The hugely successful 300 fuses comic book homoeroticism with unashamedly reactionary politics. How can supposedly liberal Hollywood have produced such a movie?by Mark Cousins / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Hollywood releases on average three films a week in Britain, more than 150 a year. Since the product in question is a film, which is labour-intensive and unpredictable in its income generation, it comes as no surprise that Hollywood tries to standardise as much of the production process as it can. Thus genre, stardom, story structure, themes and marketing methods are all made formulaic—frustratingly so for those of us who like surprises.
But occasionally a film comes off the conveyer belt that seems to have escaped the cookie-cutter. One such movie is 300, which is well on its way to taking $0.5bn at the box office. Since its release, it has been written about extensively. I intended not to add to the coverage—but then I saw it, and my jaw dropped.
Unless you gave up media for Lent, you’ll know that 300 depicts the famous battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, in which Spartan King Leonidas and 300 of his elite guard routed Persian King Xerxes’s force of 10,000, 100,000 or 170,000 (Herodotus didn’t have a police helicopter, so had to guess). Not since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has Hollywood produced anything so rabidly, ferally frenzied. 300 feels as if Adolf Hitler has come back from the dead, got hooked on gay fisting websites, done the best digital film course in the world, then stalked into liberal-Jewish Hollywood and convinced them to give him $60m to make a movie.
Some of 300’s bizarreness can be explained by the real events on which it is based. The military tactics of Thermopylae have, down the centuries, quickened the pulse of red-meat illiberals. The fact that the Spartans seem to have fought naked, and had sex with each other, makes the battle the site of western ur-homoeroticism. The fact that white Hellens faced down Asian Persians means that it can be seen as the gathering storm of the clash of civilisations.
Add to this the visual route by which 300 got to the screen, and its gay Rumsfeldian surrealism starts to make more sense. The film is an adaptation of a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller. To take a comic book as your starting point is to decouple film from its original source of magic—its ability to capture the appearance of the real world. The human eye behaves roughly like a 50mm lens. Miller’s drawn images look as if they were shot by a 20mm lens, on a black and white planet, where the sun is always raking. Director Zack Snyder wanted to recreate this monochrome look, so filmed on location—the real world—for just a day. He shot almost everything else in small studios. He had his actors bodybuild for six weeks, then augmented their six-packs with body make-up and post-production compositing, thus making them look like porn stars. To work against the obvious risk of camp, he cast macho actors like Gerard Butler as King Leonidas, and had him yell throughout the film. Butler is like Sean Connery or Steve McQueen, so confident in his own skin, so rock-like on camera, that the flicker of camp, the interplay between real and fake that it enacts, didn’t stand a chance.
I confess I went to 300 expecting to laugh at Butler and his gym bunnies. But the sonic overload of Snyder’s picture, its seductive celebration of power and its assault of pictorial ideas about combat, landscape, sunlight, the warrior body, Europe, Asia, masculinity and heroism, meant that I did not laugh.
300’s story helps explain its potency, and its filmmaking certainly does, but a third reason it packs such a punch is the uninhibitedly reactionary way it portrays Persia. King Xerxes is played by Rodrigo Santoro, but it looks like the Persians are being led by New York drag queen RuPaul, giving it everything his make-up bag has got. His eyebrows are more arched than Marlene Dietrich’s, lip-gloss is his passion, and his body is festooned with jewellery. There is, surely, hysteria in such Pierre et Gilles iconography. And then there’s his army. Some are part gargoyle and, I kid you not, some appear to have flippers rather than arms. When I heard that one of President Ahmadinejad’s cultural advisers had called 300 “American psychological warfare against Iran,” I thought it was more loopy talk from Tehran, but it’s hard to deny that unconscious fear of Iran played a part in producing such imagery.
The key word here is, I think, “unconscious.” For hours after I saw 300, I puzzled over how a film industry like Hollywood’s—soft, liberal and formulaic—could give birth to such a snarling, unique beast. Then I remembered Freud’s 1916 lectures on parapraxis. That’s what 300 is: a slip of the tongue (or camera), an inadvertent “mistake” produced by the Hollywood system. As I have suggested before in these pages, the liberal surface of American cinema overlays conflicting, strongly held impulses that are far less liberal. Films like The Searchers, Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now and The Passion of The Christ are fuelled by a passionate belief in male heroism and the primacy of the loner, an excited attraction to explosive violence, a fascination with the body, deep sexual anxiety and a disgust at otherness. We get all these in spades in 300. The fact that it is ringing the box office bell around the world shows that it isn’t only Americans who are stirred by such things.