"300" is not a particularly good movie. The comic-book tale of the battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) brims over with excessive nudity and violence. The dialogue is often laughable -- lines like "This is madness! This is Sparta!" leap to mind.
David Wenham, who plays a Spartan soldier, narrates throughout the movie; his narration is guffaw-inducing. "Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans. Only the hard . Only the strong ," Wenham gravely intones. At another point, over footage of Spartans graphically slaughtering the oncoming hordes of Persian dictator Xerxes, Wenham intensely growls, "We do what we've been trained to do. We do what we've been bred to do. We do what we were born to do." There are no descriptors for this kind of purposeful anti-subtlety.
Nonetheless, "300" is drawing a crowd. It is drawing a crowd for two reasons: First, the movie is visually interesting, combining over-the-top comic-book imagery with live-action realism in the same way "Sin City" did. Second, Americans are interested in watching movies that pit good against evil.
The Spartans of "300" are brutal. The opening scene of the movie depicts a Spartan soldier, standing on a cliff overlooking a valley of skulls, inspecting a baby to make sure it is hardy enough. If the baby is too weak, we are told, it will be left for dead. This isn't exactly civilized conduct.
But the Persian hordes make the Spartans look like members of a British tea club. Xerxes is an androgynous giant of a man with more body piercings than Christina Aguilera. His camp is full of decadent bisexual promiscuity. He seeks worldwide dictatorship and threatens Sparta with mass murder of its male citizens, rape of its female citizens, and use of women and children as slaves if Sparta fails to submit to his rule.
The Spartans, by contrast, say they are fighting for "freedom." In which case, "300" is an old-fashioned battle between the forces of freedom and the forces of oppression.
And the left doesn't like it at all. Many reviewers have panned "300" not on artistic grounds, or even on grounds of inanity, but on the grounds that the Spartans in the film are a bunch of jackbooted thugs; that the tyranny they fight is less tyrannical than Sparta; that good vs. evil is too simplistic. "His troops are like al Qaeda in adult diapers," writes Kyle Smith of the New York Post. "Keeping in mind Slate's Mickey Kaus' Hitler Rule -- never compare anything to Hitler -- it isn't a stretch to imagine Adolf's boys at a "300" screening, heil-fiving each other throughout and then lining up to see it again." A.O. Scott makes the obligatory racial point: "It may be worth pointing out that unlike their mostly black and brown foes, the Spartans and their fellow Greeks are white."
The Iranians don't like "300," either. Javad Shamqadri, an art adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, proclaims that "300" is "part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological war aimed at Iranian culture." "Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran," explains Shamqadri, "Hollywood and cultural authorities in the U.S. initiated studies to figure out how to attack Iranian culture … certainly, the recent movie is a product of such studies."
Of course, "300" is not meant to be a historically accurate portrayal of the battle of Thermopylae. It is a cartoonish movie with a simple theme -- a theme that resonates with the American public. It is no surprise that the Iranian regime -- the embodiment of evil in today's world -- objects to a movie depicting a conflict between ancient Western civilization and ancient Persian civilization as a conflict between good and evil. And it is not surprising that the left objects to any movie pitting freedom against tyranny and coming out squarely on the side of freedom.
"300" is not as morally murky as movies like "Syriana," "Babel" and "Kingdom of Heaven." The movie has many weaknesses, but its strength lies in its affirmation that there can be good, there can be evil, and that good must be willing to withstand evil's best efforts to annihilate it.