Sunday, March 18, 2007

300: $127.5 Million and counting

LOS ANGELES - Spartans continued to fend off the box-office competition as the battle epic "300" took the No. 1 spot for the second-straight weekend with $31.2 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The Warner Bros. movie, the story of vastly outnumbered Spartans defending against Persian invaders, shot past the $100 million mark after just a week in theaters, bringing its total to $127.5 million.

A New York Times Op-Ed explores the fan-boy point of view:

The less politicized majority, who perhaps would like to draw inspiration from this story without glossing over the crazy and defective aspects of Spartan society, have turned, in droves, to a film from the alternative cultural universe of fantasy and science fiction.

It's not all about politics

The Spartan phalanx presents itself to foes as a wall of shields, bristling with spears, its members squatting behind their defenses, anonymous and unknowable, until they break formation and stand out alone, practically naked, soft, exposed and recognizable as individuals.

The audience members watching them play the same game: media-weary, hunkered down behind thick irony, flinging verbal jabs at the screen — until they see something that moves them. Then they’ll come out and feel. But at the first hint of politics, they’ll jump back behind their shield-wall, just like the Spartans when millions of Persian arrows blot out the sun, and wait until the noise stops.

Victor Davis Hanson questions Iran's motives: Left vs. Right, East vs. West, Spartan vs. Theban

The film’s producers must be delighted at the furor of the Iranian government. But how odd! The Islamic Republic believes that history started in the 7th century with Islam, so why all of a sudden are they harkening back 1100 years to infidel Persia?

In this regard, when an unpopular government like the mullacracy wishes to rally Iranians around getting the bomb, it usually appeals to nationalism, in the manner a despised Stalin after the June, 1941 Nazi invasion, suddenly began talking of Mother Russia rather than the Soviet Union.

It is true that Xerxes in Herodotus’s account is bearded, seated on a throne, fully masculine, and a somewhat tragic figure who weeps at the fragility of the human condition. But the Iranians should at least be happy that their ancestral king was not shown decapitating Leonidas, or ordering the eldest son of Pythius to be cut in half, the torso put on one side of the royal way, the legs on the other, or having the waters of the Hellespont lashed and branded—in other words, there is an entire corpus in Herodotus of anecdotes that might make the King seem far worse and sillier than the comic-book portrayal in the movie.

It is true that the surviving story of Thermopylae is from Greek sources only (Herodotus, various works of Plutarch, Diodorus, etc.), but that fact too illustrates the difference between an autocratic imperial east and the decentralized and autonomous city-state in which history was not merely the deeds of an autocrat chiseled on stone honorific monuments.

Bill Walsh of The Weekly Standard: True Thermopylaes

Their martial prowess, professionalism, sangfroid (see Housman's famous line, "The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair."), and absolute sense of honor unto death, were shocking to the Persians and became more than an epic war story: Historians from Herodotus, through Plutarch, and stretching all the way to Victor Davis Hanson some 25 centuries later, have seen in this instance of a tiny force composed of free men dealing horrible destruction to a larger, slave military, the very essence of the conflict between East and West.

Greece was the only location in the classical world in which the flame of liberty burned. A Persian victory would have snuffed out the Greek concept of freedom under the law, imposing a highly centralized god-king system known to past generations as Oriental Despotism. The free Spartans, in this telling, not only fought better as free men fighting for their liberty, but their sacrifice helped preserve the notions and institutions which blossomed into the glorious civilization eventually built on Greek foundations.

Compliments for Persia, hard words for Greece

Meanwhile, Persia looks a little more reasonable. They were a well-run, tolerant empire. Cyrus had even returned the Jews from exile. What were the Greeks so determined to resist? In fact, there were plenty of Greeks who were ready to sign up with Xerxes, sending symbolic tributes of earth and water. But the democrats of Athens and the militarists of Sparta not only refused, they broke with all diplomatic custom and executed Xerxes' messengers, tossing them into a pit and a well, respectively, with the taunts that they might find their earth and water down below.

Fighting for freedom

SO WHAT were the Greeks fighting for? Power, certainly. Athens and Sparta were Great Powers of the day. (Indeed, it was the not the Three Hundred at Thermopylae but the Athenian navy at Salamis that crucially broke the momentum of the Persian invasion, before the Spartans got their revenge at Plataea.) But in the end, one gets the sense that Herodotus and Hanson are on to something. Leonidas and company might well have recognized the battle cry of Mel Gibson's ludicrously anachronistic, semi-Pictish William Wallace: "They may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!"

