Before I begin, I must say that I never saw this movie when it first came out in the mid-2000s. I think that if I would have seen it during its peak (and buzz) I would have enjoyed it much more. And because I studied this film for one of my classes, I saw the movie differently than I would have if I had watched it with friends in the theatre. So, without further ado, here is my analysis (and opinion) of Zack Snyder’s 300.
Contemporary Western society encounters a plethora of glorified portrayals displaying violence, war, and bloodshed. This hyper-intensity is brought to [us] in part by the visual arts, media, literature, and film. Often the most aggressive of these modes, however, is the Hollywood movie industry. With this, Snyder’s 300 serves as a representation of the historic Spartan bloodshed within the context of the Battle of Thermopylae. Yet, since it is clear that Snyder is not the only artist bent on exploring the infamous Spartans, I must ask, why the obsession? The movie’s underlying message calls forth America’s own realization of its willingness to sacrifice within a context following 9/11. Therefore, contemporary society remains fascinated by the gruesome yet idealized Spartan way of life as a way to render a reflexive analysis of itself. Such an analysis reveals an idealized culture willing to shed human life in the name of valour, bravery, and sanctity. Tamara Neal’s notion of bloodshed, within the context of war in ancient Greek culture, is an imperative source when exploring Spartan values around violence. As well, Geoffrey Eley’s assertions reveal that, regarding cultural history, Snyder’s cinematic vision of the Battle of Thermopylae is a reflexive tool for idealizing contemporary warfare.
Snyder’s vision of Sparta is one well known to most of Western society – even before the film’s release. The cinematic, superhero-esque depiction of King Leonidas and his 299 allies is, of course, Snyder’s rendition of the graphic novel series written by Frank Miller. Miller, himself, drew his inspiration from the 1962 American “Cold War propaganda” film directed by Rudolph Maté, The 300 Spartans. With this, it becomes evident that Sparta is a useful tool for reflecting on Western society – spanning back to the Cold War era. Of course, the previous question raised is why? To answer this most thoroughly, I turn to the notion of bloodshed.
Like Miller and Maté before him, Snyder’s glorified vision “assaults the screen with blood, thunder and awe.” Blood stunningly spews from men’s necks, stomachs, arms, and legs in a highly aesthetic dark red hue.
Instead of intestines spilling out of open gashes, we see blood. Instead of broken bones, we see blood. Even the decapitation of a young Spartan is cut away, hidden from the viewer’s eye; only a slow motion flying head followed by a visually pleasing trail of blood is presented. The whole film is a bloody aesthetic experience. Blood is the only thing we see. For Snyder, blood is brutal and brutal is beautiful. Neal argues, “bloodspill functions as a badge of honor, a highly visible adornment attesting to a hero’s mortality and his willingness to sacrifice life for glory.” This, of course, holds true with the Spartans, who were the martial people of Greece. When blood is viewed as a badge of honor, Snyder’s representation of King Leonidas is an accurate match-up. Though it is hard to ignore Snyder’s gross idealizations of manliness and chivalry in 300, it is apparent that the film’s obsession with blood holds historical weight. The “close association of blood with nonfatal injury” on a Spartan soldier, “coupled with its exclusion from death, indicates that bloodspill has [an extremely] special value” in 300, as in Greek society.
For Snyder, blood is brutal and brutal is beautiful.
Snyder’s 300 puts a heavy emphasis on the importance and value of blood, and we see this most clearly through his artistic representation of it. The Spartans, as depicted by Snyder, are always in steady preparation, not only for war, but also for glory. Consequently, they never retreat and never surrender. Interestingly however, as Elizabeth Langridge-Noti points out, “Sparta fascinates us in the West, representing both a place with a common past and a place that is different enough to insist on distance and a certain mystique – the Spartans are like Us, yet they are certainly not like Us.” In other words, the “bloodlust” of the Spartans coupled with their willingness to shed their own blood is fascinating to contemporary viewers. It is this idealized, almost fetishized, brutality that makes the Spartans so captivating to watch. Yet, the notion of community – in the phalanx formation – is one that contemporary society can align itself with in reality.
