Wednesday, May 23, 2007

300: Building a Better Barbarian

Where some find valorous attributes to celebrate in heroic fantasy, “laid in imaginary prehistoric or medieval worlds when (it’s fun to imagine) all men were mighty, all women were beautiful, all problems were simple, and all life was adventurous” (DeCamp in Worley, 162), others find negative ideologies in abundance:

magic-mystic understanding of the world, i.e., mystification of relationships that could be grasped by the intellect; right of the stronger as the principle of societal organization; glorification of violence, particularly killing; oppression of women; emphasis on the racial superiority of the Nordic (Aryan) type; fatalism toward hierarchic structures and their consequences, such as wars; the fueher principle: the greatest butcher of them all shall determine our fate; imperialistic policity; and antiintellectualism. (Alpers in Fredericks 104)

Both DeCamp and Alpers speak about the same elements; one finds them desirable, the other finds them lacking. The question which begs an answer is, which one is right?

Perhaps the answer is both. Ken Gelder surmises that fantasy which “battles an evil without end, offers a form of literary fundamentalism that troubles secular ideals. But it can also trouble the kind of political fundamentalism that relies on Manichean binaries of good and evil” (Gelder 117). If one wants to valorize or vilify the genre, one can find enough secondary sources by reputable scholars to back up their argument. The preceding pages are proof of that much, at least.

300 serves as a fine case study. In his review of the film at, David Kahane suggests that in the post 9/11 period, the taboo for film scripts has become to “ascribe anything but the purest of motives to Arabs, Iranians, and Muslims”:

“Not even Jim Cameron could get a picture like 1994’s True Lies — in which the current governor of California slaughters hundreds of Arab terrorists single-handedly — made anymore, and he’s the King of the World. Instead, we got things like Kingdom of Heaven, in which the Christian ruler of Jerusalem becomes a hero by surrendering the Holy Land to the noble Saladin” (

Kahane notes that it is, however, acceptable for fundamentalist Christians or Nazis to play the role of villains; ostensibly, you can make any Caucasian the villain, and that will be acceptable; “Hollywood became one big Agatha Christie novel in the last chapter — you know, the one where the survivors of the homicidal maniac gather in the drawing room and realize: The killer must be one of us!”. If Zakk Snyder had made a film about the Battle of Maldon, it’s unlikely there would have been any political backlash[1]. It’s also likely that Kahane wouldn’t be asking himself the question of “what it feels like to be the good guy”. People have equated the Spartans and the Persians with the Bush administration, compared Leonidas to both Christ and a member of the Nazi party; if one begins reading review after review, the opinion changes from person to person.

Fantasy’s “ambivalent conception of evil” (Gelder 115) makes it a slippery place to decide who represents whom, however obvious things may appear on the surface[2]. Grixti gives an even assessment of both sides of the concept of heroism, warning that both positive and negative attributes have been “underscored by ideological purposes” (223). Again we are faced with ambivalence; simply put, Grixti is saying that the image can be used for ill or good. More salient to the current discussion is that Grixti identifies the illusory nature of using special effects to represent heroic figures as “impressive and awe-inspiring”, resulting in a beautiful lie; this is not possible—it cannot be emulated, it cannot happen. To both proponents of the hero as a fascist ideal or hero as counter-cultural individual, this is a terrible thing. It is subtly suggesting that ideology does not produce heroic personas, for good or bad. This fiction is a dangerous one, because it either makes blind fools or hopeless dreamers of its audience.

And while one can find a political agenda in heroic fantasy, we must remember that the genre is primarily individualistic in the construction of its heroes and villains. The conception of evil in fantasy is ultimately located “inside and outside simultaneously…it remains…elsewhere and here, simultaneously” (Gelder 115-17). As has already been stated, the question of who represents whom in the fantasy history of 300 is not as clear as one would hope. The question heroic fantasy posits to its reader is a simple and rather idealistic one: do you want to be a hero, or do you want to be a villain?

In his book The Heart Aroused, poet David Whyte recounts the story of a CEO who has called together his top executives, asking “in no uncertain terms, for their opinion of the plan he wants to put through…on a scale of one to ten”. He goes on to tell how the CEO does not want to hear what these executives really think. He wants “everyone to say “ten” and damn whether they mean it or not…He glares at them, he wants compliance” (119). One person in the room “thinks the plan is terrible” and suspects that “everyone in the company will lose by it”. He is certain he is not the only one who thinks so, and yet everyone says “ten” except “one courageous soul” who submits a “nine and a half”. The focalizer of the story, the one person we know thinks the plan is a zero, “reaches his hand toward the flame, opens his palm against the heat, and suddenly falters; against everything he believes, he hears a mouselike, faraway voice, his own, saying “ten”” (119-20). Whyte compares the board room setting to a battle; the picture of one executive against the CEO of a company fits nicely with the picture of Leonidas craning his neck to look into the face of Xerxes, who towers over him, a resplendent giant.

Xerxes does not represent Persia so much as he represents every megalomaniac villain who wants to rule the entire world, and by extension, every monolithic organization or power. The scene in which Xerxes tempts Ephialtes with rewards of riches, sex and prestige shows Xerxes as someone sprung from Milton and Blake, a darkly lit figure smoking of charisma” (Blackmore 340). He tells the tragic Ephialtes that it was cruel for the Spartan king to ask him to stand (to say “zero”), and that all Xerxes requires is that Ephialtes kneel to him (say “ten”).

