Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of Zack Snyder’s 300, a super-stylized American peplum flick, based on a comic book by Frank Miller, that loosely detailed the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. The film, despite generally middling reviews, was an unexpected runaway hit, and Gerard Butler’s glorious over-the-top performance became a pop culture touchstone. 300 was, at the time, regarded well for how aesthetically striking it was, having been filmed largely against green-screens, and having featured characters and backgrounds that were enhanced and created entirely in computers. This was done to make the film look almost exactly like the comic book on which it is based.
But then, as now, many critics cited 300‘s darker undertones. The year was 2007, and many critics had to follow-up their praise of the film’s visuals with a reminder that it was not being released in apolitical vacuum. George W. Bush was still in office, the Iraq war was still raging, and there was a growing anti-Middle East sentiment bubbling up all over America. It seemed, to many, that a film about brave, white military “lager louts” getting the best of an army of dark-skinned Persians rang loudly of pro-imperialism, pro-military violence, and outright pro-fascism. Several essayists pointed out its bare-faced ableism, its touting of bad ideas over actual history, and even the Iranian president took issue.
Ten years later the hateful undertones of 300 have only grown more stark, and I think it’s finally safe to say out loud that Snyder’s film – however striking its visuals – is one of the ugliest, meanest, most morally irresponsible films of the last decade. It is an overblown assault on decency, encouraging exclusion and hate, and openly celebrating fascism and oversimplification. In the current political climate of exclusion, isolationism, and a presidential administration that seems hellbent on keeping Middle Easterners out of the country, 300 may prove to be the most divisive film imaginable.
To remind you: The Battle of Thermopylae, 430 B.C.E., took place during the second Persian invasion of Green. The battle is famous because a mere 300 Spartan soldiers managed to hold back an army of about 100,000 for three full days before finally being overwhelmed. The advantage of geography, plus no small amount of fighting spirit allowed the Spartans to hold out.
Snyder’s film – and the Miller comic on which it is based – also posited that the Spartans were able to hold out because of their attitudes. In 300, the Spartans are depicted as a violence-first society wherein children – if they survive the post-birth examination-for-flaws test – are beaten into military submission at an early age. They are raised as soldiers. In the film they also talk like a mass of half-naked WWE wrestlers, making bold and simple exclamations about slaughter and glory. In one scene King Leonidas (Butler) asks his army what their profession is. They all, in unison, raise their spears above their heads and scream “HOO!” The Spartans are nothing if they are not military.
Nothing else matters to the Spartans in 300. Their wives are just as violent, their families are dictated by a complete excision of compassion, and even their government is run by a corrupt klatch of diseased mutants who regularly rape mentally ill teenagers as a matter of course. The government is not to be trusted, family and compassion are not to be trusted, and emotion is not to be trusted.
Even alliances are not to be trusted. Several people offer aid to the 300 Spartan soldiers on their way to defend their country. Non-soldiers and a half-CGI mutant named Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) both offer support, but Leonidas rejects them. They are not perfect because they are not perfect fighters.
What’s more, 300 has an ugly streak of homophobia lurking not so far under the surface. Many critics noticed that Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) was a thin, half-naked, mincing, eyeliner-wearing gay stereotype. In this world, the worst thing you can be is non-masculine. Leonidas criticizes his neighbors, the Athenians, for being “philosophers and boy-lovers.” This homophobia is muddled, however, by the sheer amount of beefcake on display. The camera hovers lovingly over a veritable parade of digitally enhanced abs, pectorals, and near-nude men in leather bikini shorts. They wear capes. In dialogue, gayness is rejected, but the men in display… well, in terms of its hunkiness, it wouldn’t be unfair to compare 300 to a Steve Reeves film.
While all of this is over-the-top, fascistic, and oo-rah military to its very core, there is – one can perhaps argue – an undercurrent of satire to 300 that is rarely explored. At the end of the film, we learn that the narrator Dilios (David Wenham) has been telling this tale to a group of hos own onlooking soldiers, giving them a pre-battle pep-talk before they launch into a battle of their own. He’s essentially using the story of the Battle of Thermopylae to pump them up, letting them know that impossible battles can be won or at least extended. As such, one could forgive the film for depicting the enemy as mutant monsters and bloodthirsty ghouls, all gathered together in impossible numbers (“Our arrows will blot out the sun!”). It also makes sense to explode the myth of the Spartans from ordinary men into impossibly tough tough guys. This is a story meant to inspire military violence, so it makes sense that everything should be exaggerated.
But that satire is not smartly explored by Snyder. He tells the story as a straightforward saga of heroism. I imagine (as I often do) what Paul Verhoeven, or a more satirical filmmaker, could have done with the material. Imagine Mary Harron tackling this. Or David Fincher. Another filmmaker would have seen that this was all an overblown myth, and that the ultra-ultra masculinity and fascism was something to be dismissed and derided. Snyder seems to be celebrating right along with the Spartans. With a few minor tweaks, 300 could be a full-blown Klingon opera.
In 2017, the extreme right has a louder voice than it has had for quite some time which, to some, is something of a relief. The current presidential administration is preaching a rhetoric of individual might, military strength, and rejection of immigrants. Even more loudly than ever, we have a government that is assuring the public that a life philosophy of total isolationism is a positive thing, and that we need to be prepared to “defend our borders” against “bad hombres.” This all may be academic within the current American political discourse, but a film like 300 may shed some light on the dark extreme that form of thinking can take. We can be a perfect state, just like in 300, so long as we reject compassion (“snowflake!”), tout genetic superiority (a la the “alt-right”), and ensure that Persians stay far, far away from us (a certain executive order that will remain unnamed).
The legacy of 300 was never rosy, but a decade on, it’s only become more and more ugly.
Top Image: Warner Bros.
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.