Laura: Lead us, King Andrew of the oily pecs!
Andrew: The movie is both racist and sexist.
Andrew: Hold on, hold on! Let's talk this through a bit. Though the racism seems to be a product of the movie itself, the sexism is something found throughout Frank Miller's work. Obviously, the words need a little more definition in context.
The sexism in the movies is the refusal to see women as more than objects. The classic virgin/whore dichotomy is changed in Miller to a whore/crone pairing. Every woman in Miller's work is either beautiful or unsexed. Miller could be taken as a feminist, or at least proponent of equality, in terms of giving women access to their sexuality and a semblance of strength, such as the prostitutes in Sin City. However, these women, no matter how strong, always have to fall back on the strength of men in order to get anything done, and so their strength is just a sham, a veil to heighten their beauty.
In 300 there are no women who are not beautiful. There's one without arms and legs, but she's in Xerxes' harem, and still beautiful. There's an extended sequence fetishizing a teenage girl who dances in slow motion, nearly nude. This is supposed to be showing the strangeness and magical nature of the Oracle Leonidas goes to in order to consult about the coming battle, but it ends up seeming like the dance of a stripper.
Laura: She's not pregnant though. Which, I guess, is a plus.
Andrew: The movie goes through such pains to try and present itself as showing women's strength. When Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) talks down to the Persian messenger, he reacts by questioning why she thinks she has the right to talk to him like that. Gorgo responds with the comment, "Because only Spartan women give birth to real men." Even here, the focus is on men, and although Leonidas defends her right to speak, and although Spartan women were much more free and respected than normal for that time, none of that respect is shown.
Here's a breakdown of one plot thread to highlight all this talk: While Leonidas and his three hundred are off fighting the Persian army, Gorgo is trying to convince the Spartan senators to send the army off to support Leonidas. Though one senator (we'll call him the "good" politician) manages to get an audience for Gorgo with the senate, he says that she must convince Theron (Dominic West) to support her, otherwise the senate won't listen to her pleas.
Follow closely: we have seen Theron in several scenes throughout the movie up until this point, and we know that both Leonidas and Gorgo think he's a snake and not to be trusted. If he could get away with it, he'd steal your teeth while you were sleeping, and sell them back to you at breakfast. Still, when he says, sure, I'll support you, but only if you let me sleep with you, Gorgo agrees. Knowing he is not to be trusted. Everything we have seen of Gorgo presents her as a wise, clever, knowledgeable, strong, and proud woman. It would make much more sense characterwise and be more interesting plotwise if she said, "Go filk yourself. I'll take my chances with the senate."
Instead, she lets him filk her, he betrays her, accuses her of adultery, pisses her off, she stabs him, and he falls dead to the floor of the senate. Apparently, the sex and adultery accusation are involved purely for the ironic twist it provides the writers . She feeds the same lines he used while having sex with her back to him as she digs the sword in deeper.
A quick side note: What kind of moron of a traitor is Theron? He is being paid off by Xerxes to ease the Persians' entrance into Greece. When he falls dead on the senate floor, coins spill from his coin purse, and they happen to all be Persian coins with Xerxes' face clearly stamped on their faces. Of course, upon seeing the coins, the rest of the senators cry, "Traitor! Traitor!" Theron's carrying of the coins would be like a spy for Russia carrying a large wad of rubles in his pocket.
Laura: This scene is effective in that viewers feel like Gorgo gets her well-deserved revenge. Theron needed to die, publically, and be exposed as a buttmunch at the same time. But, this film uses the weakness and stupidity of the strongest woman in the film to arrive at that moment.
Of course, some of Gorgo's waffling between being a strong woman and a weak pushover has roots in history; while upper-class Spartan women had more power than many in that time period, it was a tenuous power, still dependent largely on men. Her sexual escapade with Theron could be read as a sacrifice of her body for the nation, a sacrifice paralleled by King Leonidas' sacrifice of his life and his men. Though I still might have wished for more backbone on her part.
I'd like to point out that the film's attitude toward men is also interesting. Rarely have I seen a movie so in love with the male body. Actually, short of Gay Hotties Get It On, I'm not sure such a movie exists. The Spartans fight in leather loincloths, and not much else, and the only actors Zack Synder was interested in casting were long, lean bodybuilders who took a lot of Hydroxycut. There was no water weight on these boys, let me tell you.
The film then lovingly lingers on these bodies, very few of them being individuated into anything but abs and thighs, as they twist, run, thrust, parry, decapitate, and are decapitated in turn. As a paean to the gorgeous athleticism possible from a man at the height of his athletic prowess, the film wins. The main payoff of this movie is seeing these gorgeous specimens of maleness strut their uber-male stuff; I emerged from the cinema feeling like I'd been dipped in testosterone. And, boy, is that stuff gooey.
That said, there was something a little strange in this action movie's slavish worship of the male form. If this movie is made for the gaggles of male action-flick fans, why so much attention to all-but-naked male flesh? Do we need quite so many shots of rippling muscles? It's, perhaps, the most impressive example I've ever seen of how displays of athletic heterosexual masculinity always come with a heaping side dish of homosexual subcurrent. It's like how football players smack each other on the ass, except, in this film, they're dancing naked for each other.
The movie is fascinated with alternative sexualities; when a Spartan betrays King Leonidas to Xerxes, Xerxes tempts him with a wide array of harlots and he-harlots and I-can't-tell-what-sex-that-is harlots. It's an eye-candy moment; the film says, "Look at all this extravagance and craziness!" Sexuality becomes part of the spectacle; notably, however, no matter how much the film spouts testosterone-ridden war rhetoric, it's not all heterosexuality.
