I Finally See "300"
E Pur Si Muove!
Our son, Nat, is about to go away to college, so yesterday I thought it would be a good time to view his favorite movie with him. It's out on DVD. (Later that evening, his buddy Matt came over to help him upgrade the memory on his laptop -- and watch the same movie ... again!)
One thing that makes this movie, about King Leonidas and 3oo Spartans holding off many thousands of Persians at Thermopylae, interesting to watch is the amount of hatred -"hatred" is surely not too strong a word - that was directed toward it when it first came out. It was hated by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, the President of Iran. Even Norman-Lear-type liberals begin to shake all over and holler when they think about this movie.
As the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson pointed out, the main objections seemed to be these:
• “300” is not sufficiently ironic. It takes its themes (duty, loyalty, sacrifice, the preservation of Western civilization against enormous odds) too seriously to, well, be taken seriously.
• “300” is campy — meaning that many things about it can be read as sexual double entendres — yet the filmmakers don’t show sufficient awareness of this.
• All of the good guys are white people and many of the bad guys are brown. (How this could have been avoided in a film about Spartans versus Persians is never explained....)
Then too there was the complaint that it was historically inaccurate in ways that are favorable to the Spartans.
Some American leftists seemed fixated on the possibility that it might be pro-Bush.
Up to a point, this movie was what I thought it would be: just the sort of thing that would be hated by people who have the values that these particular people have. What none of the vituperative reviews prepared me for, what came as a complete surprise, was that it was about ideas (and, no, I don't regard being pro- or anti-Bush as ideas). And what were these ideas? That was even more surprising.
Repeadedly, Leonidas says in conferences with the enemy that he is appealing to their "reason." One of them tells him with a sneer that you Greeks are so "logical." The film lays great emphasis on the fact that the Ephors oppose marching out against the Persian invaders because it would profane a religious festival, the Carneia. It depicts the Ephors as if they were mystical priests, and not elected politicians (which is what they were). At the climax, Leonidas tells Xerxes that the Spartans are taking a stand against "mysticism and tyranny." More than once, the Persians tell the Spartans that their criticisms of Xerxes are "blasphemies." Leonidas is told many times that his campaign is a violation of both Spartan religion and Spartan law. Thus, events place the movie's hero in opposition to both (so to speak) church and state.
I take all this to mean that freedom and reason are good, while religion (or at least mystical religion) and tyranny are bad. Further, freedom is connected to reason in some important way, and religion, or at least irrational religion, is likewise connected to the lack of freedom.
(So much for the movie's being pro-Bush! As everyone knows, W is opposed to modern biology because it's agin the Bible. It should be obvious what side of the reason/mysticism divide he is on.)
All this is quite obvious to any comic-book-reading teenage boy (the target audience of this film). But the many critics who loathed the movie never seemed to notice this. Why, I wonder? Come to think of it, every single religious reference in the film is negative. Any time it rears its head in this movie, religion is nasty and oppressive. I haven't seen anyone mentioning this at all.
It does seem to be worthy of mention. I can't think of too many movies that are both pro-freedom and pro-"reason," and that even show some awareness of what reason is. (Leonidas seeks to convince others by giving evidence. He does not subject his own judgment to to political authority or to religious revelation, nor does he ask others to do so.) And it's hard to think of other Hollywood movies with the guts to even hint at a critical attitude toward religion.
If you want to make an action movie in which the good guys represent reason, I suppose the Greco-Persian wars are a pretty good choice of subject. This is where the Greeks pushed back the expansionist Persian empire. Some historians think that this, as much as any other single event, prevented Europe from becoming a mere peninsula of Asia. It permitted the West to become the West. As it happened, the Greeks invented logic and the rudiments of scientific method within the century and a half after Thermopylae (480 BCE). If the Persians had succeeded in imposing autocratic rule on them, I'm not at all sure this would have happened.
On the other hand, I have to admit that using the Spartans as symbols of freedom is a less fortunate choice, for the obvious reasons. If this were just a matter of a historical inaccuracy that has no effect on the meaning of the film as a narrative, I would be able to ignore it. But as a matter of fact it enables the filmmakers to dodge a crucial political issue: is it possible to be the sort of brilliant fighting machine the Spartans were and also represent reason and freedom (which the real Spartans did not)? Still, the film's philosophical virtues are so striking and so unique that I suppose this problem doesn't bother me that much.
So I guess I don't mind that this is Nat's favorite movie. The basic values from which his love of it comes seem sound to me. But of course I admit I'm biased.
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Aeon J. Skoble - 8/29/2007
I agree with your overall point, that it's contrary to the Constitution for the Congress to give away their prerogatives to the executive branch. But it's not as if the Congress declared "no, you may not send troops to Iraq" and he said "screw it, I'm doing it anyway." That was the parallel alluded to upthread which I was disagreeing with. That's what I was getting at.
