Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Obligatory 300 Post


In the classical tragedy, heroic characters are impelled towards a climactic plot point by a personal fatal flaw. They don't have to die, but the fatal flaw just has to have lasting consequences.

There's no doubt that the Spartans are going to die in 'The 300'. They are a force of three hundred warriors given the task of fighting the huge invading Persian army, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, in the mountain pass at Thermopylae. For their whole lives, they have been trained for this moment. As the movie makes clear, their childhood is brutal. Weakly Spartan babies are left on rocks to die; children learn the arts of swordfighting; and are subject to repeated, deliberate punishment by their peers. In their teens, they are sent into the wild to fend for themselves, and return, supposedly, as hardened warriors. All this is told in a series of images, overscored with a bald narrative telling of the Spartan way of life. It's historically accurate, insofar as it goes, but the sequence is there to make a dramatic point: that Spartan life, Spartan virtue, Spartan morality is one and the same as warrior morality. The good life, to these Spartans, is little more than loyalty, courage, strength, and victory on the battlefield.
This is why 'The 300' is their tragedy; because on the battlefield, the Spartans perform magnificiently. It's just that the battle that they fight has very little point. One of the characters, (the Captain of 'The 300', in fact), tells a baffled Athenian, early on, that he is searching for 'what we Spartans call a perfect death. Maybe in that force of thousands down there I can find one warrior to give me that perfect death'. Leonidas, the King of the Spartans, and one of the leading warriors in these armed forces, can understand some of this, but he doesn't have the words or the philosophy or the time to work any of this out. He chooses to fight for Sparta because of his love of wife and country - it's not said, but made clear through a series of lingering shots of his wife and Queen, Gorgo, and the Spartan fields, rippling and golden in the sunlight. At the penultimate point during all the fighting, he strips off his armour, his shield, his helmet, lays his spear down on the ground, and drops to his knees with face to the dirt. It looks like an act of submission to the ludicrously effeminate King Xerxes 1 (the Xerxes character actually reminded me much more of the evil Egyptian God King in the Stargate movie) but it's not. He's remembering the life that he led with Gorgo; and remembering the people and life that he is fighting for, rather than the mechanics of battle.
Part of Leonides' problem is that he's not a philosopher, and he doesn't come from a land renowned for its philosophers. (Athens is sneered at, early on, as the city of philosophers and boy lovers.) But it's in the dialogue in the lead up to battle scenes and in the aftermath that he and his fellow Spartans appear at their most human, become sympathetic. His wife, Gorgo, mocks the Persian envoys shocked at her speaking: 'Spartan women speak like this because it is only Spartam women who give birth to real men.' Leonides attempts to persuade the Ephor - the city prophets - to support him in the battle. Later, when they object to his marching into battle, he tells them that he's just taking a little walk with his men, northwards. He is a cunning king, of sorts, who knows the value of the dramatic gesture (he doesn't just kill Spartan messengers, he has them hurled into a seemingly bottomless black pit). But he seems altogether too jaunty, sinister even, when he walks about a battlefield strewn with the bodies of dying Persians, eating an apple while his men move about the field killing the rest. He is inured to war and death, and hasn't yet come to realise that what he is fighting for is peace and prosperity. But behind his back, his beloved city is in danger of falling apart at the seams from treachery, greed, from idleness and indecision. The Spartan's don't know how to lead a good life, they just know how to prepare for a good death.

"I am honoured to die by your side," the Captain tells Leonidas, as they lie, conquered on the battlefield.
"I am honoured to have lived by yours," Leonidas tells his Captain.

This is his tragedy: that Leonidas only realises the value of life when he has lost it.


'The 300' has had some interesting reviews on and off the Blogosphere. Gummo notes that he'll wait until it's out on DVD. Richard Watts lambasts it for its homophobia. Jim Schiembri completely misses the point in his review where he classes it as gory popcorn entertainment in 'The Age'. Leigh Paatsch in the Hun gets ridiculously excited by the visual extravagances (he says it's a 'hand-grenade in a blood bank', or something like that). And Jason Soon gets cranky about Paul Byrnes getting cranky about the movie supposedly being fascist propaganda, or something.


