By Jefferson Flanders

The critics who have lambasted 300, the new movie retelling the story of the heroic Spartan stand against the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae, have it all wrong—they just haven’t appreciated the movie for its distinctive cinematic virtues.

Some are offended by what they see as the film’s political incorrectness (Dana Stevens of Slate, for one); others by its historical liberties, comic book sensibility and non-stop video-game violence. The Iranians, we learn, object to the movie’s portrayal of their legendary Persian emperor, Xerxes, and his invading army as populated by mutant sexual deviants, some muttering that the whole thing is meant to prepare the U.S. for war with Iran.

But 300 has virtues which its critics would be well-served to reconsider. Here are just five!

First, director Zack Snyder made the inspired decision not to cast bodybuilders in the leading female roles. Since the Spartan men all look like steroid-enhanced extras from Pumping Iron, (the 1977 movie about body builders that introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno to American audiences), Snyder must have been tempted to extend the hyper-muscularity to the women in the movie. He resisted, thankfully. Since there is nothing less aesthetically pleasing than a female bodybuilder (except perhaps a fully oiled and pumped-up male bodybuilder), Snyder did viewers a favor by showing this restraint.

By the way, Snyder apparently did not realize that cut 12-pack abs and bulging pecs were not de rigueur in Sparta or Athens, even if they are highly prized in L.A.’s gyms.

The second under-appreciated virtue of 300? The lead actors read their lines—and the dialogue is far superior to that in either Conan the Barbarian or Conan the Conquerer, despite what you may have heard—in plummy English accents, as is the unwritten convention for “sword and sandal” movies.

Why is this, you may wonder? Perhaps because what might sound like a clunky howler in a New York accent rises to almost Shakespearean dignity when delivered in an Oxbridge voice. In 300 this holds true except for the character of King Leonidas, Gerard Butler, whose accent is pure Edinburgh burr—which left me wondering how a Scot snuck into the Greco-Roman Actors Guild.

Again, this isn’t appreciated by the critics. Imagine if it had been, say, Kevin Costner, as one of the key Spartans. Remember his memorable performance in Robin Hood where he played Sherwood Forest’s favorite outlaw with an uninflected Southern California blandness? (On the other hand, English actor Stephen Fry recently observed that Americans wrongly assume acting talent whenever they hear a clipped Brit accent.)

Third, why hasn’t the homage to other manly films been properly appreciated by critics? 300 openly lifts Gladiator’s sun-dappled golden field of wheat, patiently-waiting wife in clinging white robes, and the high female voice (Azam Ali) warbling plaintive faux-classical world music lyrics (it’s a language singer Lisa Gerrard invented which sounds like GreekLatinWhatever) to background flutes and violins. And 300’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) could be a ringer for Gladiator’s Princess Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Don’t forget 300’s last battle scene—taken almost directly from Braveheart. Or the creepy AC/DC Living God affect for Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) borrowed from Jaye Davidson’s Egyptian/alien Ra in Stargate. Or the hunchback Gollum-like character, Ephialtes, courtesy of Lord of the Rings.

Look at it another way: why bother inventing new scenes when you can liberate tried-and-true ones from other testosterone-laden movies? And 300 does throw in some high culture references—like the final image of King Leonidas pierced with arrows, mirroring Christian iconography of Saint Sebastian, as a way of signalling to high brows that, like the Wachowski brothers, Snyder reads more than just comic books.

Fourth, the clever leverage of computer-generated imagery (CGI) to give 300 that proper epic feel (with clashing armies of thousands) has not received the praise it deserves for its efficiency and economy—employing this technique meant that director Snyder saved billions of lei that otherwise would have been spent on renting the Romanian army (or some similarly impoverished former Iron Curtain military) to act as extras, or abusing animals (like the rhino and elephants and horses), an outrage that would have angered PETA, et. al.

Finally, shouldn’t Snyder be admired for his inventiveness in lovingly showing stabbings, slashings, appendage amputations, beheadings, and spear impalings in all their slow motion bloodiness? This lets us ponder the horror of war. I think. Or perhaps appeal to the video gamers. Whatever, as they say in Orange County. And isn’t it important to prove to Al Qaeda and other amateur cinéastes that any horrors they can video, Hollywood can top? American innovation and all that.

Considering all this, Zack Snyder shouldn’t be blamed for any bitterness when 300 is shut out at the Academy Awards next year. But shouldn’t the film at least be a contender for best comedy of the year?

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders

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