Monday, March 26, 2007

Dissecting the foreign policy of Sparta in "300" (WARNING: MINOR SPOILER ALERT)

So I watched "300" on IMAX last night. Longtime TPV readers, all six of you, may remember that I was hyping this movie back in September.

Overall verdict? Visually stunning, and the plot moves along quickly enough that you can ignore the egregiously stupid dialogue without too much effort. Worth seeing in the theater, and definitely worth seeing on IMAX, if that option's available.

As has been noted elsewhere, the movie is hopelessly racist, homophobic, and -- most glaringly -viciously discriminatory against people with disabilities. Indeed, the heroes of the movie, the Spartans, practice an extreme form of eugenic infanticide, whereby any nonperfect baby is murdered at birth. Remember, these are the good guys!

But what I found most egregiously offensive was the Spartan foreign policy. Consider this: the movie begins with the Persian army massing in the Aegan Sea, preparing to invade Greece. The King of Persia, Xerxes -- protrayed in the movie as a seven foot tall gay guy who lives in an opium den populated with disfigured lesbians -- has sent an emissary to meet with the Spartan King, Leonidas. Bear in mind that Xerxes controlled all of Persia, the middle East, northern Africa, and India and Afghanistan, and had the world's biggest army. Xerxes offer to the Spartans was simple: if the Spartans would offer a handful of dirt as token tribute, he'd turn his army around and leave Greece in peace, sastified that they had been subjugated.

At this point, every rational human adult should be thinking: "Take the deal." Since the Spartans have prepared for war anyway, even if Xerxes isn't exactly trustworth, there's no harm in accepting the offer and seeing what happens. If Xerxes breaks his promise, the Spartan Army is no worse off than before, and indeed, may even be inspired to fight harder. Alternatively, if Xerxes isn't lying, you've just saved yourself the 3000 B.C. equivalent of World War Three, at the cost of . . . a pile of dirt. Not a bad days work, diplomatically.

But what does Leonidas do? He doesn't just reject Xerxes offer, he murders the Persian messenger! You might have seen this in the preview, when the first of many black men to be killed exclaims "This is madness!" before Leonidas sputters and spits out "THIS IS SPARTA!" Ok, so once again, I'm supposed to be rooting for a nation that not only reject diplomacy, it actually endorses murdering diplomats for trying to negotiate out of war?

I should add that this exact same scenario plays out toward the end of the movie in exactly the same way. After three furious days of fighting, the Spartan "300" is on the verge of collapse. King Xerxes, perhaps a tad high on the opium fumes, has another of his black henchmen approah Leonidas with an offer: bow down to Xerxes in token tribute, and Sparta will be spared destruction. Not only that, Leonidas will be made emperor of all of Greece, and Sparta will become the richest province in the Persian Empire.

"Take the deal! Take the deal!" And for a minute, it looks as if Leonidas has gained an once of common sense as he drops to his knees. The war is over! Sparta is saved! Victory!

Or, maybe some guy is going to jump off Leonidas' back and spear the black henchmen in the eye. Oh well.

One final political comment. It's impossible not to watch this movie without thinking of our current "Damn the diplomats, I say Bring 'em On" President and the Iraq War. Yet, oddly, I think Bush ultimately has more in common with Xerxes than Leonidas. True, Bush is neither black nor gay nor seven feet tall, but think about this: Xerxes, with the world's most formidable military force at his disposal, invades a far off foreign land for reasons that aren't quite clear. Once he arrives, a small band of dedicated fighters manages to frustrate and irritate his army by trapping them into a war they aren't really prepared to fight (i.e., in the narrow chasms of Thermopylae, instead of open plains as his army had been trained). Does that sound familiar at all? Is it possible that the lesson of "300" is to avoid overextanding the empire?

Well, no. There are no lessons from "300" because it's a stupid movie. But it's nice to look at and the battle sequences are awesome, so whatever.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A homophobic movie in which the ancient Greeks are the heroes? There’s an oxymoron; the Sacred Band of Thebes – composed exclusively of lovers – was the only military force of the time that could defeat Spartan forces one-on-one.

