great effect, shunning any pretence at realism and going for highly stylised backdrops which glory in their artificiality. The muted colours (apart from red, of course) and use of slow motion effectively capture the nature of a comic (like Sin City, this is apparently an almost frame-by-frame replica of the source material, although I haven’t read the original, so don’t know). The battle scenes are compelling, although gruesome, and make best use of a limited cast. They resemble more the battles of the Lord of the Rings films (which effectively used CGI without overwhelming the narrative) than those in more recent epics like Troy, Kingdom of Heaven or even Braveheart.
And yet, impressive though it is, I don’t think it will endure as a great piece of film-making. Unlike Sin City, where the visuals went hand-in-hand with the heavily stylised noir storytelling, here the two don’t gel neatly. The overstylisation distracts at times from the narrative, or hits you over the head with it. One slow motion decapitation is fine; two might be pushing it a bit. Constant slow-motion spurts of blood, while fun for a while, gets a little grating, rather like watching a 90-minute television ad for Guinness. If the previous Miller adaptation was a case of the style being the substance, here the substance (with portentous claims about freedom and based on a well-known story) loses out.
The film-making aside, though, the reason it occurred to me to write about it here was that this was one of the most bizarrely reactionary movies I’ve been to see in quite a while. I don’t generally have a problem with violence in cinema but not this The Passion of the Christ do I remember this kind of queasiness when watching a film (and it wasn’t from the scourging scene then either).
Perhaps I came to the picture with some preconceptions. I was vaguely aware of Frank Miller’s politics, which seem to have been not so much conservative vaguely libertarian coupled with a jingoist, ‘let’s kick their ass’ approach to the so-called War of Terror. The forthcoming Holy Terror (where Batman meets Al Qaeda, in a throwback to comics of the Second World War, where superheroes fought Hitler and the Nazis, as memorably documented in Michael Chabon’s fantastic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) doesn’t sound too promising, and the tone of this piece from NPR suggest that Miller was another writer who had a Yossarian moment on September 11th – “Those bastards are trying to kill me”.
There’s certainly a highly questionable racist undercurrent to the entire film. It’s presented largely as a small group of brave, white Westerners standing firm at the gates of Europe (which represents liberty, justice, freedom and reason) against the swarthy hordes of the East. Some of the representations of the different Asian cultures pitted against the Greeks are little more than odd racist stereotypes, dark, mysterious and forbidding, not far from having a bone through the nose and dancing around a cooking pot. The most extreme example was the scene set in mad King Xerxes’ tent where exotic, naked and occasionally deformed dark-skinned women writhed naked around the floor, like an Orientalist’s fantasy of a swingers’ party. The whole film recalled the fictional white supremacist TV series Storm Saxon from the V for Vendetta comic.
On a more contemporary note, there seems to be a clear analogy with the neo-conservative understanding of the War of Terror, the Mark Steyn view that only a small few understand the true nature of the threat from the East (which will enslave us all if we don’t submit) but that by standing firm in the name of liberty others’ will be inspired and join the fight. A little Googling shows that the comic was published in 1998, so it would be interesting to see how much of the film is taken from the source material and how much has been added. A large element of the plot hinges on the legality of King Leonidas’ actions in going to war, against the explicit instructions of a council of deformed, inbred priests. Similarly, the Spartan Council refuses to support the war until the main opponent of the King is revealed to have been in the pay of the Persians all along.
Now, this may all be coincidence and I may well be reading too much into it, particularly in relation to the Iraq War analogies. Regardless, there’s certainly a fetishisation of violence, particularly jingoistic violence, at play. It perpetuates a certain view of war as a noble pursuit, in contrast with the sordid world of politics and diplomacy. It reminded me, in some ways, of the idea made popular in the 1980s by the Rambo films: that the Vietnam War could have been won by the United States if only the cowardly politicians and protesters at home had allowed the soldiers to get on with the job (i.e. killing lots more people).
While there may be some similarities in how the battle scenes are staged, this glorification of war is where 300 parts company with the other films mentioned above, flawed though they may be. With those there was, at least, a certain ambivalence about violence if not a rejection of it. Indeed, The Two Towers is a far more powerful anti-war film than many other ‘realistic’ pictures. 300, by contrast, is almost entirely without nuance or substance, relying on shouting and chopping rather than depth. If Olivier’s Henry V stood as a morale booster for Britain during the Second World War, 300 stands as a call to arms for 15-year-old boys in the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, and a rather dumb one at that.
Still, don’t take my word for it. Go and see it when it comes out later in the year and judge for yourself. As jingoistic, flag-waving, sadistic nonsense goes, it’s really not that bad.