"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The New Thermopylae

After several weeks of non-stop night flying and massive amounts of paperwork catch-up, I finally got to have a little fun yesterday: I went to see 300, a movie I'd been anticipating ever since I saw the trailer. Though based on a graphic novel I'd never read, I was hoping it would at least be half as good as Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire, a fantastic novel about the same battle (which, being a book, goes into much greater detail about Spartan culture, the ancient world, and events before and after the battle itself that a comic or movie never could). In a different blog (on a different web site, I think), I'd called the previous adaptation of a Frank Miller comic, Sin City, a gritty, enthralling "ballet of death". 300 is much the same: its narrative is typical over-the-top comic book style, its battle scenes brutal, bloody, and outrageous, the scenery more real than real. It's not Oscar-winning material (though its visuals certainly are); it won't be remembered as a powerful, compelling retelling of a classic story of resistance and heroism; but it's entertaining as hell. An interesting side-effect has been the burble of commentary that's arisen in its wake, commentary that was entirely absent when Miller's last movie was in theaters. Now, granted, 300 is (very loosely) based on actual events; Sin City was not. Yet both are based on graphic novels more interested in blood and boobs than any sort of overarching message. Why, then, are people extrapolating all kinds of messages from 300?

We have, for example, an
Iranian commentator who has not seen the film, but describes its effect on Persia's descendants. They see it as an American propeganda tool to prepare our nation for war, as an insult to their country's heritage ("see" is not the right word, of course, as no Iranian has actually viewed it. But that doesn't stop conspiracy theories from abounding). Another cautions against making Spartans into an example of liberty and virtue. And then there are those who are simply happy that Hollywood has made a film where the bad guys aren't a) our own government, b) oil companies or some equally insidious transnational corporation, or c) some combination thereof, with Brad Pitt and/or George Clooney taking top billing.

Some of these folks are unintentionally funny. Seriously, guys, its based on a comic book. Don't act surprised that the story takes a few liberties with history. Every historical movie changes things around, cuts things out, makes events tidier and the people prettier. Some do so with a laughable gravity (Titanic). 300 makes no such pretense. It's a bad-ass action movie, with chisled abs for the ladies and naked dancers for the men (and blood, guts, dismemberment, and decapitation for the men . . .); it's a movie that could have been made with any number of ancient cultural groups, but the Spartans were legitimate badasses, so Frank Miller and the producers used them. So, calm the hell down. It's a comic book.

There are a couple of deeper points, however. For one thing, even though huge liberties are taken with the facts, I'm grateful that 300 has inspired a renewed interest in classical history. As I'm a bigger geek than most, I dusted off my copy of Gates of Fire for a re-read to get ready for the movie, then went out and bought Herodotus' The Histories and Xenophon's Anabasis for good measure (Herodotus tells the story of the Persian Wars in their entirety; Xenophon, a later tale of a Greek army that marches deep into Persia years later, finds itself cut off and deep in enemy territory, then fights and marches its way back out. An equally compelling story, worthy of a movie in its own right). Certainly, not everyone will do this. But if 300 gets a few people curious enough to buy a book on ancient history, or take a class, or perhaps branch in other directions and explore Greek philosophy, poetry, and drama, or its Roman equivalents - then surely that's a net plus for us as a culture. Academia has all but outlawed the stories of "dead white males" just like the Spartans and ancient Greeks. But you know what? Their stories are fascinating, their history rich and exciting, their literature timeless, and their culture as a whole the parent of our own. It's sad that it took a comic book to remind us this fact, but at least something did.

