Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Lies Of Leonidas

This is a very interesting article by David Brin, in which he essentially tells Frank Miller to go fuck himself. Obviously, anyone telling Frank The Dark Knight Strikes Again Miller to go fuck himself is entirely welcome, because Frank Miller going and fucking himself is literally the most aesthetically worthy thing Frank Miller can still be considered capable of.

It's the specific reasons David Brin suggests Frank Miller go fuck himself that are worthy of note, though.  The news that 300 is about as representative of the actual Battle of Thermopylae as Plants vs Zombies is of horticulture during a pandemic can hardly be considered surprising.  But I think Brin is dead right when he suggests there are different categories into which fiction which is at least nominally historical can be placed.  There are various ways one could do this, of course, but let's consider the following four:
  • Striving for as much accuracy as is feasible (Changeling, Cry Freedom, Zodiac)
  • Not really interested in accuracy (U-571, Evita)
  • Actually goes so far as to invert the truth
  • As above, but for specific political ends (Jud Suss)
There's definitely grey areas between each of those, of course, depending on how one defines "political ends", what one does and doesn't consider "sufficient" accuracy, and of course how well a film tallies with your own personal opinions of historical events and figures (you'll have a job finding a Republican who thinks Road To 9/11 lacks accuracy, for instance).  Nevertheless, they do give us a framework with which to operate upon.

Assuming Brin's description of the surrounding history is accurate (and it quite closely to what I dimly remember from primary school - I suspect Jamie might have more to say on the issue), then I think there's ample evidence that 300 has failed the tests necessary to place it in either of the first two categories.  The important questions are this: has the film, as Brin alleges, actually fallen into the fourth class, and become propaganda, and does it really matter if it has?

Regarding the first question, I can certainly see an argument - Miller clearly hates the idea of people protesting against dire economic conditions when they should be signing up to fight Al Queda, which certainly ties in with 300's contempt for any form of civilian (even those willing to fight) in comparison to career soldiers.  The moral of the tale (such as it is) must surely be that we need as many batshit-insane heavily-bronzed murderous motherfuckers on hand as we possibly can for the day we're attacked by brown people riding hijacked planes prehistoric rhinos, and any form of civic consideration in the meantime is just going to get in the way.  Well, that, and that those who advocate peace are traitors and rapists.  It may not be a slam-dunk, but it's certainly a plausible case.

The second question is harder to answer.  Should we care?  We're not required to like the politics of a given artist, or even the art itself, to enjoy it (though of course there's a difference between disagreement and taking objection to).  And, like all such films, it's hard to expect anyone who knew nothing about the second Persian invasion of Greece to care much upon learning that it didn't happen the way Miller and Snyder have told them it did.  There's also the fact that the narrative bookmarks itself as propaganda, by having Dilios telling the story of Thermopylae to fellow Spartans he is specifically trying to encourage and inspire ("Leonidas was a bit shit but the Athenians really saved our arses!" isn't likely to lead to same swelling of one's martial pride).  And to be entirely frank, just how much intellectual damage can be done by a film which is bursting at the seams with painted-on abs?

So does that let 300 off the hook?  It's too ridiculous and divorced from reality to be taken seriously as propaganda?  Would it make a difference if Miller had written about three hundred Space Spartans fighting off an alien horde on the planet Thermopylae IX (cf. Heinlein's Starship Troopers)? 

I admit I haven't made my mind up yet, but it's certainly all food for thought, as we all sit around waiting for the violent self-fucking Miller so obviously deserves...


Jamie said...

From my memory, Brin's depiction of the events of the second Persian invasion of Greece are fairly accurate, as things are generally understood. I have always maintained that the only thing that saved 300 from being entirely ridiculous was the framing device that contextualised the story as a propagandist speech prior to battle (although Brin is right, why the Spartans would choose to belittle their allies at that point is beyond me).

This makes me want to dig up some of my old essays. I actually did a long essay and presentation about the battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium to my Greece and Persia special topic group, but I can't remember precisely what line I took and what conclusions I came up with. I'll see if I can locate them this weekend.

SpaceSquid said...

Yeah, I was sure I dimly remembered a previous conversation about this. And yes, the framing device is carrying a lot of weight.

Belittling one's allies during speeches designed to get your people's fight on isn't exactly unprecedented. During Churchill's "Fight Them on the Beaches" speech, he basically called the King of Belgium an ungrateful, cowardly little shit, though since Belgium had already surrendered, the analogy is certainly not perfect.

Jamie said...

Yes, such a thing isn't unprecedented; I can't remember if in the film the Spartans' allies were within earshot, but if they were, that makes it fairly stupid, and probably pretty bad for morale.

BigHead said...

Well, Shakespeare told dirty slanderous lies too when it suited his purpose, but that doesn't stop him being near-universally praised and generally being awesome.

BigHead said...

Also, the comments section on that Miller site is quite horrific! It's worse than consoles vs PCs...

SpaceSquid said...

Good point about Shakespeare, though I'm inclined to cut him some slack since his purposes included not being beheaded by a pissy monarch.

And yes, that comments thread is ridiculous. Anything Frank Miller touches tends to have that effect. He's like the Midas of mental.