300: A Gay Porn Movie?


Zack Snyder’s idiotic sword and sandal trifle 300 is notable on three accounts.
The first are the relatively cool computer generated images (CGI) that
make the movie look like a cross between the Frank Miller graphic novel,
on which it is based, and a video game. Unfortunately, the CGI is fun for
about 20 minutes before it begins to look like a TV commercial for, well,
video games. The second vaguely interesting aspect of 300 is that it sparked
a small, but spirited debate about its political intentions. 



Some commentators argued that the film—that details with graphic violence
the famous battle in which 300 Spartans held off the enormous Persian armies
of Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE (Before Current Era)—was
an attack on the Bush administrations’s Iraq war since it portrayed the
overt foolishness of fighting a losing war. Others argued that it was a
paean to Bush’s policy since the Spartan army is shown to be the apotheosis
of bravery, honor, and maleness. Both are actually beside the point—300
is a shallow manifestation of pop culture that is essentially uninterested
in current events. I suspect its stoner sensibility can’t really be bothered,
which is not to say that it isn’t political. 



At heart, 300’s adulation and promotion of statist authority and endorsement
of hegemonic violence makes it, rather authentically, a fine example of
fascist filmmaking. Leni Riefenstahl would have loved this film, if only
because Zack Snyder rather consciously imitates all of the cinematic tricks
used in her Nazi propaganda epics, Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Thirdly,
many reviews in the mainstream press have been saying that 300 looks like
a gay porn movie (have they ever seen a gay porn movie?) or that it has
a gay sensibility. Yet, some gay critics and magazines have been calling
the film homophobic. Is it gay? Gay hating? Queer ambient? Metro- sexual?
The Greeks may have had a word for it, but no one can decide what it is. 



There really isn’t much to say about 300’s fascist politics— they are obvious
and not very viscerally exciting—but the context of homoeroticism, and
homo-hysteria, that pervades them is mildly interesting. Sure, the film
lavishes attention on lots of men who constantly flex and preen. But if
it is a gay male sensibility, it is 50 years old. Images of well-built
men preening are so ubiquitous now— they are the staple of reality TV shows
and the covers of US and People—that they hardly qualify as “gay male sensibility.”
They may be the end-result of the triumph of a gay male sensibility in
popular culture, but that is quite different. 





On the other hand, many commentators, on gay blogs as well as the Internet
Movie Database have accused 300 of being homophobic. It’s easy to see,
and even agree with, the gist of their arguments, since Snyder has pitched
his film on the visual images of the strong, manly, sexy Spartans fighting
what seems to be an army of oriental- ized freakish looking Persians. It
can’t be an accident that Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is portrayed as a mutant
Ru Paul-esque queen with full makeup, piercings, and jewelry. Indeed, the
manly demeanor of the Spartan 300 exists, to a large degree, by the “girly”
appearance of their Persian foes. 300 articulates not so much an overtly
homophobic attitude, as a rampant desire to separate Spartan men from their
Persian counterparts. 



This might all be interesting in a postmodern sort of way, if 300 had any
creative impulse pushing it forward. But, alas, as Gore Vidal said about
the New York premiere of the San Francisco drag troupe The Cockettes, “not
having any talent isn’t enough.” 



The screenplay of 300 is dismal. As penned by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad
it is a ramshackle copy of any junky 1960s sword and sandal mini-epic—Hercules
(1958), The Giant of Marathon (1959), Revolt of the Slaves (1960), Queen
of the Amazons
(1960), The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), The Rebel Gladiators
(1963), etc.—without much of the intentional wit. (Although to be fair,
some of these films were made by great directors: Jacques Tourner directed
The Giant of Marathon and Sergio Leone directed The Colossus of Rhodes
before his career-making spaghetti westerns.) 



The dialogue in 300 is wooden and feels as computer generated as the imagery.
They might as well have called it Pulp Diction. Whatever talent these performers
have, all of them—Gerard Butler as the brave King Leonidas, Lena Headey
as his wife Queen Gorgo, Dominic West as the traitorous Theron (who looks
distractingly like the caveman in the Geiko insurance commercial), David
Wenham as Dilios —are lost in a bad script and overwhelmed by flashy images.
 



300 is obviously cognizant of its debt to the film world of the late 1950s
and early 1960s, but it is also perfectly happy to negate the essential
meaning and politics of those films. It is obvious that the draw of these
movies is the bare-chested guys in scanty peplums (the short skirt these
film heros wore, giving it’s name to the genre) flexing their muscles and
furrowing their brows as they think of their next line. 



It is no surprise that many of the past peplum-wearing performers— such
as Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott, Ed Fury, Kirk Morris, Reg Park, Mickey Hargitay,
Mark Forest, Alan Steel, Dan Vadis, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Peter Lupus,
Rock Stevens, and Michael Lane— were often professional body builders.
In the 1950s and the early 1960s body building for men—what was called
physical culture, now called gym culture—was essentially a large- scale
cultural project, articulated and unarticulated, for reinventing the male
body after WWII. 



Interestingly, as the male body was being redefined as both strong, sexy,
and vulnerable, the gay rights movement was taking root and gay male culture—especially
muscle magazines like Physique Pictorial —were not only gaining in popularity,
but also influencing mainstream culture. Indeed, many of the performers
in the peplum films had their origins in the gay muscle magazines.  

But what we get here
are straight, frat boy
buddies who make fun
of the Athenians for being “boy lovers.”


None of those films openly embraced their incepient homoeroticism, which
is understandable given the time frame. But in the 45 years since those
films were made the world has become far more open. It would have been
refreshing if 300 had at least made a nod to the fact that Spartan soldiers
engaged in complicated (depending on the source of information) same-sex
activity and relationships. But what we get here are straight, frat boy
buddies who make fun of the Athenians for being “boy lovers.” In some sense
300 wants to be a beefcake film that entices a teen boy audience with violent,
sexy male bodies and then tells them that it’s okay to be homophobic. 



Snyder and Kurt Johnstad don’t have enough imagination to make 300 interesting,
or take any chances with it. They don’t even have enough nerve to define
their position on state power and it’s political implications. Is this
a parody of the Administration’s Iraq policy or a rejection of it? Ironically,
the pep- lum films of the 1960s almost always had an anti-authoritarian
impulse. They were, in some sense, the beginning of a counterculture. 



But at this time in history irony doesn’t play well. It would be a stretch
to say that 300 was playing with the ideas of consciously being, simultaneously,
a pro and anti-Iraq film. Or at being both homophobic and homoerotic. It
is, however, an example of the dumbing down of political discourse in popular
culture: a film that wants to say things about both and has nothing to
say about either of them. . 



Z 




  




Michael Bronski is the author of Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age
of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press).