Blogs > Cliopatria > A Fresh Triumph of the Will

Mar 30, 2007 4:40 pm


A Fresh Triumph of the Will



The trailers for 300 made it look so much like a video game (a cultural form with no appeal for me at all) that actually going to it never crossed my mind, even though I'm interested in the history.

Subsequent critical commentary on the film has only reinforced that decision -- while adding a layer of incredulity at the idea of the Spartans being portrayed as some kind of Republican focus group, a bunch of freedom-loving homophobes engaged in a joint campaign of the Culture Wars and the War on Terror.

If you know even a very little about the culture and regime of Sparta, this is totally bizarre. But it isn't just bizarre, since it sounds like the movie's propaganda offensive includes treating Athens as some kind of contemptible, effete Blue State. An audience of young, impressionable, historically clueless viewers is going to walk away from this film even more thoroughly out of touch with the past than when it went in.

Gary Brecher, a.ka. the War Nerd, faces the inconvenient truth:

What had me really wanting to puke is that this movie tries to make Sparta into some kind of Land of Hallmark Card-givers. There's about an hour's worth of perfume-ad scenes where Leonidas and his lovey-dovey wife, a feisty lady in one of those bondage-lite Greek dresses, cuddle and make eyes at each other and say patriotic stuff by way of foreplay. Yeah, that's why you see those bumperstickers,"Sparta was for lovers."

Fact: Sparta was about as romantic as North Korea. Give or take a little egalitarianism, Sparta WAS North Korea. Spartan laws did everything they could to break down the family. Sparta was more anti-nuclear family than any Hollywood liberal could ever be.

Wanna know what a Spartan wedding night was really like? It's pretty hilarious, in an insane way. As soon as a Spartan girl got her first period, they grabbed her, shaved her head, dressed her as a boy, threw her down on her new husband's bed, and then, well, he had his way with her. What way was that? Since hubby had been in an all-male dorm since age seven, I'm betting that that night of lovin' was more like a skinny white boy's introduction to San Quentin after lights-out than it was like a chick flick. So when this movie shows the Spartan hero saying to his wife,"Goodbye, my love," I just had to laugh.

No Spartan ever told his wife he loved her. That would've been like treason, because the Spartan rulers wanted family ties snapped, so the only bond left was to the state. They left room for folks' natural urges by letting the women drink, which they did non-stop, and the men form what you might call close comradely bonds with their fellow soldiers.

In the ancient world, gay was a matter of who was on top. If you were a topper, that was fine; if you were the one getting in the ass, not so cool. In other words, prison rules. Sparta's leather-bar ways were a running joke to the ancient Greeks. The Spartans were stone killers - but they also preened like teenage girls before a battle. They grew their hair long, and before a fight they'd comb it, oil it, try out fetching new styles, put little baubles in their ears, anything to die young and leave a beautiful corpse.

None of that in this movie. Just the opposite. The script even has Leonidas taunt the Athenians calling them"boy-lovers." Athens, the true hero of the war against Persia, gets dissed time and again in this movie. You won't hear a word in 300 about Salamis, the real decisive battle of the war - because it was Athens, not Sparta, that destroyed the Persian fleet at Salamis.


This isn't just a matter of overlooking some detail that would get in the way of exposition. Look, we can denounce the limitations of franchise in Athens until we all feel suitably indignant at the idea of calling it"the birthplace of democracy" -- but at the end of the day, it was the birthplace of democracy. In 1955, when C. L. R. James wanted to write about the shape that a revolutionary democratic-socialist order ought to take, guess what his reference point was?

Conversely, in the early 20th century, when right-wing authoritarians in Europe looked to antiquity for a model, they, too, had an example in mind. Brecher is not being at all alarmist when he says:

Only amateur fascists admire Sparta guys; they're still pissed off because people like me dared to warn them the Iraq war was going to be a disaster. Now the neocons have gone so over the deep end of delusional thinking that they've resorted to fantasizing about Sparta, where nobody ever argued, where everyone yelled and stabbed and otherwise kept their mouths shut.

It's downright hilarious the way this movie punishes every smart character. Every time someone wants to argue with the war party in this movie, he's evil. Everybody who talks in a normal tone of voice is evil. Snyder shows two scenes where the Spartans murder Persian envoys arriving under a flag of truce. And both times, you're supposed to cheer.

Since when do Americans cheer when truce parties are murdered? Well, that's pretty easy to answer, actually: since Iraq. These diehard neocons have gone insane because there's no way they can argue for an invasion of Iran any more. But they still want it, bad. So they've taken a crash course in fascism, jumping all the way to cheering for Sparta and booing for Athens - because Athens stands for brains and flexibility and talking things out. They can't win the argument, so they want to kill anybody who tries to argue.


Thanks to Tim Burke for pointing out Brecher's salutary article.

(Crossposted to Quick Study)



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More Comments:


Ben W. Brumfield - 4/2/2007

Sigh.

