Thu, 26 Jun 2008

I started to write this almost a year ago, at a time when the film 300 was still marginally current. (It had just come out on DVD, which is how I saw it for the first time.) I had trouble making my thoughts coherent so I put the essay aside, forgot about it, and only recently dug it up and tried to make it presentable.

***

Dana Stevens, the movie critic from Slate.com, didn’t like 300. I mean, she really didn’t like it:

If 300, the new battle epic based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war.

I’m not sure how the filmmakers were supposed to avoid what Stevens calls “race-baiting”, by which she presumably means that the heroic Greeks, inconveniently, are white, while the invading Persians are brown. Perhaps they could have improved the racial optics by casting Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones as a wise black man (maybe an ex-slave, like Aesop?) who gives a big third-act speech to the Spartan heroes about the real meaning of honour. But it would be much safer, politically, if all the villains were white guys. Heck, why do they have to be Persians at all? Let them be Visigoths!

(Also, making the Greek traitor Ephialtes into a hunchback seems a little gratuitous; why unnecessarily offend the hunchback-rights lobby? Ephialtes’ villainy could have been just as easily telegraphed by having him wear a Republican Party pin and speak in a Texas drawl.)

Stevens continues:

[Director Zack] Snyder insists that he “really just wanted to make a movie that is a ride” – a perfectly fine ambition for any filmmaker, especially one inspired by the comics … But to cast 300 as a purely apolitical romp of an action film smacks of either disingenuousness or complete obliviousness.

Ideally, I guess, she’d like 300 to condemn the war in Iraq; failing that, at a bare minimum, it should condemn war in general. 300 is “[o]ne of the few war movies I’ve seen in the past two decades that doesn’t include at least some nod in the direction of antiwar sentiment”, she complains. I’m not sure how one would go about turning the story of the battle of Thermopylae into an anti-war movie. If one wishes to communicate the pointlessness of war, one starts by setting one’s story in a pointless war. But Thermopylae was the opposite of pointless; the Spartans knew exactly what they were fighting for and why. Perhaps (though one doubts it) among the doomed Spartans there was one with an ironic and philosophic temperament; perhaps there was one man there who was as conscious of the absurdity of his fate as Captain Yossarian in Catch-22, one who wished like Yossarian to toss his weapons aside and run away to Sweden. But however absurd it may be to wear a bronze breastplate and plant oneself within stabbing distance of ten thousand Paphlagonian spearmen, that Spartan must have judged it the right and the necessary thing to do under the circumstances; and thank goodness for Greece, and for western civilisation, that he did.

***

Setting aside these comments for a few days and returning to them, I find myself wondering, how would history have played out if the Persians had been permitted to continue their expansion into Europe?

Athens, captured and burned by the invaders but rebuilt after their defeat, would instead have remained a ruin. (It’s possible that Xerxes would have permitted its resettlement, but probably not by the original inhabitants – he held a particular grudge against the Athenians for their burning of the Persian town of Sardis during Darius’ reign.) The 30-year-old experiment in Athenian democracy instituted by Cleisthenes would have ended before the rise of Pericles and what we now call Athens’ Golden Age. Athens’ population would have been enslaved or scattered among other Greek states. Would Socrates, Plato, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes have been born? Would they still have distinguished themselves? Might some other geniuses in other places have arisen to fill their historical roles?

I’m guessing Thebes, which took a pro-Persian line during the invasion, would have emerged as the new leading city in Greece. Thebes was intermittently democratic (it was Thebes that finally put an end to the power of aristocratic Sparta a hundred years after the Persian invasion), and might have remained so – the Persians were reasonably tolerant of political experimentation as long as it didn’t undermine their control. (Supposedly the Persian general Mardonius, in the course of an earlier, unsuccessful expedition into Europe, took the time to reform the governments of Persia’s dependencies in Ionia, whose tyrants he turfed out and replaced with democracies.) Still, it’s hard to believe a free-wheeling Athenian-style democracy could have existed under Persian rule. Ultimately, the demos of Thebes would have been answerable to whichever satrap had been installed to oversee Greece.

In “our” historical timeline, the Persian empire was finally destroyed by Alexander the Great; but with Macedonia under Persian domination along with the rest of Greece, would Alexander have ever been anything but a minor subsidiary princeling? Anyway, Macedonian expansion was partly enabled by the power vacuum resulting from the disruption of the Peloponnesian War – a war that wouldn’t have occurred, with no Athens-Sparta rivalry to incite it.

