Day By Day

Monday, March 19, 2007

I Saw "300" -- You Should Too!

I saw it. I didn’t mean to see it, but I did.

“She Who Must Not Be Named” and I drove down to Reading the other day to see “Zodiac” but with one thing and another we arrived too late. The sign said that “300” was about to start in five minutes, so we paid our money and took our chances.

“She” liked it a lot. In particular she liked the painterly quality of the images and the “six-pack abs” of the Spartans. So impressed was “She” that Daniel Craig is going to have to move aside to make space for Gerard Butler in her pantheon of ripped Brits.

My feelings were mixed. As a visual feast the film had a lot to recommend it. Like “Sin City” it successfully transports the viewer into a graphic novel with all the stylistic and narrative conventions that implies. Those conventions, however, limit the scope for acting, character development, and narrative complexity, all of which were sorely lacking in ‘300”. Taken on its own terms, as a fantasy adventure story, loosely based on a legendary historical incident it was highly successful and even enjoyable. But, like many others, I expect a bit more from a cinematic experience. I found that I could not suspend my disbelief or critical faculties and simply let the movie wash over me.

Part of the problem was that I am an historian. Time and again I had to stifle protests of “But…, but…, but, it wasn’t that way at all!” I went into the film knowing that the history presented on the screen was a crock, and it is probably unfair to complain that “300” is ahistorical. It is a movie treatment of a comic book that was based on an episode in Greek history that from the beginning had become the stuff of legend. In such a situation realism is not remotely a consideration. Still, old critical habits die hard and I missed the Athenians and Thespians, both of whom were conspicuously absent from the film through hardly from Thermopylae.

There were only two aspects of the story that really disturbed me. The first had to do with the nature of Spartan society. It’s a cliché that no longer has any force, but it is still a bit jarring to hear representatives of a slave society prattling on about “freedom.” Of course, “freedom” did not mean the same thing to Leonidas’ warrior aristocrats as it does to us today. We think in terms of personal freedom, but in the traditional societies of the fifth century BC very few people, even kings, were free of complex webs of dependency and obligation. When the Spartans spoke of freedom, what they really meant was freedom from foreign domination, and in that respect the film is remarkably true to the spirit of the age it depicts.

The second major problem I had was the depiction of religion. I am not a comics fan, but have been told that Frank Miller is hostile to organized religion and that an anti-religious sensibility permeates his work. It certainly was a blatant feature of “Sin City.” His depiction here of the ephors, Sparta’s annually elected high magistrates, is simply grotesque and superfluous to the story he is telling. The whole oracle episode is simply a gratuitous slap at religion – one that drew me out of the story.

In other ways, “300” was remarkably true to the spirit of the times it purports to represent.

“300” has been criticized for portraying its heroes as racist xenophobes, but that is what they were. Classical Greeks as a whole drew sharp and invidious distinctions between those who shared their culture and the “barbarians” of other lands, and in that regard Spartans were perhaps the worst. They saw themselves and their peculiar culture as being vastly superior to all others.

A related objection is Miller’s decision to portray the Persian barbarians as grotesque monsters. In part this is a convention of superhero comics [a wholly visual medium], but it also has roots in an ancient Greek artistic tradition that equated moral virtue with physical beauty. Of course the converse also obtained. Evil was represented by physical monstrosity. And for that matter, Greeks no less than medieval Christians, saw foreign lands as the lurking place of monsters.

Others were put off by the film’s extreme, though stylized, violence. But that, too, is true to ancient Greek literary conventions. Witness these passages from Homer’s Iliad:

Now so long as the day waxed and it was still morning, their darts rained thick on one another
and the people perished, but… then the Danaans with a cry that rang through all their ranks,
broke the battalions of the enemy. Agamemnon led them on, and slew first
Bienor, a leader of his people, and afterwards his comrade and charioteer Oileus, who sprang
from his chariot and was coming full towards him; but Agamemnon struck him on the forehead
with his spear; his bronze visor was of no avail against the weapon, which pierced both bronze
and bone, so that his brains were battered in and he was killed in full fight.
Agamemnon stripped their shirts from off them and left them with their breasts all bare to lie
where they had fallen. He then went on to kill Isus and Antiphus two sons of Priam….
Agamemnon son of Atreus smote Isus in the chest above the nipple with his spear, while he
struck Antiphus hard by the ear and threw him from his chariot.
Then King Agamemnon took the two sons of Antimachus, Pisander and brave Hippolochus….
The son of Atreus sprang upon them like a lion, and the pair besought him from their chariot.
"Take us alive," they cried, "son of Atreus, and you shall receive a great ransom for us.
With such piteous words and tears did they beseech the king, but… he felled Pisander from 
his chariot to the earth, smiting him on the chest with his spear, so that he lay face uppermost
upon the ground. Hippolochus fled, but him too did Agamemnon smite; he cut off his hands
and his head--which he sent rolling in among the crowd as though it were a ball. There he let
them both lie, and wherever the ranks were thickest thither he flew, while the other Achaeans
followed. Foot soldiers drove the foot soldiers of the foe in rout before them, and slew them;
horsemen did the like by horsemen, and the thundering tramp of the horses raised a cloud of
dust from off the plain. King Agamemnon followed after, ever slaying them and cheering on
the Achaeans. As when some mighty forest is all ablaze--the eddying gusts whirl fire in all
directions till the thickets shrivel and are consumed before the blast of the flame--even so fell
the heads of the flying Trojans before Agamemnon son of Atreus, and many a noble pair of
steeds drew an empty chariot along the highways of war, for lack of drivers who were lying
on the plain, more useful now to vultures than to their wives.

And those are by no means the goriest parts of the epic. You should check out what Achilles does to his foes. Considering precedents such as these, the over-the-top posturing and violence are by no means inappropriate.

And what about those clunky boasts and one-liners mouthed by the Spartans? Those, too are taken almost verbatim from ancient texts. If you have a problem with “300” blame Herodotus, Homer, Diodorus and other ancient authors whose sensibilities shaped the legend.

What about the political implications of the film?

It is a sad commentary on our times that everything is assumed to be a political statement. In this regard I find it telling that critics have argued, depending on their political perspective, that Leonidas represents either President Bush or the Iraqi insurgents. Obviously he cannot be both, and in fact is neither. Some European and Islamic commentators have argued that the film was made as a piece of government propaganda supporting the war effort. All such assertions are ridiculous. Frank Miller’s story was crafted and published during the Clinton Presidency, long before the Iraq war began, and the U.S. government is not in the business of producing Hollywood films.

That is not to say that there are no political resonances in “300”. What is perhaps most interesting about the film is the way in which elite critics have responded to it. They hate it!!!!! And with good reason. “300” gleefully bursts the constraints of political correctness in a number of ways. It is a subversive work, defying the standards handed down by cultural elites – those who would presume to tell us what we might properly say and do and even think.

“300” should be seen as one of a rapidly growing body of subversive films challenging the standards of political correctness. Just as an earlier generation of film-makers rebelled against the strictures of bourgeois life, many film-makers today – Paul Weitz, the Farrellys, Mel Gibson, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and now Zack Snyder – are enthusiastically shredding the constraints and codes imposed by modern liberalism, and more and more they are finding an enthusiastic audience. That accounts for the overwhelmingly negative reaction of credentialed arbiters of taste.

“300” is not a very good film, although it has its moments, nor is it even a particularly important one, but it is a tremendously exhilarating transgressive experience for those who chafe restlessly under the omnipresent burden of political correctness, and that alone makes it well worth while.

Go see it!


Lileks saw it too! As usual, he gets the essential point:

[Y]ou can split hairs: the individuals were drawn from the upper classes; liberty was not extended to slaves; tyranny as defined by the upper class might have meant certain liberties for the lower classes, according to the rules of the invading empire. Maybe. Point is, the Spartans were asked to kneel, and chose not to. Every culture has a myth like this. If they don’t, they will be vassals to cultures that do.

Emphasis mine.

Read it here.


Andrew Klavan at Libertas explains the essence of the heroic ideal portrayed in 300 this way:

The film understands that we celebrate heroes because we dine on the fruits of their sacrifice. The greatest of these fruits is liberty, more precious than life itself. And when we glorify the heroes who defend our liberty with their lives, it reminds us too that we must live in responsibility to them, not only in our actions but in our philosophies as well. Every day that we preserve and cherish our freedom is a monument to them, a sign that they are not forgotten. They are never forgotten.

Go tell the Spartans.

He argues that this, more than any other factor, explains the film's popularity. This is not a message that mainstream critics are able to comprehend and why they cannot understand the appeal of 300.

I think he's probably right.

Read the whole thing here.

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