Wednesday, March 14, 2007


70 million Iranians have not seen 300, but they all know they hate it. Americans on the other hand loved the film $70M worth at the box office last weekend, and are pretty evenly divided about whether or not they like it.

The guy who sat a few seats away from me summed up the American pro-300 view on his cell phone during the credits: "The cinematography was great. The violence was awesome. It was way better than Gladiator." Deep thinking fella; glad you enjoyed it.

Most of the reviews I've seen just can't quite come to grips with the movie. All of them, without fail, try to equate this war film to our current war. But no one can seem to decide who is who in that metaphor. The Iranians, on the other hand, are convinced they are quite literally the evil Persians of the film and this is tantmount to a declaration of war on Iran by Hollywood. Judging from Mr. Cell Phone Abuse, I think the Iranians give the American public too much credit to think that we remember that Iran was once Perisa.

Does 300 have relevance to our current war effort? Sure, but not in strained one-to-one comparisons. When you see this movie, you should leave with this question in your mind: When the tally is counted in the distant future, will we be found as commited in our defense of Western Civilization as the Spartans, or will we be found lacking?

Around halfway through the story, the Persian King of Kings (insert your blasphemy here) parlays with the Spartan King. "Be reasonable, Leonidas. There is much our cultures can share," he says, after spending a morning watching wave after wave of his troops crash hopelessly against the solid Greek shield wall. "We've been sharing our culture with you all morning," responds the Spartan.

That line, conciously or not, cost 300 any chance among the Oscar voters who gave the gold statue to Al Gore. This is a film that almost absolutely rejects any notion of cultural equivalency. That's not a radical notion, that's a reactionary statement! It isn't necessarily a Neo-Con sentiment, but it is certainly a Conservative notion. There are a great number of platitudes thrown about in the movie, which features almost as many talking heads as rolling ones. But at the center of the film is the conviction that Western Civilization is, in fact, worth defending - flaws and all.

The inability to face this fact square in the eye and accept or reject it is why so many critics get caught up in the phony argument of whether or not the film is historically accurate. Reading these reviews has caused many a chuckle for me. It's bizarre to me that one reviewer seemed perplexed by what he considered homosexual subtext among so many manly men (frankly, I expected a more open rendering of this) while questioning why the costumes weren't more accurate to the period and the fighting styles so influenced by kung fu. That displays a warped sense of historic context. I've seen an amateur reviewer question whether or not any woman would really tell her lover, "Come back with your shield, or on it." Believe it, baby.

Frank Miller, the original author of the graphic novel on which this is based, did volumes of research about the real Battle of Thermopolae. And then he promptly threw it out. "As a cartoonist, I'm primarily a cariacaturist. I'm interested in what people look like. And then I'm interested in what people really look like."

Those who cry foul about historical revision to this chapter of Greek history need to consider the ultimate source: Herodotus. He considered himself a storyteller first and foremost. Fact checking was far down his list of priorities. His goal was not to give a fair and balanced account of how and why the Persians came to Greece, he wanted to record the great and noble struggle of his people against oppresive invaders! 300 follows more in that spirit than in a dry rendering of the actual tactics and strategy. This is history as inspirational legend.

Some may call that propaganda, but that is true only when it is used incorrectly. This film tells a stirring story of hard choices, and asks us that one essential question: Is Western Civilization worth fighting for? The trappings are for show, and remembrance of glorious deeds.

These were men, my friends.


Anonymous said...

I take it from your words get the "big W"!

srb said...

The history channel just did a nice production called "Last Stand of the 300". Haven't seen the Hollywood version yet, but I enjoyed what the History Channel offered. As a side note, it seems like it should have been called the Last Stand of the 1300. Sounds like the 1000 Thespians that stayed and stood with the Spartans should be given credit for their bravery.

The History channel also gave an explanation of why the Persians came to Greece. I assume it was historically accurate. But I did not find it dry. It was inspirational. Very cool. The actual history is amazing. Why muck with it?

Anonymous said...

I like Thespians...

or is that Lesbians?

jrf said...


Yes, there were small contingents from other Greek city-states fighting alongside the Spartans. If my memory serves me correctly, the Thespians and Thebans were the largest of these. The Spartans get all the credit because the others probably would've run much earlier if the Spartans hadn't stiffened their resolve. Also, and again, this is from memory, it was only the Spartans who stayed until the third day. The rest were sent to conserve the forces for a more decisive battle and to warn the rest of Greece.

As an old double major in History and English Lit, I appreciate your point about jazzing up history. I think it is best when history and storytelling are equally served. But I'm also not sure that it is always necessary to serve both masters equally.

History is concerned with the facts. And it doesn't take long to realize that history, being a record of the messy real lives human beings live, isn't always a clear narrative. Sometimes people do inexplicable things. Sometimes threads are left hanging. And very often, there is an excellent record of actions, but little trace of motivations. We know -- for example -- what Oskar Schindler did, but we have only the barest glimpse into his mind about why he saved his Jewish workers.

Thus, we have literature, a medium that seeks to impose order onto the messiness of real life. It can speculate about motivations. It can tidy up little inconsistencies. It can ignore troublesome facts. Some see this as a problem. On the other hand, it allows an author to explore the emotional content of an event far more freely. The author can focus on themes that matter most to him. We can all experience the poetry of an event.

So, I've mellowed over the years about how close a story is to the real events. It's true that 300 is not the historical series of events. In it's own brutal way, it is a poetic version of the battle. But it has brought this dramatic event to thousands of new people who otherwise would've never known about Thermopylae in particular, or the endless nature of the clash of East and West through the centuries. And it carries on Leonidas' last command to his people (and Western Civilization): "Remember us."

Stories don't change history. If the movie sparks someone's interest in learning more, that's for the better. I've already recommended a couple of books on the Spartans to a young co-worker. Not surprisingly, he chose to read another fictionalized account of the battle titled Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield. I can vouch that the author hews much closer to the actual historical record than Frank Miller did. Gates of Fire is on several curriculum reading lists at the college level -- and it is on the recommended reading list for the Marine Corps.