Frank Miller's version of the 300 Spartans

Miller's comics present an imaginative, stylized, and somewhat ahistorical version of the great battle. The Spartans are generally running around in loin cloths, heroic classical-nude action figures rather than men at arms in armor; other than Leonidas, they seem to have left their helmets' distinctive crests home in Lacedaemon. The Persians are a bizarre cast of characters, led by a heavily-pierced, African-looking Xerxes with a predilection for self-aggrandizing mystagogy, and employing elephants in battle, à la Hannibal at Lake Trasimene.

That said, Miller's 300 is reasonably faithful to the general outlines of history, although he omits almost the entire broader context and occasionally oversteps the bounds of credibility with his additions. Take, for example, Miller's depiction of Ephialtes of Trachis, the traitor who betrays Greece, as a suicidal, hunchbacked, would-be hoplite rejected for service by Leonidas. Entertaining? Sure, but it sticks out a mile as an invention.

Ultimately, what made 300 work on paper was the combination of Miller's dynamic art (brilliantly colored by Lynn Varley), which alternated between the mimetic and the abstract, and the terse--though often clunky--text which frequently used the Spartans' own Laconic words to tell a hard story of hard men going to the hard task of dying at the hands of their enemies.

Skewed depictions of the Persians

An unfortunate addition to the film is the literal dehumanization of the Persians. The elite Immortals look as if Mr. Roboto had been sent to ninja camp and cloned--at least until one of them gets his mask ripped off, revealing that he hails not from Persia, but from Mordor or Mos Eisley. A couple of giants are added to the Persian ranks, presumably to provide level bosses for the inevitable video game. On the other hand, Rodrigo Santoro's performance as Xerxes adds weirdness and verve to the comic book's character--and he has the added bonus of actually appearing somewhat Persian, unlike Miller's quasi-Zulu original.

The film is still a spectacle

Nevertheless, with its digital scenery, its monstrous villains, its muscular, superheroic Spartans, and its Matrixesque high-speed camerawork, 300 is a genuine spectacle, for good and ill. It creates a lurid phantasmagoria of Thermopylae, a fascinating, bizarre hallucination which concentrates the mind on the Three Hundred's brutal fate--as well as the drama of free men choosing to fight and die to oppose a tyrant's army.

Unlike those films, however, 300 describes an actual historical event, which invites interpretation and analogy. Predictably, many in Europe and on the Left have tried to make 300 into an allegory for today's Iraq, seeing President Bush as the imperial would-be conqueror thwarted by a smaller foe. Others, particularly in the critics' caste, have cringed at seeing Western warriors portrayed heroically against an alien Other with whom they'd rather sympathize.

These projections are almost entirely inapt. Snyder's film is faithful to Miller's book which was written in 1998 and conceived earlier. If 300 may be called pro-Western, it's ultimately because Herodotus and Plutarch were pro-Western. If the valiant, doomed Spartans seem heroic, it's because, much as it pains us in our anti-heroic age to admit it, heroes have at times walked the earth performing deeds we now find incomprehensible.

If 300 has something to say to us, it is not a facile analogy to our own times, but an occasion, however sensational and simple, for considering the meaning of values such as sacrifice, liberty, honor, and valor. These continue to resonate in us, even if they have fallen somewhat out of favor. They have been central to our past, and our acceptance or rejection of them will shape our future.

The film 300 should not deeply offend Iranians. As Hanson wrote, just how many similarities are there between modern day Iran and the ancient collection of tribes that made up the Persian Empire? It seems highly childish and insecure for Iran to cry foul because 300 paints it in an unflattering light, while any number of films and television movies depict Germans as blood-thirsty Nazi's without nary a peep from the German people. Perhaps as an American with half Italian blood, I should protest Hollywood's depiction of Roman debauchery, lecherous emperors, and murderous thugs: See Gladiator, or HBO's ROME. To go a step further, it seems utterly ignorant for Iran to claim "Warner Brothers, which belongs to the famous and rich American Jew, has made the movie" while Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ prompted a fierce firestorm of criticism and attack from "Jewish" Hollywood.

There is a time when a film seeks out to make a clear and unambiguous political statement, such as Fahrenheit 9/11 or Schindler's List. But there is a time (most of the time), when a film seeks out to be a flashy, over the top action roller-coaster and make a ton of money. 300 is the latter.

No comments: