I went to see 300 the other day with my son. It was more his speed than mine, even though I'm a lot closer to being 300 years old than he is. He's 13, and in spite of the R rating the movie seemed to have been aimed at 13 year old boys, so it was perfect for him. I didn't think it was a bad movie, but it wasn't really a good movie, either. It was about as cartoonish as a movie can be without actually being a cartoon, and it bore little resemblance to the actual historical details, other than the fact that Leonidas and all his pals get killed in the end (oops! that was a spoiler, wasn't it? Well it shouldn't be: shame on you if it was for not knowing more about one of the most important events in Greek history). There was a rather curious attention to gory detail in this movie. Watching this movie you might get the impression that there are upwards of five gallons, rather than pints, of blood in an average human being. Even the final title sequence at the end of the movie is formed by blood spatter patterns being splashed up onto the screen in slow motion.
The day before we saw 300 the whole family went to see The Road to Terebithia. A very different movie, though there is loss involved in it, too. When a movie is well made, though, a single death turns out to be much more moving than 3000. Indeed, I found myself depressed for two days after watching The Road to Terebithia, whereas the slaughter and mayhem of 300 was so over the top that I actually laughed out loud at one particularly graphic decapitation that unfolded in the ubiquitous slow motion.
It occurs to me that history ought to serve to humanize, rather than dehumanize us. The story of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans and 2800 allies ought to have been much more moving than it was in 300. When the focus is on the killing, however, we become like Leontius from Plato's Republic who, upon noticing that corpses, victims of the plague during the Peloponnesian War, were being piled up outside the walls of Athens, cursed his own eyes for desiring to see such a spectacle. Leonidas and his 300 made a valiant sacrifice of their own lives that day, buying time for their allies and for the Greek fleet. That fact was completely lost in the movie, even while we watched their sacrifice unfold before us. It reminded me of Saving Private Ryan, another war movie where death and dying overshadowed history and story-telling. Critics claimed that Saving Private Ryan was a kind of cri de coeur against war in general, and I suppose that a movie like 300 could also be interpreted that way: both movies give us very graphic arguments against resorting to war to settle our differences. But All Quiet on the Western Front accomplishes the same thing without making us feel like Leontius. When you notice the gore and body parts more than you notice the message, the movie as a medium has become degraded, and it's no longer about telling us an important story, it's just about blood and our own debauched rubber-necking that finds in the blood an easy excuse to forget about the causes of war and our responsibility for avoiding it.