300

This is about the movie 300, which I saw at a local cinema today.

I have to say, my review would be somewhat different if this had been an all-out fantasy, and not a disturbing depiction of a telling of a tale about a battle between Xerxes’ Persian army and a small group of Spartans.

Here’s why. These days, I often find myself wondering, “Why are you telling me this story at this moment?” I think it of the topics students choose to talk about in class — some of them brought up simply because they’re big in the news, and some of them for reasons more mysterious to me.

I find myself asking this of the movie screen a lot these days. Why does a story like Pride & Prejudice get so much attention right about now? Why, a tale like 괴물 (The Host)? Or, in recent years, films like Kingdom of Heaven or The Matrix?

The question might seem unfair. People have trashed the movie because it was, according to them, too “cartoony.” But it was based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300. Anyone who watched the closing credits could guess it was an adaptation of a graphic novel, anyway — the only way it could have been made clearer would have been to announce the fact aloud. But that’s a dodge: after all, hundreds of graphic novels are published every year, each with different values and assumptions at its core. Why did this story resonate in such a way that a conservative, money-oriented, risk-averse movie studio was willing to invest money in it? And why, we thereafter ask, was Miller’s vision of the battle of Thermopylae the one chosen to underpin this telling of that tale, at this particular time? So many war movies have been, at their core, a retelling of the Battle at Thermopylae, so why suddenly the classical setting, and generalized interest in the classical world?
Or the question might seem facetious. As a creative person myself, I know that there is an inevitable line-up between authorial opinions and what gets written, and between apparent public interest and what gets published… There’s a part of me that’s willing to buy that public zeitgeist does play some small role in things, but the important thing is that zeitgeist is also, I think, at least partly engineered. Without the film Gladiator, we would not have 300, just as without Spartacus we would not have Gladiator. (And without any number of fictional depictions of Spartacus, we would not have the film, and so on. Just as, without the story of Moses, and without the Great Depression, and without anti-Semitism in pre-WWII America, we likely would not have Superman in any of his incarnations.) Zeitgeists emerge from an accreted set of ideas, characters, symbols, and signifiers. Yet creative people do play a role in the constant reformulation of the zeitgeist. They sensitize us to some problems and questions, and sideline others, and societies often largely go along with the most popular of them because, really, most people are too distracted by other things to sit around thinking about them like this.

What I refuse to accept is a comment commonly posted over at IMDB.com, which is: “This film is not supposed to be historically accurate, it’s just telling a story.” Okay, it’s telling a story, it’s not supposed to be accurate. But there certainly must be reasons for those storytelling decisions, for the specific departures from history that were chosen and depicted here. I don’t mean to say Miller or director Zack Snyder should have felt bound hand-and-foot to the history we receive — after all, the same questions are asked by and of historians in their historiographic disputes. But I do think that if we want to understand our culture as it is now, if we want to understand the film itself, we do need to ask ourselves some questions about the decisions made by the author and director (and whoever else may have been involved).

Watching 300, what I found strangest was the repeated Americanization of the Spartans. This was something I commented about when Gladiator came out, too, but it was much more bizarre in 300. It was bizarre because of who the Spartans were. Much as British schoolboys were once taught to idolize them as true heroes and men, the Spartans aren’t exactly the people you want to live next to. They were a brutally oppressive society that had invaded and conquered the local people and then enslaved them. As far as what little I know of the Spartans, they weren’t nice to their slaves, and just about everyone in their society was a slave, effectively if not in name. Their concept of freedom wasn’t freedom like we mean: it meant something more like, freedom from the wheedling snotty philosophers of Athens and their silly democracy, freedom from the dirty and ignorant barbarians of Persia and the rest of the world, freedom to practice infanticide and to start making boys into warriors through a process so grueling that by our standards today — the only standards we really have — they look like a society of severe child-abusers.

Yes, there may have been good things about the Spartans, too. They were strong. (And I’m willing to say strength can be a good thing.) They were a military force to be reckoned with, which, though I’m not sure this is a wonderful thing, it must be said is useful to have around sometimes. I’ve heard — though not checked up on it — that they were pretty strongly against marrying their women off in childhood, since Spartan women were expected to wait until adulthood (as defined by Spartans) to have children, so that they could bear healthy, powerful Spartan babies. (Yes, especially boys.)

But it seems to me the Spartans’ bad points were all but left out of the film. We were left with a group of wimpy, corrupted politicians led by a rapist who was, in turn, only too happy to see Sparta raped in turn; a group of psychotic, corrupt clerics who were also rapists and only too happy to see Sparta burn from afar; and of course, the 300 men who went to fight at Thermopylae, led by a king — a king! a monarch! — who was fighting against evil freaky brownish Asians in weird armor and jewelry, with weird pet monsters, and a distrubingly feminine body-pierced god-king to boot.

The evil freaky brownish Asians, by the way, were very monstrous. Some of that makes sense, as the action of the film is mostly a depiction of the tale as recounted by Dilios (that’s how IMDB spells it, but wouldn’t it usually be spelled Delios?). The obvious racism — really, in fact, a Sparta-centrism that renders all non-Spartans lesser, and non-Greeks subhuman — is probably consistent with a Spartan worldview, after all. But there’s nothing in the film that suggests we should reflect on that. It tells a story, but a story that enacts a transformation of foreigner Near-Easterners — especially Persians — as inhuman monsters. (Which, considering world events, is unsurprising, and fits a more common trend in films, but it’s also somewhat disturbing to consider.)

