Sunday, March 11, 2007

Frank Miller's 300 make a splash on the big screen with a huge bloody ink blot

I totally love this movie. I loved the thrills, I loved the look, and (in an odd fashion) I also loved the message.

......... What message?

Ah! I'm glad I'm not the only one to notice that!

Most war films (possibly ALL war films) have some kind of message hidden in them, either deeply buried, or hiding in plain sight (usually an anti-war message). So I watched this film last night in the same frame of mind that I watch most films (be they war films or not): running the dual-track in my head with one track imbibing the more obvious surface story, and the other sifting through the symbolism and imagery, trying to discern the hidden one.

But it wasn't there.

This was just a straightforward epic tale of heroism, bravery, and honor. No anti-war stuff. No slams on Bush. No profound treatise against taking up arms. No imagery meant to conjure associations in our minds with Iraq. Go figure.

If there WAS any sub-text to this work, I'd say it might have been the assertion that a true democracy (a form of government that Greece gave birth to) cannot properly function if religion is part of its machinery. The evil twisted priests were possibly meant as an anti-religion prop. As was Xerxes and his title as "the god-king." (I agree whole-heartedly with Russ Breimeier from CT Movies* who said: "Xerxes comes across as the Devil himself, promising him wealth, women, and power, repeatedly extolling his kindness: 'Leonidas would have you stand. All I ask is that you kneel.' " That one line from the film sent chills down my spine.) With this possible anti-religious thread in the film's subtext, the expanded role of the queen in this film was, I think, meant as an excuse to show the workings of the Council, a form of democracy in its infanthood. A bit of a Frank Capra moment for her there. We (who live in a democracy) want the local Spartan democracy to work for her that day. But it almost doesn't because one of the Council members is a traitor, liar, and a back-stabbing cheat. So her role in the story was, I believe, meant as a civics lesson for us: crooked politicians just muck up the works (just like religious interference).

The final line from the king to his servant before he dispatched him back to Sparta was "Remember us!" (That servant was played by David Wenham, the same actor who also played Faramir in Lord of the Rings --this role being quite a step up for such a deserving actor since he played the wimpy monk in Van Helsing.) That plea for "Remember us!" was repeated several times toward the end. And then I thought perhaps this might make an awesome Memorial Day film. Every last VFW post in the United States should show this film at least once a year. So another possible subtext of this film: don't hate the warriors, even if you disagree with the war. Sort of a variation on "Hate the sin but love the sinner" -- "Hate the war but love the warrior."

Focusing just on that possibility, the Viet Nam War sadly pitted the citizens of America AGAINST her soldiers. They came back home not to a hero's welcome with parades and memorials, but to hurled tomatoes and shouts of "BABY KILLERS!" It was over twenty years later before America finally reconciled itself to that war and owned up to the honor due the troops who fought in it. Ever since that reckoning, the very firmly enforced protocol in every political arena of this nation is now: "Honor our young men and women who are fighting for us. Period." So I'm kinda wondering if maybe, just as the Iraq War has been called Bush' Viet Nam, it might be possible that the makers of this film are offering a cautionary tale against a repeat of a similar strain of anti-soldier mentality amongst the civilian masses.


But I'm not going to firmly stand by any of my assertions here. Instead, I will point to the Ain't It Cool News** review, which I found funny as all get out (of course) and right on the money:

If you feel like taking a trip through all the various reviews of 300 that have shown up so far, you're going to notice something. It's sort of hilarious that Snyder hid an image of Rorschach in that extended trailer of 300, because I think what he's made with this film is a political rorschach test. People are going to project a lot of their own personal politics onto this one, and you'll hear people explain how it means this or it means that, and you'll read both outrage and smug satisfaction.

I don't think Snyder made a political film, though. I think Frank Miller is an undeniably political writer, but I don't think that had much to do with Snyder's decision to make the film. I think what really attracted him to the material is exactly what attracts me to this film: the image. This is a celebration of film as a visual art form, first and foremost, and Snyder has made something stunningly beautiful, a poem of war, a movie drunk on the potential of cinema to bring to life the impossible.

I have read in my film theory text books that ALL films about war MUST be "anti-war" or they're not worth the celluloid they're printed on. Films that are "pro-war" (if there actually is such a thing) or which are unabashedly patriotic, are unacceptable to the human-focused sensibilities of the art form. They are a stench in the nostrils of the craft and the industry. But this film seems to be lacking a direct anti-war message. Instead, by invoking the principles of "a just war", it asks us to side with the 300 Spartans in their decision to go to war. It asks us to sympathize with their determination to fight even unto death. And it also asks us to root for the Queen as she beseeches the Council to approve a troop escalation--oops! I mean --a surge.

So what exactly IS the message of this film?

I don't know. Maybe I'll go ask my therapist.




RC said...

The thoughts of the film having "no-message" is an interesting idea.

Surprisingly, I have yet to see it (since i usually passionatly avoid seeing movies that are released in the first four months of the year).

but these thoughts you share and collect here are certainly interesting.

and yes, i have heard similar things about all war films being anti-war films (i heard it from eastwood, although i am sure he was quoting someone else).

Sheila West said...

Hi rc, thanks for dropping in!

Glad my comments are:

1) getting read

2) are deemed interesting

Are you much for war films at all?