Monday, March 12, 2007

300: An Inspiring Orator's Tale

Imagine if you will the windswept plain of Plataea in 479 BC. Standing beside you are 5,000 of your fellow Spartiates, with accompanying perioeci and helots providing logistical support. You, along with the survivors of a sacked and burned Athens and soldiers from across Greece, a total force of 110,000 troops. 38,000 of these troops are the famous Greek hoplites named for the heavy bronze coated shield they wield in battle, the heavily armored hoplite is the ancient world's equivalent of a tank. Your army is led by Pausanias, regent of Sparta whose uncle died almost a year ago at the famous battle of Thermopylae. You face a force of 300,000 Persians. Your hoplites and the phalanx they fight in, even its pre-Epaminondas design, is the most efficient "heavy armor" strategy yet invented and a huge technological advantage against the Persians. This force, the largest organized Spartan army to date, has come to finally remove Xerxes from the lands of Greece and make it so that Persia will never again wage war on the West.

Two things weigh heavy upon your mind. First, you are outnumbered and your elite forces (which include
Thespians) are few in number. Second, while Athens has burned to the ground, your 8,000 Athenian allies brag about their victory at Salamis where their oarsmen were responsible for the annihilation of Xerxes' fleet. They are the reason so "few" Persians stand on the field of battle to date. Sparta's only role in this Persian war so far has been defeat. You wonder if even you and your noble Spartiates can win the day.

A man steps forward, Dilios (historically Aristodemos), a survivor of Thermopylae. Dilios, a man who some say fled Thermopylae and others say was sent as a messenger by Leonidas, begins to weave his tale of the Battle of Thermopylae, a tale meant to inspire the demoralized Spartans. Spartans who have lost a king and witnessed their Greek rival achieve a huge victory. Spartans who need a legend to inspire them.

Thus begins Frank Miller's, and Zack Snyder's, 300, a graphic novel and movie portraying the fantastic tale that Dilios weaves for his fellow Spartiates as they prepare to battle at Plataea.

Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, in reviewing 300, criticizes both the look and the accuracy of the film, especially its dialogue.

About the costuming, which is very different than the bronze armored hoplites of history, he says that "'the fiercest soldiers the world has ever known' look like an especially fit group of Santa Monica lifeguards taking part in the Doo-Dah parade." In doing so, Turan demonstrates an ignorance of the inspiration for the look of the Spartans. Frank Miller, and Zack Snyder, based the appearance of the Spartan warriors on Jacques Louis David's portrait of Leonidas and not on Herodotus.

This was an intentional choice. It makes for a more cinematic tale, both for the viewing audience and Dilios' listening audience as Plataea. The figures move from the historical into the mythical.

The dialogue and portrayal of the combat are motivated by similar desires. The dialogue comes mostly from Plutarch, Herodotus, and Aeschylus. It may sound trite to a person who lacks thumos, as Turan most certainly does, to hear that Freedom "must be bought by blood." But to a culture based on Thumos, almost to the exclusion of other aspects of virtue, the words would be received naturally. As Victor Davis Hanson, classicist and author of The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece wrote, "If critics think that 300 reduces and simplifies the meaning of Thermopylae into freedom versus tyranny, they should reread carefully ancient accounts and then blame Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus — who long ago boasted that Greek freedom was on trial against Persian autocracy, free men in superior fashion dying for their liberty, their enslaved enemies being whipped to enslave others."

It is important to remember that this most recent telling of the Battle of Thermopylae is presented as a rallying speech by Dilios, and thus is a legendary representation of the battle. Gone are accurate depictions of the phalanx, which would be far more gruesome to watch than Snyder's cartoon version of the violence. In the film, it at least appears that the Persians' tactics had some effect against the Greek hoplite. The reality is far grimmer. Before Ephialtes revealed the goat track to the Persians and allowed them to surround the Greeks, the Persians were technologically outclassed. Especially when you consider the historic helot and perioeci support, with requisite bows and javelins, the phalanx would have behind them. Rooting for the Spartans represented realistically is like rooting for the Turkish machine gunners in the movie Gallipoli. There may be patriotic reasons to do so, but watching that kind of slaughter wouldn't be very satisfying.

One must also ask oneself when viewing the film, "what interest does Dilios have in discussing the Thebans and Thespians who supported the Spartans in defending Thermopylae?" Most certainly, he wants to mention the Arcadians who fled the battle. But the Thespians stayed for glory, and the Thebans might have been forced by Leonidas to stay. Discussing either the Thespians or the Thebans takes kudos away from the Spartiate warriors who died and thus makes for a less inspirational speech at Plataea, which is what the film narrative represents.

As a depiction of an inspirational speech preparing soldiers for battle, 300 is a wonderful film. It is filled with mythic beasts, unbeatable foes, and a 10 foot tall godlike enemy. As a representation of history, it is correct in tone but lacks verisimilitude. To once again quote Hanson, "purists must remember that 300 seeks to bring a comic book, not Herodotus, to the screen. Yet, despite the need to adhere to the conventions of Frank Miller’s graphics and plot — every bit as formalized as the protocols of classical Athenian drama or Japanese Kabuki theater — the main story from our ancient Greek historians is still there." The audience is meant to watch a myth and not a history.

Besides, as I mentioned above, a historical representation would be off putting to all but the most bloodthirsty among us. It is one thing to feed the primal spiritedness, thumos, of the everyman. It is quite another to revel in slaughter, and what the Spartans (and then the Persians) did was slaughter for as long as they could. Like the idea of watching a realistic depiction of Roman warfare, I'll leave realistic depictions of the phalanx to films that wish to discourage war rather than one meant to praise courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

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