Sunday, March 18, 2007

300: Watch it for the moral, not the history

I went to see 300, a retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, with a friend yesterday after months of waiting patiently since first learning of the film's existence. Since the film debuted, I've heard many complaints about the film: that it is historically inaccurate, racist, etc. One Iranian government official even called the film a propaganda piece created by U.S. "cultural officials" to disparage the current, post-revolution theocratic government of Iran.

I think the people who are writing and saying these things about the film have, in some cases, missed the point, but I suspect that there are many among them who have understood the film very well, and they fear its message.

As far as the criticisms of 300 go, the most I can say for its critics is that it does contain some minor historical inaccuracies (though I saw no evidence that these depictions were intended to be presented as fact). My own research on the battle suggests that there were many more Greek soldiers from their various city states at Thermopylae. Then there's the depiction of Athens and the Acropolis in flames, which happened after Thermopylae, but occurs in the film before then. The final scene of the film, which immediately follows the defeat of the Spartans and the death of Leonidas, depicts the tens of thousands of Greek soldiers, led by Sparta, who finally destroyed the Persian forces who were left in Greece under the command of Mardonius. This is a massive leap forward in time, as this didn't happen until after the battle of Salamis in which the Persian navy was all but destroyed, which occurred well after Thermopylae. To my mind, this is no big deal - this is the stuff that sequels are made of! If Frank Miller is up to it, I'm there.

As to the charges that the film is racist, I don't feel like dignifying that tired canard with an answer. The people who utter such garbage pretty much feel that anything depicting western civilization in a favorable light is inherently racist, and no amount of reason will crack their Cultural Marxist faith. So, I will happily pass over them and leave them to their indoctrinated ignorance.

The Iranian government, on the other hand, might have something to worry about in this film, though their claim that it is a product of our government is just silly. While some attempt to utilize a distracting argument by citing what they consider a bad depiction of their Persian ancestors - see the preceding paragraph for my response to that - the real meat of the film is the depiction of individuals fighting for a society based on reason versus a society of subservience based on mysticism. That, no doubt, gives both the Iranian theocratic government and coffee house commies fits, and so they roll out their weak proxy arguments to attack it.

To a would-be totalitarian like Ahmadinejad and his goons in the present Iranian government, and to leftists everywhere, the unmistakable challenge issued to those who idolize the power of the state at the expense of the inherent rights of the individual by 300 is anathema. It cannot be argued that Miller's work does not take poetic license with the true events and motivations behind Thermopylae nearly 2,500 years ago, but that should not be held up as the point of the film. It is common, and effective, for writers to couch a message in a story based upon real events, relying upon the fame and the power of inspiration those events have to hold the attention of the audience. Rather than focusing upon this (which those the film speaks against would rather we do) the moral message of the film should be focused upon: enslavement is not freedom, coercion is not just, and those who endorse such things do so for their own glorification, not for the supposed benefit of their subjects.

Consider not who the character of Xerxes in 300 represented, but the ideas this character represented: the view of some that the state is omnipotent. The film Xerxes considered himself to be a living god, which is representative of the belief of many today that it is government that gives us what we have, that government, in its benevolence, bestows upon us our rights. Frequently in the film, Xerxes said of himself, "I am kind," and he asked of everyone who came before him that they kneel at his feet - otherwise, Xerxes destroyed them. Xerxes' "kindness," however, came in the form of wealth and other resources doled out to people as he saw fit that he himself did not produce, but which came from the people he had subjugated. Demanding that people kneel before him, thus symbolically placing individuals beneath him, depicts the view that the individual is less than and subservient to the state, what collectivists throughout history have always believed.

So while the depiction of the Spartans as fighting for justice and reason was probably played up in the film quite a bit relative to what really motivated the Spartans at Thermopylae thousands of years ago, it speaks undeniable, timeless truths to us nonetheless. Through reason, we know that human beings are born free and rightfully should be, that we are the source of our rights - they are inherent to us - and that the false gods of government are not. Government is only composed of other human beings, who rightfully can govern only with the consent of the governed, and they are most certainly not anything close to gods, as was depicted in 300 when Leonidas wounded Xerxes with a thrown spear.

In parables such as 300, we are reminded of the better parts of ourselves and what we in the west should value and fight for. Reason is superior to mysticism, freedom is superior to servitude, and government is not worthy of worship. This is the valuable message behind the film that its detractors would like to obscure, and with good reason, as it presents in graphic detail the virtuousness of freedom versus the cowardice and insanity of what they believe.

Read the complete post at Helium!


Anonymous said...

