Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Film 300: Fantasy and Myth

I just watched the film 300 which is adapted from Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name. The movie is about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C when 300 Spartans took on the might of the Persian army and held them while the Greek city states rallied their forces. The movie is interesting but not very engaging, nothing in the league of Sin City, that terrific roller coaster ride in charcterisation and imagination.

The Frank Miller novel does not claim historical accuracy. The Persians are a representative of the non-white/christian world where mysticism, magic, superstitious, ogres, tyranny and monstrous animals (giant sized rhinos and elephants) hold sway while the Spartans represent freedom, rationality and other modern (largely christian in origin) values. The film is a strong political statement in support of the 'war on terror' as it presents the Battle of Thermopylae as a 'clash of civilizations'. Freedom versus tyranny, free will versus slavery, human versus animal, mysticism versus rationality.

I have studied some Greek history but I cannot recollect much of it. Athens and Sparta were two ends of the flourishing Greek spectrum. Athens with its hedonistic, philosophical, democratic values while Sparta in its martial tradition, its simple utilitarian life style. Sparta was a nation closed off from the influence of other nations, with few foreign imports and ideas, creating a barren cultural world, devoid of great works of music and literature. The Spartans have given to English language two important words. The first is, Spartan, meaning something strictly utilitarian, and completely devoid of non-essentials. It also used to describe a person or group of people who are warlike, organized, well trained in warfare, etc. "Spartan" can be a substitute word for soldier or warrior (From Wikipedia). The second Laconic wit (from Laconia)is seen as a harsh method of communication, abrupt in its nature and delivery.

The movie was interesting enough but not worth the big deal being pipped about it. Some of the images are powerful with obvious reference to the graphic novel. Some of the battle sequences are choreographed fantastically but the point remains, do merely these things make a movie good? I have also thought about the rather pop culture Orientalism that Miller's creation exhibits and was forced to ask if it was offensive. The answer is negative. The movie is very deeply symptomatic of American ignorance, taking off in fantastical directions on events in history that Miller probably cannot fathom and if he does, he shows no evidence of it. Yet, I am deeply fascinated and confused at the roots that western imagination have developed in our Asian/Indian/non-western minds especially when I hear people around me gloating about the movie like teenagers. Or is this what the anti-globalisation brigade calls the Americanization/homogenization of the world?

Historical questions related to the movie have been answered here. For the purpose of informing my readers, I take some liberty to copy- paste, relevent data that one is curious about after watching the movie.

Was it really 300 Spartans against a million Persians?
According to ancient historian Herodotus, there were 5 million Persians at Thermopylæ, the main battle depicted in "300". Modern estimates run from 150,000 to 2 million. Britannica puts the number at 360,000. At the beginning of the battle, there were 7,100 Greeks soldiers from various states commanded by Spartan King Leonidas.

What was the result of the battle shown in ''300''?
The Battle of Thermopylae delayed King Xerxes and the Persians only briefly on their way to Athens. The battle is often described as the birth of Greek nationalism, and thus of nationalism generally.

What was the result of the war between Greece and Persia?
About a month after defeating King Leonidas at Thermopylæ, the Persians under Xerxes captured Athens, but the Athenian navy destroyed the Persian fleet at Salamis. This was the decisive battle of the Greco-Persian War, after which Xerxes returned home. He left an occupation force to retain control of Thebes and the other cities he had captured. A Greek army, including 10,000 Spartans and 8,000 Athenians, defeated the remaining Persians at Plataea in 479 BC, a year after Thermopylæ.

On the issue of historical accuracy, political overtones and depiction of Persians, the Wikipedia is a nice source. But I will cull out some quotes for my purpose.

Historical Accuracy
Military historian Victor Davis Hanson, who wrote the foreword to a 2007 re-issue of the graphic novel, states that the film demonstrates a specific affinity with the original material of Herodotus in that it captures the martial ethos of ancient Sparta and represents Thermopylae as a "clash of civilizations". He remarks that Simonides, Aeschylus and Herodotus viewed Thermopylae as a battle against "Eastern centralism and collective serfdom" which opposed "the idea of the free citizen of an autonomous polis". He further states that the film portrays the battle in a "surreal" manner, and that the intent was to "entertain and shock first, and instruct second."

Political Overtones
Media speculated about a possible parallel between the Greco-Persian conflict and current events. The New York Post's Kyle Smith writes that the film would have pleased "Adolf's boys," and Slate's Dana Stevens compares the film to The Eternal Jew. Roger Moore, a critic for the Orlando Sentinel, matches 300 to Susan Sontag's definition of "fascist art." David Kahane of the National Review praises the movie for valorizing "Real all-American stuff," in which "heroes [stand] up for God and country".

A movie called The 300 Spartans was made in 1962 on the same Battle of Thermopylae.


praveen said...

Here's two more

Shalini said...

Long time doc, Hope you are doing good. I havent seen 300 yet. Saw Little miss sunshine and Water. Liked them both.

Little Miss Sunshine is really good and it made me laugh.

There is a Kannada movie released here...starring a rabbit. hehe...For a change they released it in big theaters like INOX and PVR. will watch that soon.