300’s Glorious Excess / Excessive Glories
Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: March 11, 2007 | Publication: The Ratio | Author: AW
I will seriously do whatever you want if you stop yelling at me.
Everything about 300 is extraordinary and over-the-top. The performances, the violence, the neo-con rhetoric, the reliance on computer-generated abs, the gore, the nudity, the slow-motion – everything. There is not a single thing about this movie that is measured or middle-of-the-road. And all of that is just about right, really – I have long maintained that the best way to go about making a historical epic that has ascended to mythological status is to avoid the mucking about with historical accuracy and go whole hog cartoonish exaggeration. So I was glad to see that the creators of 300 had taken this route, in spirit at least. I’m not sure how much I have to contribute to the criticism of the film’s gory excess – this, to me, was both expected and the least interesting thing about the film, and critics who are appalled at this quality of the film are either puritanical bores or cynics eager to exploit the predictable outrage that such violence inspires.
There is, I think, one exception to the whole “middle-road” method, and that is in the narrative framework. The story of Leonidas and Thermopylae is related to us through the figure of Dilios, played with casual indifference by David Wenham. Out of the gates, I really liked the idea of this story being told as a story – while these events really may have transpired, they are more myth than fact for us in the modern day, as they have been since immediately following the events themselves. So to have it related to us as a “big fish” story was a smart decision, conceptually.
Now, I’m no disciple of Brian Cox’s character of Robert McKee, the renowned screenwriter from Adaptation who prohibited voice-over in film, claiming it was a sure-fire way of losing your audience. If there ever was an exception to this rule, this film should be it – the events of Thermopylae have always been used as a kind of cheerleading inspiration, and to have it told as a pre-battle pep talk is a fantastic move as a narrative device. But it’s just not implemented with any degree of thoroughness: sometimes, Wenham’s weedy voice will slide into your hearing, and it’s jarring how uninspiring it is after being gripped with utter fear and bloodlust by Gerard Butler’s excellent Leonidas. It’s also just infrequent and random – sometimes we have that voice as a guide, and sometimes it abandons us to the transparency of an assumed narrative arc (particularly in those cut-backs to the Queen and her adventures on the home front). The “storytelling” is not merely a good way to convey the story, but also to build character. Because the movie is in no hurry to give any space for emotional realism, we have to fill in the total absence of character development with what we are “told” about these figures of myth, either through history or the people around him. We know Leonidas is a great warrior because everyone says he is – sure, we see him slaughter hundreds on the battlefield, but Spartan warrior culture is as much about positioning and peacocking about as it is about the actual fighting. The Spartans are swaggering assholes on screen, and that much is convincing. But Wenham’s relation of the grandiosity of Leonidas and his Merry Band sounds like the interpretation of Sir Chad Nerdlington reading a manuscript in a dusty Victorian library, rather than the boasting and rousing fireside tale-telling of a Spartan war captain.
The fighting itself? Well, it’s predictably awesome. And that’s about it. There is a lot of it. And it’s pretty great. Not much that stands out, except the first scene where the Spartans fight in full phalanx form. This first battle is genuinely gripping – it’s the most thorough in showing how the Spartans actually fought, though spiced up with the absurd heroics of myth and computer-enhanced gore. This scene convinces us why we go to the cinema to watch action movies – it is relentless, crashingly loud, and demonstrates the film’s best editing (which is spotty at times). It’s riveting when Leonidas gives the order to start throwing the enemies from their shields, and by the end of the scene, you really do believe the terror inspired in the Persians who are backed off the cliff. About the only other scene that compares to this in terms of intensity is the “dance-y”, three-minute-long slaughter performed by Stelios and Astinos (Michael Fassbender and Tom Wisdom). It is utterly ridiculous, but quite beautifully executed, and the look of sheer joy on their faces at the end of it speaks volumes about the current way modern fantasy action movies are composed: they are elated, and seem astonished that such acrobatic feats were ever possible. Of course, they are not, but the look of quasi-awareness on their faces rivals that of kids who’ve just performed a wicked hot move in a video game and totally pwnd their n00b opponents.
Of similar predictability is the film’s neo-con message, which is, essentially, that our democratic liberties are purchased with the blood of those willing to fight for it. Now, as much value as that message may actually have in a contemporary setting, it is of course upsetting that it is paired here with the “underdog” paradigm. If we want to read all films as fantasies of the present, then it is curious that we’d regard Western democracy as under threat by ravening Persian hordes. If anyone’s spear-bearing hosts are doing the threatening these days, it’s ours, so the fantasy of liberty here is more than a little perverse. The film’s truest ideological moment comes when Vincent Regan’s “Captain” character mourns the death of his son, Astinos. Leonidas expresses his grief, saying something like, “My heart breaks for you.” Captain turns to Leonidas with confusion on his face, and says something to the effect of, “Broken? My heart is not broken. I have filled my heart to the brim. I have filled it with hate.” And Leonidas nods sagely, looking about him, as if encouraging his men that this is how “liberty” is won – by loathing those who oppose your freedom.
But there is nothing in this film that is insidious – it wears its jingoism and unethical violence on its sleeve, and fully expects the audience to revel in it too. And in general it succeeds. The film is beautifully visualized, and the slow-motion tableaus are I think a good way of rendering the mythological dimensions of the story. The film demands you absorb the images of gore, sex, many-divided abs, rotting bodies. Now, the sex is just funny in how bad it is, but is thankfully brief – these are the film’s only laugh-out-loud moments, and are fully unintentional, I think. The only thing that comes close is Lena Heady’s “inspiring” speech to the Spartan council, which is so groan-inducing that I won’t repeat the substance of it here. It’s more a question of performance than anything, really, since the content of Butler’s message is largely the same, yet wholly different in how it is received. When he bellows “freedom” and “liberty” in that terrifying growl, he is a force of nature. Sadly, Heady’s receives none of the film’s benefit of excess – because she is left out of the hyperbolic and exaggerated context of the film’s battlefield, her oratory rings hollowly in the auditorium. And this is perhaps the most telling feature of this movie – it is strongest in the heat of battle, surrounded by shouts of hateful loathing and the screams of the dying. When you bring it out of the awful din, it’s merely empty rhetoric.