The action movie dilemma: My last stand against 300

action movie The passion of Joan of ArcEvery great film is an action movie.

That goes for Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (1944 and 1958), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and My Dinner With Andre (1981).

It doesn’t go for 300 (2006), its sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) or any other picture of their ilk – no matter how much posturing and slow-motion violence permeates them. The reason: they’re not good. So we need another category to describe them.

How about “Cynical Pictorials Filled With Macho Posing”?

Right. Like that’ll happen. Still, I think it’s about time we redefine the action-movie genre. Because if all great flicks are action movies – owing to the powerful flow of the action involved rather than, say, any bursting blood squibs or whizzing bullets – then the label isn’t appropriate for the category as a whole.

And I won’t be convinced that something like 300 is any good because of the washed-out-looking cinematography or arty production design. The self-consciousness of the shots makes them less appealing, while the quality of the composition is more pedestrian than elevated. Better-crafted celluloid may be found elsewhere, especially within the war-movie genre.

The problem, however, is that the public has come to accept the word “action” as a cinematic trademark, and this shouldn’t be the case. The word, to me, describes activity incited by dialogue and plot, as well as context and good direction. It’s not just bang-bang-you’re-dead. There’s something more to it.

And I think we’ve lost that idea in the theatres.

So what can we do? Not watch 300? I have to confess, as much as I dislike the film, I’ll turn to it on TV sometimes when it’s on to marvel at the poor craftsmanship while seeing if it gets any better with age. It never does, and of course, if The Seven Samurai (1954) or something better is on, forget it – the channel changes.

action movie ivan the terribleFilms such as 300 are popular, however, and there’s got to be an explanation for that. There have been tales told about the 300 Spartans before, so the subject’s nothing new. And the Frank Miller graphic-novel treatment was better applied previously in Sin City (2005), making its ancient-Greece successor look even poorer in comparison.

Maybe there’s something in those chiseled faces and six-pack abs that I’m missing from a cinematic standpoint. Or … maybe not.

I’m worried, though. The scene that always comes to mind when I think of 300 is this ridiculous, tracking-style shot of the Spartans spearing and hacking away at their Persian opponents in the Thermopylae pass while alternating between grisly slow-motion and normal speed. So what you get is a lot of cosmetic killing in creative, “exciting” ways. Not action.

There’s a precedent for this, though it was done much more artistically. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) features multiple scenes of people dying in spectacular fashion – a segment in the raid at the beginning of the film shows a man twisting around each time he’s hit by a bullet – but I think there was a perspective there rather than just a taste for blood. We’re being shown how violent the Bunch’s protagonists are, how they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want, despite their own code of honour.

In 300, it’s very different. We’re supposed to cheer the Spartans on, revel in the gore. Just because they’re the heroes. And I don’t think that’s an outlook worth promoting.

Not that the Persians, the film’s debauched villains, are so much better in the movie. But from a context-less viewpoint, there’s no reason to go tell the Spartans how much fun they are to watch. They’re basically portrayed as boors, and violent ones at that.

What’s the moral, here? Valour is good? Decadence is bad? I don’t find that valid. It’s just too simplistic.

action movie my dinner with andreThe fact is, the film’s probably more of an attempt to gain the teenage-boy audience than to create a work of art (the dreadful dialogue points that up; Wild Bunch, you have nothing to worry about). To a certain extent, 300 succeeded, becoming a huge hit. Will that be the benchmark for all other such bloody costume dramas? Perhaps.

What should be the benchmark, however, is The Seven Samurai, especially if you’re talking slo-mo. There’s no reason why the teenage set wouldn’t go ga-ga for that one if it ever becomes more widely available than the Spartan war stories of today.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’ll happen anytime soon. Yet when it comes to real action, all great movies are accessible when provided to an open-minded audience. The trick is to foment the opening of those minds, and that’s something we can do. With this blog. By talking about good movies. While creating new names for categories such as “action.”

We can achieve this. I have a label for them already: “Movies You’d Want to See.”

