Monday, March 26, 2007

"Wealth! Women! And One More Thing - I Want A Uniform!"

This weekend's cinema viewing: 300, the stylised fantasy rendering of the Battle of Thermopylae. A pretty good film, although clearly if you go to see a film about an ancient battle, you're not looking at ingenious plot twists and engaging characters; you're looking at severed heads spinning through the air, horsemen jerked from their saddles by a combination of spear and Kirby wire, and heroes who just won't die even when there's so many arrows in them they look like porcupines. It's silly, it's violent, but the cinematography's good and it's got a good mythic feel to it. And it's better than Alexander on every conceivable level.

Apparently some critics view this film as some sort of jingoistic parallel with the current situation in the Middle East. In other words, the precise sort of thing you'd expect American cinemas to show at a time when the President is asking for more troops to be sent to the Gulf. This despite the fact that it's based on an eight-year-old graphic novel, itself based on a legendary/historical event some 2487 years old. I've looked and looked, and can't find this opinion anywhere online, but apparently the notion is out there.

The thing is, if you want to play the Analysis Game - if you're generally inclined to read far too much into films, perhaps, or if you've been primed by all this nebulous talk of "jingoism" - then it's fantastically easy to read negative political messages into 300. This film is just full of things to offend your average pro-war Republican, and I'm not just talking about the homoerotic aspect of seeing the Persian hordes squaring up to 300 toned, extremely waxed, slightly oiled men in posing pouches.

For instance, the sight of the Spartans misusing Persian bodies for psychological purposes resonates uncomfortably with the Abu Ghraib scandal. When King Leonidas kills a Persian messenger, against the accepted civilised convention, for telling him something he doesn't want to hear, I'm reminded of that time an American tank opened fire on the Iraqi hotel where everybody knew all the international journalists were staying, killing three of them. Or the bombing of al-Jazeera HQ. When the corrupt politician character starts turning the situation to his personal gain... well, any number of parallels suggest themselves.

On a more scurrilous note, the Spartan queen wants to try to persuade the Senate to send more troops (are we supposed to identify George W Bush with the queen of Sparta?!), but to secure an audience she ends up letting the corrupt politician rape her. Translation: If you value your way of life, you've got to let the government **** you. Was I meant to take that message away? It doesn't help her in the end, as the corrupt politician's been paid off by the other side.

Actually, there's a strong case to be made for reading the film the other way around. The Spartans are the insurgents - a small, renegade force, acting without official sanction, operating tactically but with barbarity, obsessed with their own deaths and perceived glory. The Persian hordes are in fact the Americans - a large, expansionist force, more technologically advanced and preferring when possible to kill their enemies at a distance (arrows and gunpowder grenades = carpet bombing?). Meanwhile, by night the commander of the Persian forces retreats to a haven of self-deluding luxury (a "green zone", if you will) where he can be surrounded by all the comforts of home (sexual degeneracy for Xerxes, poolside parties and hot dogs flown in for the Americans). Oh, stop.

The clincher against taking 300 as any sort of allegory for the Gulf situation is that both kings are on the battlefield. When Dubya takes up a rifle, flies out to Basra and draws straws to see who gets to wear the platoon's kevlar jacket, that's when you can make comparisons between this film and reality.

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