- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

How to make a movie that celebrates manhood and the martial spirit in 2007 — and, better yet, get away with it? Right now, as every reasonable person west of the Colorado River and east of the Hudson knows, war is not glorious. It begins with h and ends with a pair of l’s. Moreover, nowadays, it’s just as courageous to oppose a war as to fight in one — the height of patriotism, even.

Then, along comes “300,” a trashy comic-book adaptation that depicts the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae between vastly outnumbered Spartan-led Greeks and the Persian army.

Despite boasting neither a major star nor an A-list director, the movie set a new box-office record for a March opening weekend ($70 million) and has grossed more than $160 million and counting.

The movie is as chest-thumping a carnival of battlefield valor as any movie since Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.” Actually, it makes “Braveheart” look like the Geneva Convention: After one confrontation, the Spartans take sadistic pleasure in spearing wounded Persians to death.

Off the battlefield, too, it’s a man’s-man’s world. In one early scene that passes for poignancy in “300,” Spartan King Leonidas stands naked in his chamber, silently cursing a cadre of priests who refuse to countenance preparations for war because of an imminent religious holiday. Restless, and fearing the worst for his kingdom, Leonidas wakes up his slumbering queen with the gentle stroke of a finger — and, immediately, she is poised for vigorous lovemaking with “my king.” I think this is what’s meant when critics use terms like “story world.”

It says in the credits that “300” was adapted from a graphic novel by Frank Miller (“Sin City”), but, clearly, this is the anonymous work of teenage boys with wireless Internet in their tree fort.

More to the point, how does the success of “300” compute in this day and age?

One theory is that, ostensibly at least, “300” is free of contemporary baggage: Set in the pre-Christian past, it circumvents the still-smoldering historical resentments of the crusades raked up by Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals turkey “Kingdom of Heaven.”

The Battle of Thermopylae, in theory, is safely ensconced in the mists of history. Persia, today, is synonymous with fine rugs, and the Spartan is the mascot of my high-school alma mater.

Under these terms, “300” should have gotten a get-out-of-jail-free card from the p.c. police.

No such luck.

The “maddening” thing about “300,” opined critic Dana Stevens in the online magazine Slate, “is that no one involved — not Miller, not [director Zack] Snyder, not one of the army of screenwriters, art directors, and tech wizards who mounted this empty, gorgeous spectacle — seems to have noticed that we’re in the middle of an actual war.”

How, exactly, this fact should be “noticed” in a movie that’s set 480 years before the birth of Christ, Miss Stevens failed to explain. Does she mean it should be acknowledged within the film itself, thereby force-fitting some kind of gross anachronism into a plot already untethered from human reality?

Keith Phipps, a critic with the A.V. Club, occupies a middle ground in this debate. He says that the film has aesthetic merit but that to make it at this moment in history and insist, as the filmmakers do, that they’re apolitical innocents is “disingenuous.” However, says Mr. Phipps, “without the war in Iraq, I’m guessing the film would have been made anyway and would have looked much the same.”

On this score, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad argued in better faith than Slate magazine. The Iranian president’s objection to the film was that it rewrites history through its very imagery. “300,” he strongly implied without specifically naming the film, makes “Iran’s image look savage.”

Javad Shamqadri, an “art adviser” to Mr. Ahmadinejad, went one step further and said “300” was “part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological warfare aimed at Iranian culture.”

The Iranians’ paranoia is patently absurd, but they’re not wrong to take “300’s” depictions of Persians as objectionably crude. Outsize comic-book villainy aside, it’s not a stretch to say “300” sees Persians as decadent and effeminate at best — subhuman at worst.

Yet are such depictions any worse than the representation of Japanese in World War II-era Hollywood? Probably not.

The reassuring thing about “300” is precisely how humdrum is the inside story of its success.

“The movie had a great release date,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracker Media by Numbers. “Warner Brothers took advantage of the presummer onslaught of movies and sneaked in with a summer-style opening.”

And say what you will about its geopolitical import, “300” is riding a great wave of word-of-mouth advertising. “It wouldn’t be holding up as well as it has if people didn’t like the film,” Mr. Dergarabedian says.

If “300’s” unlikely triumph teaches us anything, it’s that the moviegoing public is obviously hungry for muscular alternatives to ambivalent flops like Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers.”

“300” has the muscles; too bad it’s not a better movie.

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