And I’m putting Ivan the Terrible at the top of that list.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

22 thoughts on “The action movie dilemma: My last stand against 300

  1. Simon…. This is great stuff. I went to point of reading this to my wife while she was working and she seemed to finally get how I feel about this. Thanks for taking to time to write this for us, man.

  2. Wow, you miss one day and all this great debate goes on. I don’t have much to add to what has been said, but that never stopped me before. I do not dislike the filmmaking of the first 300 quite as much as some on here do. I am far more bothered by how readily its fascist themes were gobbled up by young men, but that may be a different debate. The only other point I would make is that film is inherently a technological medium, one in which technological innovation necessarily precedes artistic mastery. The early days of motion capture found lots of spectacular-looking images in search of a story. I think 300 fits into that timeline. I certainly agree it is far from high art, but I trust that as more sophisticated artists learn more about the motion capture technology, they will find better-crafted stories to tell. Great conversation starter, Simon.

    • That’s interesting, Jon–you’re right about cinema’s visual quality … and sometimes films based mostly on visuals, especially in the early part of the last century, make for brilliant viewing. (Un Chien Andalou, anyone? :D) I definitely hope you’re right about people using the medium for more sophisticated pictorial entertainments in the future; we’ve definitely seen that in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, as well as masterpieces such as Pan’s Labyrinth. As those movies prove, when great content is matched with great cinematography, special effects and technical prowess, excellence follows.

  3. I for one am really enjoying the debate that this post has generated. This is exactly what I like to see on cinema blogs. Good arguments, for and against the point, with everyone entitled to an opinion. No ‘text-typing’, and informed views on both sides of the ‘issue’.
    As for the possibility that some of us are film snobs and purists, it is probably for this reason that we like this blog, instead of other more commercial alternatives. It looks at film and cinema from another perspective, and not because something is popular, or makes money.
    All of this is precisely what makes Curnblog worth being involved in!
    Best wishes to all, from England. Pete.

  4. Really interesting piece, Simon – good to see some conversation around this one!

    I’m not sure if I necessarily agree with the reconfiguring of what defines an ‘action film’ here – it seems to open the genre up to the point of abstraction, but as a rhetorical device I certainly see where you’re going with it.

    I’m not a fan of 300 (I haven’t seen the sequel), but I wonder if a comparison with films that more closely fit the film’s scope might yield interesting results (I suppose every action film is going to fall short of Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’). I’m thinking of the action cinema to come out of the 1980s and 1990s perhaps – maybe ‘Conan the Barbarian’?

    The other point worth noting is that, while cinephiles like us might decry the poor taste of the general film-going public, for most people cinema is a diversion rather than a preoccupation. While part of our role might be to encourage debate and illuminate the less appreciated aspects of cinema, this task is by its very nature one that cannot be resolved. The popular product, by its very definition, will always be what is popular. And what is popular will always be what is most easily consumable, because most use the medium to escape the complexities of life rather than seek it out. For my own part, I’m acutely aware that there are art-forms I simply cannot emotionally or intellectually respond to with any degree of conviction – something that would frustrate those with a passion for said art-forms.

    Kind of playing Devil’s Advocate on this one – thanks for opening up an awesome conversation!

    • OK, James, it’s you and me here! 😀

      Great points, as always. And yes: I’m guilty of reducing this to abstraction. Conan the Barbarian is a valid comparison–perhaps more so than The Seven Samurai. But Conan by no means is a great movie, and therefore isn’t an “action” movie…it’s definitely better composed than 300, though. I think my point was to show that even films deemed overlong or dull or (gasp!) foreign could be viewed as thrill-a-minute spectaculars because of their fine quality. I’m thrilled by Ivan Grozny, despite its notorious “slow” pace and pictorial compositions. And of course I’m thrilled to no end by Shichinin no Samurai.. 😀

      Very insightful point about the difference between the perception of cinema as a diversion vs. a preoccupation. I mentioned to Pete my naive hope that popularity can also entail greatness–that everything can be accessible if only people are given access to it. My feeling is that access is limited because of preconceived notions of length, subtitles, dullness, etc., which may be rectified through the type of conversation we’re having here… or through further cinematic education, which, in my opinion, should be a mandate in our institutions. What better way to make people happy than through the application of great cinema? 😀