Some of the mythic-styled depictions were lovely, mind you. The giant-wolf scene from King Leonidas’ rite of passage was pretty damned cool. But eventually, it became a kind of “trot-out-the-freaks” story, with an ogre, a rhino, and some elephants all being defeated with the greatest of struggle, sort of, and the greatest of ease, sort of.

The one character I found interesting, Ephialtes the traitor, was a little bit too much like Gollum for my own tastes. He could have been so much more, if he’d been a little less overdone, and a little more sympathetic. If the film had recognized his temptation to turn his back on Sparta and ally with Xerxes — one I think it relatively understandable, considering how rejected this monstrous Ephialtes was by his society — then the operative lesson becomes not one of glory and honor, but one of the ignominy of building a fascist society and then expecting everyone at the bottom, or totally excluded from it — to play along. But in this film, it wasn’t really sorrow, loneliness, or a desire for revenge that led Ephialtes to betray Sparta. All it took were some half-naked slave girls gyrating for a few minutes. That hardly seems fair… one can understand a king being blindly patriotic, or freemen who’ve been all but brainwashed into believing that fighting to the death for their homeland is glorious… but what about the most downtrodden, rejected outcast in a society? When he fails to refuse gifts aplenty from the enemy of the people who have treated him like trash — and however nice King Leonidas was to him in their one conversation, he still was an outcast — one can hardly really blame him.

And telling the story from Ephialtes’ point of view would mean a completely different movie, one with a far different slant — one where the inner corruption of Spartan society lies not in the hall of the government, but throughout the whole society and its structure. To me, it would be a far more interesting, and far more timely film. Dilios’ demonization of both Theron and of Ephialtes would ring hollower, and the echo would resonate to today’s fast-and-loose conflation of treason with criticism or hesitation regarding war.

What, in fact, I’d love to see would be a follow-up film telling the story from the point of view of Ephialtes, or of Theron. Hell, I’d love to pieces a film like this that I could buy on a mega-DVD, and watch from those different points of view, exploring the different perspectives either one by one, or in one of a number of preprogrammed routes. It’d be fascinating.

One last thought… in this film, I found the depiction visually quite fascinating, but it also brought to mind something about the way Erich Auerbach discussed depiction and character in his famous text of literary criticism, Mimesis. In it, I think in the first chapter, he claimed that the ancient Greeks had told stories in which setting and detail mattered — the sunrise, sunset, the color of some character’s shield; he contrasted this with the Biblical mode, in which the background — often desert — went undepicted, leaving something like the white empty space in which Neo and Morpheus interact when Neo first enters the Matrix. Auerbach’s description of the blurring of background, leaving only vivid characters in a grey space defined more by their relationship with their deity, reminded me somewhat of this film. What was on the screen was lovely, in a way, but the background was almost irrelevant except as a kind of dark, smudged, faraway background, period. It’s interesting that the shift from Classical mode to Biblical mode should turn up here, since we’ve already demonstrated both modes can be used to tell stories that feel eternal, universal, and what have you. I don’t know quite what to make of it, though its being a product of the adaptation of a comic book is definitely part of it. Yet I think there’s more to make of it… if only I had my Auerbach here with me.

In any case, the film was worth watching on the big screen if you like battles and heroics… but as far as its connection to history, the only one I can see of any real merit is the connection it’s created in me, which is a desire to know more about the real events and the general shape of Classical-era civilizations — their peacetime interactions, as well as their wars and enmities.

3 thoughts on “300

  1. I had a similar reaction to this movie. It makes me wish I’d gotten more than a third of the way through Herodotus.

    Funny thing about Ephialtes and the Spartans. Even though the Spartans are presented as the heroes, and even though the movie ignores their own tendency to enslave neighbors, it still shows some of the pretty repugnant aspects of Spartan society — the abusive training of boys to be warriors, the eugenic discarding of insufficiently perfect infants. But it shows them from an unapologetic, “Spartan propaganda” point of view, I suppose. Political correctness requires that the movie take explicit steps to repudiate these practices, but it can’t really do that and keep a Spartan narrator at the same time, not without being really annoying and feeling ridiculously revisionist. (But then what’s revisionist when our sources — Herodotus, Plutarch, who else? — probably aren’t reliable historians either.)

    Anyway, Ephialtes… From the movie’s Spartan point of view, his act of treason is simply confirmation that he should have been discarded at birth, the outward form mirroring the inward psyche. But it seems to me that the lesson of Ephialtes is that in a fascist little ubermenschen paradise like Sparta’s, all it takes is one act of love — the love of Ephialtes’ parents, who spared him — to bring the whole edifice crashing down. Maybe not the whole edifice…the Greeks win in the end…but what if TWO such acts of love had been committed? Horrors!

  2. Yeah, this is what I’m thinking. It’s interesting because for all the horrible visages of the monsters we see, the Spartans, in the very human appearance, are monsters too.

    Maybe there’s something more subtle going on here, then, in the happy avoidance of some politically correct, narrative-destroying, ridiculously revisionist rendering of the tale. (Though some subtle changes in the way we’re shown the world outside of Dilios’ tale could have gone to some small degree to make it ever so slightly clearer that this tale being told was not in fact realistic… the world in which Dilios is telling it looks as cartoony and surreal as the world he tells of.)

    I like the way you put it about an act of love and its effect on a fascist little ubermenschen paradise. Very nicely said.

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