This hunger for bloodshed merges seamlessly with the desire for collectivity in contemporary culture. What is created from this synthesis is the West’s glorification of sacrifice. Gerard Butler’s famous line, “This is Sparta!” in the early part of the film resonates strongly with U.S. (and Canadian) nationalism. Coming out less than a decade after 9/11, the movie’s underlying message calls forth America’s own realization of its willingness to sacrifice in the face of intrusion and terrorism. It is revealed in this cultural ideal that Snyder’s cinematic portrayal of the 300 Spartans up against the godlike King Xerxes is a reflexive tool for idealizing contemporary warfare in the face of terror. In other words, parallels are drawn between Sparta and the U.S., and the Persians and the Middle East. Accordingly, an Iranian government spokesman declared that, upon pirated release of the movie, it was an “act of ‘psychological warfare’ that was intended to prepare Americans for an invasion of their country.” Here, we see a dichotomy unfold in 300: glory versus terror. Though the Spartans keep slaves, brutally kill their fallen enemies, and build walls upon walls of dead bodies, they do it in the name of glory. The Persians on the other hand, do much the same thing, yet their actions are portrayed in a reign-of-terror-like manner, seemingly deprived of any meaning.
Following this, Geoffrey Eley’s article concerning cultural history centers most strongly on the notion of identity and meaning. He argues that “the rise of” the masses in all areas of life, including the arts and education, has allowed for wide-scale distribution of information. With this, the concept of cinema becomes important since, in it, a mode for reflexive analysis of human action is not only possible, but is possible on a large scale. Thus, politically driven ideologies can be distributed through an artistic lens to a culture that is consuming at an exponential rate. Snyder’s glorified vision of Sparta is, thus, let into society for consumption. In which case, an individual is then able to circle back and reflect upon what he or she has watched in order to derive meaning in the identity of his or her own society. However idealized that reflection may be, Eley argues the purpose of the interplay between past and present (such as seen in 300) is to understand the identification of self and experience with others.
Contemporary Western society has remained fascinated by the gruesome yet idealized Spartan way of life. In doing so, it has found a way to render a reflexive analysis of itself. Such an analysis has revealed a culture willing to shed human life in the name of valour and sanctity. I suspect that, as our sensitivity to these images wavers, our cultural glorification of the Spartans will continue to grow.
- Peter Green, “Review: Responses to the Persian Wars,” The Classical Review 59, no. 2 (2009): 610, accessed May 17, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40600754
- 300, DVD (cover).
- Tamara Neal, “Blood and Hunger in the Iliad,” Classical Philology 101, no.1 (2006): 33, accessed May 17, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/505669
- Ibid., 18.
- Elizabeth Langridge-Noti, “’This is Sparta’: Recent Publications on Sparta and Laconia,” American Journal of Archaeology 116, no. 4 (2012): 751, accessed May 17, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3764/aja.116.4.0751
- Mustapha Marrouchi, “Neither Their Perch nor Their Terror: Al-Qaida Limited,” Callaloo 31, no. 4 (2008): 1336-1361, accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27655 002
- Geoffrey Eley, “What is Cultural History?” New German Critique no. 65 (1995): 29, accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/488530
- 300. Directed by Zack Snyder. 2006. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2007. DVD.
Eley, Geoffrey. “What is Cultural History?” New German Critique no. 65 (1995): 19-36. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/488530
Langridge-Noti, Elizabeth. “’This is Sparta’: Recent Publications on Sparta and Laconia.” American Journal of Archaeology 116, no. 4 (2012): 751-5. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3764/aja.116.4.0751
Marrouchi, Mustapha. “Neither Their Perch nor Their Terror: Al-Qaida Limited.” Callaloo 31, no. 4 (2008): 1336-1361. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27655 002
Neal, Tamara. “Blood and Huger in the Iliad.” Classical Philology 101, no. 1 (2006): 15-33. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/505669