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Friday, June 1, 2007
Taking liberties with 'freedom'
The long-simmering cold war between Hollywood and the critics has again flared hot with the release of "300," an effects-driven popcorn movie about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., when 300 Spartan soldiers went down fighting against a Persian horde.
While the reviewers hacked away at the film — "Everything in this pea-brained epic is over-scaled and overwrought" said The Christian Science monitor; "Imagine a large cast trapped in a series of spectacular screen savers," wrote The Boston Globe — the industry fumed. Typical was the outburst by trade journal Variety's editor in chief, Peter Bart, who called critics irrelevant and out-of-touch with pop culture.
Evidence for his view is the $208-million box office the film has already done in the United States. The industry argument is that if "300" sells, it means people like it, and it is then ipso facto "good." (At least among a fan-boy demographic.) It seems almost pedantic to point this out, but not everything that's popular is "good." In fact, many things that are insanely popular at one point — Michael Jackson, Tony Blair, crystal meth, cigarettes, pre-emptive wars — don't look so great the next morning.
This critic has no problem whatsoever with telling you that "300" sucked big time, and that Variety's editorial columns are best used as toilet paper. And while "300" has been criticized by many for being too much like a video game — one endless CG-generated battle with heads flying and limbs lopped off and precious little else — the truth is that it's a much more reprehensible film than that.
Let's back up a minute: "300" starts with a cliff, at the base of which we see a mound of infants' skulls. Children in Sparta, the voice-over tells us, "if tiny or misshapen, would be discarded." The ones who were allowed to live were "plunged into a world of violence" at age 7, a brutal boot camp that lasted until they were adults.
At some point, one expects the film to call a society that murders the weak what it is: fascist. On the contrary, director Zack Snyder ("Dawn of the Dead," the remake) and author Frank Miller ("Sin City") — on whose graphic novel the film was based — simply revel in this brutalism, holding it up as a heroic ideal.
Snyder and Miller give us a society where only the soldiers have the answers. When emissaries from the king of Persia, Xerxes, arrive demanding Spartan submission in 480 B.C., King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) throws them into a pit. So much for diplomacy (though I'm sure Dick Cheney enjoyed this scene). When Sparta's council and priests both hesitate to go to war, Leonidas ignores them and takes 300 of his men for "a walk." They march up to Thermopylae, a narrow pass that the Persian invaders will have to traverse between mountains and sea. There, for three days, against hundreds of thousands of enemies, the Spartans make a doomed last stand.
The battle scenes in "300" — entirely digital except for the actors — are at times inspired, at times just relentless, and always more than a little similar to "The Lord Of The Rings." Ogres, prehistoric-looking rhinoceroses and magicians with fire bombs add to the fantasy feel. And surely it must be fantasy to have 300 Greek men among whom not one has chest hair.
But what is really, truly annoying is how in every freaking American action epic these days, the hero has to give some big speech about how he's fighting for "freedom" and "democracy." It's as if by repeating this mantra over and over (from "Brave Heart" through "Gladiator" right on down), Americans will stop reflecting on the myriad reasons, not all of them good — oil, ideology, domestic politics — for why wars are actually waged.
In "300," Leonidas tells Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) that "the world will know that free men stood against a tyrant." Pretty rich, coming from a king whose own society was anything but "free." One word you don't hear in "300," at least not in reference to the Spartans, is "helot," the Greek word for slave. The Spartan society maintained its warrior caste through a vast pool of slaves who worked their fields, shined their shields and, ahem, that's not all they shined. And yet Snyder and Miller have the Spartan queen (Lena Headey) tell the council to "send the army . . . for the preservation of freedom, for liberty." Ha!
Where does this stuff come from? Sparta actually fought a decades-long war with Athens, the real democracy of the era. The Spartans were brave men, yes, but to portray them as fighting for "freedom" — rather than for their way of life, or for sheer pride — is a crock.
How does one mangle history so badly? A better question is: why? Especially when the Persian king is portrayed as a queen, some kind of hard-gay perv covered in kinky body-piercings, while his soldiers are shown as gnarled subhumans. (This prompted mass demonstrations in Iran.)
"You have many slaves, Xerxes, but few warriors," says Leonidas, dissing the Asians while conveniently ignoring Sparta's own caste system. Can this be called anything but propaganda? Well, ignorant, maybe.
It's all pretty astounding when you consider it took not one, not two, but three screenwriters to turn a mere comic book into this lame-ass screenplay. Let's not consider how many writers they'd need to screw in a light bulb. But I suppose cribbing notes from "Gladiator" with one hand on a beer can is really hard work.