March 7, 2007


With Your Shield or On It: Zack Snyder's 300: a spirited take on a clash of civilizations (Victor Davis Hanson, 7 March 2007, City Journal)

In truth, I think that many critics will dislike this final version of the film for a variety of reasons, even aside from its unabashed defense of the Spartan notion of martial excellence and the superiority of a free Hellas over a subservient Persian East. At earlier prescreenings, for example, some Europeans bristled at such Western chauvinism, came to the silly conclusion that the movie was a George Bush/Iraq allegory, and were appalled that the Persians appeared bent on conquest and weaker, man for man, than the free Spartans guarding the pass. [...]

And of course this is not the true story of Thermopylae, but an adaptation from a comic book by Frank Miller that is itself an adaptation from secondary books and films about the battle. While there are plenty of direct quotations from Plutarch and Herodotus, we are nevertheless a long way from the last stand of the Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans in the late summer of 480 B.C. If you want to see what happened at Thermopylae, this movie won't necessarily help you do it.

But the impressionism of 300 is Hellenic in spirit: its buff bare chests are reminiscent of the heroic nudity of warriors on Attic vase paintings. Even in its surrealism--a rhinoceros, futuristic swords, and an effeminate, Mr. Clean-esque Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) who gets his ear flicked by a Spartan spear cast--it is not all that different from some of Euripides' wilder takes, like Helen or Iphigeneia at Taurus, in their strange deviation from the party line of the Homeric epics. Like the highly formalist Attic tragedy--with its set length, three actors, music, iambic and choral meters, and so forth--300 consciously abandons realist portrayal.

The movie does demonstrate real affinity with Herodotus in two areas. First, it captures the martial ethos of the Spartan state, the notion that the sum total of a man's life, the ultimate arbiter of all success or failure, is how well he fought on the battlefield, especially when it becomes clear at last that bravery cannot prevent defeat. And second, the Greeks, if we can believe Simonides, Aeschylus, and Herodotus, saw Thermopylae as a "clash of civilizations" that set Eastern centralism and collective serfdom against the idea of the free citizen of an autonomous polis. That comes through in the movie, especially in the fine performances of Butler and Lena Headey (Gorgo). If the Spartans seem too cocky and self-assured in their belief that they are the more effective warriors of a superior culture, blame Herodotus, not Zack Snyder.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2007 12:44 PM

"More effective warriors of a superior culture."

Military Spencerianism: multiculturalism can't handle it.

America can handle it, which is why we have sports teams and cities named for Sparta.

I don't read comic books, so I don't know home the story may have been mangled. The earlier Richard Easgan film made it plain, via staged conversations betreen Leonaidas and Themistocles, that Thermopylae was only a tactical defeat, but a operational victory, leading to a strategic triumph. It had been an economy of force operation, holding key terrain with a small blocking force for the secondary mission of delaying the enemy so that a greater victory may be achieved elsewhere.

I am not sure what Hanson intends by referrring to "Iphegenia at Taurus." I presume he refers to Euripides' Iphegenia among the Taurians, which can be seen as an expression of Hellenic cultural triumphalism.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 7, 2007 1:36 PM

It's sad that the Europeans will project anti-Americanism onto anything they perceive to be a defense of western civilization, no matter how oblique or ancient the subject matter.

Posted by: Gideon at March 7, 2007 2:30 PM

A good book for anyone wanting a very good, short analysis of Thermopylae is Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World by Paul Cartledge.
(sorry I don't know how to add italics or to underline to make the title proper).

Posted by: Bartman at March 7, 2007 3:04 PM

Bartman, check here for HTML Tags.

Posted by: erp at March 7, 2007 4:07 PM

erp: Thanks!

Posted by: Bartman at March 8, 2007 9:49 AM

You are most welcome, but I'm just passing it on, it was David C. who did the honors for me.

Posted by: erp at March 8, 2007 3:21 PM