Recounting “300”

Recounting “300”

There’s nothing new about saying how Hollywood and history don’t always make a perfect match, but there is something about film critics and history that is worth mentioning even for the most jaded of moviegoers.

A great deal of noise was made about the possible political overtones of the movie “300,” with its clear delineation of the good versus evil: valiant, outnumbered Greeks clad in swimwear fighting the massive, dark hordes of Persians and their acolytes in one of history’s famous last stands, the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE. It’s a classic story of West defying the East, with Spartan king Leonidas (here played by Gerard Butler) as a possible stand-in for either George W. Bush or Western civilization as a whole, against the combined strength of the Persian Empire under the aegis of the Great King, Xerxes, portrayed with impossible camp by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro.

At first viewing, “300” left me cold: I wanted to like it, and I had even read the comic book (I refuse to call it a graphic novel, as most novels cannot be read in twenty minutes) and was impressed with all the pre-release buzz, especially about the film’s unique look. Yet as the film trudged on to its inevitable climax, it felt less like a story of doomed bravery and more like a simple political message tailor-made for the masses: the West is good (and impossibly good-looking) and the East is full of weird, dark and bejeweled hordes who do the bidding of an autodidact. What’s more, the Spartans are less men trained to do war, than machines who love killing and destruction, easily programmed by endless speeches about bravery, courage and fidelity. The conflict is in black and white terms, which made me suspect that this movie would be a favorite of the right-wing who love these types of messages since you spell them out phonetically.

It was then I realized that I was wrong in my assessment, and it had more to do with critics’ ignorance about history than anything else.

The film is not a screed about “us versus them,” nor are the protagonists George W. Bush, Christian civilization nor the enemies Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejab and Islam. Don’t get me wrong, “300” is far from a perfect film. Its central problem is that the transition from comic book to the screen seems to have been the real story, not a director’s vision or interpretation of the source material. The movie is literally a transplant of the printed page to the screen; to be sure, there’s a convoluted and unbelievable subplot that is designed merely to fill in the time (and doesn’t exist in the original story), but there’s nothing beyond the pages of the comic book here. We have no real sense of the Spartans or their state, aside from what the droll voice-over tells us, and that’s just to set up the scene. In short, for a movie about a lot of killing, there’s no real passion or motivation, aside from ogling the men or staring at the film’s cool colors. In this respect, critiquing the film as art, it lacks severely, and its simplistic (not Spartan) dialogue is problematic and hokey.

However, if you know anything about ancient Greece in general, or anything about the Spartans in particular, you’d realize that there is indeed more going on here than meets the eye. The Spartans left us no written accounts of their own, as they were known for one thing and one thing only: fighting. They were not philosophers or artists, they were killers. Their entire polis was constructed on the good of the community, not the rights of the individual. Indeed, their economy existed because of slave labor, controversial back then since the slaves were fellow Greeks, called helots. Without this labor force, Sparta would have collapsed overnight, and several rebellions were harshly suppressed.

Boys were taken from their families at age seven and spent the rest of their adult lives training and fighting for the state. Spartan men married, to be sure, but domestic life was neither their forte or their main concern. They were the best fighters in ancient Greece and just about everybody knew it, so when Leonidas derides the Athenians as “philosophers and boy lovers,” there’s a terribly funny inside joke going on, only the punchline is too subtle for its own good. Spartans may not have been philosophers, but they were most certainly boy-lovers, and their state was not built on democracy, but what we now would call totalitarian means and on the backs of the helots. This makes the movie’s portrayal of a fight between Greek freedom and Persian slavery even more ironic.

And that brings us to the core of the subtlety of “300,” and a point that all of the film’s deriders failed to understand, because their grasp of history is thin at best. If you look at the film through the lens of its narrative setup, it seems less like a half-baked political statement about the current state of the world and more as ancient propaganda. That is, if the Spartans had taken a few moments to philosophize and write down their version of events, then “300” is what they would have come up with: a paean to their own history, their own belief that they were fighting for freedom against an implacable foe. They would have glorified themselves and their state in a simple yet unmistakably grandiose manner, and their depictions of the Persians as effete, corrupt pleasure-seekers who are cowardly and debauched would have been depicted precisely as it was on film. On this level, “300” is a smarter film than its detractors would have you believe, who were more interested in making weak political comparisons where none were warranted, quite possibly in a vain attempt to appear erudite.

It is a sad state of affairs that the classics no longer occupy a central place in the education systems of the West, particularly in the United States. The Founding Fathers were well versed in Latin and Greek literature; in our day, we have to rely on the shoddy understanding of Hollywood screenwriters to get basic details right and pass it off as historical fact. Yet critics are not exempt from this at all; if any of them had ever read Xenophon, they would know that that the Greeks would have nodded in assent at “300’s” depiction of the Persians as impossibly carnal and so unlike themselves, right down to the Persian style of dress. This gives Leonidas’ speeches about “why we fight” their extra punch: the Great King, Xerxes, despite his massive strength and majesty, never truly grasped why the Greeks would not submit, and probably cared less about their democracy or their freedoms (as each polis defined it). If this depiction had played out to an ancient audience, there would probably be little dissent from the overall impact of how the story was presented or told, with the possible exception of Aristophanes.

Film critics should know history better, to bring these nuances to the attention of moviegoers instead of joining the echo chamber and dismissing the movie as a right-wing fantasy. “300” just may be the first film that has caught an historical attitude accurately than anything before it.