Free Slave-Holding Phallocrats Defending Freedom From Squirmy Middle Easternesque Drag Queens, or A Meditation on Historical Accuracy
If you want to see a Rube Goldberg machine, you could play the game Mouse Trap. Or watch any number of videos available online.
Or read Victor Davis Hanson’s appraisal of '300' appearing in the op-ed pages today.
Hanson starts off by asking, “Is ‘300’ historically accurate?”
There are some intellectually consistent answers to that question that a historian can give. The first might be to outright reject the entire question, to give up the self-appointed role of “accuracy scold” that many historians fall into all too easily when dealing with film or popular culture. Hanson could just choose to say, “’300’ does what all creative works that draw upon history do, reshape images and tropes and narratives to some contemporary imaginative purpose, and the only critical evaluation historians need make of it in the present is, ‘Is this a good film, or an interesting film?” But he doesn’t do that: the question of accuracy is for him a pertinent one.
You could make an argument that the ideological needs of the present completely outweigh any need for fidelity to history. He doesn’t say that, though I get the feeling that this may be his real view. You could make an argument that the transition to the medium of film requires some sacrifice of historical fidelity, but given that “300” doesn’t aim in any way for historical realism (as Hanson well knows and admits), this doesn’t make much sense.
What Hanson does instead is to make arguments like, “At the real battle, there weren’t rhinoceroses or elephants in the Persian army. Their king, Xerxes, was bearded and sat on a throne high above the battle; he wasn’t, as in the movie, bald and sexually ambiguous, and he didn’t prance around the killing field. And neither the traitor Ephialtes nor the Spartan overseers, the Ephors, were grotesquely deformed”. Glad we cleared that up. Once you write that sentence, you have to either say, “Accuracy is not the issue”, or ask some intelligent questions about those kinds of representational choices and about their meaning for audiences.
Here too there are other coherent options available to Hanson. You can say, “Look, audiences largely see the violent action in the film in the idiomatic register of a comic book, and so there really isn’t any grand meaning to be gotten from this film: it’s just for fun.” You can suggest that audiences are proficient meaning-makers in their own right, and likely to build any variety of messages out of the iconography that “300” offers of deformed and racialized Persians versus anglicized Spartans, that the politically correct reading of this (or any) film is a reductionist one that doesn’t trust the critical capacity of audiences. You can say, “Get over yourselves, people: it’s just a movie”. But he doesn’t say any of that, though he does note that the film’s representational mode is (appropriately, given the source material) that of a “comic book or video game”.
This is where the machinery of his argument gets really contrived. He says: the Greeks had comic books too, sort of, well, at least they wore masks in their theater and painted semi-nude warriors on their vases. The Greeks had propaganda, too. The Greeks liked dramatic exaggeration in their war stories. The Greeks were violent, too. Verdict: 300 = accurate!
Oh, and the Greeks thought highly of themselves and badly of their enemies, too, so it is historically accurate to make a movie about Thermopylae that thinks highly of the Greeks and badly of the Persians.
And yes, the Greeks had acres and acres of homoeroticism in their visual and written culture, just like “300” does. Oh, wait, Hanson doesn’t make that point.
Yes! “300” is historically accurate because the Greeks also used language and symbols and images to communicate with audiences, just like “300” does! “300” is historically accurate because there are human beings in it just like there were in classical Sparta. (Well, except for the deformed mutants in “300”, but! Greek mythology did have giants and monsters and shit in it. Accurate!) The Persians, as we all know, did not have culture, language or iconography.
Melissa Spore - 3/29/2007
Thanks, Tim, for another interesting piece.
Have rhinos ever been used in armies? I had always thought they were too resistant to be useful for human-imposed tasks.
Elliott Aron Green - 3/29/2007
The notion of a sharp distinction between ancient Greek culture/philosophy/art and that of the ancient East [hardly a uniform entity] has tended to be overdrawn since the late 18th century at least, with Kant & Hegel's paradigms about the Progressive West [Germans in the forefront] and the Stagnant Ancient East [Jews straggling in the rear]. Martin West has written that in a real sense ancient Greece was Oriental. This view, supported by research by Cyrus Gordon, Walter Burkert, Howard Marblestone, etc., points to extensive borrowings from --and/or similarities with-- ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, Israel, Babylon, etc. Indeed, there were large Phoenician populations on the Greek islands and mainland. Herodotos points out that a Phoenician clan was admitted to citizenship in Athens. The Phoenicians spoke Canaanite, a language [or language family] still spoken today in the form of Hebrew. Aristotle in the Politics, praises the Carthaginian system of government, which was of course a Phoenician system. Aristotle does NOT disparage Carthage as "Oriental" or "barbarian" and thus inferior. At least not in the Politics. As to the Spartans, when the Jews in Judea were fighting the Hellenistic Seleucid empire of Syria [Maccabean wars], the Spartans sent a message that Jews and Spartans were long lost cousins. Rome too supported the Jews against the Seleucid dynasty. In short, the East-West dichotomy so dear to Kant, Hegel and their German and other epigones is very much overdrawn, certainly for ancient times.