Would Persia have extended its rule westward and put a stop to the rise of Roman power, or could the Romans have checked their spread? Is it possible the Persian empire could have survived until the rise of Christianity? – But Christianity’s rise depended on a lot of factors that would’ve played out very differently in a Persian-dominated world. If Rome hadn’t ruled Palestine, would Jesus still have been crucified?

This is what Ashton Kutcher would call the Butterfly Effect. (Incidentally, in the context of timeline-tinkering, does the Butterfly Effect really refer to the cliché about a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil and stirring up a tornado in Texas, as this article asserts? When I heard about the movie, I assumed it was a reference to the old Ray Bradbury story where a time traveller goes back to the Cretaceous Period to hunt a dinosaur, accidentally stomps on a butterfly, and returns to his own time to find that history has radically changed.) It’s impossible to know what the world would have looked like even fifty years after a successful Persian conquest of Greece, let alone two and a half millennia on. For those who value the contribution of the Athenians, it’s hard to see how wiping them off the map could have made the world better. But it’s possible that, in the long run, things wouldn’t have turned out noticeably for the worse.

***

A passing thought. The current rulers of Iran who condemned 300 as anti-Persian propaganda, and the numerous liberal critics who abominated the film’s glamourisation of martial courage, in attempting to read the story of Thermopylae through the lens of current events, have assumed that the doughty Spartans must represent the United States, and that their dastardly Asian enemies must stand in for America’s foes. Unsurprisingly, they complain that the story doesn’t support their political agenda. That’s because they’ve got their lens backward. I present to you, direct from the pages of Herodotus,

The Left-Wing Thermopylae

Here are our heroes, the Greeks – a clannish, quarrelsome, deeply religious people, minding their own business in an obscure corner of the world. And here are our villains, the Persians – the ancient world’s superpower, rich, cosmopolitan, decadent, and determined to impose their way of life on all their neighbours, by force if necessary.

The young Persian king, Xerxes, petulant and rash, has inherited a family grudge. His father Darius, when he was king, attempted to conquer the distant, backward land of Greece, but the proud Greeks would not submit to foreign rule. Now Xerxes is obsessed with teaching these inconsequential barbarians a lesson.

Some Greek exiles in Xerxes’ court, keen on returning to their homeland to seize power, massage the intelligence in favour of war: “Any prophecy which implied a setback to the Persian cause [Onomacritus] would carefully omit, choosing for quotation only those which promised the brightest triumphs…”

Artabanus, former adviser to Darius, is skeptical and advises caution: “…do not run any such terrible risk, when there is no necessity to do so.” But the pious Xerxes is convinced that God wants him to fulfill his father’s goal of subduing Greece. So he assembles a massive army and goes on the march, pressing various allied nations into service along the way.

The outcome of the invasion is pre-ordained – the Persian army is far too mighty to be repelled. But at Thermopylae the suicide-warriors of Sparta, though small in number, cause disproportionate damage to the Persians, demoralising Xerxes and his troops and giving encouragement to the patriotic defenders of Greek sovereignty.

Although the invaders successfully occupy most of Greece, defiling its temples and outraging its women, the plucky defenders inflict a series of defeats on Xerxes’ army. After numerous reverses, the embattled Persians are forced to contemplate a humiliating withdrawal…

I hope my point is clear, but just in case: for Persia read the United States, for Greece read Iraq, for Xerxes and Darius read George Bushes junior and senior. The modern Onomacritus, cherry-picking his prophecies, would be Ahmad Chalabi; the modern Artabanus, risk-averse but powerless to alter his leader’s resolution, would be Colin Powell. I guess Leonidas and the 300 Spartans would have to be Abu Zarqawi and the suicide-warriors of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. And does the story end the same way, with the ignominious retreat of the invading empire? We’ll have to wait for the results of the 2008 presidential election to find out.

Although Onomacritus and Artabanus didn’t make it into the movie, there’s nothing in 300 that contradicts the above reading. (Nor, I should say, is there anything that supports it.) If 300 can be interpreted as an “incitement to total war” it can just as plausibly be interpreted as a rebuke to the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive invasion.

***

Incidentally, my defence of 300 is not meant to suggest that I actually think it’s a very good movie. I’ll admit I hated it a lot less than I expected; some parts, like the lobster-armed executioner, and the Persian throne room orgy, I rather enjoyed – as an “apolitical romp”. I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the dialogue and action was taken directly from Herodotus: the chucking of the Persian messengers into the well; “With your shield or on it”; “Then we will fight in the shade”. But whenever I began to relax and get into the movie, Xerxes would unleash another wave of vampire ninjas, the heavy metal would start to pound, the camera would swoop and circle around a slow-motion dismemberment, and my overwhelmed senses would retreat from the assault.

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