Man, when it comes to ideology, holy crap, this movie is so broken. Wow. Who knew that racism could look so damn cool?
Because, it must be acknowledged, visually the film is absolutely stunning. Some have complained that there are so many effects that the whole thing might as well be animated, but really, it's a gorgeous tribute to the comic book origins. It's basically the same aesthetic as Sin City, but I think it's far more suited to warriors, Mediterranean landscapes and Orientalism than to nouveau noir. So on appearance alone, A+. As for the rest though...
So, I was telling my dude about the movie, and how fucked up it was, that it depicts a small hang of white Greeks taking out a shit-ton of minorities, and his response, which totally stumped me, was "Well, isn't that pretty much how it went down?" well... Yes, actually. Huh.
Ok, so if one is making a film about a conflict that was very much racialized, is it just historical accuracy? Well, no. And here's why. Because there are different ways of telling this tale, different meanings to emphasize, different ways of making it relevant to our times. To me, what is fascinating, and inspiring, about the battle of Thermopylae is the sheer logistics of it. It's fucking amazing, and totally worthy of a feature film. But the makers of this film did not share my belief, it seems. Rather, they wanted to emphasize the military culture of Sparta, the notions of honor, tyranny and decadence, heroism, etc. And because the film is so invested in looking dazzling, it goes into overdrive milking the multiracialism for all it's worth in an all-out Orientalist fun-fest. This is not done, however, to celebrate diversity, but rather, to deck out some stereotypes and slaughter them.
Of course, there is a temptation to read the film's pro-logic Spartans as a stand-in for America fighting the exoticized Other. Slavoj Zizek, in his article on the film, points out that in fact, it can just as easily be read as an allegory of the Taliban defending itself against US domination. I would argue that either reading is too facile - in fact, if one reads about the making of the film, it seems that a paramount concern was to avoid making a movie that would be seen as political commentary for our times. The success of this is attested to, I suppose, by a conversation I overheard while leaving the theatre, where some Cornell students pondered which one of the characters was supposed to be Bush. However, the film certainly seems to valourize a sort of stoic rationalism, and most certainly celebrates the Hollywood/Fascist aesthetic of the athletic body. Moral stature is clearly written on the body through boils, humps, piercings, and deformities. The body is basically an instrument, which, though it can be used for pleasure, should ultimately be at the service of the State, as seen when Leonidas' wife unhesitatingly drops her dress and surrenders herself as a bribe. Then, of course, there's the latent paranoid heteronormativity - the Athenians are boy-lovers and thespians, the Persian Empire seeks to penetrate the impenetrable Spartans, Xerxes demands that Leonidas be on his knees, and let's not forget that glorious scene where the tyrant stands behind Leonidas, seductively rubbing his shoulders and demanding servility. And then there's the racism, still - as a friend of mine pointed out, despite the apparent multiculturalism, and the presence of black characters in the beginning of the film (with some imagery that's straight out of Kipling and Little Black Sambo), when it comes to battle, the Africans are represented by - are you ready for this? Elephants. "From the darkest corners of the empire" come these beasts to do battle. Really just wow.
Now, of course one can mount certain defenses here. To begin with, the narrative perspective of the film is resolutely Spartan. This is made explicit by a rather obnoxious narrator who is regularly interjecting stock mythologization. This explains why the film is so overloaded with this obnoxious discourse about the value of reason, and how freedom has a price. The question is, does the film endorse these views? Are we meant to identify with the Spartans? I'm not sure. There is, for starters, the emphasis on the brutality of Spartan culture and upbringing, that Leonidas was raised through violence and can think in no other terms (though we note that the way he educates his own son is far more gentle - a contradiction that robs the potential critique of much of its power), and then there's that one curious moment, as the Spartans are going around converting the wounded into the dead with their spears, and Leonidas says, "we wouldn't want them to think we're uncivilized!" Now, this can be read in a number of ways. Is the irony located in the apparent disjunct between a group of savages assessing the civility of the Greeks, or is it rather that we, the viewers, are meant to see the irony of these brutal killers trumpeting reason and civility? Perhaps the Spartans aren't so great after all? It's hard to say. Certainly, to read the film in an ironic mode requires a will to interpretation that the average viewer may well lack.
In any case, I had a good time watching it. I eagerly await the sequel, where the beleaguered Greeks travel to North America and take out whatever remaining non-white, decadent, crippled and otherwise eugenically unsuitable groups they can find.