Tuesday, May 22, 2007

300 as case study of Heroic Fantasy

The aesthetic of 300 is about form over content, mise-en-scéne over mimetic. There are two aesthetic elements which require our consideration. Both involve a narrative approach; the first verbal, the second visual: “The story of Thermopylae is a story about stories. It is about the uses of myth, about the way different narrators in different times interpret the same fable for very different purposes; it is about the way we as readers choose to interpret texts now” (Blackmore 326).

Both graphic novel and film contain an aspect of an intertextual storyteller’s narrative; prior to the Spartan defeat, Leonidas sends one of his men away because he has “a talent unlike any other Spartan”, namely that of eloquent tale telling. Leonidas commands him to “deliver my final orders to the council with force and with verve, and you will make every Greek know what happened here”. In the graphic novel, “a high angle shot of Dilios and his listeners, puts us in an omniscient position as we watch a story about a storyteller. The following small panel inserts us into the circle of men, making us subject to Dilios and his listeners” (Blackmore 330). Likewise, the verbal narration opens the film, recounting the ascendance of a young King Leonidas to the throne of Sparta. Having undergone the Spartan trial of the agoge, he is sent into the wilderness for one final test. There, Leonidas comes face to face with a giant wolf, rendered entirely by special effects. The narrator describes its eyes as “jewels from the pit of hell itself”. Clearly it is no ordinary wolf. Leonidas kills the monstrous lupine by luring it into a narrow passage in the rocks, where it becomes stuck, and at the young Spartan’s mercy. This is analogous to Leonidas’ strategy to hold the Persian invasion by forcing them to move through a narrow pass known as ‘The Hot Gates’. The wolf is conflated with the Persian army as the action cuts to Dilios, a Spartan soldier who has been telling this tale to a group of soldiers. “Now, as then a beast approaches” Delios tells his attentive audience, both onscreen and off. “But this beast is made of men and horses and spears and swords.”

Here we come to the core of this aesthetic choice of 300. When Leonidas sends Dilios is not told merely to tell a tale. He is told to tell “a tale of victory”. Unlike the graphic novel, where Dilios tells his tales in vignettes, the film utilizes the storyteller’s voice for all of the narrative exposition. As a result, Dilios’ subjectivity works throughout the narrative, focalizing the action into a highly biased work of propaganda within the secondary world. But this is Greek propaganda, not American. To equate the Persian army of the film with modern-day Iran is inference. The film’s text does not imply it. If the Persians are constructed as monsters, it is because a Greek whose homeland they are invading is the one telling the tale, with the goal of motivating the Greeks to retaliation.

This would be historically consistent, but works of heroic fantasy must also maintain a sense of “race consciousness [as] an essential component of the modern literary construction of “medievalism” (or “romantic primitivism”)” (DiTommaso 151-52). Fantasy literature takes place predominantly in worlds defined by “kingdoms and city-states rather than democracies and nation-states, a pre-industrial and largely pre-scientific technological base…a feudal social and political structure, and parochialism, superstition, race consciousness, and even racism on the part of the population…believable fantastic literature often must be consistent with its medievalist setting” (151-52).

The second is the hyper-stylized fashion the film is presented in; the visual style is obviously the aspect of the film given the greatest attention by its creative team. Only one scene of the film, which takes place largely outside or in open-air courtyards was shot on location. The rest of the film was shot entirely on a soundstage against a blue-screen so that the images could be digitally augmented and adjusted. As a result, details in the backgrounds, chromatic tones, and the way weather affects the action were under the complete control of the filmmakers via digital special effects. This gives the entire film a surreal look, even when the action being filmed is banal. From start to finish, there is something cinematic in the way a Cecil B. Demille epic was considered to be cinematic. Each shot is perfectly placed, the choreography of the fights meticulously thought out, bearing closer resemblance to aggressive ballet than actual combat. The moon is ten times larger than the most gibbous of moons. Even the gore is digital. The real world never looked this good.

From start to finish, with the exception of night shots and a scene in heavy rain, the film is bathed in an ethereal golden light. While Snyder uses Miller’s graphic novel as a blueprint for the action, the digital artists paint it like they’re emulating Boris Vallejo[1]. What we are watching is not an historical film, but a presentation of a golden age of Greek heroism, akin to Homer’s klea andrōn, the “glorious deeds of heroes” (Hainsworth 24). The Spartans are the epitome of the Homeric ethos of the Illiad, “To be the best ever, better than all the rest” (124). Allegations of the fascist nature of these works forget the classical tradition they belong to. In truth, 300 is more evocative of The Illiad with its relentless slow motion battle scenes than Wolfgang Petersen’s ‘historical’ approach to Troy was. In Troy, Achilles is conflicted over being a hero, whereas Leonidas and his 300 Spartans are unwavering in their valor to “never retreat, never surrender”. Despite the overwhelming odds, “that is no excuse for cowardice: the brave man takes up his spear and turns to face the enemy” (Hainsworth 26). The film is also criticized for its stylized gore; again, Homer’s epic has been accused of dwelling “too gloatingly on the deaths of men” (36). Hainsworth dimisses this as “our squeamishness; we are, generally unfamiliar with the Homeric emotion kharme, battle-lust” (36). If 300 achieves anything, it certainly achieves a sense of kharme, and in its delivery, a twenty-first century neo-epic, a recounting of a golden age of heroism.

