Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Movie Review: '300'

300, directed by Zack Snyder and adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, is yet another retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. It's generating plenty of battles on its own. The basic story of the movie has been known for almost 2500 years, since Herodotus first wrote it down: 300 Spartans led by one of their kings, Leonidas, stood for three days against a Persian army of hundreds of thousands, and died at the pass of Thermopylae in Greece in 480 BC. Their sacrifice was an inspiration to the Greek city-states, who temporarily stopped killing each other long enough to fend off an invasion by the largest empire the world had ever seen, and subsequent events in Greece formed the basis of Western Civilization.

My exposure to the history of the Battle of Thermopylae comes from a circuitous route. In reading We Were Soldiers Once...And Young, the book by Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, from which the movie We Were Soldiers came, there was a section about why men fight, and what it's like to be a soldier -- not the physical experience, but the mindset. Both that book and another Vietnam memoir, Steel My Soldiers' Hearts by David Hackworth recommended yet another book: Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield.

It seemed odd that non-fiction books about Vietnam referenced a novel about ancient Greece, of all things, to explain the mindset of men in combat, the fraternity and lifelong bonds that the most dire of circumstances will produce. It seemed odd, that is, until I read Gates of Fire for myself, and I have to tell you, it's about the only book that has ever had me close to tears. I get close to tears when I read about the 19 year-old Marine who gets shot, and in shock and in pain apologizes to his Sergeant for being wounded, and whose first concern is for his squadmates who will be denied his assistance in the rest of the battle. There's a selflessness there that is out of place in a self-centered world, yet another reason that the military is unpopular in certain circles these days. The military shows us a high standard of selflessness that can be difficult to face, particularly by people whose concept of selflessness consists primarily of proscribing the speech of others and taking a day off of work to go to the protest. 'Courage' and 'sacrifice' are frequently ignored or defamed by people with lesser definitions of those qualities.

Having read Steven Pressfield's version of the historic battle (and having never covered much in the way of Greek history other than mythology in school), I was eagerly anticipating the Frank Miller/Zack Snyder version. The day before the opening I was talking to one of the young women at the office who indicated that her boyfriend had already gotten tickets for the next day, and she remarked that "Every guy I've talked to wants to see that movie. I guess they just like all that violence and gore." I replied that if men wanted to see violence and gore there are plenty of options, the Saw series comes to mind. What motivates men to see 300 and to be drawn to the story in general, in my estimation, was the example of a stand against impossible odds, to draw your line in the sand and pit your will and your strength against the other's. And most importantly, to do that beside your dedicated friends, men who have your back, who trust you and in whom you trust. The Spartans are the ultimate football team.

I must admit, there's also a certain adolescent impishness that makes the Spartans (in the commercials and trailers, as well as the movie) appealing, especially to younger men. They're tough, they're bad, and they'll tell you the same to your face. When called to lay down their arms, the Spartans respond "Come and get them." When Xerxes offers Leonidas an amicable sharing of cultures after the first day's slaughter of Persians, Leonidas respones with a smirk, "We've been sharing our culture with you all day." One of the Spartans (they have names, but they aren't really important to the plot) is threatened by a Persian that "Our arrows will blot out the Sun!", to which he replies, "Then we will fight in the shade." The Spartans are nothing if not cool, until the fight starts, at which point they're deadly, efficient and largely smarter than the poor saps they're fighting. In short, they talk the talk and they walk the walk, something to which most young men aspire. I was in no way surprised that the 9:30 showing last Saturday was probably 70% male.

The other strong presence in the movie is Gorgo, Leonidas' wife who stays at home yet still fights for her husband, attempting vainly to rouse the Spartans to follow her husband and the 300 on the slim hope of rescuing him. She's as strong in her way as Leonidas is in his, and toward the end of the film she provided the loudest "Woohoo!" moment in the movie. At one point the Persian envoy who comes to deliver the first message from Xerxes to Leonidas and the Spartans is shocked that she speaks in his presence. She calmly puts him in his place. From the portrayal in the movie, it's even more obvious why Gorgo is queen than why Leonidas is king, she's an admirable figure.

There are multiple historical inaccuracies. A portion of the Persian fleet did sink in a storm, but it was on the other side of the island of Euboea, and out of sight of the Spartans. The Spartans wore armor in battle, their shields were bronze-covered wood, not solid metal, the swords are a bit fanciful. The Spartans weren't dead-set against slavery, they had a servant-class called helots that were pretty close to chattel slaves, these do not appear in the movie. When Leonidas bellows about "free men", he's talking about free Spartan citizens, but some license is in order. Democracy and the rights of the individual have to start somewhere, and Sparta was one of the places it started. Leonidas never spoke with Xerxes, and Xerxes is not indicated as being eight feet tall, bald and pierced in the historical record. The Spartans neither fought nor died alone, even at the end somewhere between 700 and 1,100 other Greeks stood and fought with them.