When Xerxes’ emissary first comes to Sparta, he comes asking for the simple offering of “earth and water”, but does so bearing the skulls of conquered kings. On the surface, a choice is offered, but the subtext is that the correct response will result in an easy road; the wrong response will result in conflict and struggle. The film asks the viewer the question, when faced with such a choice, what would you choose; the easy road, or the one that leads to the Hot Gates?

“The people who hear themselves say zero do not have the same life ahead of them as those who gave the hesitant ten. Saying zero literally means they have guts…they have a stomach for the consequences, a place to which their voice can belong no matter the outward change in circumstances…The executive who is ambitious at all costs finds himself ritually killed by the sharpness of his own voice; the right word, said almost against his will, at the right time. Out of that annihilation arises another person, wilder, less predictable to others but more trustworthy to himself, stepping out on and deciphering a path he could at last call his own” (Whyte 130).

Leonidas effectively says zero when he not only refuses Xerxes’ offer, but brings wrath upon himself by slaying the emissary. The “sharpness of his own voice” is what ultimately leads to his death. But it is the death he has chosen; “The beast approaches,” Dilios intones, “And it was King Leonidas himself who provoked it”.

Men emasculated by the socio-economic changes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, confused by the “historical incompatibility between the American ideal of the self-made man and the more dependent conditions of wage earning fostered by industrialization and bureaucracies” (Holt & Thompson 425), utilize these sorts of highly individualistic heroes as “semiotic raw ingredients…to construct their identities” (427). Leonidas and his 300 Spartan warriors represent the “Man-of Action Hero Model”, who find realization in the lives of “renegade industrialists such as Steve Jobs, Ted Turner and Bill Gates” (428), as well as management gurus “who practice creative destruction in order to create powerful new companies” (428), musicians who “can channel the conviction of the rebel into respectable ends” (429) and professional athletes who are “celebrated for their individual accomplishments, displays of superhuman skill, and inimitable personal style while at the same time acting as team players, expounding the importance of the supporting cast” (429). Holt and Thompson believe that the man-of-action synthesizes two antithetic masculinity models in America, that of the breadwinner and the rebel:

“This ideological contradiction calls for an idealized figure who is rewarded for skills and talents without being compromised or constrained by institutional hierarchies and requirements. He must be adventurous, exciting, potent and untamed, while also contributing to the greater social good. He must be perpetually youthful, dynamic and iconoclastic, while at the same time fulfill the duties of a mature patriarch. He must continually defy the social status quo, while he enjoys a considerable degree of status and respect. He must an unreconstructed risk taker, be dangerous, and yet be utterly dispensable to the integrity and functioning of the social order” (429)

While Holt and Thompson’s study deals with capitalist consumerism, the ideas are cogent for other possible moments where a man-of-action hero might be needed. Carol Pearson defines the task of the warrior as “fighting for what really matters” (94), and W. Paul Jones has suggested that the world of the warrior at his best could result in movements such as liberation theology, where “all that is unjust must be undone” (127). Identity construction of the hero does not necessitate real-world violence or hate, save in the minds of those who ideologies already gravitate toward that spectrum. As has already been shown, the ambivalent nature of heroic fantasy can give way to multiple interpretations, to be used for various ends. However, the same has been said of religion, politics, and power. What must be hoped is that we realize that the hero’s struggle “is the human struggle. His victory is our victory, and in his refusal to admit defeat and lay down his sword, no matter how bleak his prospects, is our hope” (Keyes 62).

[1] I thought it very telling that Pathfinder, an equally violent film in the vein of Heroic Fantasy, received no backlash, despite its depiction of Vikings as massive hulking brutes bent on killing as many First Nations people as they could. The images of the Vikings encased entirely in armor were reminiscent of Mark Bowden’s description of American troops in Black Hawk Down: “The Rangers wore body armor and helmets with goggles. Aden could see no part of them that looked human. They were like futuristic warriors from an American movie” (96).

[2] For example, conflating the Bush administration and the American military machine with a handful of desperate men defending their country against an invading army of vastly superior firepower seems like wishful thinking on either the part of a Republican or a Democrat; the Republican might see it as a power fantasy where the white men with fantastic abdominal muscles represent their military force, and the Democrats might see it as jingoism, or a recruitment strategy. From my own perspective, if I was forced to shape the metaphor over the current US-Iran issues, I’d see the States as the monstrous Persia of 300.


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

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

Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity: Mythologies of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Gelder, Ken. “Epic Fantasy and Global Terrorism” Ernest Mathijs and Murray Pomerance, eds. From Hobbits to Hollywood: Essays on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. New York: Rodopi, 2006. 101-118.

Grixti, Joseph. “Consumed Identities: Heroic Fantasies and the Trivialization of Selfhood” Journal of Popular Culture 28. (1994): 207-228.

Holt, Douglas B., and Craig J. Thompson. “Man-of-Action Heroes: The Pursuit if Heroic Masculinity in Everyday Consumption” Journal of Consumer Research 31. (2004): 425-440.

Jones, Paul W. Theological Worlds: Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.

Kahane, David. “300 Shocker: Hollywood takes a detour to reality.” National Review Online April 2007. .

Keyes, Flo. The Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today: Connections in Medieval Romance, Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction. Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc., 2006.

Pearson, Carol. Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform our World. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991.

Whyte, David. The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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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