300 came out what, four months ago? It took me like a month to see it, but when I did I saw it on IMAX, which I’d like to think makes up for the procrastination. I wouldn’t have even mentioned it at all if I hadn’t come across Daniel Mendelsohn’s consideration of it, “Duty,” in last month’s New York Review.
I found the entire thing to be bullishly wrong-headed (review, not the movie), and I haven’t said that before about Mendelsohn’s writing. He dismisses 300 as a video game, explicitly as a new low in movies, and laments for our future, when as a movie public we are already in our third decade of the video game-movie alliance. Did Mendelsohn never see War Games? The Last Starfighter? Super Mario Bros. starring Bob Hoskins? Cremaster 3? The Lord of the Rings was over ten hours of escalating video game levels, and that was an unmatched cinematic triumph.
Mendelsohn’s disdain for video game movies is connected to an abandonment of traditional plot. Traditional plot, he notes, was perfected soon after the actual Battle of Thermopylae, in the format of Athenian tragedy.
The dismissal, I therefore fear, flows from an overly literal acceptance of Aristotle’s Poetics. (It’s not annoying to talk about Poetics, right, since we’re in that general antiquity area already? M. raids his Aristotle just for disses to hurl at Spartans’ manliness, after all.) Specifically, I’m thinking of Aristotle’s prescription on narratives following one singular event, rather than a hero’s entire biography (the life of Hercules, for instance). An event has a beginning, middle, and end, whereas a life is just one damned thing after another—in other words, it’s episodic. I don’t think 300 is episodic in quite this way. It’s battle battle battle, sure, but like a good video game, the stakes keep raising, and stakes are not episodic. Like a good video game, it gets harder and harder until you die. (Spoiler: they died.)
But anyway, the battles have nothing to do with the movie’s plot.
Unlike the wider print media or the Iranian government, M. sees no real-world parallel in the match up of Spartans v. Persians. His argument jumps a few steps: because no one in the audience displayed anti-Persian or anti-Asian sentiment, both the film’s cultural prejudices and its political messages could be dismissed.
The movie audience today is gorged on historical epic blockbuster, and this is not by accident. The trend predates the War on Terror, but it certainly feels at home within it. This genre’s allegories don’t need a one-to-one mapping on current events to have contemporary messages. What ties together each movie season’s half-billion dollar beast, whether comic book hero, fantasy (be it pirate or hobbit), or historical epic, is its application of the movie form’s structure to rescue the old discounted master narratives of mainstream culture. (Heroism, good v. evil, gender roles, walking to school in the snow, uphill both ways) With varying impact, the Joseph Campbell-Star Wars myth thing is present in all these movies. By design.
The core audience for blockbuster epics is teenage boys, and M. makes some note of the appeal of the Spartans’ exaggerated physique to this group. Teenage boys aren’t just a bored demographic with spending money. They are the future of the power structure’s status quo (someday they will be teenage men), and they need to be imprinted.
300 is soaked through with lessons for this audience. They just have nothing to do with the Persians. The Persians are a cipher, and that whole battle at the Hot Gates is just the B-story. The drama of the movie takes place in Sparta.
The Persian army is a wall, they’re stationary, their eventual victory is assured and well foreshadowed. It’s an enemy that is to be respected. And that is why Miller and Snyder have turned them into monsters, twisted grotesque decadent Asiatics. Not just for the contrast, but to make obvious the impossibility of defeating them. This is not an even match up. A mutant bald giant with saw blades for arms is just a more believable victor than another soldier.
It’s an enemy that’s not really the enemy: the Persians are not the movie’s bad guys. It feels appropriate to recall the sage words of Anderson Cooper I quoted a month ago:
“But the enemy is not considered evil, he can repay. Trojan and Greek are both good in Homer. Not he that does us harm but he that is contemptible is considered bad.”
The real enemy in 300 is the Spartan senate. They are beneath contempt, corrupt and meddlesome, and responsible, ultimately—in their refusal to sanction the full Spartan army’s advance—for Sparta’s defeat. On the pretense that (by Spartan law), no Spartan army could go to fight during the festival, they did their best to block Leonidas’s sincere attempts to save Greece from the Persian advance. In their self-interest, cowardice, and greed—we later learn they only cared about personal riches, not Spartan law—the legislative body is portrayed as a hindrance and a pointless check on executive power. If the farsighted, wise, and patriotic King Leonidas could just do what he knew was best for his country, Sparta wouldn’t have been bogged down in that unwinnable war. This is the movie’s real struggle, its dramatic engine. This is what 300 wants to imprint.
Can you feel the movie’s political parallels? Leonidas’s problem is the post-Watergate president’s problem: everything America is up in arms about, wiretapping, torture, abscondas corpus, the Patriot Act, US attorneys, Alaskan oil fields, the goddamn war, none of them would be a problem if Congress would just step back and let the president do his job.
Mendelsohn also dismisses the presence of any of the deeper stakes the Greeks fought off the Persians for: “apart from a couple of shouted references to Greek “freedom,” neither Miller’s comic book nor Zack Snyder’s film shows much serious interest in matters ideological.” According to M., it’s all about the fights. But this couldn’t be further from the film’s message. The word “freedom” sprinkles the dialogue in this movie like the f-bomb did in Big Lebowski. The whole impetus of the clash of civilizations, discussed rather on the nose in Leonidas’s conversations with the Persian enemy, the messenger as well as Xerxes, is freedom versus submission. The debatable point is, rather, what does this word freedom mean?
Sparta’s “freedom” is not freedom as you or I or Mendelsohn understands it. But it is a form of the word as understood by just under a majority of Americans, that of partisan buzzword. It’s a bumper sticker word, as can be seen in this honest-to-god, spoken by a character line of dialogue:
Queen Gorgo: Freedom is not free, it requires great sacrifice. The price is paid in blood.
Freedom and Democracy are two words that define American self-conception. Each is claimed by one end of the political spectrum at the expense of the other word. Take a look at the slogan on this Brooklyn coffee shop and guess which political sympathies can be found inside:
As it is with “freedom”, which for the War on Terror years has been claimed by recent Republican leadership. “Freedom” in contemporary usage expresses conservative principles of self-determination, every man for himself, in contrast with the collectivist shades of the term “democracy.”
In practice, even the self-determinative connotations of the word freedom have fallen away, leaving a word that really only means, “sides with us.” Or, by Anderson Cooper’s understanding, “good.” “Freedom” represented the furthest thing from “French” when it came time for Congress to rename our fries.
Freedom is everywhere paid lip service to in 300. It is mentioned in almost every scene with dialogue. Democracy is not mentioned once.
The one liberty the film took with the book (Herodotus’ book, not Miller’s), the one that I have trouble abiding, is the elision of one word in the famous epitaph of Simonides, an elegiac couplet for the dead Spartans that was worked into the speech that brings the film to its climax:
“Go tell the Spartans, passerby
That here, by Spartan law, we lie.”
Wikipedia has a collection of English translations of the Greek original, and it brings attention to the one word that Miller/Snyder’s translation left behind: “obedient,” the soldiers referring to themselves, from the Greek peithomenoi, a word that Middle Liddel cites as closer in meaning to “believing, trusting, won over.” That word adds a poignancy that is out of place in 300. The English could be more accurately read as: “That we lie here, having believed their words.”
That’s not so much a threat (they’re already dead), as it is a pensive plea. We died here because the Spartans told us to. Scilicet, we really hope they were right. It begs for reassurance that all those codes that were imprinted on them as teenagers were true.
It could also have been phrased in the form of a question: if the troops were deployed under false pretenses, does that mean their lives were wasted?