I think you have missed the point of the opposition to the movie: It is not about the moral of the story. True, this is a story about Good vs. Evil, just like every other story written throughout history, so this movie makes no real contribution and has nothing new to talk about.
The problem is that you could tell this story in a zillion different ways, but the references are made to true historical persons and events. So they have taken a real story and turned it into fiction, at expense of distorting a nation's image.

Xerxes, historians suggest, was not the evil that was depicted in the movie. The Achamenid Empire established for the first time in the history of human kind, a set of rules we now call 'human rights.' Cyrus the Great, the founder of the empire, released the Jews and issued a decree in Babylonia inhibiting slavery, repression and imposing of Persian culture and religion on nations that embraced the Persian rule.
You may read about that here:

Spartans, on the other hand, were known to be pro-slavery. They would take their Greek neighbours as slaves, what they called 'heliots', and broke the universal code of ethics by murdering the Persian messenger in the movie.

Sparta was never a democracy. They spent decades fighting the Athenians. Sparta was more similar to a fascist state where individuals were subject to the state's rule, and enjoyed little freedom.

The roles in this movie can well be reversed. It were Persians who stood for freedom and fought slavery. Spartans were just a bunch of underdogs who did not want to submit to Persian rule (this is understandable, Iraqi insurgents do this against US forces now).

Persian's were not naked, dark-skinned, ugly, barbarian, sub-human, evil creatures that the movie shows.
There are real images of Xexes and Persian soldiers from that time in Persepolis and you may have a look at them in my weblog.

This movie has distorted historical events, and it is no coincidence that you see a 'good' 'Western' force fighting an 'evil' Persian force.

It is not just the Iranian government that is angry about this movie. This movie has managed to make every Persian, even the extreme anti-Islamic, pro-Western Persians angry, because it has distorted our historical image, and questioned our common values: freedom, justice and equality of all human beings regardless of race, religion, geneder, etc. These are the things Persians stood for in the ancient world, and it was no coincidence that almost all nations of what was known of the world at that era welcomed them.

Paul E. Zimmerman said...

Nima -

No, I understand this angle of objection to the film. I reject that its divergence from the actual facts of history is as important as some consider that to be, and I resent the distraction from the good in the film it represents. It is, after all, a work of fiction, not a declared presentation of historical fact claiming precision and authority over the matter, which both of us have acknowledged. As such, it's pertinent that you write:

"The roles in this movie can well be reversed."

Of course they could be. The story would then be far, far more of a fiction, but the moral of the story would still be the same (though it's more complex than the dismissive "good vs. evil/nothing new" description you've given it).

I'm well aware of what the Spartan state was really like, which is why I stated in my post:

"It cannot be argued that Miller's work does not take poetic license with the true events and motivations behind Thermopylae nearly 2,500 years ago, but that should not be held up as the point of the film. It is common, and effective, for writers to couch a message in a story based upon real events, relying upon the fame and the power of inspiration those events have to hold the attention of the audience."

I don't agree with the glowing description of the Persian Empire of Darius and Xerxes you've stated here. All civilizations have their good and bad points, of which you've brought up several attributable to Spartan society, so it's fair to recall the faults of ancient Persia under those rulers that pertain to this discussion.

First, off, while Darius probably had a legitimate gripe with Athens over their material support of the Ionian revolt, the defeat of the Persians at Marathon in 490 (the second time they tried to invade Greece and were beaten) basically ended the conflict. At least it should have.

Xerxes decided on a third assault on Greece for revenge over his father's defeat at Marathon - last time I checked, revenge is typically not considered a just reason for going to war. He could have focused only upon Athens, but Xerxes wanted it all, so his diplomats tried to persuade the other Greek city states to submit; I use the term "persuade" loosely, since they made it clear to the Greeks that a huge force was on the way to force them into submission if they didn't "volunteer."

There just isn't enough lipstick in the world to make that pig pretty.

You write:

"Persian's were not naked, dark-skinned, ugly, barbarian, sub-human, evil creatures that the movie shows."

In physical form, no, obviously not, and while there is obviously no reason that being dark-skinned is bad, there were many people of darker pigment in the Achaemenid empire simply on account of its reach. Therefore, the presence of such people in the film amongst the Persian ranks is correct. But in the context of the Greco-Persian wars, particularly under Xerxes, in terms of morality the Persians certainly fit the other four adjectives you've thrown out there. The Spartans, though admittedly with some of the warts you've pointed out were, in the face of the Persian invasion, engaged in a just and morally correct action: self defense. Their faults elsewhere do not change that fact.

I will drop by your blog to take a look at the images you've mentioned. I'm always up for that sort of thing - if I had a TV, it would be permanently tuned in to the History Channel. :)

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