Wednesday, March 21, 2007

With It, Or On It

We've not yet seen "300" and may not -- it's hard enough to land baby-sitting, and when we do we typically use it to go to dinner, not the movies. We have, however, been thinking about this film, reading about it, browsed the graphic novel upon which it is based while visiting a bookstore, and watched a History Channel show about the battle of Thermopylae. We found a link to an interesting review of the film at The Weekly Standard while browsing Newmark's Door.

The reviewer, John Podhoretz, makes an interesting point about how the film is resonating with audiences. In its first two weeks in general release "300" has netted $100MM. As Podhoretz notes there are no stars involved, either in front of, or behind, the camera. The film does have striking visuals, and tells an incredible story of duty, honor, courage and sacrifice in the face of impossible odds.

Podhoretz writes:

300 is nothing more than a comic book rendering of that tale--quite literally, as it's slavishly faithful to a 1999 comic book by Frank Miller, whose violent imagery and hardboiled storytelling have now been immortalized in two successful Hollywood films (the other being Sin City). Despite the vulgarity and overheated solemnity of its approach, 300 does tell the Thermopylae story without a trace of irony. It depicts Sparta and the Spartans in all their proud, martial, vicious, nasty, unsentimental, and egalitarian glory. Director/co-writer Zack Snyder offers not even a moment of doubt that the Spartans are the good guys--believers in human freedom who oppose the Persians because they demand nothing but submission to a false god-king.

I don't think this movie has a single idea about the nature of cultural conflict, the meaning of martial valor, or anything else. But here's the thing: If you choose to tell the story of Thermopylae, you cannot escape the fact that you are choosing to tell a story of Western civilization taking a stand against rampaging barbarians from the East. And it's precisely this aspect of 300--as well as its entirely unapologetic celebration of war at its most insanely bloodthirsty--that offers the only coherent explanation for its galvanizing effect on audiences.

Kyle Smith, writing in the New York Post, points out that people seeking to draw parallels between the action onscreen and the war in Iraq or the war on terror are looking in the wrong place, since 300 hews close to Miller's 1999 comic book. That is certainly true. But while Miller foresaw no parallel, the audience seeing 300 in the year 2007 is responding viscerally to a story of a clash of civilizations that takes the side of the West against the East.

We've always been intrigued by the battle of Thermopylae. Though, and despite priding ourselves on our knowledge of history we never realized (embarrassingly) that the Greeks lost. We have, however, always understood the subtext of the battle, and have always viewed it through the lens of West versus East -- "a clash of civilizations." What the History Channel show imparted to us was that the act of Spartan sacrifice was born in and helped to foster the idea of Nation. So, despite defeat in the pass of Thermopylae and the subsequent burning of Athens (payback for the Greek sack of Sardis a century before) the Greeks rallied, as a nation, to drive the Persians from the Peloponnese. What ensued was the flourishing of the culture upon which Western Culture rests -- despite politically-correct efforts to deny this. Had this idea of nation not taken root when it did, and had the Persians remained in Greece we would live in a much different world than we do today.

The elites in our government, media-entertainment industry and educational establishment no doubt look upon such thoughts as those of a simpleton -- one who fails to see nuance. Thankfully, unlike those who see only gray in our current clash of civilizations, 300 Spartans (and 1,000 never-mentioned-Thesbians) saw things in black and white, stood their ground and fought for an ideal embodied in a national culture and a way of life. Would that such stalwartness existed amongst our "best and brightest."

Perhaps, some training in a Spartan agoge -- where Spartan boys between the ages of 7 and 19 learned to fight, steal, evade, kill and survive in combat for the good of society -- would change that. Before departing for war, as they handed them their shields, Spartan mothers would tell their sons, : "Return with with it, or on it." Collectively, as a nation, we carry our shield in some nasty parts of the world, in defense of the greatest way of life in the history of mankind. Will we return from these endeavors with our shield in hand, or will we be carried home on it? There is no return without our shield, that is not an option.


Scott said...

Nice post. As a former Classics major, it's nice to see some appreciation for the significant historic events.

You might want to check out this post for another take on the History Channel version and the reviews.

And as far as Sardis goes, I much prefer Sardi's.

Agricola said...


Thanks for your kind comment and thanks for the link to big arm woman, I'm definitely going to keep an eye on her stuff.

And, yes, Sardi's is certainly preferable to Sardis, you can't get a decent cocktail anywhere in Asia Minor.