This past Sunday I decided to finally take the plunge and watch the film 300. There has been much discussion about the film and the supposedly biased interpretation of history it presents, especially at a tense time where Iran is seen as the new target for American interests in the Middle East and what with all that has been happening with the British servicemen (and woman) who had been captured.
Firstly, I have to say this film is superbly done. It's a bit like Sin City on steroids and the action is great with lots of blood, guts, gore and machismo to spare if you are looking for that sort of entertainment. The films director and actors pulled off a great job from what I can see, translating a comic book (yes a “graphic novel” is still a comic, sorry to disappoint!) and the style and imagery of the film really do enhance the mood they are trying to portray to you, one of defiance in the face of aggression.
Now, a word on history. This film has only a very loose connection to the actual historical events and the warped script writing has rendered us an understanding of those Spartans as men's men. These are macho men who ridicule the Athenian “boy-lovers”, fight for “freedom and democracy”, and fight so that reason will prevail over “mysticism and tyranny”. OK, let's stop right here. The Spartan's were as camp as the rest of the Greeks (concepts of homosexuality were very different to what we understand them today) and these men were so driven to form an effective and integrated fighting force that they spent most of their times in the barracks with their comrades rather than at home with doting wives. Sex with their wives was a secretive, furtive and hurried affair, encouraged by the elders simply for the sake of providing the next generation of Spartans. Relationships with other men were much more common place and prevalent. Next, the idea that the Spartan's fought for freedom and democracy was absolutely rubbish since it was they who destroyed the Athenian empire and it's “democracy”. Sparta and the legacy it left behind was believed by some to be the original inspiration for more fascist leaning governments of our time and were admired greatly by Hitler and Mussolini. If anything, they would have fought the Persians because it was simply impossible for them to submit, they were a warrior nation after all and that would have been the ultimate humiliation. If anything, they probably might have looked forward to a good scrap and some glory in battle. Oh and by the way, the Greek's did not have “countries”, they had city-states. There was the “Greek world”, but this was not any relation to our current understanding of nation-state and so on. Now that I've gotten these things straight, I would like to dive straight into the interesting bit about this film.
It's no secret that that the West and Israel do have Iran in their "sights" and it is the current bogeyman of the region after Saddam Hussein. It is after all within the so called "Axis of Evil". I understand that the release of this film at such a sensitive time really did generate a lot of tension and controversy about how Persians were portrayed in this film and the strongly propagandist elements in the film which portrayed the "West" as Sparta, fighting against the faceless, nameless Asiatic hordes and prevailing. The film insinuates that it is that battle to which we owe the existence of the West as we know it. Perhaps that is the case, but the crude portrayal of the Spartan's as uber-mensch fighting for freedom and democracy was only skindeep. You see, the usage of words such as the rejection of "submission" (aka Islam), and the negative images of the Oriental as White Europe's Dark Other, was crude and for me at least laughable. By the end of the film I was thoroughly enjoying the fighting and battles, but my reading was perhaps completely different from everybody else in the movie theatre.
You see, I think Frank Miller did indeed intend to portray the message many picked up on while watching the film. Indeed, as much as Frank Miller is a product of this Western society, his interpretation of history and his view of this battle and it's protagonists have sprout out in the way he intended however, something in me seemed to rebel against the ideas being presented.
For one thing, it was the concepts. Miller has indeed presented to us actors and events that had happened, however, his only contribution was that he had provided his "own" labels for these. Thus, the Spartans represented the West and the Persians were the Orientals. Yet should one rip down these labels, watch the film, and apply his own historical experience and understanding of what has been happening in the world, a very different interpretation appears. The labels get swapped.
Here we had a group of men facing a much more superior enemy. They were outnumbered and had simple armaments, yet they had this unbelievable face and self belief in themselves, almost untouched by fear. These were men who when asked to submit their weapons, refused, and exhorted their enemy to come and get them.
These were men who called the "Persians" cowards for relying on clouds of arrows first, instead of facing them like men. One Spartan laughing heartily under his shield while his Akkadian allies looked on in disbelief. "At least we are fighting in the shade" was his witty one liner, to which the other Spartan's laughed out almost hysterically, huddled under their shields. One gets the impression, does fear really have so little hold on the minds of such men? Does adversity really have such little impact on the manner of what could only be called "Free" men?
Following this intense barrage, the men line up and face wave after wave of Persian attackers. These are repulsed and cut to pieces yet still the Persian king orders his men forward, this time his elite Immortals. They too are destroyed by these men who are not fazed by numbers or the illusion of superiority. They put their opponents names to the test, and these opponents failed, miserably. The Persian king is outraged, he bears down on them with all his might, sending wave after wave of attackers, yet is unable to vanquish these men who even against all this overwhelming might, have not been infected with the notion of defeat. As one Spartan puts it, "perhaps these enemies could give me what I have been looking for"..."A Good Death". Yet the film shows us that rather than having a macabre fascination with death, these men love life and live it to the full. To them, their deaths are the ultimate victory rather than defeat, their enemies lying broken around them.
The longer the film ran, the more I found myself refusing the labels Miller so crudely patched onto the protagonists of this film. I found myself inventing new labels, more powerful, more relevant. In my mind, the picture was painted more vividly by my recognition of these qualities, this fervent belief in life and seeking the Good Death. These hordes attacking were not the Persians anymore, the Spartans were no longer the West. Halfway through the film, I was cheering for Hezbullah in the South of Lebanon, with Hassan Nasrallah as King Leonidas and a Persian King who was the embodiment of George Bush.
This Persian King, who had only demanded a token of "earth and water" but for these Spartan's to submit, was none other than George Bush, forcing the Arab world to surrender their principles, earth and water, just to accept his vision and interpretation, his sovereignty. As he said, Leonidas will keep his kingdom, he will grow richer, all Greece will bow to him as long as he bowed to Xerxes. Yet for all this, Leonidas refused. Those arrows were the Israeli airforce attacking the hunkered down Hezbullah, clamouring, eager for the chance to face their foes face to face. Those horders of attackers were the Israeli Merkava panzer divizions, the Immortals were the Golani brigades, so viscously mauled when they tried to live up to their reputation. Failing miserably.. The son of the captain was none other than Hadi Nasrallah, his father's rank no excuse for a different fate than that of his colleagues.
The picture in my mind was now permanent, unmovable. The flimsy labels Miller was presenting may have had some effect on many watching the film, but they had rustled away as leaves in a park, exposing what lies underneath. Those hordes of the Persian king may have been dressed in finery, come highly equipped and thought themselves kings, but they were merely slaves. Those simple Spartans, using what little they have so well, free in their minds from ridiculous notions about their enemies numbers and reputations, these men were free men. Not afraid of death, but embracing it should it come, yet living each day as if it was their last These Spartan's are not Frank Miller's West; the message of Thermopylae was not for the West. The message of Thermopylae was an eternal message for all peoples who had their lands aggressed upon, who faced overwhelming odds, who were faced with ideas of defeat even before battle was joined, yet resisted and triumphed. This is what Leonidas asked that people remember, talking to us across the ages through the crude medium of film and across the smokescreen which is Frank Miller's script. It is this legacy which we saw last August in 33 fiery days. I apologise Mr Miller, for though I thoroughly enjoyed the film, it was not for the reasons you intended, nor even realised.