The Very Best Violence: Frank Miller’s 300

Violent and outrageous, 300 tells the bronze-age story of 300 Spartans’ showdown against a million invading Persians with a visual style not unlike a train colliding with a herd of cattle. While the bombastic cinematography is immediately jarring, 300‘s over-the-top chic wouldn’t be nearly as successful or entertaining without it.

Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, little time is wasted establishing the Spartans as a brutish and blood-thirsty lot–the kind of people who send their children out to fight wolves in the mountains when they’re adolescents. Playing on western culture’s gut reaction to such barbarism, writer/director Zack Snyder spins the scene off with music-video cool, presenting a Spartan value that becomes one of the film’s dominant motifs: Violence is glory.

Sepia saturation, fast zooms and film speed are all exploited to accentuate just how awesome the oily guys stabbing each other look–CG blood flinging dramatically off of each swipe of sword or spear. With monstrous, grotesque villains more at home in a videogame boss gallery than any point in history, the legendary quality of the aesthetic is made explicit. It’s a timeless tale told again and again, like an ancient game of telephone from Spartan to Spartan–eventually making its way to the film, and to the audience. In this way, the overblown details, colloquial English dialogue and incredible violence are not only justified, but actually contribute to the unique storytelling.

There isn’t much to 300 in terms of plot, but Snyder does a good enough job establishing each Spartan as an individual person despite his necessary focus on a handful of them. It’s nothing award-winning, but it’s certainly enough to carry it between fights with rhinos and ancient hand grenades.

The story goes on to make a couple of not-so-subtle references to the Iraq war, but instead of choking on its politics like so many ham-fisted blockbusters, it takes a slightly higher road. In a moderately clever way that may not have even been intentional, 300 pits the actual history of Thermopylae against the film’s depiction of it, asking whether the Americans are represented by the Spartans or the Persians. Depending on the audience’s views, they could be the militarily unstoppable, justified defenders of honour, or the vicious, terrifying aliens.

Many comparisons have been drawn between the Spartans and the Americans by the right-wing media already, but it’s important to remember that the Spartans were the ones being invaded by the unstopable military force, regardless of what Persia has evolved into presently. Also, Spartans were polytheistic pagans, not Judeo-Christians. So, while the film may promote the glory of war and violence, it isn’t winning anyone over with its­ intentionally or unintentionally confused politik. Regardless of intention, though, the social commentary is abandoned at the question mark, leaving more room for stabbing and hitting.

The music rounds out this fusion of an ancient story with a contemporary presentation, swaying between hard guitar riffs and an epic, operatic theme. Though it froths at the mouth, begging for attention like the rest of the film, the score never feels overpowering. Conversely, it never quite achieves the seductive quality of the visuals, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Every aspect 300 is completely saturated in testosterone, often to the point where the stunning battle sequences could be accused of manipulation. Simply put, the film makes watching people die so much fun that it’s easy to forget the violence is its only endgame. While it makes sense within the context of the story being told, the explicit violence is about as deep as the movie goes, and ultimately it’s all the audience is left with. Fortunately for Snyder, though, that should be enough for most people.

With it’s arresting visual style, 300 is like no other film. In many ways it’s a par-for-the-course epic bloodfest, but its unique aesthetics and the genuinely interesting delivery make it worth a watch both for film nerds and those looking for a fun action movie to absorb an evening. No one will accuse it of subtlety, but there certainly is a universal appeal–or call it morbid fascination–to 300‘s unrelenting, beautiful violence.

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