Tuesday, March 20, 2007


When I heard that a movie about Thermopylae was coming out, I was psyched. When I heard that it was a radical fictionalization, less so. After I read the NYT review of the movie, I didn't even care much whether I saw it or not. (Best line in the review (not an exact quote): The Persians had superior numbers, but the Spartans obviously had superior health clubs and electrolysis.)) Then I heard that the movie pissed off the Iranians, so JQ and I rushed right out to see it.

Well, I'm a person who sometimes gets choked up about Thermopylae while, say, walking down the street or brushing my teeth--so my reactions are probably unreliable here. And that was true even before I went there. I've stood on not a few battlfields--Yorktown, Pearl Harbor, Gettysburg, others--but standing at Thermopylae was the most overwhelming experience of them all. Who knows how these things work? Like most of us, it's not like I generally categorize the Spartans as admirable. I guess it's complicated.

As for the movie: well, I don't know anything about movies. I've seen worse ones... 300 has something going for it, even if it's goofy in a bunch of ways. For one thing, it may be the most metrosexual movie of all time. Jeez, it almost makes The Covenant look downright blue collar... I mean these guys have some abs! Largely air-brushed on, but still. And their armor is kept to a minimum. Sticklers for historical accuracy might point out that the Greeks kicked ass at Thermopylae largely because of their heavier armor...but these hoplites wear only leather speedos and red capes. Those pesky breastplates would just occlude shots of their pecs. And, while we're carping about historical accuracy: in the movie, Leonidas doesn't die until the end, Xerxes neither beheads or crucifies the body, everybody but the Spartans (which, in the movie, means just the Arcadians) runs away before the last stand. Perhaps most disappointingly from a narrative perspective, when Xerxes asks Leonidas to surrender his arms, Leonidas doesn't say "come and get them." (Heh heh. Our boys were way cooler than the Persians...no doubt about that. They had bad-assitude to spare.)

So why is Iran all bent out of shape, one wonders? Do they deny that Xerxes was an aggressive tyrant? Or do they think aggressive tyranny is o.k.? Do they deny that the Greeks beat their asses like a two dollar donkey? Or what?

Well, my theory is that they're mad because 300 makes it look like even our over-pumped-up gay guys can beat up anything Persia can throw at 'em--war rhinos, ninjas, elephants the size of ultrasauruses, giant guys with bone saws for forearms...anything! But according to 300, Xerxes looked a lot like RuPaul, so the thesis really seems to be something more like: Greeks of ambiguous sexuality can beat up the lackies of probably-transexual tyrants from Persia. And, really, who can argue with that?

Anyway, for all its silliness, I walked out of 300 all choked up, thinking about all the people who had died over the millenia to forge a world that allows me to live my puny and frivolous life, buying two dollar coffee, getting paid to blather on about philosophy, yelling at basketball games on T.V. as if something consequential were actually at stake. 300 isn't Citizen Kane, but maybe a movie that gets more people to reflect on what the Spartans, Arcadians, Thespians, Corinthians and Thebans did at Thermopylae is a good thing .


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dunno man, seems to me that Thermopylae was just the bastards vs. the bastasrds. It wasn't really like either culture was better than the other. Certainly a vast comparison between the two cultures isn't even feasible, but from what I've read, which isn't an unnoticably small amount, they both liked to kill a lot of people and were full of their "aggressive tyrants".

Xerxes, though, wasn't too tyrannical.. Most of Persia was still under the same sort of system that Cyrus implemented which was about as humanitarian as it got as far as conquerers went back then. The Persians tended to promote peace, abolish corvees, restore the indigenous religious practices to the people, and mostly permit the people to rule themselves (answering ultimately to the Persians, of course). Hell, the Jews even thought Cyrus was the messiah sent by Yahweh (Cyrus almost took the place Christians claim Jesus took).

The Persians were pretty nice conquerors - and from what I can tell, the Iranians (who are usually pretty damn retarded) are pissed 'cause the movie makes them look exactly like you described them - an aggressive tyrant commanding an army filled with monstrous creatures designed purely for battle.

Really, the Persian Empire wasn't like that much at all.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Myca said...

I really only had two problem with the film.

1) '300' made the Persians a lot darker than they likely were (remember, Iran is where we get the word Aryan, and it borders the Caucasus mountains, origin of the word 'caucasian') and the Greeks a lot paler than they likely were. That wouldn't be so much an issue except that it took a historical story about a group of people of varying skin tones beating one another up and turned it into a story of a bunch of white folks beating up a bunch of dusky-hued foreigners. It's not a subtext I groove on.

2) The Spartans talked an awful lot about freedom, rationality, defeating tyranny, eschewing mysticism, and . . oh, sorry, just a sec, I have to go consult the Oracles after I hurl this baby off a mountain. I understand working the rhetoric a bit for modern ears, but seriously.

In the whole scheme of things, though those are actually kind of minor, and since the film can be watched on many levels, I recommend highly watching it on the 'dude, that guy's arm just totally freaking came off' level and having a good time. I know I did.

---Josh (formerly Myca)

1:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given the choice between history and myth, people will choose myth every time - at least if they're looking for entertainment.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, A, as I said, I'm no great fan of the Spartans...

Still, I can't help but get all misty about Thermopylae...

But, anyway, don't forget, just for perspective's sake, that the Athenians were bastards, too, much of the time.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just don't see what exactly there is to get all misty about over Thermopylae. If it was just two groups of bastards killing each other..what am I missing? The fact that some dudes would give their lives to stand up for their bastardhood?

meh. I mean, regrettable when anyone senselessly dies, but I think a "meh" is all I can muster for that one since they pretty much died doin' what they loved, and as macabre as that sounds, I think it's probably true.

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps a mathematical equation is in order:

Triumph of the Will + God of War on Playstation 3 * the Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier bathtub scene from Spartucus / the messageboards at freerepublic.com = 300

It was pretty fun to watch, though, regardless of the transparent reactionary war-mongering.

6:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, questions of historical authenticty are kind of beside the point in a movie featuring ACTUAL MONSTERS.

Final note: I don't think the helots would have much cause for throat-lumping when it came to the Spartans.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Matthew's equation wins.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

And incidentally: the Spartans were better than, say, the Athenians in some fairly important ways. E.g. their treatment of females.

Again: I'm no fan of Sparta.

4:48 PM  

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