Andrew: Which I think would be a good thing, except that all that alternative sexuality is fixated on the "evil" side of the equation, and this blends nicely into our next topic: the movie's racism.
This charge both seems obvious and has an easy response to defuse it: The story is a historical battle between Greeks and the Persian empire, which means it's like calling Zulu racist because it involves British soldiers fighting African Zulu warriors.
This is all granted. Even if it wasn't historical, depicting conflicts between races is by no means racist. The racism comes in with the depiction itself. The only fully good people in this movie are white men of action, warriors, with well-developed bodies. Anyone else is either morally weak and/or physically disfigured or depraved. This contrast is only heightened by the fact that the Spartans generally aren't presented as Greek, by which I mean Mediterranean, and many of the three hundred could pass for Irish. Where are the olive complexions and swarthy skin tones?
Again, that's not as much of a problem as the depiction of the Persians. They are presented as depraved freaks. Through the course of the battle, the Spartans are faced with an array of cultures from the Persian empire, each more freakish and exotic than the last. Though Leonidas (and the Spartans, by proxy) are presented as decent, hard-working heterosexuals, the Persians, through Xerxes, are of indeterminate sexual orientation and, definitely, feminized.
There's a ludicrous moment in the film where Xerxes, who is several feet taller than Leonidas, explains to the Spartan king about his empire. Leonidas' back is turned to Xerxes. The Persian king puts his hand on Leonidas' shoulders and says, "My subjects are not only afraid of my wrath." The scene is presented as a seduction.
Laura: I agree with you one-hundred and twelve percent, and this stuff is my main gripe with the film. It's utterly reactionary and almost crazily politically conservative. If the movie has its gay moments, it also tries to divorce itself from those gay moments by associating all that is not white, Greek, heterosexual warfare with twisted, Eastern, deformed degeneration.
The East, the enemy, is everything that is mystical, is sexually deviant, is non-white, is monstrous. Anybody in this film that is deformed, is black, or is less than totally (overtly) hetero is on Xerxes' side. The Greeks, our heroes, are everything that is rational, is heterosexual, is white, and is heroic. It's a nice, simple paradigm for an action film, but it's also deeply racist and homophobic. And it also ends up being hypocritical; as I mentioned above, the film can't really get away with trumpeting its hetero-ness too loudly. Not while David Wenham is oiling his pectorals.
Andrew: Outside of the racism, the movie presents an argument for eugenics. All Spartan babies who are deemed unfit at birth are thrown off a cliff. As with Starship Troopers, the only people who can claim true membership in the society are the citizen soldiers. Although it is implied that every Spartan boy goes through the same training to be a warrior, only those who actually fight are presented as such. The senators seem bussed in from another city-state rather than examples of the natural progression from younger soldier to older statesman.
This cult of the body and, by necessity, the mind that controls it, is exemplified by Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), a Spartan who was spirited away by his parents at birth because of his deformity. Here is the one white character who is deformed. When he was first introduced as a shadowy figure following the Spartans I figured he would be heroic, a counterpoint to the glorifying of the body that dominates 300's Spartans.
The movie doggedly holds on to its one note (much as I'm doing. BARK!) and, after his rejection as a member of the fighting force commanded by Leonidas ("You can't fight with us, but how about you drag away the dead bodies. Oh, and make us breakfast. Wouldn't that be proving yourself as a warrior? An army needs to eat!"), Ephialtes betrays the Greeks to the Persians. This implies, yes, he should have been killed when he was born.
Laura: Yep, Ephialtes thus ends up being a villain. I don't want to play PC police and say that no deformed character should ever play a villain in a movie, but this is part and parcel of what the film does with any character who falls outside the white, Spartan, military ranks. They get lumped into a pile of evil, deformed, sexually twisted Easterners. Who'd be better off dead.
Andrew: This is all theory about the underlying struts of the movie. What of the movie itself? The script is pretty bad, both in plot, dialogue, and character development. When a Spartan dies, who cares? They are, by design, faceless and exchangeable with each other, except for Leonidas. The actors do a good job with what they have to work with, but that isn't much. The director, Zack Snyder, is also one of the writers, so I'll pile the blame on him.
Despite all my other comments, I have to agree with Laura that the cinematography is pretty good, especially in terms of making the movie feel epic and capturing the comic book roots. Though it falls short of the imagination and design of Sin City, it fails perhaps because it never creates the sense of a real world. Every view is iconic and directly a metaphor for the plot. The opening scene of a baby being inspected for impurities has the man inspecting on the edge of a cliff, the mother a few steps behind him, and at the bottom of the cliff the skeletons of those babies who have been rejected. The sky is storming over the scene and there are lightning threads. My question is, Do Spartans wait for a storm to come whenever they check their children?
One interesting aspect of the movie is the use of slow motion. In various scenes the action is slowed and sped up to highlight specific moves, in terms of the fight scenes, and to highlight the supernatural nature of the oracle. Though this eventually gets a little annoying, it seems to be echoing the way one would read a comic: you focus on a panel, and then move to the next one, creating the intervening action in your head. Similarly, the omnipresent narrator echoes the prevalence of narration in comics, though it would have been really intriguing to see the movie without the narration and have the images tell the story.
As I said above, I do think that this film is beautiful. It's a heap of racist, sexist nonsense, but it's very pretty. If you can stand to be indoctrinated for two hours by offensive ideas, then go. If you'd rather not, order some pizza and rent Children of Men. It's a visually appealing sci-fi masterpiece that, among other things, is not racist.
Well, the 300-loving hordes are rounding the bend. You ready to defend our position to the death, Andrew?
Andrew: My pecs are already oiled. Are yours?
Laura Eldred's rating: 6/10
Andrew Kozma's rating: 4/10