      • All good points! Of course, the suggestion that an ‘action movie’ is defined qualitatively is part of your approach in this particular piece (the genre itself has very different characteristics). Although, I’ll back Conan 😉

  5. So what you’re saying is that a film can’t be an action film unless it’s ‘good’? What a load of rubbish guys, come on! To say that every film is an action film because of the powerful flow of the action is just inventing an argument. I watched The Hunt the other day, and I laughed at one particular point. Does this make it a comedy? In fact, Mad Mikkelsen also dates a colleague in the film. Does this make it a Rom-Com? Of course not. It’s a drama. Animal House is a comedy. Most Arnie films are action films. I think by now we all recognise ‘genres’. And why the sniffy attitude aimed at 300? It’s a perfectly decent, if not amazing ‘action’ film which, upon it’s release was certainly something different to the norm based on how it looked.

    I can be guilty of snobbery as well, but I do hate hearing people dismiss stuff with a “oh, I much prefer the master works of [insert name of accepted arty director]”. I don’t think 300 or it’s equivilants ever set out to be a Kurisowa or Bergman masterpiece, and shouldn’t suffer because of that. It is what it is, a dumb ACTION movie.

    Good blog, well written post, but totally disagree. And you know what the crazy thing about this is? I don’y even LOVE 300 anyway!

    Rant over 😉

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m suggesting the use of another term besides “action” to define the adventure-film genre. There, I think I just used another term! 😀 “Action,” to me, signifies activity, and the boredom I face when I watch 300 indicates it should be relegated to another category entirely. (Nope, I disagree with the assessment that it’s “perfectly decent’; IMHO, it’s abhorrent, and trash filmmaking, and I did point out that it was not altogether different in its look from its Frank Miller predecessor, Sin City.) I think questioning whether a movie’s a comedy if you laughed at one point in a film is not the point I’m making; single moments do not a category make.

      I also believe that 300 is guilty of pretentiousness; it did set out to be something more than what it is, which is basically an uber-violent sword-and-sandals pic. The stylization of the cinematography speaks to an empty would-be artistry of sorts, and the violent set pieces seem to make it out to be a kind of Peckinpah-esque gore-o-thon. I’d say that aspires to be something else. That it became a huge hit points to its popular appeal, but I definitely think it was meant to be some kind of rouser along the lines of Spartacus: something you can root for and marvel at while reveling in the fighting. Frankly, I see it as tripe. But that’s just my opinion.

  6. I think you’re missing an angle on these 300 style films – namely they’re funny. They’re what I call bad ass comedies. They make humor out of gory violence and make people revel in the power of smashing the opponent. Nothing more. Nothing less. I feel they’re meant to be lighter than you’re giving them credit for. That’s my take, anyway.

    • Hi, Steve. I’m afraid I can’t agree with you on the 300 films. I don’t think they’re funny at all; I find them cynical and poorly written. It’s one thing, I think, to laugh at Monty Python’s send up of gore in “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days” or the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But it’s another thing, I think, to laugh at the mutilation of people en masse in 300. I don’t think it’s played for laughs. I think it’s played for our basest of desires: to see blood onscreen. And that’s been something people have been seeking forever; a play like Titus Andronicus proves that. The public likes to watch violence. The question is whether it’s portrayed with a perspective … or whether the violence is glorified for its own sake. And I think in the case of 300, it’s the latter. There’s nothing “bad-ass” about it, in my opinion; in fact, it’s the latter, though I definitely think it ASPIRES to be bad-ass. Unfortunately, it’s more maudlin than anything else. And I just can’t find that humorous.

  7. Great write up. The historical accuracy argument is invalid for every film, and why is that even an interpretative strategy? Movies aren’t time portals but reflections of the current age. 300 and Rise of an Empire are vapid, tongue-in-cheek products in a highly competitive commercial industry. These are just things to be sold. Commodification at its finest. From that angle, these movies are actually successful. And they mirror today.

