A few months ago, UK supermarkets started stocking a new form of Emmental cheese which didn’t have any holes in. I guess customers were supposed to think they were getting more for their money, but any cheese lover will tell you that the holes add to the flavour. Some things just don’t work when they’re flawless and neat. 300 is another of those things. It’s not at all clear that Zack Snyder understood this, and Frank Miller certainly didn’t, but it works all the same – a great big slice of cheese, full of holes and extremely appetising.
To say that 300 is a bad film would be to miss the point. It’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a bad comic; but, like the comic, it’s beautiful to look at and remarkably good at holding the attention. For what is essentially a string of fight scenes linked together by ridiculous narration and stretched over two hours, it does amazingly well, scarcely ever seeming to drag – which is, in the end, most of what one wants from an action movie.
Historical accuracy is thrown to the wolves, but that was only to be expected. And it’s not a war movie, no matter what its creators may claim. Manly they may be, but its clumsy Spartans would get ripped to pieces in a real fight. They don’t carry supplies (except for one mysterious apple); they don’t rest or refresh their front line; they break formation, undermining the whole point of a phalanx (which, amusingly, they pronounce like ‘failings’); they don’t use their shields properly, and they could take a lesson from The Incredibles about cloaks.
Fortunately for them, they’re up against Persian infantry with a habit of rushing forward and then waiting politely for the guys in front of them to get killed before stepping into the fray, waving their swords arbitrarily off to one side. There are some beautifully choreographed set pieces within the fight scenes but the overall effect is more humorous than horrifying. That said, there’s plenty of blood and gore for those who like that sort of thing, even if neat decapitations suggest that some of the soldiers must have been suffering badly from anaemia to begin with.
If one doesn’t like that sort of thing, one must accept that one is simply not man enough for this movie – because this is a man’s movie, for men, so come on then if you think you’re hard enough. Haw Xerxes – yer Maw! Team Sparta, fuck yeah! The narrator reminds us how hard the Spartans are every five minutes.
It’s a tragedy this film has been given a 15 certificate because it’s really ideal for 12-year-old boys experiencing that first rush of testosterone and anxious to prove themseles to all and sundry by way of lots of shouting and running about. As it’s Miller’s work, it also manages to include lascivious whores, and its remaining female characters are all scantily clad and desperately vulnerable to male predation. This serves to remind us that these fictionalised Spartans are, of course, entirely heterosexual – not like those Athenian boy lovers – just in case we might get the wrong idea about a film which features lots of muscular men wandering around semi-naked (one can only imagine where they kept that apple) and discussing how manly they are. The Persians, meanwhile, are presented as decadent and depraved, but they get all the best clothes.
300’s politics are on a level with the rest. Never mind that the average citizen – or, indeed, slave – was much better off living under the Persians than the Spartans – we know whose side we’re on, and that’s okay – it’s just a pity that the scriptwriters didn’t have the balls to stick to it as Miller did. Instead of fighting because it’s the law, these men fight for truth, justice, and freedom, whatever those might have meant to a Spartan, even going so far as to use the phrase “freedom isn’t free”. But then, none of them are very bright. Back in King Leonidas’ palace, we watch a stupid councillor set up a stupid queen who then attempts to win back our respect with a speech which George Lucas might have written on a bad day. Cornfields ripple in the background in search of Russell Crowe. It’s not a very sophisticated cheese, but it’s a strong one.
So, in the end, why consume it? Because it’s amazing fun, that’s why. Never mind the crappy CGI animals and pointless cave troll end of level boss. Never mind Emperor Palpatine and his clones in their fully operational battle temple. Set aside the embarrassing moment when the captain becomes a New Man. This is, from start to finish, a damn fine mindless action romp. Visually stunning, scored with hilariously OTT stomping music, gritty and macho and passionate throughout, it’s quite disarmingly dumb, quite charmingly earnest. As a memorial to the men who really died defending that pass all those years ago, it’s a bit like erecting neon signs, a bar and a casino, but who knows, the original Spartans might have appreciated that. If they were men enough.