The trailer for 300 is by far the best way to experience said film; one gets a montage of unconnected cool images. Problem is, once the filmmakers connect those images into a story, a much, much worse film emerges. In general, I rarely am vituperative towards films; I’m usually indifferent towards films I don’t like. 300 was different—I actively disliked it. The main debate for me is this: propaganda or not?
I’m going to answer affirmatively; 300 in plot and dialogue is trying to push something. It feels kind of weird to take the same position as the Islamic Republic of Iran, but there was a definite agenda being pushed. That agenda was not really pro-Iraq War, as some have speculated. Rather, it was one of the conservative worldview in general, specifically the neoconservative worldview.
Here’s why, with several spoilers:
The film focuses on the 300 Spartans who defended a mountain pass during the battle of Thermopylae. They are the underdogs to the “hordes of Persia” or the “East” or even, once, “Asia.” This does not sound that suspicious—in fact, it’s a pretty interesting and good story. Everybody likes an underdog story, and everybody thinks they’re an underdog, even when there’s no good reason to think so. That’s why conservatives spend so much time whining about a supposedly liberal media and a supposedly liberal culture (it’s an issue for another time whether this is true; just accept that when you once controlled all three branches of government, you’re not the underdog.)
The reason the Spartans fought, along with a coalition of Greeks, was to avoid being conquered by the Persians. These Spartans fight for “reason” and against “tyranny and mysticism.” Oh really? Who the hell fights for reason? Didn’t the Spartans own slaves themselves? Wasn’t their society completely slave-dependent, more so than any other Greek city-state? And weren’t the Greeks plenty obsessed with mysticism themselves? The answer to all these questions is yes. These, however, might seem to be small historical inaccuracies, and not really indicative of any real agenda. But these are usual conservative moves: your opponent is benighted and irrational (“bleeding heart liberals”) while you are coldly rational, willing to make the tough decisions (“The Daddy Party.”)
The portrayal of enemies throughout 300 is where the conservative intentions really
shine through. If you are Persian, you are hideous and probably somewhat homosexual (see Xerxes, who between the piercings and the Dave Chappelle-imitating-Prince voice is pretty, well, effeminate.) It’s a given, once the hunchback appeals to join the Spartans, that he will eventually be siding with the Persians, on ugliness alone.
Speaking of traitors, the portrayal of who are the heroes is interesting. Obviously the 300 must be heroes. But did they or did they not have support? The movie makes them out to be alone and friendless, due to traitors within (a distinctive fear of conservatives and fascists), whereas, historically, the 300 were actually remnants of a larger army sent to deal with the Persians. Furthermore, who these traitors are is interesting: an ugly hunchback and a guy who publically advocates for negotiation with the Persians (but is secretly in their pay; it’s all a trick).
Furthermore, the movie paints the Spartan society as alone in its goodness. “Philosophers and boy lovers” is what’s brought up for the movie’s only mention of the Athenians. This sounds suspiciously familiar to insults directed at blue state denizens from more conservative factions. Remember, if you need to insult a liberal, call him an intellectual and a sexual deviant and weak; it does the trick every time. Besides that, the movie does not mention the Athenians at all, which is strange, considering they, oh, I don’t know, won the entire war. The whole reason the battle of Thermopylae is significant in the first place is because of the Athenians: their naval power kept the Persians from outflanking Thermopylae, and then won the decisive battle of Salamis.
The film paints a picture of West v. East, where only the pure, action-oriented elements of the West can win.