Out of all the death and gore in 'The 300' there is actually one survivor, David Wenham's character. He plays Dilios, who loses an eye during the conflict, and is sent back to deliver a message to Sparta. He becomes in the end a prophetic figure, like Homer or the famous Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, extolling the virtues of 'bold Leonidas' and 'the 300' and exhorting the Spartans to defend their country and Greece. He attempts to immortalise and ennoble the death of the 300 by rendering it in verse:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Leonidas also tells him to deliver a message: 'Remember us'. Perhaps it's just a pathetic plea to be granted an existence after battle in the minds and hearts of Spartans, but I think there's something else there as well. 'Remember us', says Leonidas, and we think of the speeches he makes about 'Spartan liberty' and his fierce refusal to yield and his love of the Spartan land and the Spartan people. 'Remember us', he says, perhaps asking that this gesture for Grecian independence be known for all time.

Two of the simplest, saddest words in the whole film: 'Remember us'.


Karen said...

the Xerxes character actually reminded me much more of the evil Egyptian God King in the Stargate movie

O God! You're a real boy, aren't you?

I've got nothing to say because I'd probably rather gnaw off my own arm than watch The 300- which may be narrow-minded of me, I grant. I like what you say about the "remember us" line though- it dovetails into something I've been reading.

Steve said...

Tim, you write well even when serious. You should try it more often!

I take it that the visual and violent excesses that many people mention in their reviews didn't bother you? As many seem to have found that aspect of the film ludicrous, I was hoping for a more "fun" review from you.

I suppose that contradicts my first paragraph, but what the hey!

TimT said...

Ha, it's true that I have seen the Stargate film and hated it, and at least 'The 300' took the piss out of the Egyptian God-King stereotype in Stargate. My brother is a huge fan of the television series and I've sat through a lot of that, too, but I'm not a fan. The only TV sf series worth anything is Doctor Who.

'Remember us' actually reminded me of the famous Purcell song 'When I Am Laid In Earth', sung by Dido - it concludes with the haunting Latin 'memento mei'.

TimT said...

Steve - It's hard to write a satirical review, you often end up satirising either the film itself or satirising the art of reviewing itself. Critics usually settle for writing a few acid one-liners about the film, dismiss the plot/characterisation/production/etc, sometimes with a glib generalisation about 'what can we expect from Hollywood'? Which can sort of work.

The visual/violent excesses didn't put me off that much, though it's deliberately in your face. The general point seems to be to present blatant visual and dramatic contrasts between the austere Spartans and the opulent Persians. It's a very comic aesthetic. Definitely not a film for everybody.

Karen said...

Christina Rossetti:

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

(If it's OK to spam you with poetry!).

I completely agree with you about Doctor Who. This is a terrible thing to admit when you've mentioned Purcell, but the tune I had in my head reading your review was "And if a ten tonne truck killed the both of us...".

TimT said...

Much as I enjoyed this movie, I still prefer Larry Gonnick's version of the story.

Fatman said...

This film has the important underlying message that is: All hunchbacks are evil, traitorous freaks and should be put to death twenty minutes into the film.

tdix said...

Loved the review timt. I also appreciated a chance to see your serious side, although it would be very interesting to see Kohler crunching the numbers. A nice pie graph in there methinks.

Thermopylae interests me because while it was the great moment of the Spartans, their sacrifice was a huge gesture towards Greek unity. As you said, Leonidas exerts them to defend their country and Greece.

As the historian Oswyn Murray points out, the Peloponnesian Greeks were reluctant to commit to a showdown with the Persians so far north and wanted to defend the Isthmus, south of Athens. The Spartans actually said that the 300 was an advanced party but the rest conveniently stayed behind to observe a religious festival.

Despite this, the 300 Spartans told the other Greeks, most of whom were at a much greater risk, to withdraw when they learnt of the futile situation. They stayed on to defend their Spartan pride but also to hold true the Spartan commitment to the cause of Pan-Helenism.

Their own honour served the cause of Greek unity. As Leonidas says in Herodotus's account:

"Tell them in Lacedaemon, passer by,
obedient to their orders, here we lie."

tdix said...

Sorry, that Herodotus quote was a general Spartan epitaph at Thermopylae.

TimT said...

There are several versions of the verse on Wikipedia. I think in good hands the battle of Salamis, where the Athenians triumphed over the Persians at sea, would make a much better film than 'The 300' - what with a bunch of Athenians reluctant to enter into the naval battle, and uncertain whether to fight on land or sea; a democracy that doesn't quite know who to listen to; one of the wiliest democratic leaders ever to live on earth in Themistocles, and a victory against the odds.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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