I once heard a reviewer recommend seeing Independence Day, but only after donating a pint of blood and pounding a beer. Perhaps some people are in that state all the time.


Alan Allport - 4/2/2007

I just don't see that. The Spartans are presented as unsympathetically as the protagonists of Sin City were -- you root for them over the monsters they fight, but you wouldn't want to be them.

The comments I have read that propose the Spartans of 300 as everything that is best about manhood (I am not exaggerating) suggest to me that not everyone is taking home that message.


Ben W. Brumfield - 4/2/2007

That's a reasonable response. The reason I posted a "get a grip" style comment to this post instead of yours is that you concentrated on the absurdities issued by hawkish defenders of 300, while the rants Scott quotes are mirror-images of Hanson's wishful thinking. Both either fear or hope the movie will get American viewers lobbing to revive the crypteia.

Having seen the movie and spent a couple of hours talking about it in the parking lot afterwards, I just don't see that. The Spartans are presented as unsympathetically as the protagonists of Sin City were -- you root for them over the monsters they fight, but you wouldn't want to be them. The film's opening scene is of a pile of skeletons with narration explaining Spartan eugenic infanticide, for Pete's sake!

It makes me wonder if Brecher just doesn't see how silly VDH looks to the filmgoing public.


mark safranski - 3/31/2007

"Brecher is not being at all alarmist when he says....

....So they've taken a crash course in fascism, jumping all the way to cheering for Sparta and booing for Athens - because Athens stands for brains and flexibility and talking things out. They can't win the argument, so they want to kill anybody who tries to argue."

Good Lord, what would alarmism sound like then ?


Alan Allport - 3/31/2007

Perhaps I'm too insulated from popular culture, but the only people I've encountered drawing parallels between the Spartans and the more hawkish strains within America are left-leaning critics decrying the film.

I have read several accounts of the film which describe (with approval) its value as a parable for the clash of civilizations supposedly taking place between the West and Islam.


Christopher Newman - 3/30/2007

Mr. Burke,

I'm not sure you're correct about the state of "public rhetoric -- it's a broad claim that I'm not sure you could prove --, but if I grant your premise for the sake of argument, I'm curious to know why you think public rhetoric constructs soldiers as "Them" instead of "Us." Could it be because, for the kind of people who generally shape, or think of themselves as shaping, "public rhetoric," American soldiers *are* "Them" and not "Us"? And is the public rhetoric about the military precisely the same among the so-called punditocracy as it is in your typical country-and-Western song?

I'm also rather dubious about how much the elitism of the Spartans resonates with the American public. I haven't seen 300, but it seems to me that the public may simply be responding to a reliably dramatic cinematic convention -- the heroic and doomed stand against impossible odds (see, I dunno, The Alamo, Zulu, The Two Towers).


Timothy James Burke - 3/30/2007

Yes, it's overwrought <em>as long as one says</em>, wow, that's just fun uberviolence, there's no message. Or something similar. I'm totally cool with that kind of reading, personally. But you know, it ain't what Frank Miller or Hanson think, as you point out. And there are other war-party bed-wetters out there that I've run into who think 300 is some kind of great singing allegory for our times. As long as that kind of stuff is out there, then yes, something needs to be said.


Ben W. Brumfield - 3/30/2007

I went to see 300 with a friend of mine on Wednesday night, looking for a mindless action flick. I, and the rest of the audience, got precisely that, albeit with some beautiful cinematography thrown in.

Perhaps I'm too insulated from popular culture, but the only people I've encountered drawing parallels between the Spartans and the more hawkish strains within America are left-leaning critics decrying the film. Certainly the viewer is expected to identify with the Spartans -- they're the protagonists, after all -- but I could detect no explicit parallels from the film itself. I'm aware that Frank Miller and Victor David Hanson might have desired viewers to draw different conclusions, but the modern political relevance of 300 was about the same as that of Troy.

So really, isn't the political criticism of 300 just overwrought paranoia? Or did I miss the part of the film when Leonidas encouraged the audience to vote Republican in 2008?


Timothy James Burke - 3/30/2007

(via Unfogged) is this entry at Kung Fu Monkey, http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2007/03/writing-300-and-viewpoints.html.

The thing that I think this entry gets really, really right is the way that 300 inverts the standard cliche of American war films based on WWII, with their celebration of the citizen soldier, the ordinary dogface, etcetera. Here suddenly in 300 we have Leonidas pissing all over everybody but his oh-so-l33t boys, and American audiences are supposed to go F*** YEAH over that.

That really made me think about how much the public rhetoric about soldiers in Iraq is about "them" rather than "us": how skilled, elite, special, our soldiers are, but how much they are not Us. We're to admire, respect, and thank them, but not to imagine them as potentially being any one of Us, not in an Everyman's dilemma. In that sense, 300 is consistent with the public rhetoric of the moment.

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