“Go tell the Spartans, oh stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie.”
If you haven’t seen 300, by all means do so. But think of it as a play rather than a movie. A kabuki or noh play. It is, as expected, getting extreme reviews. As with Gladiator, people love it or hate it, and they tend to line up on opposite sides depending on their politics.
The Spartan defenders of the pass of Thermopylae have been hailed as free men defending their homes and their civilization at the birth of the West — but they’ve also been admired by the Nazis and the Communists.
Pfaugh on the caveats! The Spartan 300 and Thespian 700 did indeed save the West and it is perverse to deny it. Nor did the Spartans have a Samurai-style death cult. They were consummate professionals who favored victory over vainglory.
And, they generally did not like to campaign too far from home for too long — because they were masters of a nation they had enslaved. Which is part of the reason they perfected themselves as soldiers. (Athens of course had slaves, but from a heterogeneous population, not a united people with a history as a free state.)
The history of every free nation starts with a state that has free classes among the unfree. This of course, evokes ambiguous feelings. You want to admire them personally, and pay tribute to their courage but....
Tough. Life is full of ambiguities. If you expect men to be all of a piece, they will always disappoint you. The ability to deal with ambiguity is pretty much a definition of “intelligence.”
The Spartans at the Hot Gates were magnificent men, warts and all. In this context, I think the popularity of comic book heroes reflects a desire for morally unambiguous (or less ambiguous) heroes, without the baggage of real people.
When we socialize our kids with the ideals we wish them to have, it is natural to point first to archetypes of the ideal before dealing with the mixed bag of qualities that our real-life heroes are. And if we didn’t have those archetypes to refer to, how would we learn to deal with people as they are, without succumbing to cynicism and moral relativism?
Everyone sees the Spartans they want to see, evidently. And this may be the most interesting thing about them, the questions they raise about what kind of civilization we want and how it is to be preserved.
300 is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, which was in turn inspired by the 1962 movie The 300 Spartans. More recently, Steven Pressfield published Gates of Fire, my personal nominee for best novel of the decade. And in anticipation of the movie’s release, the History Channel made The Last Stand of the 300 which used CGI to dramatize the historical background provided by historical scholars.
300 is a highly stylized piece, filmed entirely against a blue screen background. Historical accuracy is sacrificed for dramatic effect in a number of ways. The swords are a slashing broad sabre rather than the short double-edged xiphos of the Spartans. (The Spartans were known for having an un-typically short sword compared to other Greek forces. In the Sayings of the Spartan Women, when a Spartan soldier complained about this, his mother replied, “Make it longer by one step forward.”)
Rather than fighting in heavy bronze cuirasses or laminated leather and linen, the Spartans fight in helmet, shield, and a leather jockstrap — a concession to modern mores. The classical Greeks often took the same artistic license and showed hoplites fighting in heroic nudity on their pottery and wall frescos.
Though the actors were physically very well prepared, the fighting is mostly a series of single combats with fantastic feats thrown in, great leaps with sword and shield, throwing a heavy pike as if it were a javelin, et cetera, in the style of modern Kung Fu movies rather than the close-order press of hoplite warfare.
This concession to drama is acknowledged in the movie when Leonidas explains to Ephialtes how each soldier must hold his shield high to protect the man on his right “neck to thigh” and is, in turn, protected by the shield of his comrade on his left.
This was the essence of hoplite battle. Herodotus reports that the exiled Spartan king Demaratus advised Xerxes:
One-against-one, they are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all. For though they are free men, they are not entirely free. They accept Law as their master. And they respect this master more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do. And his command never changes: It forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes. He requires them to stand firm — to conquer or die.
O king, if I seem to speak foolishly, I am content from this time forward to remain silent. I only spoke now because you commanded me to. I do hope that everything turns out according to your wishes.
The director is aware of the artistic license he is taking. Movie makers have known that real battle cannot be shown from a single vantage-point in a way that makes sense to the witness since the days Pancho Villa allowed a Hollywood crew to film one of his. (Villa did, however, graciously wait until the light was just right for them to film the post-battle executions.)
There may be a subtle visual clue in the metal surface of the shields and helmets. Rather than burnished bronze, a close look shows a pitted pewter surface like the kind on home decorations you buy in Hobby Lobby. Could be a Hollywood cheesy — but I suspect a deliberate — effect. The movie also has fantastic elements, rhinos and elephants, grossly mutated warriors, and disfigured concubines.
The director is obviously striving for a kind of magical realism, like a movie made from a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez might look. And I think this is entirely appropriate. The story of what the Spartans and their allies did at the pass of Thermopylae outlasted their civilization — and will certainly outlast ours. Men will be finding new ways to tell the old story as long as stories are told.
Continued in Part II.