Skip to comments.Victor Davis Hanson: With Your Shield or On It
Posted on 03/27/2007 1:35:05 PM PDT by neverdem
Zack Snyders 300: a spirited take on a clash of civilizations
On Monday night in Hollywood I attended an advance screening of the entertaining new Zack Snyder movie 300, starring Gerard Butler as Leonidas, king of Sparta. This past October, I had seen an earlier version when screenwriter Kurt Johnstad asked me to take a look at an advance copy of the film. He drove down to my farm, I liked what I saw, and I then wrote an introduction to the book accompanying the film. So I am not a disinterested observer.
In truth, I think that many critics will dislike this final version of the film for a variety of reasons, even aside from its unabashed defense of the Spartan notion of martial excellence and the superiority of a free Hellas over a subservient Persian East. At earlier prescreenings, for example, some Europeans bristled at such Western chauvinism, came to the silly conclusion that the movie was a George Bush/Iraq allegory, and were appalled that the Persians appeared bent on conquest and weaker, man for man, than the free Spartans guarding the pass.
300 is certainly violent, with beheadings and lopped limbs aplenty. The characters are one-dimensional, with little complexity and no self-doubt or evolution in their thinking. And of course this is not the true story of Thermopylae, but an adaptation from a comic book by Frank Miller that is itself an adaptation from secondary books and films about the battle. While there are plenty of direct quotations from Plutarch and Herodotus, we are nevertheless a long way from the last stand of the Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans in the late summer of 480 B.C. If you want to see what happened at Thermopylae, this movie wont necessarily help you do it.
But the impressionism of 300 is Hellenic in spirit: its buff bare chests are reminiscent of the heroic nudity of warriors on Attic vase paintings. Even in its surrealisma rhinoceros, futuristic swords, and an effeminate, Mr. Clean-esque Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) who gets his ear flicked by a Spartan spear castit is not all that different from some of Euripides wilder takes, like Helen or Iphigeneia at Taurus, in their strange deviation from the party line of the Homeric epics. Like the highly formalist Attic tragedywith its set length, three actors, music, iambic and choral meters, and so forth300 consciously abandons realist portrayal.
The movie does demonstrate real affinity with Herodotus in two areas. First, it captures the martial ethos of the Spartan state, the notion that the sum total of a mans life, the ultimate arbiter of all success or failure, is how well he fought on the battlefield, especially when it becomes clear at last that bravery cannot prevent defeat. And second, the Greeks, if we can believe Simonides, Aeschylus, and Herodotus, saw Thermopylae as a clash of civilizations that set Eastern centralism and collective serfdom against the idea of the free citizen of an autonomous polis. That comes through in the movie, especially in the fine performances of Butler and Lena Headey (Gorgo). If the Spartans seem too cocky and self-assured in their belief that they are the more effective warriors of a superior culture, blame Herodotus, not Zack Snyder.
The cinematography, acting, and special effects are often stunning. And the Spartans mood of defiance is chilling, especially when we remember that their gallant last stand ended in the greatest defeat in the history of Greek city-statesuntil Alexander ended them altogether, 140 years later, at Chaironeia.
Actually, Phillip II, Alexander's father, ended the Greek city states at Cheronaea. Alexander just commanded the cavalry.
They weren't bristling over that "silly" Western chauvinism....oh say, some 60 years ago. Perhaps if the EuroWeenies go see it their own long-shrunk-up weenies might feel a surge of testosterone.
Usually VDH makes a great deal of sense. Can't figure this one out.
At the Hot Gates the Greeks lost something less than 2000 men total. How this works out as the greatest defeat in the entire history of Greek city-states is beyond me. The Athenians lost something over 35,000 killed in their ill-starred expedition to Sicily alone, and Athens and other Greek city-states had plenty of other disasters in their history.
He's possibly referring to the sacking of Athens after the battle.
Possibly. However, few Athenians died in that sack, as they'd all fled to Salamis and elsewhere.
It just seems to be an odd statement.
There were also some horrific defeats and massacres by Carthaginians and various dictators in Magna Graecia between Thermoplyae and Philip's final destruction of Greek independence.
Wow! You've corrected the greatest living classical historian on a matter of classical history! FR rocks.
Go see it! It's an outstanding film, devoid of the "leftist political" messages that have been permeating war movies of late.
I might go see it agian while it is still in theaters. My daughter and her husband saw while she was home on leave from Iraq and loved it. They should be showing it on every base over there.
I saw it and I liked it, but if this movie had a subtitle it would be "I see dead people."
I really must see this movie again.
Let me know if you want in or out.
Links: FR Index of his articles: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/keyword?k=victordavishanson
His website: http://victorhanson.com/
NRO archive: http://www.nationalreview.com/hanson/hanson-archive.asp
New Link! http://victordavishanson.pajamasmedia.com/
When you go to see this movie be sure to see it on an IMAX screen!
I recently saw the movie, and for all its flaws?, I simply LOVED it. I definately want to go see it again, this time the IMAX version.
I understand that Leonides gave his life to defend Athens but that was because of his interpretation of the Oracle of Delphi
Great warriors all, though.
Blast from the Past. Just adding to the catalog, not sending a general distribution.
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