No one is going to confuse 300, Zack Snyder’s film about the battle of Thermopylae, with Citizen Kane. Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, it is in essence an animated comic book, its lavish sets and special effects created entirely by computer. Computers seem to have generated the dialogue as well; characters speak in the sort of timber-hewn oratory last heard from Victor Mature in his sword-and-sandal spectacles of the 1950’s.
This is not the worst of it. The film’s creators seem not to have trusted the story itself, which they have tinkered with shamelessly. Evidently it is insufficiently dramatic that three hundred Spartans sacrificed themselves 2500 years ago, holding off the Persian army long enough for the Greek city-states to rally. That story must be tarted up with prehistoric wolves, eight-foot giants, and a monstrous hunchback straight from the set of Lord of the Rings. As is often the case with surgical enhancements, something stately and simple has been disfigured beyond recognition.
Equally distorted is the film’s morality. The Spartan king Leonidas speaks thunderously against Persian cruelty and despotism, although we see that the Spartans practice a merciless form of eugenics as state policy (at the film’s beginning we learn that they toss sickly infants from cliffs), an exaggerated nod to the tyrannic propensities of the historical Spartan state. And Leonidas’s denunciations of the Persians have (somewhat predictably) called forth condemnation: the film is “simple propaganda, demonizing an alien enemy” (Philadelphia Inquirer) or “race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth” that might easily serve as an incitement to total war (Slate). (It has even been attacked, in the modern-day counterpart of Persia, as “psychological warfare aimed at the Iranian culture.”)
But despite the worries of film critics, 300 contains not a jot of the considerable skill needed to create effective propaganda. Snyder’s ham-handedness reveals itself in the film’s odd juxtaposition of stupefying brutality and a quaint idealism of valor, resolve, and self-sacrifice—which are blithely depicted, amid the cartoonish gore, as noble qualities toward which one should aspire.
Still, a mediocre or downright bad work of art can be, oddly, more revealing than a great one: it often brings to light the broadest cultural forces and longings of an era. To judge from its unexpected box office success, 300 certainly satisfies some need. It is worth pondering what is filling the seats: a love of violent spectacle or a still-strong admiration for martial valor and self-sacrifice. One hopes it is the latter.