One Man’s Mede Is Another Man’s Persian

On balance, I liked 300.

I decline utterly to interpret it as a political allegory for the war in Iraq, or whatever Procrustean bed of pseudosymbolism some commentators are trying to fit it to. It just doesn’t seem like it’s trying to make that sort of point.

Although the movie was not even intended to be historically accurate, there were three things that bothered me. First was the portrayal of the Spartan Ephors–not because it was inaccurate, but because it didn’t make sense. They’re all old and disgustingly inbred men. And they regularly get beautiful young women from the city to have sex with. More appropriately than elsewhere, I think here we may issue a big, red throbbing “WTF?” I also became a little annoyed at the treatment of Xerxes, the “god-king”–a notion considerably more blasphemous in Zoroastrianism than in Greek polytheism. But in the cartooniverse of the movie, it made a certain sense. Finally, brethren and systren, I hated the scene with the Molotov cocktails, hated it with a hot hate. Modern filmakers are incapable of staging a battle scene without explosions. There is no heroism without fireworks, it seems.

The filmakers went so far over the top that one forget where the top had been–I might mention the flute-playing goat-man, here, or the Orc-ninja Immortals, or a number of things, but I don’t cite them as a criticism of the movie, just to give you a sense of what it was like. It is ultraviolent enough to appeal to Alex and his droogs, but, given that it’s about a battle in which virtually all of the protagonists are killed, that’s to be expected. The arty portrayal of some of the violence (e.g. the corpse-tree made by an incursion of Persians, or the corpse-wall made of Persians), that was repellent to me, but it’s one way to make the horror of war strike home.

Things I liked about the movie: the fact that Leonidas did not shout his every word of dialogue (contrary to the impression one got from the trailer, the actors did beautiful nuanced work); the relationship between Leonidas and Gorgo; the political problem back at Sparta (though completely fictional, it was not hokey or in any way an idiot-plot); the Ninja-quick moves of the Spartan warriors and the fight-scenes generally. The digital images were superbly blended with the live actors, as well or better than in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (my previous gold standard for this sort of thing). I loved the bits of the source material woven carefully into the woof of the film (“then we will fight in the shade”; “we dine this evening in Hell”; “Tell the Spartans…” etc.).

In spite of the arty ultraviolence and the overthetoppitude, I think 300 may become one of my favorite sword-and-sandal movies. But now I want a companion piece about the Athenian victories at Marathon and Salamis (just to make it clear the Spartans weren’t solely responsible for the Greeks defeating the Persian invasion).

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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6 Responses to One Man’s Mede Is Another Man’s Persian

  1. Anonymous says:

    Again the Thespians get no respect. 🙂

    We’ll see it next week. I’ve got my hopes up on this one, which is often a sure sign of disappointment.

    • JE says:

      Well, they get respect from me–this is the sort of movie where the actors might be tempted to stump around with stiff faces, declaiming the lines as though they were inscribed in marble (which at least a couple of the lines actually were). But these guys really put human faces on the legend.

      But maybe the secret to enjoying the movie is to hold your expectations down. After some of the hatchet-jobs I’d read in the press, I was expecting to be bored for two hours, so I found myself pleasantly surprised.

      • Anonymous says:

        I was referring the Thespians who died with the Spartans. 😉

        The movie was pretty much what I expected: visually stunning and very cool. Miller has had a life-long fascination with this battle and believes the story gets at the very heart of what it means to be a hero. I think that came across on screen.

        It’s a rare movie that can get my wife and I to chuckle while animals and the wounded are being killed, but this one managed it. Strange.

        • JE says:

          I was referring the Thespians who died with the Spartans. 😉

          Ah, now I get you. Yes, it was a very Spartocentric version of the war as a whole and the battle in particular.

  2. davidcapeguy says:

    300

    I saw 300 this afternoon, and while a few things rang poorly, on the whole I liked it. Total agreement about the exploding stuff — I guessed that they wanted to use Greek Fire, but couldn’t quite come up with a reason why the Persians would have Greek Fire, and not the Greeks. And that brought me to another quibbling point, one I’m going to have to research: I know that in the legendary age of the Trojan War, the concept of “Greece” and “Greeks” didn’t exist. Ditto (pretty sure) for Homer’s day. And by 480 BCE, I don’t think that concept had yet been born, either. I’ll have to take Stengel’s advice and look it up.

    I suppose that would also be true for war-rhinos. Bizarre, but visually effective.

    But on the over-the-top side, I did rather like the way Xerxes was portrayed as being at least nine feet tall, during his conversation with Leonidas. I found it dramatically very effective.

    • JE says:

      Re: 300

      I know what you mean about Greek national identity–it’s a slippery (largely imaginary) beast in antiquity. But I think one really begins to see some in the fifth century, partly in response to the Persian conquests (including the Greek-speaking cities of western Asia).

      I agree about the godlike stature of Xerxes; it was pretty impressive. The image looked a little grainy when he actually put his hand on Leonidas’ shoulder, but it still had a lot of impact.

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