From the cinematic virtuosos who brought us Robocop 2 and 3 comes 300, a gripping tale of political intrigue, passionate romance, and fervent nationalism with, by broad consensus, fewer than thirty lines of intelligible dialogue. The majority of these preciously few lines convey the vital facts—that Spartans are fierce warriors, that Persia is a cowardly (but rather numbered) adversary, and that Spartans are fierce warriors. The remaining lines consist of pithy proverbs and inspired admonitions to emphasize the first and last points, such as “freedom isn’t free” and “show no mercy.” In order to uphold such lofty ideals as “freedom,” Spartans subject themselves to rather draconian domestic measures, like throwing deformed babies off cliffs and banishing naked children to the wilderness. This enlightened regimen ensures sweet liberty for all.
Threatening this utopian and rather monochromatic society (for all of Sparta is mysteriously yellow-ish) are the turbaned hordes of Xerxes, whose million slave-warriors shake the very earth they march on, thus throwing many a Parthian hero off balance. These proud yet clumsy armies send emissary in advance to the Spartan palace, where he is politely greeted, taken for a stroll, and then kicked into a bottomless well—such is Sparta’s foreign policy. Unfortunately, King Leonides’ impulse for war is not sanctioned by the orgastic sybil, and he briefly wallows in self-doubt. Luckily the queen, weary of his distress and impatient for her own coital fulfillment, expediently restores his resolve. After providing pleasure in missionary, visitor, and reverse lotus positions, the King rallies his most loyal companions and pursues even more masculine ambitions. Clad in man-panties and red capes, 300 fierce Spartan warriors march north through yellowish waves of grain.
But we digress. What appears to be an easily digestible celebration of martial bravado and the masculine form actually doubles as a titillating cultural commentary. The film’s entire appeal can be traced to its exultation of hedonistic indulgences—sex, gore, and nipples—as it simultaneously reinforces the paternalistic ideals of pride and boldness. Alas, these two value systems intersect somewhere between Tiger Inn and the fraternity house.
The nemesis of our chiseled Aryan hero, the androgynous, Prince-esque King Xerxes represents the Dionysian excesses of the movie. Lacking appropriate attire such as chain mail or even the Lacedaemonian boxer-brief, the Artist Formerly Known as Xerxes prefers to parade himself around wearing only facial piercings and golden chains. His propensity to demand rival Kings to drop to their knees before him only emphasizes this confused sexual flamboyance. Once the conqueror is restored to his gaily festooned playhouse, we witness the apex of Parthian decadence: gold gleams everywhere, gilding everything from the furniture to the nipples of Xerxes’ whores, who lingually explore the interiors of one another’s mouth. Turgid breasticles abound. If this visual exhibition does not adequately convey the height of human hedonism, we can turn to Xerxes’ bribe to a hunchbacked Spartan exile: “anything you desire” in exchange for his allegiance. Xerxes, and by extension, the Persian empire, thus comes to embody the cultural antithesis of King Leonides’ red-blooded ascetics.
These testosterone-fueled crusaders are archetypal meatheads, laudably determined yet stubborn, pigheaded, and irrational. They defend their sovereignty—obliteration is a pittance next to wounded pride. “Spartans! What is your profession?” King Leonides bellows on the eve of battle. “UNGH UNGH UNGH!” they grunt back, emasculating the Arcadians (pathetically civilian sidekicks). The Spartans exude honor and aggression, and as testament to their virility, they sequentially splay man-bloomered infantry, leprous ninjas, the fu-manchu-ed Chinese taskmaster, as well as the entire mammalian cast of Animal Planet. Heavy metal grinds in the background as severed appendages spew gallons of blood at dazzling velocities. The miracle of slow-motion preserves the effect—one captain’s head gracefully takes flight, provoking an outpouring of audience empathy unattained since Mortal Kombat 3. While such spectacles testify to their manliness, the Spartans nevertheless spare no opportunity to quell any residual suspicion of homosexuality. No “boy-loving Athenians” here.
300 heralds the climactic conclusion of an overarching Hollywood trend towards graphical extravagance at the expense of non-clichéd narratives. Sophisticated meta-analysis would shed much light on this the film’s place in contemporary middle-class culture, but a much simpler observation will suffice: we see everybody’s nipples. No longer patient enough to absorb meaning and emotional fulfillment from nuanced symbols and thematic elements, audiences can now suck stimulation directly from the teat.