    • Hi Mike. While historical accuracy is never the primary consideration for a commercially driven studio – I’m not sure that this invalidates the notion of EVALUATING a film based on historical representation. Given that a culture’s understanding of its history is based almost entirely on the cultural representations of that history (pop culture or otherwise), it seems like investigating those representations is incredibly important.

      Having said that, 300’s comic book approach should be an immediate indicator that historical representation isn’t really the mission – so it would seem harsh to interrogate the film too deeply on this level.

    • Thanks, Mike! I agree with you on this and respectfully disagree with you at the same time. I, too, was frustrated with the lack of historical accuracy in 300, as I used to gobble up this great historical story as a child … the bizarre monsters with swords for hands, the folks riding on rhinoceroses–it seems like they decided just to create a wild “look” for the Persians without delving into the actual costumes or armor (with some exceptions; I think the distinctive shields had some basis in fact). But I wonder if James’ point below holds water in this case … 300, as bad as it is, is so stylized as to, perhaps, make the case of historical accuracy irrelevant. The movie’s basically a fantasy, a supernatural jumble with nonsensical monsters and anachronistic attitudes. Still, one of the things that disgusted me most about it was the suggestion that the Persian decadence was something to be sneered at; we see a bit of this when the Spartan traitor visits Xerxes’ lair, which is writhing with supposed (and in my opinion, rather tame) sexual “debauchery.” I thought that was just silly, and a strange thing to blame the Persians for. But I’m with you on the film’s vapidity; I hope it will not be the benchmark for such films to come based on its public success. Yuck!

    • Glad you liked it! It’s one of my favorites, too–and certain scenes are indelible, such as Ivan’s gigantic head looking over the people who have come to take him back to Moscow. A true masterpiece. And what a score!

  8. 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire are loathsome exercises in cinematic gore-porn. They’re also (unforgivably as far as I’m concerned) horribly inaccurate about the actual history. The real story of the Persian invasion of Greece is far more interesting than this crap– I would love a movie that respected that. It drives me crazy that this sort of effluvium gets made and then makes money. It really is a mystery to me.

    Kurosawa and Eisenstein should be household names to every movie-goer. There is some sort of poverty of the soul in our culture that they are not.

    Good post, but I’m not going to hold my breath about educating movie-goers to appreciate good films.

    • Totaly agree with you, Doug. And I know how you feel–in my response to Pete below, I note my naive hope that someday such art will become accessible to all … that the doors will open and more people will find out about great works and embrace them. I do think such works can be enjoyed by most, with only a bit of shoehorning; I think the problem is that people have to be exposed more to great works, and that’s not always something that happens … especially considering the prevalence of films such as 300. Ah, if only we could have a world filled with great films! Though if that were the case, would we know what bad films are? 😀

  9. We come back to that old problem Simon. Subtitles, and the lack of an audience that can be bothered to try to enjoy films with them. If ‘300’ had been made in Greece, with Greek language, and English subtitles, it would have vanished without trace. The fact that Leonidas has a Scottish accent is no stranger than Richard Egan (in the same role) having an American one. At least not to an audience that will never be bothered to watch a truly great film, because of subtitles.
    I fear that you (and I) may be preaching to the converted, on the screens of this blog. It is not going to happen. They (the viewing masses) are not going to start watching Kurosawa, no matter how many times we tell them how great he is. I seem to have spent a lifetime beating my head against that particular brick wall. Full marks for trying though, and of course, you are completely right in your assertion.
    Best wishes from England, as always, Pete.

    • Good point, Pete, as always. I have to confess to having a certain naivete–a belief that any great work of art is accessible if the doors to its accessibility are opened. It won’t work for everyone, I’m sure, but I still remember my college introduction to music class where they played Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and I noticed a classmate nearby tapping his foot heartily as if it were the latest Top 40 hit! 😀 Such things give me hope, and I believe in the power of the movies to do exactly that … if only such exposure could be heightened. That probably won’t happen, but as Aragorn says in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (the film): “There is always hope.” 😀

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