Monday, March 19, 2007

300

[I would put a spoiler alert up here, but I'm not sure that this movie is actually spoilable, since it's all about a war that happened ~2500 years ago. That being said, if you don't know about the Battle of Thermopylae and have any intention of watching 300, you might not want to read this post.]

So, not to ape Eric or anything, but I too watched 300 last weekend. Overall, I wasn't too bothered by the historical inaccuracies. There were some definite omissions, of course, like the battle of Salamis. I guess I would have been happy to have a more complete and accurate picture of the surrounding history, but it was intended to be a recording of the battle of Thermopylae, and not of the entirety of the Greco-Persian War itself. By and large, from what I've read, the order of battle of Thermopylae itself was more or less true to the actual events, modulo the addition of fantastical animals and crazy mutant Persians.

The only real historical deviation that bothered me was the misrepresentation of the Greek army itself. The film gives the impression that the Greek contingent was basically 300 Spartans plus a bunch of mooks from the countryside. While it's true that there was a contingent of 300 Spartans present and that their contribution is the most remembered, the Greeks had a total of about 7,000 soldiers fending off the Persians. Which is, in and of itself, an amazing feat, and it would have been no less interesting a movie to show that battle instead.

A friend I saw it with made the point that the movie was effective at portraying the "emotional truth" of the battle, rather than the historical fact behind it, and I think there's some legitimacy to that argument. In reality, the Greeks of course fought in a phalanx formation and didn't charge willy-nilly into single-handed comment -- while I appreciated the brief representation of phalanx combat, it would have been boring as hell to watch what really would have amounted to a three-day-long shoving match. And of course the Persians didn't have 10-foot tall unarmored soldiers and the Immortals weren't hideously disfigured (and would Xerxes's army even have had elephants?). But those seemed to me like reasonable shorthand representations of the overwhelming sense of fear and intimidation that the Greeks would have felt when confronted by the overwhelming Persian army. Plus, they just looked cool.

Nah, I had only two real gripes. The first was that the movie was just plain boring. It was gorgeous, and the choreography was quite impressive, but there's only so many gruesome dismemberments and wave upon wave of endless combatants that I can see before the effect gets completely deadened. It was compounded by the nigh-invulnerability of the Spartan troops: it's hard to get emotionally involved in combat when none of the characters can die (which is sort of ironic, given that they do all die at the end, of course. Just not in the middle). The Spartans were quite impressive soldiers, of course, but they were hardly immortal, and were beaten in battle plenty of times (just ask Epaminondas about that...). I had the same problem with the big, gory fight scene at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1 -- its over-the-top gore and violence was fun for a minute or so, and then it just got monotonous.

My second complaint had to do with the racial politics of the movie. I hold no truck with the comparison of the movie to current-day political issues; that just seems like knee-jerk criticisms (has anyone actually said this?). And certainly, told from the perspective of the Spartans, it makes some sense that the Persians are portrayed as uncultured brutes. But, given that Persians are essentially white and ethnically indistinguishable from Greeks, I'm a little confused by all the dark-skinned people serving in the Persian army. I mean, the Persian empire did extend into Egypt at this point, and I can imagine that they would have mercenaries from Africa, but I would think that the vast majority of the army would consist of troops from Asia Minor, who would be ethnically indistinguishable from the Greeks they were fighting. Am I seeing issues that weren't there?

And Eric, what was the ET reference? I appear to have missed it.

7 comments:

  1. The ET scene was very brief, when they first show up at the village that had been destroyed by Persian scouts. It cuts to a hill, behind which is presumably part of the burning town, and then the sole surviving child of the village walks over the ridge. It looks identical to ET.

    Yeah, it was funny to see the Spartans basically wearing nothing while the Persians wore heavy armor. (It would do them little good!) This is the exact opposite of what happened. The Persians wore very light armor and relied on cavalry and archers, while the heavily armored Phalanx was the backbone of the Greek army. And when Leonides rejects the misfit by telling him they work as a single unit the Phalanx I actually thought to myself that they might portray this accurately, then the battle quickly devolves into single combat.

    I think the point of why they just focused on the 300 comes from the fact that they stayed on the third day, when everyone else was like 'I don't want to get slaughtered.' This is why they simplified it to just them. Herodotus makes it clear that the Spartans were in command and that the Spartans were by far the best warriors. They were surrounded in the end but gave their lives to aid Greece. A pretty romantic tale.

    Penny Arcade will make you turn in your penis if you don't like this movie. I mean, did you see all the impalings?!? SWEET!

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  2. Hmm. I guess it's been too long since I've seen ET, since I don't remember that scene.

    And I'll be sad to see my penis go. We've had some good times together.

    You're right (or so I assume) that the Spartans were the most prominent combatants there (although I believe there were a contingent of Thespians and Thebans that stuck around to die as well), and it made sense to focus on them. I'm really trying not to be a nitpicker about these things (hard as that might be to believe) -- I just would have been more involved in the movie if I'd actually been worried that anyone would die onscreen, which was hard given the relative paucity of combatants...

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  3. You can't count the Thespians on the last day! They only act like they can fight.

    Seriously though, I didn't go in expecting historical accuracy. I went in expecting a beautiful, moving visual piece which I think it delivered. No real drama, but very enjoyable nonetheless. (I sure hope that is effusive enough praise to keep my penis... Sam would be very upset if I had to turn it in.)

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  4. Don't worry, Beau. When the testicle police coming knocking at your door, you can feel free to use me as a reference for your raging machismo and masculinity. I'm there for you and stuff.

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  5. lol that's good, I would rather not have to wield pots and pans at the testicle police. =/

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  6. Oh man, not a day went by in the cube without Eric complaining about the inaccuracy of representations of phalanx combat. Gladiator, I believe. Here's one reviewlette that finds political overtones:
    http://www.avclub.com/content/savage/mar-21-2007
    I'd embed it but I don't have the Sacred Knowledge. Skip to the bottom for his views, past all the dirty dirty sex talk. I haven't seen the film meself yet, but I watched History of Violence today and found it to be kind of boring, so that's pretty much the same thing, right?

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  7. Really? Man, I loved A History of Violence. That must make me a Hypocrite. *shame*

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