Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

Fascism and Film

Excerpted from Carl Plantinga’s “Fascist Affect in 300,” in Projections 13(2), 20-37.

The stories we tell each other, or present via mass media, are important components of the cultural ecology of a place and time. This article argues that 300 (2007), directed by Zach Snyder and based on a comic book series both written and illustrated by Frank Miller, evinces what can legitimately be called a “fascist aesthetic” that depends in large part on the moods and emotions the screen story both represents and elicits. While many other commentators have charged this film with incipient fascism, this article both deepens and expands on the claim by showing how the film’s elicitation of affect contributes to this aesthetic. The article argues that the affects represented and elicited in 300, when taken in conjunction with and in relation to the ideology they support, constitute what can be called “fascist affect.” Read the full article>>

Fascism Affect in 300

The word “fascist” appears all too frequently in today’s political climate. It is often used loosely, so one had better take care when using the term. And yet in relation to the epic action film 300 (2007), the word fits well. Adapted from the 1998 comic series created by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, 300 tells the story of 300 courageous Spartan soldiers who, led by their ferocious King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), valiantly battle the threatening Persian army of 300,000 men until, after being betrayed by a hunchbacked Spartan outcast, they all are slaughtered. Their defeat, however, alerts the rest of the Greeks to the significance of the Persian threat, and promises future victory as the entire Greek nation rises up to battle the Persians. The story is loosely based on the Battle of Thermopylae during the Persian Wars of the fifth century BCE. Considerations of the film as history, however, are ultimately less interesting than analyses of the film’s political function in its contemporary context. 300 can certainly be seen as a political allegory that embodies tensions resulting from the Iraq War and conceptions of Iran as a node of the “axis of evil.” This article will instead discuss the film’s incipient fascism, a broad threat that resonates more powerfully today, given the events of the past few years.

300 is a highly stylized fantasy film shot almost entirely on blue-screen soundstages with digital backgrounds added in postproduction. 300 is notable for its striking visual style, for its idealization of the courageous Greeks (all handsome men who sport muscular physiques and wear only tight leather “short shorts” and capes), and for its vulgarization of the invading Persians (represented as monstrous and/or effeminate).

Fig. 1: King Leonidas and his buff Spartans stand proudly before a hill of dead Persians (300, Warner Bros., 2007)

Many scenes feature the preparation and training for combat, fierce chanting (“A-whoo, A-whoo!”), and forcefully intoned epithets (“We are Spartans!” and “No prisoners! No mercy!). Female characters get in on the slogans as well, for example, when Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) sends her husband-king off to battle by telling him to come back “with his shield or on it.” The film’s centerpiece, however, is the fighting itself, which is represented graphically, often in slow motion, with fountains of spurting blood, decapitations, impalements, deep base choir intonations to suggest the powerful maleness of it all, and rhythmic drumming as underscoring. After the Greeks are slaughtered, the last scenes serve as a eulogy for the fallen heroes, with music and mise-en-scène suggesting the mythic significance of their mission and sacrifice. We see the dead Leonidas on his back, his body pierced by arrows, his arms splayed to the sides in an obvious reference to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. The film did very well at the box office, with a lifetime gross revenue of over $450 million, which led to a sequel, Rise of an Empire (Noam Murro, 2014).

Director Zack Snyder’s wife and production partner, Deborah Snyder, described 300 as a “ballet of death” (Daly 2007). Perhaps it is this, in conjunction with the film’s implicit fascist ideology, that caused audiences at the Berlin Film Festival to walk out and to boo the film. 300 also provoked intense criticism in the Middle East for its portrayal of the Persians as monsters and deviants, with the Iranian Academy of the Arts lodging an official complaint against the film with UNESCO, calling it an attack on the historical identity of Iran. 300 has been called homophobic, racist, antidisability, tribalist, and militaristic. It is the film’s incipient fascism, however, that unites these tendencies within a unified ideology. 300 has been called “the ur-text of the alt-right,” “Hamilton for neo-fascists,” and “our Birth of a Nation” (Breihan 2017). New York Post critic Kyle Smith (2007) writes that the film would have pleased “Adolph’s boys,” while Slate’Dana Stevens (2008) compares the film to the Nazi racist screed, The Eternal Jew (Fritz Hippler, 1940).

Are these charges of fascism fair? And should we take the sociopolitical and ethical experience offered by such an action/adventure fantasy seriously? This article will argue in the affirmative for both questions. Yet these charges of fascism are easily made, and this article goes beyond that to attempt to understand some of what makes fascist ideology, in a story format, attractive to many audiences. To do this, I will first discuss fascist art generally, then I will examine the moods and emotions that 300 attempts to elicit through the viewing of the film and in support of the fascist ideology that it exhibits. I call this “fascist affect.”

Understanding Fascism is a series of excerpts from titles published by Berghahn Books clarifying what fascism is and how it functions in the modern world.