(This is a review.)
300 is a historical-fantasy story of the Battle of Thermopylae, based on Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name.
Cosmetic things: the whole thing looks like a dream sequence from Gladiator, with far too much of the golden bloom. The first five minutes feel like a trailer. On the other hand, cranking rock music for the fight scenes was pretty cool, and some hugely badass slo-mo fights.
The Premise (and nobility)
The basic premise of the film is not bad, and somewhat more noble than, for instance, Troy—where Achilles was all about glory, Leonidas is refreshingly clichéd in his nobility:
XERXES: I would kill any one of my own men for victory.
LEONIDAS: And I would die for any of mine.
XERXES: The world will never know you existed at all.
LEONIDAS: The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant; that few stood against many.
Slave vs. free is an ongoing theme, with Leonidas’ wife telling him early in the film “It is not a question of what a Spartan citizen should do, nor a husband, nor a king… what should a free man do?” The free Spartans, who have all chosen to go to war (cultural conditioning notwithstanding), are contrasted against Xerxes’ vast slave army, who run away when things get rough.
As well as slave vs. free, there is a conflict between reason and, as it’s called in this film, mysticism.
EPHOR: Trust the gods, Leonidas.
LEONIDAS: I’d prefer you trusted your reason.
EPHOR: Your blasphemies have cost us quite enough already. Don’t compound them.
LEONIDAS: This day, we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny.
Short version: religion bad, reason good. That said, it may be pretty faithful to the conflict between Hellenism and the ‘old world.’
Leonidas’ queen is the only female character in the movie. She’s surprisingly strong; stronger than many of the man, at first—as she says, “because only Spartan women give birth to real men.” However, Frank Miller has an inability to write women who aren't whores, so her only real power is sex, which is all too easily turned into a weakness then used against her to fatal effect later in the movie.
The equation of strength with hardness remains unquestioned throughout the film. King Leonidas remains cold and distant; he only becomes at all human through the narrator’s voicing of his emotions—
DILIOS: ‘Goodbye my love’—he doesn’t say it. There’s no room for softness; not in Sparta. No place for weakness. Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans.
This isn’t the place for a discussion of strength and character, but suffice it to say that, in my mind, an inability to voice emotion and affection is a sign of weakness, not strength.
While the narrator allows us to empathise with our protagonist by voicing the thoughts and feelings the protagonist can’t, this has the unfortunate side-effect of making the narrator sound like he’s madly in man-love with Leonidas. The narrator is a Spartan too, Dilios (played by David Wenham, who was far better in Lord of the Rings), and it’s amazing just how, well, deviant he seems, for being the only Spartan able to express real emotion.
Profiling and stereotypes
The profiling was the most distressing thing about the film. The Spartans are all white, with manly Scottish, British, and American accents. They have ridiculously chiselled torsos (with ne’er a shirt among them), and are all ruggedly handsome—ugly, small or deformed Spartan babies are ‘discarded’ at birth, the movie tells us. The only deformed Spartan (who first appears as a Gollum-like follower-at-a-distance) betrays them when he is rejected from the ranks of the ‘true’ Spartans.
Xerxes’ army, on the other hand, is made up of blacks, asians, arabs, the effeminate, the deformed, and the just plain mutant. The only non-hetero-monogamous sexualities in the film were in Xerxes’ tent (ignoring the homoerotic camaraderie between the Spartans), and it is Xerxes who offers Ephialtes (the deformed Spartan traitor) everything the Spartans would not.
Of course, there may be some truth to some of this, historically—Xerxes’ army probably was made up of slaves taken from the lands he had conquered. Still, straight and white = good, everything else = bad? What is this, 1920?