Monday, April 09, 2007

# Posted 8:59 AM by Patrick Porter  

THIS IS SPARTA: So I went and saw the film '300' last week. Oh man. It was other than something else.

To begin at the end: thousands of Greek hoplites charge into the battle of Plataea, lit up by their Corinthian helmets, wrapped in scarlet cloaks and bellowing war cries.

They are inspired by the heroism of a small detachment of Spartans, who battled and died at the 'Hot Gates' against a Persian invading force so big 'it shakes the ground.'

I have always had a thing for ancient history, both the raw reality and the wierd myths surrounding it. But as I'm an amateur, any classicists out here should feel free to come storming in.

There seems to be two dimensions of the film that have generated discussion: the stunning visual/iconographic/cinematic effects, and the politics.

Many film critics have already described the effects much more eloquently than I can here.

But when it comes to politics, some critics of the film accuse it of being an untimely celebration of reactionary militarism, or a crude allegory on the Iraq war, or an insult to Persian heritage, or even a form of 'fascist art.'

Less excitable critics also note that the film overlooks one of the big ironies of the story. The Spartans who were immortalised for defending Greek liberty were themselves elites from a slave society, an apartheid order, which was later invaded and uprooted by other Greek city-states, who freed the helots and proclaimed that Sparta was an aberration against Hellenic freedom, not the embodiment of it.

Tom Holland's recent book, Persian Fire, even argues that a Persian victory in 480/79 BC would have seemed like the sweetest liberation to the helots.

Yes yes yes. History is full of ironies and contradictions and its worth remembering that etc etc. Sparta's involvement means that it can't just be summarised as a slave society against a free society, etc. And as I've posted before, I don't particularly enjoy the preachiness of some blockbuster films.

But many people, I suspect, went along to '300' to enjoy a great story, delivered with eye-popping power. I loved most the Spartan laconic sense of humour, the Homeric-sounding rhetoric (eg. 'it is not fear that grips him. only a heightened sense of things'), the exotic charisma of Xerxes, the intensity of the combat, the very fact that it didn't try to stick too closely to historical details, the role of Persian money in Greek politics, stuff like that.

Nevertheless, the politics can't be ignored because so much has been made of it.

Its worth remembering that the film is based on a Graphic novel by Frank Miller in the 90's, which chronologically disproves the suggestion that its about contemporary events. It doesn't seem intentionally to be a statement about Persian culture across time.

If it has any political message, it is that the autonomy and liberty of a cluster of squabbling city-states might have been snuffed out forever by a massive invasion by an autocrat. Along with the 5th century renaissance that was to come in philosophy, art, architecture, political thought etc.

This wasn't the main appeal of the film for me, but the fact that the film is about a very small force resisting a very large imperialist force should not be overlooked.

if anything, I found Oliver Stone's 'Alexander' more distorting, as at several points it recycled the myth from WW Tarn and others that the Macedonian warrior-king was some kind of enlightened multiculturalist, instead of the butchering and enslaving conqueror that he actually was.

It was arguably Alexander's offensives that raped and burnt Persian culture (at least initially), rather than Thermopyle. which might have seemed to many Persians an irritating skirmish on the periphery of empire, unlike the Greco-Macedonian onslaught that was to come over 150 years later.

anyway, go and see it. even if you dislike it, there'll be plenty to talk about.
(7) opinions -- Add your opinion

My good man, the fact that "300"
is based on a Frank Miller graphic novel from the '90s in no way disproves the assertion that the film is about current events.

As with any work of art that adapts a previous work of art, the question is why a current day artist chose, at this precise moment in time, to revive a specific work of art from the past.

Personally, I don't think that the creators of "300" were thinking much about the conflict in the Middle East. They were probably just trying to cash in again on Frank Miller after the relative success of "Sin City". But that point isn't self-evident. It has to be supported with evidence.

Anyhow, I don't mean to nitpick, but speaking as one historian to another, I thought I should clarify this methodological issue.
You may think that the Frank Miller graphic novel is the seminal valid text which determines the meaning of the movie, but it ain't. The interpretation that an audience in 2007 takes from the movie can't be separated from the knowledge of current events that the audience brings into the theater. And this is the case regardless of the director's intent or Miller's intent. You can argue that the audience is making a mistake, but does that really matter?

Score one for postmodern rhetorical analysis.

I should have mentioned the evidence, that the producer claims he decided on the project from reading the graphic novel '300' around 2001. Which suggests at least that it wasn't intended to be about the Iraq war.


personally, I don't have your grasp of post-modernist textual criticism, but I think authorial intention does matter in determining the meaning of a text or work of art.

You are probably right that the meaning is created by the observer too, but I don't think all 'meanings' drawn are equally valid.

If I interpret the Mona Lisa to be a commentary on the Cuban revolution, I would say that my interpretation is less satisfactory that one based on a careful study of the artist and their context.

Does this matter? It does to us empiricist dinosaurs!
come to think of it David, you are right on the money. it wasn't my best ever argument!
Go easy on yourself, big man. By the way which was your best argument ever?
The thing about the battle itself is that all in all, it actually achieved nothing. It didn't stop the Persians. The Persians wern't defeated by Spartans in the main either, in the end - it was mainly the Athenian fleets and the battle of Marathon (which the Spartans didn't turn up to, from memory) which did that. It was simply a glorious death, nothing more.
Marathon was before. Plataea finished off what was left of the Persian expeditionary army after most of it went home due to logistics problems after the naval defeat at Salamis, which in the end was the key battle.

Thermopylae didn't accomplish anything, but it did serve as a rallying cry and mythmaking moment (and mythmaking is all we know about the battle - there were no Greek survivors other than the allies who retreated, so we have no idea at all how the battle actually went). The Alamo comes to mind.
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