Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Ancient Greek Klingons Vs. Orc Ninjas

I went out last Friday and saw 300 at the Uptown in DC. Before I get into the larger topics, it bears repeating: the Uptown is a fantastic place to see a movie. Huge old movie palace, balcony and all. The screen is enormous, curving around the front of the auditorium. If you sit close enough, it feels like the screen is surrounding you, to take it all in you must swivel your head. I don't recommend sitting too close. Friday was the opening of the movie, so the house was full. I sometimes forget how enjoyable seeing movies with a large, enthusiastic audience can be. This was a fairly brutal, violent movie. The crowd cheered at the particularly spectacular deaths. This crowd was involved, and that made it all the more enjoyable.

The movie itself was very interesting. If you've read many of the reviews, you'll see a lot of critics don't care for it. Some of the main indictments against it is that is historically inaccurate, militaristic, racist, and fails to offer any current cultural commentary or resonance. While it may be, I disagree with the overall critique of the film. I think these critics are judging it on what they might have wanted it to be, rather than what it is.

History: The movie is fairly close to historically accurate. More so than, say, Gladiator, which was pretty much spun from whole cloth. Three hundred Spartans, accompanied by a few thousand more other Greeks, did fight a vast Persian army at Thermopylae and were defeated. Spartans were trained from childhood to be warriors, unfit children were abandoned to die, and youths were sent out into the wild as a right of passage. The 300 fought off assaults be elite Persian warriors called the Immortals, and were betrayed by a man named Ephialtes and encircled on the third day after their Phocian allies retreated from the goat path that led to their rear. The movie gets all of these details right. Others are quite incorrect - Spartan hoplites wore about 50 pounds of armor, not just capes and leather thongs. Ephors were not inbred priests - they were politicians, elected for a single term and shared power with the two hereditary Kings. And the Persian army was not made up of mutants, giants, and orcs.

Militarism: Some critics have decried the portrayal of the Spartans as sociopathic warmongers, while still being presented as the heroes. But the Spartans were very nearly sociopaths - men were compelled to serve in the army from ages 21 to 30, and trained from age 7. Men only received headstones if they died in battle - otherwise, they were buried in unmarked graves. The Spartan state owned its citizens from birth to age 60, essentially, and unless they were elected ephor, they were in the army. That is the most perfect example of a militaristic state in all of human history. Of course they were obsessed with military glory and combat - their whole society was structured around it. We can abhor it, but it is intellectually dishonest to criticize the movie for historical inaccuracy, then again for the historically accurate portrayal of Spartan culture.

Racism: The movie does seem a bit racist in its casting choices. The Greeks are all white (King Leonidas is played by a Scotsman, for instance). The Persians who aren't dressed up as goblins are black, Indian, or Arabic. This is partially accurate - the Achaemid Persian Empire covered what is now parts of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Armenia, Greece, and Egypt. The casting for the Persian army is fairly accurate. But the Greeks should not look be Scotsmen. I am tempted to give the movie a pass, here, since Hollywood has a long history of this. Edward G. Robinson as Dathan? Really? But by the same token, if I defend the movie for its correct details, I have to point out the shortcomings. And this movie uses racial stereotypes as a kind of shorthand for many characters.

Cultural Relevance: The movie is about a founding Western Civilization going to war with Persia. The heart of the Persian Empire was Iran. The current political parallels are obvious, but the movie declines to make use of them. Admittedly, the parallels are not perfect. And incorporating some them into the script might have been a bit clunky - some talk about how the Persian war elephants present a clear and present danger to the security of the Greek City-states? I think this objection is more about how at a time when relations between western nations and Iran are strained, the movie glories in the idea of westerners fighting invading Persians. But any nod to pacifism, diplomacy, or more modern ideas would have been unfaithful to the true history. There is a legitimate argument that now might not be the best time for a movie like this. But that doesn't change that Xerxes did invade Greece 2500 years ago. There are lessons to be learned from that historical truth, perhaps. But maybe this movie is not the vehicle best suited for that.

This bring me to a more interesting point. So far removed from the battle, why do we still choose sides? The Spartans are the good guys, the Persians are the villains. Is it a cultural thing - the movie was made in a western society that can trace many of its roots to Ancient Greece, so it naturally takes the side of its cultural forebears? Maybe it is just rooting for the underdog? Doesn't choosing sides prevent us from objectively learning history's lessons? The parallel may be that the United States are the Persians.

That kind of historical "study" has never appealed to me. It doesn't matter who was good or bad, or even right and wrong. It happened, and their bones have long turned to dust. It smacks of the kind of pop history where "experts" rank the presidents or pick the Most Decisive Turning Points in History. Who the hell cares? What does that teach us about anything? We can learn important historical lessons from the tenure of the worst president (that S.O.B. Franklin Pierce?), and history never turns on a point, since each moment is informed by all that came before it. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," so learn as much of it as you can. Really learn it - don't waste your time picking favorites. If it takes a frankly dumb (but awesomely fun) movie like 300 to get you interested, then so be it.


Christopher said...

This is definitely a more in-depth movie review than what I'm used to reading.

Nice work!

Christopher said...

I agree with...myself, apparently. Google identifies me as only a first name.

And the Persian army was not made up of mutants, giants, and orcs.

Nicely played. The third in a list is the funny one.

With that out of the way, and bearing in mind that I have not seen the movie and know it only through its marketing . . . I don't really care about the criticisms of the movie that are, essentially, nipping at the fringes of the thing. Racism in casting, historical inaccuracy, lack of context, missed opportunities for current relevance/analogies...small potatoes.

I appreciate that you called out the idea that the timing of this movie's release is perhaps unfortunate. I submit that a movie like this does not really have any good time to be released, but 2002-2008, in the United States, is particularly poor.

300 does not aim to glorify violence, like, say, Pulp Fiction. It does not aim to glorify mindless violence, like, say, Doom. Its entire raison d'etre is to glorify organized violence, and to cast war for extinction between societies as a proper condition. I am horrified by the work and disgusted by the author.

I've seen the director expressly address what seems to be critics' most often-made complaint - that there isn't an explicit political parallel - by saying that he didn't want to make any kind of historical analogy or statement with his product. Whether he recognizes them and ignores them, or if he truly doesn't understand what he's made, the parallels are there. It's not his job to draw the conclusions, it's the audience's (consciously or not).

I will say that I don't think the movie makes a political statement in the normal sense. It is more of a sociological statement.

300 was designed to be injected straight into the veins of popular culture, beyond the reach of facts, beyond knowledge, beyond criticism. It is certainly not a dispassionate historical work and not designed to encourage thought: look at the reviews, which either snipe at it as historically inaccurate (where, as you point out, the story is largely true - if the reviewers had been inspired by the movie to go out and look up the history, they would have realized it), or the reviews call it bloody enjoyment. Um.

I think this film is a natural outgrowth of the recent surge in this movie type: Kill Bill, The Passion, Sin City, Apocalypto, Hostel. Violence-as-end. What was the springpoint, and where is this evolution heading?

Perhaps I would learn something from 300, and discover that there is something I'm missing, but I cannot see it. I'm infinitely better off with reading your review.

I sometimes conflate Sparta with Troy & the story of Ulysses - as Greek myth. I forget that the astonishing society of Sparta was very real.

Frieda Peeple said...

Did you, as you so succinctly put it, un-%#*& the situation and see Children Of Men before it escaped theatres, or will you be waiting for it to come up on your Netflix queue?