What is it with numerology and politically incorrect shows?
First, there was “24,” the Fox show in which Kiefer Sutherland as agent Jack Bauer does unspeakable things to the bad guys, and now there is “300,” in which three hundred Spartans take on thousands upon thousands of degenerate Persians in the battle of Thermopylae. I’m delighted to report that “300” has been “slaying them” at the box office.
I’m afraid that the movie was too much for the usually macho Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter:
“The theory of Spartan greatness argues that the Spartans bought time with blood, and allowed the other Greek city-state armies to slip away and fight another day and eventually triumph. Thus this frail bloom we call Western civilization continued to survive in the rocky Attic soil. And thus we speak English, not Farsi, and trace our government back to a neighbor of Sparta’s. The argument also dramatizes a continuing reality in democratic societies that, while it’s nice to have Athenians around to invent government and theater and the sandal, every once in a while it’s necessary to dig up some Spartans to get in real close and bayonet the bad guys right smack in the guts.
“‘300,’ alas and to its shame, makes no argument at all. It’s entirely an overblown visual document with an IQ in the lower 20s. It doesn’t even bother to mention the strategic context of the Battle of Thermopylae or to follow the story through to its end at Salamis, where the Athenians sent the Persian minions to meet Mr. Jones at the bottom of the Aegean, and drove the Persian Big Boy Xerxes back to his harem where he ultimately perished on an intriguer’s knife. Meanwhile, the Greeks went on to invent the rest of history.
“Instead, we get a Spartan culture that seems notable primarily for one thing: the invention of the ab machine.”
Well, I thought it was a terrific movie. It was, as Hunter noted in the review, “showy and stylized.” The wolf the young Leonidas slays has yellow eyes. There is a narrator with a rather bombastic style. But it was a ripping good tale. It’s unusual for Mr. Hunter not to like a war movie, and may I suggest some reasons (in addition to the movie’s style) I think “300” might have failed to win his approval:
The movie is, as Hunter notes, a glorification of Sparta, the militaristic Greek town whose warlike ethos is often contrasted with Athens’ more philosophical bent. Remember reading in school about the Spartan boy who died because a fox ate his entrails but he was too – well – Spartan to complain? Most of us grew up favoring Athens. But this movie makes a good point for Spartan values as occasionally necessary to preserve freedom. The Athenians in the movie, unfairly I think, are portrayed as wimps. The Spartans are the heroes – this is partly old-fashioned adventure and partly a commentary on what it took to have The Right Stuff in ancient Greece.
The parallels with our own situation vis a vis an Eastern foe are inescapable. Leonidas clearly perceives that, if the Greeks don’t win, their civilization will be destroyed. He sees the battle with the Persians as the existential struggle it was. Okay, I did start thinking of Leonidas as a sort of George Bush figure – right down to the council, which is trying to avoid war with Persia at all costs. Leonidas goes to Thermopylae with only 300 men because the Democrats – oops! – Solons won’t give him the army he needs. The Eastern foe, Xerxes, is different from the one we face – this is sort of an LGBT Xerxes – but just as determined to destroy the West.
Of course, the great thing about the saga is the heroism and sacrifice (which, in the end, did trigger the council to approve a surge- hope we are as lucky).