At the Movies

Michael Wood

Memory is a large part of it. Herodotus tells us the name of Leonidas, the king of Sparta who died at Thermopylae in 480 BC, not exactly holding the multitudinous Persians at bay but at least showing how it might be done. Herodotus also says he has ‘learned the names of all the three hundred’ Spartans who fell with their king. He doesn’t list the names, and he doesn’t need to. They are known if he knows them, saved from oblivion; one of the essential meanings of having a history. Herodotus also remembers, even if legend and the movies don’t, the seven hundred Thespians who fought alongside the Spartans when all the other allies had gone home daunted.

Those Persians were repelled a little later, in spite of their vast numbers. Three to one against are ‘good odds for any Greek’, a character says in Zack Snyder’s blood-spattered box-office success 300 (and in Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, on which the movie is faithfully, not to say slavishly based). Thus the Western world was saved, at least for a while, from what the film calls ‘mysticism and tyranny’. Mysticism? That’s what you call fanaticism when you’re trying to be creepy rather than dogmatic. In one corner, the self-punishing, war-loving, homophobic (no connection to those ‘boy-loving’ Athenians) Spartans, who on grounds that escape me completely are meant to represent reason, justice, law, freedom and logic, to borrow a few grand words that appear in both book and movie. In the other corner, the exotic, often black, frequently masked, elaborately decorated, elephant-riding, despot-serving nations of the Persian Empire. You can see there is a clash of styles here, particularly in the matter of metal ornaments stuck in the face – the Persian King Xerxes (played by Rodrigo Santoro) keeps saying he is a god, but he looks more like a very tall Yul Brynner with lots of rings and bangles – but it’s hard to see what the battle of values would be, other than territorial gain or loss. Perhaps that’s what the theory of the clash of civilisations is meant to do for us. A couple of differences of headdress and hairdo that we can escalate into vices and virtues, and we can be natural enemies for life.

There is a marvellous, seemingly contradictory moment in the novel, when Leonidas, apparently having some foreknowledge of Henry V’s stance at Agincourt (‘We will light a fire that will burn in the hearts of free men for all the centuries yet to be’) invites the faint-hearted – i.e. those not in favour of certain death – to leave him. They do leave, in their thousands, muttering things like ‘I’d be crazy not to,’ ‘I’ve got my family to think about’ and ‘Spartan maniacs’. But of course the three hundred Spartans stay, and one of them is even rash enough to express his enthusiasm. ‘We’re with you, sir, to the death,’ he says. Leonidas looks at the soldier grimly, and says: ‘I didn’t ask. Leave democracy to the Athenians.’ Just the sort of defender freedom needs. Of course, this line is not in the film.

The film is very sluggish and not really much animated even by the dubious ideology it so happily shares with the book. We could see both as making a sort of case for the triumph of the will with its fascism cloaked by the magical name of Greece. Or as a kung fu story centred on the idea of a master race. The movie opens with a Spartan child taught martial arts the hard, bruising way, smashed to the ground by an adult. A bit like the opening of Batman Begins, except that the neophyte here is about four and the teacher is bigger than Liam Neeson. The Spartans sort out male children at birth, and get rid of the ones that don’t look like making it as warriors. ‘If we are small, puny or misshapen, we are discarded,’ is how the voice-over narrator puts it. One of these children, misshapen as only a dream of monstrosity could be, manages to survive and returns just in time for the battle, hoping to be a soldier. Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler with a fine, fierce Scottish accent, here has an improbable fit of humanity and says quite kindly that he can’t use a man whose hump prevents him from lifting his shield high enough – nothing personal against monsters, at least not against those on his side. And wouldn’t you know, instead of responding reasonably to this well-argued refusal, the monster turns out to have a soul true to his shape, and betrays to Xerxes the existence of a secret path behind the cliff where the fighting has been taking place. He is the reason for the final massacre of the now surrounded men.

There is one heartwarming scene where the Spartans are killing all the Persians wounded on the battlefield. Leonidas is eating an apple, and pondering an invitation to a parley with Xerxes. He accepts, sardonically saying: ‘There’s no reason why we can’t be civil, is there?’ This is the same man who earlier, back in Sparta, had pushed Xerxes’ messenger and his party to their deaths in a deep well. The rule is always ‘blame the messenger’ and none of that namby-pamby stuff about international conventions. For good measure, the film takes into new realms the novel’s indication that the Spartan ephors, who are portrayed as priestly servants of the old gods, are actually in Xerxes’ pay. There is a treacherous Spartan councillor on the same payroll, and the rest of the citizens, all except the soon-to-be-dead three hundred, are sheepish if not crooked. Civilians, what can you expect? Well, there is one loyal but ineffectual old fellow, and there is the noble queen, played with eager sternness by Lena Headey, her role much enlarged for the movie; but she is a woman only in politics, and a man at heart, a true Spartan. It is on her nod that Leonidas shoves the messenger down the well.

Still, however slow the movement and however brutal and self-righteous the culture being celebrated, the movie does have the benefit of its stark, memorialising visual style. The novelist and the moviemakers are not fascists; only in love with a fascist fantasy, and perhaps even in love only with its picture possibilities. There’s not much to be said for making a film based on a comic or a graphic novel if you don’t like the look of the comic or the novel, or more precisely if you don’t want something like the feel of draughtsmanship in your film, an effect that can seem both flattened-out generally and weirdly intense at moments. Fortunately, Snyder loves the Frank Miller look, and the film creates the sense of a fine dark dream, all sepia skies and stones and seas, brown palaces and dashes of bright red from the Spartan cloaks. The warriors’ helmets look like grim sculptures, ancient iron artefacts with gleaming eyes in them, and if you can bring yourself to stop wondering why the Spartans would insist on going into battle with so few clothes on – just helmet, sandals, shield and thong – the pumped-up bodies themselves look like archaeological toys, marching animated statues.

There’s one scene that isn’t in the book but effectively completes the book’s thought. The Persians have attacked a Greek city and all the inhabitants are gone. Then one of the Spartans says he has found them. A reverse angle shot shows us a perfect image, graphic art at its most static and most vivid: a tree that seems to be made up entirely of corpses, the way an Arcimboldo painting is made up of fruit. And at the end of the movie an overhead view shows us the Spartan dead lying on the ground in artistic confusion, like figures in a medieval French tapestry or a Japanese print. This copies an image in the book, but is better because it is larger, more closely defined and the colours sharper. Miller gets the credit for the composition; Snyder gets the credit for seeing what this would look like on a big screen.

And this is where the idea of memory returns. The film is too startlingly good-looking to be all bad news or all distasteful politics. And what is being commemorated here, at least in the images, so many years after the date, and so far away from the recording technologies of the ancient world, is not a crypto-Nazi version of the mythology of Sparta, but the practice of terminal fidelity to an idea of the unfaltering self. Herodotus picks out as especially brave a Spartan soldier who said, in answer to a Persian’s threat to hide the very sun by the sheer quantity of falling arrows, that in that case they would fight in the shade. The bravery here is in the wit rather than in pride or monomania, of course. The images of the film are far too monumental to be witty, but nevertheless they are stylish enough to suggest what a memorial can look like if the vanished get lucky.