History cut off at the pass: Zach Snyder’s 300
31 March 2007
300, directed by Zach Snyder, screenplay by Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
Zach Snyder’s 300 is abominable, and the comic book by Frank Miller (with Lynn Varley) that it is taken from only a little better. It’s deplorable, but not astonishing.
In a culture where torture, militarism, and porno-sadism all too often fill up film, television, and computer screens, 300 is hardly shocking or even the worst example of an ignorant and needlessly violent film.
In Snyder’s work, the Spartans live in a city where boys are inured to pain from a young age and grow up to be fearless, obedient soldiers. Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is their king. As a boy, armed only with a spear, he killed a wolf-monster. …
Various characters wriggle in ecstasy or are hideously deformed. Walls are mortared with corpses. Body parts are lopped off, and blood that resembles ink flies everywhere.
If this were all the film did, it might be ignored. The problem is that it trivializes an important moment in history.
Snyder especially approaches the Persian-Spartan battle with a lazy and smirking attitude. …
Visual images can depict history with great emotional force and even move the viewer to action.
Think of Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii or The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons.
To show the French revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century the tragic necessity of sacrifice for a great social cause, David painted the Romans engaged in struggles to found their republic in a series of semi-mythical wars against the oppression of the Etruscan kings in the sixth century BC.
To be most effective and affecting, however, historical images depend on some knowledge by the viewer of the events that they portray.
David’s viewers were often educated men and women who had read the stories about the struggle to establish the Roman Republic in Livy’s histories, often in the original Latin.
The paintings brought to life events they were already familiar with and revealed what was essential in those events for modern times. …
Why, after all, treat the Greeks who in 480 BC died to prevent an invasion by the Persians? Simply because it was a good fight? Or because men were courageous on the battlefield?
Neither Miller nor Snyder seems to have a penetrating view of who the Spartans were and why the battle of Thermopylae was significant.
They certainly search for reasons. In the film, the dark, monstrous Persians represent an inhuman, Asiatic tyranny. (Is it entirely coincidental that modern-day “Persia”—i.e., Iran—is presently in the sights of the American media and political establishment?)
The Greeks are fighting for “Reason” and “Freedom.” In Miller’s book, one reads, “Howling barbarians. The armies of all Asia—pledged to crush the impertinent republics of Greece to make slaves of the only free men the world has ever known.” …
In the absence of historical understanding, events can become surrounded by the most banal and clichéd notions. Chapters in Miller’s book have titles like “Honor,” “Duty,” “Glory” and “Victory.”
These ideas are hackneyed and empty and quickly become filled with militarist sentiment.
Historical reality is richer, more complex and ultimately a far more fertile ground for a film or a graphic novel.
The Spartan soldiers came from a unique society, even among the ancient Greeks. The Spartan was a member of a ruling military class.
He underwent relentless training and exposure to the elements because his social class was in a constant state of war with a much larger group of oppressed helots, Greek-speaking serfs, whose labor the Spartans exploited.