Furthermore, this era of cultural relativism has nixed the idea that some cultures or ideas are superior to others; hence, we shouldn't glorify in the resistance of one group against another, or call their actions 'heroic', because it will offend the group who was being resisted, and they're not really oppressors or aggressors and their culture was just as swell. 300 will, perhaps, remind of a fact this attitude tries to bury: namely, that there are certain turning points in history we should be glad happened, and we should be grateful to those whose sacrifice made them happen. These events aren't always cut and dried. Gates of Fire and 300, for example, both turn Sparta into a noble warrior culture awash with notions of liberty, virtue, and justice. Sparta's neighbors, who quickly became her slaves, might disagree with this version of history. And years later, with the Persians vanquished and Greece safe from further invasion, Sparta and her allies resumed old animosities in the long and bloody Peleponnesian War. Sparta's draconianism and Greece's overall tendency for petty in-fighting don't seem to be things to emulate, as critics of the movie fell over each other to be the first to point out. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let's remember that Sparta and the rest of the Greek city-state were fiercely independent and valued their freedom from foreign domination; surely that's something we can identify with. And the defeat of Xerxes' army soon after Thermopylae allowed the nascent Greek culture of philosophy, art, and literature to survive and flourish, rather than die in the cradle. Cultural relativists may think we'd be fine without these things; but if we didn't have them, the Western world would look vastly different than it does today. As for those Iranians offended by the reminder that their ancestors ultimately lost the Persian wars, let me say this: that doesn't mean you can't take pride in the architectural or cultural achivements of the ancient Persians, or that the rest of us can't admire them. But that doesn't mean we'd want to live under a despotic theocracy with a god-king at its head. I admire things like Aztec pyramids and Mayan astronomy too, but I'm glad they're not cutting the hearts out of sacrificial victims anymore (I'd also remind those Iranians who accuse America of naked imperialism: imperialism doesn't get much more naked that Xerxes' desire to annex, oh, the entire known world. Do with that what you will).

And to Iran's mullahs and president, I add this. 300 reminds us what happened when a Persian leader, drunk on power, sought to remake the world in his own image. He united his enemies, who twice repulsed his advances and ultimately invaded and dismantled his empire. Our ancestors did it once. We can do it again. Proceed with care.

2 comments:

W2E said...

Hey fellow bloggers,

Number 1 in this week's Box Office is a sports comedy directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon.
"Blade of Glory" was released last week, on March 30. All the flash lights are on Chazz Michael Michaels, who is the star of the ice skating arena. His only competitor seems to be the former wonder kid, Jimmy MacElroy.

The two "sports heroes" meet each other face to face at the World Championships and their rivalry erupts into a big fight. Three years latter we find Michael skating, dressed as a clown or an evil wizard and drunk almost all the time and MacElroy working into a shoe store. In the end the two rivals join their forces and talent and they compete as the first skating pair in history of sports composed by two men.

Also released on March 30, "Meet the Robinsons" is a 3D animation fantasy directed by Stephen J. Anderson. The animation also known as "A Day with Wilbur Robinson" is a relaxing movie based on a science fiction story. A twelve-year-old, Lewis, meets Wilbur Robinson, a boy from the future, who takes him forward in the future by means of a time machine.

Traveling into the future, Lewis finds out the big secret of the Robinson family. Lewis is not an ordinary kid, instead of playing like most children of his age, he prefers reading and studying, having already a large number of inventions. His latest research was focused on creating a Memory Scanner device in order to recover his mother's thoughts when she gave him for adoption. Unfortunately, Bowler Hat Guy and his evil hat, Doris, are stealing Lewis' invention. Lewis discovers a new mysterious world with floating cities and manages to save the future and to help his future family.

The movie "300" lies on the 3rd place in this week's Box Office. Released on March 9, and directed by Zack Snyder with a $129,165,656 budget, the historical drama had a great impact on the audience. The filming location was Montreal, Canada and the movie is based on the legendary story of the Battle of Thermopylae, which took place in 480 B.C., when King Leonidas, his 300 Spartans and some other Greeks entered the war against the huge invading Persian army. The story is simple but intense and the film is great to watch and to listen to. Gerard Butler stars as King Leonidas, who runs an insignificant army from a numerical point of view. Rodrigo Santoro plays the Persian invasion leader, Xerxes.

The main actors were required to work out a lot for this movie, as the personages had to look strong, healthy, with sculpted bodies. The film special effects look great, the chromatics tend to impress more due to the sepia tones, or the violent red of the blood. Reviewers agree that "300" is a great movie based on a legendary moment and stylized with a lot of visual work. Taking into consideration the positive impact of the movie, perhaps "300" fans will get the chance in the future to play video games based on this movie.

Michael S.
For more new movie reviews and old movies like 100 Girls or Along Came Polly please visit my blog.

Potsie said...

Interesting piece. I have to admit I read your sources and found myself swelling with pride when I came across the inscription on the first Alamo monument:

“Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat - the Alamo had none.”

As the author of the aforementioned article states, however, the analogy of Santa-Anna v. the Alamo's defenders falls short in illustrating the exact situation in which the Spartans find themselves. Be that as it may, I find myself less concerned with the exact mechanics of the analogy, and simply appreciate the necessary transformation of man into warrior as he faces insurmountable odds. And yes, leave it to the Texans to 'one-up' the ancients.