Robert Higgs - 8/28/2007
You say, "while the Iraq war is unpopular, it's hard to argue that it's 'illegal,' as it was authorized by Congress." I don't think this is quite right.
The Iraq resolution did not authorize the war itself; it simply handed over to Bush the authority to go to war or not, as he wished. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress cannot hand over its enumerated power to declare war to the president to exercise at his sole discretion; doing so violates the principle of separation of powers on which the entire edifice stands. Hence, this war in illegal in the sense that it is in conflict with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution--not that anybody really cares about such a thing anymore.
Aeon J. Skoble - 8/28/2007
"He is a king defying all the laws of state in leading his people to war. Is a connection with Dubya really so hard to see?"
Well, the difference is that the Persians really were bent on invading and conquering Greece. Also, while the Iraq war is unpopular, it's hard to argue that it's "illegal," as it was authorized by Congress. Third, Leonidas risks his own life leading his men into battle. So both at the formal level and at the moral level there are far more differences than similarities between Leonidas and Bush. I really don't see it at all.
Robert Hugh Hodges - 8/28/2007
I must respectfully disagree with Prof. Hunt and say that I thought 300 came off as a rather blatant allegory for the war on terror with some disturbing racial and possibly homophobic elements. I speak as both a libertarian and a member of the college comix nerd demographic.
Professor Hunt seems to claim that Leonidas defying church and state embodies some sort of libertarian ideal for the heroic individual. I can see that point, but do not think it holds since Leonidas is not just one man battling for freedom. He is a king defying all the laws of state in leading his people to war. Is a connection with Dubya really so hard to see? The venality and treason found in the Spartan council (which I thought was an allegorical Congress) makes a case for a Bushian unitary executive.
It may be that you cannot avoid an East vs. West dichotomy in telling about the Greco-Persian wars (I leave it to historians who know more of antiquity to determine), but I fail to see how that would result in the British beefcakes versus the parade of Oriental samurai and sub-Saharan Africans the film shows. I am not sure if I would call the film homophobic, but the homoeroticism between the Spartans themselves and the loving portrayal by the camera of the warriors’ bare chests is put in bizarre contrast to the contempt the Spartans show the Athenians because of their pederastic relationships and their disgust at the Persians who are presented as sexual degenerates (especially the scene where Xerxes appears to try to seduce Leonidas).
A film that tries to display the ideals of freedom, liberty, reason, and justice is nice, but these ideals become meaningless if they are just platitudes mouthed by a society wholly dedicated to militarism that systematizes child abuse and eugenics (and a film that glorifies and justifies all of these practices). One consequence of the Greek (not just Spartan) defeat of the Persian empire was the later flourishing of classical science, literature, etc. But as a consequence of the Austrians defeating the Ottoman Empire at Vienna in 1529 and 1683 the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and Dadism all developed subsequently in Europe, which may not have happened had the Turks continued onwards. Yet no one claims that Austrian army represented or fought for the ideals of science, philosophy, or surrealism. I think its absurd to make a similar leap about the Spartans either in history or in the film.
Bush may not be showing 300 at the White House anytime soon, but I think the film’s emphasis on heroic and very white Westerners fighting for freedom against a threat to their civilization from a very brown and black Middle East is hard to miss coming out in early 2007. Besides Victor Davis Hanson loves it and wrote an introduction to the making of book. Doesn’t that demonstrate some sort of agenda or at least complicity to Hanson’s agenda being read in the film?
If you want to see my direct response to Neal Stephenson’s review that I wrote back in March when Prof. Skoble posted it here at L&P which covers slightly different ground, then look no further:
Stephen W Carson - 8/28/2007
"...it's hard to think of other Hollywood movies with the guts to even hint at a critical attitude toward religion."
It is moments like these that I wonder if I am living in a not-quite-parallel universe. Do these films exist in your universe?
The Da Vinci Code
My father is a pastor and both he and my mother have commented on how clergy in film are almost always evil/insane/hypocritical/etc.
Oscar Chamberlain - 8/27/2007
"All of the good guys are white people and many of the bad guys are brown. How this could have been avoided in a film about Spartans versus Persians is never explained....)"
By being accurate would be a start. The Persian empire contained a wide range of body types and skin tones. The Greeks had a lot of dark buffed bodies, like most people who live on the Mediterranean.
Also there was a lot of peaceful exchange between parts of Greece and Persia, in goods and in ideas.
We know the Persians of this era from the wars, and we know the wars from the people who won. It is hardly surprising that Greek historians slid past the similarities and underscored the differences.
For what it's worth, I've not seen the movie, and actually, i hope to catch it on cable at some time. I enjoy cartoon-like stuff that gets mythic, but it does not sound so good that I want to fork out more money.
Aeon J. Skoble - 8/27/2007
I'm hoping to get to this in the next 2 weeks. But, I blogged on the distinction you make (and cited the same Stephenson piece -- great minds think alike?) here: http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/36712.html