Oh gods, please let it die ignobly at the box office so we don't have to listen to any more of this.
Three weeks ago a handful of reporters at an international press junket here for the Warner Brothers movie “300,” about the battle of Thermopylae some 2,500 years ago, cornered the director Zack Snyder
“Is George Bush Leonidas or Xerxes?” one of them asked.
The questioner, by Mr. Snyder’s recollection, insisted that Mr. Bush was Xerxes, the Persian emperor who led his force against Greek’s city states in 480 B.C., unleashing an army on a small country guarded by fanatical guerilla fighters so he could finish a job his father had left undone. More likely, another reporter chimed in, Mr. Bush was Leonidas, the Spartan king who would defend freedom at any cost.
Mr. Snyder, who said he intended neither analogy when he set out to adapt the graphic novel created by Frank Miller with Lynn Varley in 1998, suddenly knew he had the contemporary version of a water-cooler movie on his hands. And it has turned out to be one that could be construed as a thinly veiled polemic against the Bush administration, or be seen by others as slyly supporting it.
You would have to be incredibly paranoid, in addition to being afflicted with crippling self-pity and narcissism, to see the position of the United States today as analogous to that of the three hundred Spartans surrounded and about to be overwhelmed and annihilated by the the well-trained, well-equipped army of the most powerful empire in the world.
And you would have to be entirely deluded by a homoerotic hero-worship to think that Leonidas, an actual warrior-king who personally led his Spartans into battle and lay down his life along with theirs, and George Bush have anything in common.
Which is why I expect a whole lot of bloggers on the Right side of the bandwidth to love this movie.
On the other hand, you have to stretch the point awfully thin to find the similarities between Xerxes' invasion of Greece and Bush's misadventures in the Mideast.
Xerxes, another true warrior-king, was intelligent, engaged, in control of both his own army and his expanding empire. He was tyrannical, savage but not, by the standard of his times, especially so, which is why, according to Herodotus, when he ordered the mutilation of Leonidas' corpse, it was shocking:
When Xerxes had thus spoken, he proceeded to pass through the slain; and finding the body of Leonidas, whom he knew to have been the Lacedaemonian king and captain, he ordered that the head should be struck off, and the trunk fastened to a cross. This proves to me most clearly, what is plain also in many other ways - namely, that King Xerxes was more angry with Leonidas, while he was still in life, than with any other mortal. Certes, he would not else have used his body so shamefully. For the Persians are wont to honour those who show themselves valiant in fight more highly than any nation that I know. They, however, to whom the orders were given, did according to the commands of the king.
Then again, Herodotus also shows Xerxes to be arrogant and unstable, a victim of his own poor judgment, with habit of ignoring good advice, so maybe in this case it's fine to believe along with Uncle Karl that history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce.
Frankly, however, I expect that the movie's politics are exactly what the NY Times dismisses them as, non-existent. The Times suggests that 300 was made for no other reason than the reason all movies are made, to sell tickets. Looks to me, though, that 300 was made because the filmmakers said to themselves, "Wow, think of all the cool ways we can show guys getting chopped up and dying!"
I'm not going to be taking part in any debates over 300's politics because I'm not going to see it.
Just tain't my cup of ambrosia.
It might be unfair. Ads for movies and the trailers can be ridiculously misleading. It's hard to tell from the trailer, for instance, that Robin Williams' Man of the Year has a darkly satirical, serious subplot, and the ads for Bridge to Terabithia are cruelly deceiving; they're like a trick Count Olaf would have played on the Baudelaires---"Come see the happy little fantasy movie, kids. Whoops! A main character dies! Oh dear." But judging by the ads, 300 looks like pornography for sadists, two hours of eroticized violence with no narrative or dramatic point except what's needed as an excuse for the filmmakers to show how beautiful bodies can be when they're killing, dying, or acting brutally or being otherwise brutalized---in other words, Sin City with swords and fewer naked women.
While we're on the subject, as you can probably guess, I'm not a fan of Frank Miller.
Miller, who created the graphic...ahem...novels Sin City and 300, is credited with saving Batman for DC, but he did it by turning a goofy kids’ comic book about the world’s greatest detective into a perpetual revenge fantasy starring the world’s most violent arrested adolescent. Batman since the Dark Knight returned has been a medium for late teenage and early twentysomething men whose own adolescences were arrested at the point they first took an honest look in the mirror and saw that they would never be the type who quarterbacks teams to Super Bowl victories and date cheerleaders, to see their self-pitying misanthropy acted out in not quite cathartic violence. “Take that world, for not appreciating me!”
At any rate, even if I'd been inclined to go see it, 300 has already been nixed by our house historian, the thirteen year old.
He knows all about the Battle of Thermopylae and his eye has already picked out from the ads that anything like historical accuracy and faithfulness to the true story is missing and to him what is most impressive about the tale of the 300 Spartans is that they were real people.
There are no real people in the ads for 300. Just a lot of comic book superheroes and video game ninjas defying the laws of gravity, physics, and biology.
Besides, he says, they got the quote wrong. The quote.
In the ads one of the Persians, maybe it's Xerxes, who can tell, and it doesn't matter, roars at one of the Spartans, maybe it's Dienekes, as it should be, maybe it's Leonidas, who can tell, and it doesn't matter: "Our arrows will blot out the sun!"
And the Greek hero roars back, "Then we will fight in the shade!"
The roaring takes the point out of the quote, because what Dienekes said was meant as a joke.
Actually, Dienekes' joke wasn't made on the battlefield in defiance of the Persians. Dienekes was responding to something said by a dinner guest the night before the battle and he was trying to cheer himself and his comrades up in the face of certain death.
Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself above all the rest, to wit, Dienekes the Spartan. A speech which he made before the Greeks engaged the Medes, remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, "Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude." Dienekes, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered "Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade." Other sayings too of a like nature are reported to have been left on record by this same person.
The shift from the tents to the battlefield isn't as egregious as the robbing of Dienekes of his sense of humor. The filmmakers have taken one of the most human moments from the story and turned it into a stereotypical moment of violent male blustering. Dienekes and Xerxes, or whoever they are, aren't presented as a couple of brave men. They're just cartoon alpha males making animal noises in an argument over territory, a pair of old lions roaring or bull walruses bellowing.
It's the kind of exchange you can hear any Saturday night at a bar near closing time.
Now that I think of it, that does make the Spartans more like the Bush Leaguers, doesn't it?
Maybe I will go see the movie. I'll get a kick out of thinking about the chickenhawks on the Right imagining they would have lasted five minutes in Sparta.
"Son, come home with your shield or upon it?"
"What are you saying, Mom? You expect me to fight? I thought that's what we hired the Thracians to do?"
Related: Me on Bridge to Terabithia.
Me on Herodotus. Offer still stands. I'll be glad to email the Atlantic article to you if you're not a subscriber.