"300" Review

By Ari Siletz www.arisiletz.com

In one scene of this movie two women can be seen openly kissing each other in the court of Xerxes, the Persian monarch. A few cuts later, a man with a disability is welcomed into the Persian court by the great king himself. Even though Persians are a Caucasian race, they have chosen a king who appears to be of African descent. In the movie "300" the Persian Empire seems overrun by American liberal ideology. I half wondered if the bloody battles weren't really over universal health care and gay marriage.

The neo-cons in this allegory are the Spartans. Their king, Leonidas, has taken his troops to war despite opposition from virtually every wise counsel in his land. Like his modern counterpart Leonidas says he is going to battle in the cause of freedom and reason. But "300" shows us that Leonidas is not a reasonable man. In a fit of rage the Spartan king executes Xerxes' messengers--a deed the reasonable Xerxes seems to have forgiven when Leonidas himself stands vulnerable before the Persian king. And anyone who has read even a little about Spartan society would know that Leonidas couldn't possibly be fighting for freedom. The slaves in Sparta outnumbered free citizens by seven to one. A common initiation rite for a young Spartan male was to sneak up on local slaves and massacre them. No wonder Leonidas and his 300 braves would rather have died than become part of the Persian empire: ever since the time of the Persian king Cyrus the Great, such human rights abuses had been against the law. On a clay cuneiform cylinder made 25 centuries ago Cyrus declares, "I will never let anyone take possession of movable and landed properties of others by force or without compensation. As long as I live I prohibit unpaid, forced labor. Today I announce that everyone is free to choose a religion. People are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided that they never violate others' rights… I prohibit slavery and my governors and subordinates are obliged to prohibit exchanging men and women as slaves within their own ruling domains. Such a tradition should be exterminated the world over."

Historically, King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans died to prevent freedom, not to preserve it.

So how does director Zack Snyder take these obvious facts in favor of ancient Persia to deliver a pro-Spartan message? The trick is infuriating in its simplicity, and perhaps not an undeserved insult to the members of the audience who carelessly empathize with the 300. Snyder presents the Spartans as a good-looking bunch with chiseled faces, bulging pectorals, and abs that even a computer graphics body would need megahertz crunches to accomplish. None of the Spartan's adversaries on the other hand look like they have seen the inside of a health club except Xerxes himself, and even this character has disfigured himself with unsightly piercings. Persians and other nay-sayers to the war have ugly skin, whereas the hawkish Spartans have manly sex appeal. Also, by using phrases such as "come and get us," and "We'll fight in the shade," the Spartans establish a locker room camaraderie between themselves and among susceptible members of the audience. The Persians on the other hand act like they have never drank beer in front of the TV on a Monday night.

"300" is an important movie because Snyder is an artist who reflects in his work the cognitive dissonance of American society under the Bush administration. Like the Nazi propaganda footage sometimes aired on the History Channel, one wonders just how much it will take for a human to think black is white and white is black. "300" reiterates the frightening lesson we learned during the heyday of fascism: it takes very little to manipulate a human mind. The simple ingredients are smart uniforms, and pats on the back for enjoying violence. And of course talented film directors with no scruples.

Originally Published March 16, 2007

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