When boyhood’s fire was in my blood
I read of ancient freemen,
For Greece and Rome who bravely stood,
Three hundred men and three men;
And then I prayed I yet might see
Our fetters rent in twain,
And Ireland. long a province, be
A Nation once again!
As the old Fenian song reminds us, the story of Thermopylae has been used and reused more than a few times. 300 the “graphic novel” was no different, and shares with this Fenian song the conceit that Spartans were fighting for “freedom,” which is only true in the sense of thinking of the independence of their polis and resistance to barbarian rule as defining freedom. In the mouths of Miller’s Spartans, the invocations of “freedom and reason” come off sounding like bad speechwriting for the current administration or, just as annoyingly in its way, the motto of a libertarian magazine. Whether or not the lines from the “novel” sound as trite when spoken in the film, I don’t know. When reading it, I do remember thinking that it was this forced ideological part of the “novel”–where the Spartans simply had to be fighting for some high Ideal and couldn’t just be fighting to repel the invasion of foreign conquerors–that was the least interesting. No doubt it is only a matter of time before certain jingo enthusiasts of the movie begin referring to war opponents as new Ephialteses.
The AP movie critic has dubbed 300 “ultraviolent.” If the hype about how supposedly super-gory the mildly violent Apocalypto was is any indication of how squeamish modern movie critics have become, the knock on 300 for being excessively violent (which seems silly, since it is a movie about the comic version of a battle) is probably overblown. I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t say myself whether the other knock the AP critic gives it is justified. Like 300 the “graphic novel,” which I have actually read (who says four years of college and five years of graduate school taught me nothing?), the movie is apparently extremely pleased with its own seriousness and insists that you, the audience, take it just as seriously:
But Snyder’s depiction of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans fought off a much larger Persian army, is so over-the-top it’s laughable — so self-serious, it’s hard to take seriously.
I don’t know what it means to say that a movie based on a comic book is over the top. There are bad comic book movies (Daredevil, Fantastic Four, X-Men 3) and entertaining comic book movies. They are pretty much all “over the top” once you see people sprouting claws, leaping from building to building or, in this case, fighting an army depicted with such purely Orientalist imagination that it would make Edward Said spin in his grave. Everything about 300 the “novel” is over the top. From the few clips I have seen in previews, the costumes and ethnic stereotypes seem to have leapt full-blown from the deeper reaches of George Lucas’ mind onto the screen. I expect the cacophony of PC screeching any day now. But criticising exaggeration and camp in comic book movies would be like ridiculing Bollywood movies for all the song and dance numbers–these things are integral to the genre and cannot be cut out without making it into an entirely different kind of movie. You may as well hold the moodiness of noir films against them, or discount the New Wave for its unconventional style–what’s the point?