And I’m guessing that they didn’t mention that the poor folks under Spartan rule were far worse off than the people under Persian rule.

But we need our myths....

And dang near anything is good on IMAX (though I’m glad I saw “Happy Feet” rather than “300”)....

-- Big Daddy

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Nic said...

Big Daddy

How was Happy Feet?

Nic x

1:33 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

The movie is both overtly homophobic and extraordinarily homoerotic. As my review suggests, the filmmakers don't seem concerned with consistency. I didn't even touch on the scene where Leonidas meets with seven deformed creepy guys on top of a hill, who's "prophecy is law." In other words, Sparta's not even a democracy. Think too long about the movie and your head will start to hurt.

And thanks for getting Nicki all wound up about Happy Feet. I've been catching flak for not seeing that for months now.

"Bum didde bum didde bumpa chooba bumpa chooba..."

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Happy Feet" is delightful.

It was clear that they made it with IMAX in mind rather than just put it up on a big screen -- the detail, flow, just whoopie fun was quite a trip. (Probably wouldn't be the same on a small screen, but 50" plasma should give you an idea....)

-- Big Daddy

8:13 PM  
Anonymous jimmimoose said...

I had this discussion with a number of my friends after 300, and yeah, it's certainly all of those things. I'm not trying to excuse it from any of those claims, but I think it did succeed in showing what it set out to: a fantastical foundation-myth.

300 is absolute, pure myth, and I don't think anyone working on it really intended for it to be anything more than that. And in a weird way, as a myth story, the fucked-up elements of the movie make it more believable. Myths are like that, hopelessly one-sided and ridiculous portrayals of idealized concepts. Yes, there are drastic inconsistencies, they're all over that horrible script. But myths naturally require a willingness of their listeners/readers. It's just in the cards.

Now granted, myths are also supposed to be meaningful and teach people things, and there aren't any valid lessons coming out o' 300. But it's an old, old myth that might have been useful a long time ago, but really doesn't work for modernity at all.

All in all, I got a tremendous amount of enjoyment out of 300 when I took it as just a movie to be viewed. I think your criticisms are more than fair, Benji, this film was littered with a number of jaw-droppingly un-PC themes. I just thought it sorta made sense, too.

And damn there're some great battle scenes. Phew!

2:44 AM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

Herodotus says that both Sparta and Athens threw their respective Persian ambassadors into wells. Since Athens had already defeated a Persian army once at Marathon, they neither trusted Persia's offer, nor did they think Persia could make good on its threat. It was Athenian naval superiority and cunning that won the war in the end.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Jimmimoose said...

Herodotus also said that the Egyptians knead their dough with their feet and lived with their farm animals in their bedrooms. I'm just sayin'.... :-)

7:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you said. my room mates however loved the movie and thought it was the greatest show to every be put to film. Its not to say i didn't enjoy the flick, but it has all the serious flaws you said.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben you are an idiot.. if you knew something about ancient history u would understand some of the movie better..

The token of dirt was not just a pile of dirt.. in giving the dirt he was giving xerxes control of his land.. the reason the spartans would not do this is because they have pride and honor their land.. u say "he'd turn his army around and leave Greece in peace" this is not true, the reason for the campaign was to punish athens for the burning of the temples of sardis in the time of his father darius, they were goin 2 burn athens to the ground no matter what. if the spartans had given the token they would be known as scum by all of greece.

Where you say about leonidas murders the messenger by kicking him in the hole Robert Boyd already explained this in his post.

Again leonidas is approached with a deal.. but again this would make him scum 2 the whole of greece and the spartans would never give in to their enemies..

And there is a lesson to from the movie. that even a small group of dedicated people can defeat even the largest of armies...

And to jimmimoose you are an idiot aswell.. 300 is not a myth.. it really did happen it may have not been in the exact way but the spartans held of the persians enough to help turn the battle against the persians...

12:56 AM  

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