The film firmly lodges itself as a work of heroic fantasy, though, through the aesthetic choice of the representation of the Spartan warriors as physically perfect and virtually naked. From Mr. Universe Steve Reeves as Hercules in the 1950’s peplum strongman films to Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian the casting of “body beautifuls from the world of pro sports…has remained a practice in heroic fantasy movies” (Worley 166). This is due to the genre’s reliance upon the hero’s physical ability to overcome obstacles. Worley notes that since heroic fantasy setting is in “an age when it was natural to wear next to nothing, these movies have a better excuse than most to showcase the physical attributes of their stars” (171). All of the actors portraying Spartans are in picture perfect physical condition, and the historically inaccurate absence of body armor puts their physical prowess on nearly constant display.

Leonidas is the epitome of the warrior-king in the tradition of the heroic epic, kings who are still war-leaders because of the war-ridden times they inhabit. And not simply a leader who sits back and directs the battle from afar; Leonidas is pictured in the thick of the fight, in opposition to Xerxes, who watches it from a distance, on high. Leonidas, like Beowulf or King Conan, is required to excel in physical prowess “since it is the king himself who leads his war-band into battle, [fighting] in the forefront of his men, and unless he is a highly capable warrior and commander, his men are not likely to gain the victory” (Canitz 117). When Xerxes boasts that he would gladly sacrifice any of his army to secure a Spartan defeat, Leonidas replies, “And I would gladly die for any of mine”.

The Persian army presents the heroes of 300 with a challenge worthy of the fantasy hero. The Persians are portrayed as monstrous to be sure, and while this has been the source of much criticism, I would argue that it is misplaced. The graphic shorthand of both graphic novel and film accepts the classicist binary that the barbarians are the forces of darkness and enslavement, and that the Greeks, especially the Spartans, were the defenders of enlightenment” (Blackmore 327). This is not a commentary on modern Middle Eastern countries, and should not be construed as such. We must remember that the action is subjectively focalized through Dilios, and that in addition, if the hero has no challenge, no monster to defend those weaker than he against, he is reduced from champion to “an adolescent ideal—arrogant and irresponsible” (Alexander 33). Further, the superior physical prowess of the Spartans requires something more than human to present a challenge; in heroic fantasy, “to assert the superiority of the superhero and to win sympathy for him, enemies are made more cruel, no easy task given the protagonist’s own savagery” (Thompson 120). So the Persians boast a goat headed man, the orc-like Immortals, a rampaging giant, and a lobster clawed executioner, since mere human enemies are swept away before the Spartan advance. Only the mythic creatures in the Persian ranks present a challenge to Leonidas’ 300, signaling that we are dealing with mythic heroes, not historical figures. David Salo notes that Peter Jackson’s treatment of Lord of the Rings does much the same thing by emphasizing the monstrous Orcs and Uruk-hai so as to “portray the struggle in the book as primarily an attack by inhuman forces upon “The World of Men”…rather than one than also involves war and diplomacy between human countries and armies” (Salo 26).

In 300, the most horrible monster of all is not the communal identity of the Persian army, but rather Theron, the well-respected and high-ranking member of the Spartan Council who accepts bribes from the invading Persian army, coercively plots against Leonidas’ defense of Greece, rapes the Queen in return for letting her speak before the patriarchal Council, and then makes false accusations of her when she stands before them. The physical monstrosities of Xerxes’ armies pale by comparison. Like Heremod of Beowulf, Theron’s transgressions are the inverse of the heroic ideal; “A man ought not to slay his companions; he ought to keep his promises; he ought to maintain his companions’ loyalty by giving gifts; he ought to avenge his friend” while in complete contrast, “Heremod slew his companions, withheld treasure from his retainers, lived without joy” (O’Keefe 490-91).

[1] Boris Vallejo is a fantasy artist who illustrated a number of the Conan covers for Ballantine books. His work is characterized by a hyper-representational glossy look which looks almost airbrushed despite Vallejo’s use of traditional oil methods.


300. Dir. Zakk Snyder. Warner Brothers, 2006.

Alexander, Michael. trans. Beowulf: a Verse Translation. Harmondsworth Eng.: Penguin, 1973.

Blackmore, Tim. “300 and Two: Frank Miller and Daniel Ford Interpret Herodotus’ Thermopylae Myth” International Journal of Comic Art. 6. (2004): 325-349.

Canitz, A. E. C., “Kingship in Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied” Mankind Quarterly 27. (1986): 97-119.

DiTommaso, Lorenzo. “Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Tales and the Question of Race in Fantastic Literature” Extrapolation. 37. 1996: 151-170.

Hainsworth, J.B. “Ancient Greek” Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry: Volume One-The Traditions. Ed. A.T. Hatto. London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1980. 20-47.

Miller, Frank and Lynn Varley. 300. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, Inc., 1999.

O’Keefe, Katherine O’Brian. “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 23. (1981), 484-94.

Salo, David. “Heroism and Alienation through Language in Lord of the Rings”, Eds. Driver Martha W., Sid Ray. The Medieval Hero On Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy Jefferson: McFarland, 2004. 23-37.

Thompson, Raymond H. The Return From Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Worley, Alec. Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Melies to The Lord of the Rings Jefferson: McFarlan & Company, Inc., 2005.

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