The controversy over the movie comes in two major and one minor flavors: there are several critics who write the phrase, "There's a war on!" as a criticism, and there are a lot of people objecting to the portrayal of the Persians in the movie. The other comment about the movie I find more than a little silly is that it's homophobic, a criticism that rests on one derisive line about Athenians (they are referred to as "boy-lovers") and the fact that Xerxes looks to some reviewers like a "club queen" or an ancient analogue of RuPaul. To deal with the minor issue first, the Spartans never liked the Athenians on general principles, you have to be extremely hypersensitive to focus on two words out of a whole movie. Also, the visual of Xerxes is Frank Miller's, compared to the, well, spartan Spartans there has to be a visual way to communicate "the Other" and this is the way Xerxes was portrayed. It takes a mind bent on finding offense to find homophobia as a strong undercurrent, given the other outstanding inaccuracies of the movie.

The "There's a war on!" people like to try to raise questions about whether Xerxes or Leonidas is the George W. Bush of the film, and whether or not the film promotes violence. I can understand the perspective, particularly if you approach it from the US being decadent and expansionist and sinful and the insurgents of Iraq or Afghanistan as noble and peace-loving people who fight to protect their way of life. I don't see the world this way, and on as simple a question as "How do the Perisans and Spartans perceive the role of women?" the question is answered. The other issue would be who does the fighting and for what reason, the Spartans send 300 volunteers, a tiny force, to accomplish a huge mission. The Persians drive their non-volunteer troops to battle upon fear of death and in fear of the God-King, to avenge an insult. Slot in the ummah for the God-King and a religious philosophy that even today demands submission and fidelity beyond that given to a nation-state and you have a pretty good Islamist analogue for the Persian troops. There is also some concern that a pro-military movie might (gasp!) encourage young men to enlist. Wonder if that held up the producers of Guadalcanal Diary? Frank Miller comes across as an unabashed conservative in this audio clip from NPR, I'm pretty sure that if the movie means the Army and Marines don't have to scramble for recruits it won't be the worst thing to happen, in his opinion.

Gorgo at the forum in Sparta pleading for assistance for the few volunteer Spartans fighting for their lives far away may just be too accurate a picture of Western civilization circa 2007: peaceful at home and uninvolved while a few fight across the globe against a real threat that as a civilization we'd rather not notice. The Spartans at home seem to say, "They're at war with Athens, not us. The Athenians shouldn't have provoked them," much as some in Europe (and those Americans who want desperately to be Europeans) say, "The Islamist terrorists are attacking the Americans and the Israelis. The Americans and Israelis shouldn't have provoked them." As if that will stop the onslaught. It did nothing for the Phocians, who abandoned their posts and allowed the defenders of Thermopylae to be surrounded and eventually defeated. If current political figures are anywhere in the movie, George W. Bush is Gorgo and most of Europe's political elite is Theron, including the rape in return for help that never comes. If only GWB was as articulate as Gorgo...but I digress.

The other criticism comes from modern-day Persians, including the Government of Iran. Some of this criticism is valid, some is not. The invalid parts center around the CIA's involvment in bringing the movie to fruition, if the CIA had CGI capabilites this good, we would have 'found' WMDs a long time ago in Iraq. The Iranian government is having a cow over a movie and events that predate the birth of their prophet by a millennium, it's just more in a stream of idiocy that seems to pour forth like a fountain from Tehran. I wish the CIA were this good, about the only government the CIA seems to be threat to these days in that of the United States.

The Persians who feel slighted by the portrayal of Xerxes have a historical point, the Persian empire was considerably more liberal in its administration of its territories than comparable empires, by and large as long as the taxes arrived they didn't impose religion on people and left them alone. They may have been the first to do this but they were by no means the last, Rome employed a similar strategy. They also point out that Xerxes was simply responding to an Athenian provocation that occurred 20 years earlier, and to the prior Persian defeat at Marathon, 10 years before Thermopylae. For the sake of argument let's concede the point that the Persians are generic bad guys made fanciful and freakish for the movie, but the tip for careful viewers that this wasn't a historical film should have been at least by the point in the movie where 'The Immortals', Xerxes' personal guard showed up wearing Greek theater masks and swinging katanas. One would think that the fact that the only actual things in the movie are the actors playing the soldiers and the rest is CGI would have been the first clue. Compared to the contemporary falsehoods that are believed to be truths by many in the Arab world after viewing the movie Valley of the Wolves Iraq, license with historical accuracy from 2500 years ago may be somewhat easier to overlook than license with events from less than four years ago.

300 is a spectacularly violent movie that is not for children, but tells a story of a brave battle for high stakes and higher ideals that still has relevance today. There is nudity and dudity, some of the makeup and costumes are a little gross. But if you're an adult, have eight bucks you can spare and a couple of hours to kill, I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Saw a good program last night on the history channel with all the commentary. Interesting stuff, they really heralded Themistocles of Athena as the real master-mind behind the whole engagement. He was admiral of the Greek fleet that had similar success 6 to 1 against the Persians.

You catch it? - dsd