Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Madness? This is Sparta!

After answering endless questions over the weekend, it has suddenly dawned upon me that classical Greek history has suddenly become very popular among male youths (not the most willing history students in this country) due to a certain film.

Yes, I refer to the movie "300".

I read about the Battle of Thermopylae when I was 12, but hardly anyone cared for it then. Now they swarm to me like flies, asking all manner of questions.

Watched this film last week with a JieXiong. At the end of it, I overheard some bloke going, "This battle really happened?". Great Zeus help us all.

From the very beginning, where the historical preamble explaining the "background" is narrated, I begin to squirm. "We Spartans have descended from Hercules himself" a dispirited voice said. Now, although we tend to be more familiar with his Latin name, the demigod was known as Heracles in Greek. There is no way a Spartan would ever use the name, "Hercules". And since when were the Spartans collectively descended from Heracles? Only their kings were said to be. Now, this is an error I can forgive quite easily, seeing as how this is all artistic license.

I don't have too many complaints against the depiction of the Greeks here. I won't say much about their choice of costume - but does it occur to you that ancient Greek male dress in film is showing more and more skin these days? Compare the designer leather skirts the Greeks wore in "Troy" and the leather briefs in "300", for example.

Gerard Butler, who plays King Leonidas of Sparta, seems rather lost. He commands his men with an accent that knows no location on earth. Struggling to keep his thick Scottish accent at bay throughout the film, he seemed to belong to "Braveheart" more than "300".

What's up with the number of Greek allies that join up with the Spartans along the way to Thermopylae? For crying out loud - there were well over 5000 Greeks present. And while many did withdraw, 700 Thespians (citizens of Thespiae, not actors) cast their lot with the Spartans. Certainly not the tiny mob of untrained levy soldiers as shown in the film.

Also, why was the character Dilios invented for the film? What was wrong with Aristodemus? Being one of the 300 to survive the Battle of Thermopylae, returning to do battle at Plataea... really, I don't see the difference here!

My last gripe about the Greeks - what's all this talk about freedom from slavery? Sparta probably had a larger slave population per capita than the Persian Empire. Maybe they were referring about their freedom from the Persians...

Next, the Persians - pioneers in the art of facial piercing. Why on earth are their emissaries depicted as black Africans? Does Frank Miller know where the Persian Empire was located? Certainly nowhere near Africa! Just because most of us don't know how Central Asians look like, it doesn't mean that filmmakers can pick random exotic-looking actors to portray them! Well, some of us happen to know how Central Asians look like - and these actors don't even come close! Were they guided by the same logic that led filmmakers to cast Rosario Dawson as Roxana in the 2004 film "Alexander"?

Now, if you thought the emissaries wandered in from the next-door audition for Indiana Jones villains, then you'd absolutely have a heart attack if you saw Xerxes, the ruler of the Persian Empire - portrayed here by Brazilian hunk Rodrigo Santoro. They've rid him of his surfer boy look, I'll give them credit for that, but they've replaced it with something so wrong.


Xerxes is shown here as an androgynous, hairless goliath who speaks with a James Earl Jones-type voice. When he made his appearance, I heard stifled snickering from all the teenage boys in the audience.


Like the emissaries, he is arrayed in all manner of body piercings. Has no one seen the reliefs at Persepolis? Has there ever been a notable Persian ruler (both past and present) without prominent facial hair (save for Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran)? I don't know what inspired the artists - some cross between RuPaul and Baron Samedi, I imagine.

I know what you're thinking, but stick with me - the story gets better. The entire Persian army consisted almost entirely of grotesquely deformed, bloodthirsty subhumans incapable of speech. What is this? Lord of the Rings? Is this what the Battle of Thermopylae has been reduced to - a greatly simplified battle between good and evil?

The Persians were every bit as human as the Spartans were! Mind you, the Persian army was one of the most efficient and powerful fighting forces in the ancient world, not some rabble of mindless orcs. The way the Persian military was portrayed, however, could easily have led one to believe that it was essentially a crowd of homicidal lunatics, including ninjas, dervishes, elephants, a charging rhino, an angry bald giant and led by witch doctors.

The Persian War Machine



Angry Bald Giant

Moving on to the rest of the movie.

Tyler Bates, whose repertoire includes "Dawn of the Dead" and "The Devil's Rejects", composed the soundtrack. He described the score as having "beautiful themes on the top and large choir", but "tempered with some extreme heaviness". I'm not quite sure what that means, but his soundtrack was more wrestling match than epic battle.

Like Robert Rodriguez's version of that earlier Miller work, the movie is one of those computer jobs, in which real men do real stuff in a big blue room and then digital artists invent a world around them. Its digitally tricked-up colour scheme, while impressive at times, is hard to tolerate for nearly two hours. I understand that filmmakers wanted to remain true to the comic book - but really, someone ought to tell them that the colour scheme of a late 90s comic book *ahem*, I meant graphic novel, doesn't quite work so well on the big screen.

The action is all showy and stylized, trapped in the realm of the surreal (along with just about the entire movie). Director Zack Snyder does not a gift for kinetic action (his most famous work being "Dawn of the Dead"), and the battle choreography is stilted. Violence and gore lose their meaning 20 minutes into the film. He overdoes the slow motion until it becomes comic.

Don't get me wrong here. Though I curmudgeonly carp at blatant inaccuracies and misrepresentations, I welcome the publicity for this subject. If you really want to experience the Battle of Thermopylae, ignore the graphic novel. Go out and get a translation of Herodotus' account and read it for yourself. Better yet, learn ancient Greek and read the original.

What do you get if you start with the greatest last stand in all history, then remove the historical context and all the psychological complexity?

"300" is a movie that is too artistic and detached to be taken seriously.



Blogger Francis said...

I must admit that I got a bit tired to reading your rant, so I stopped about halfway through. Recognising all of the errors and blatant lies, I'm not entirely surprised that my white American counterparts are all bloody excited about the film. Bunch of uncultured heathens...

Wed Mar 14, 11:09:00 am 2007  
Blogger Mimi said...

I love that you have a category called "rants".

Thu Mar 15, 04:38:00 am 2007  
Blogger Sprezzatura said...

I shall use this opportunity to advertise the fact that I also teach Classical Greek!

Sun Mar 18, 04:25:00 pm 2007  
Blogger Francis said...

Want to teach me Greek, Ed?

Fri Mar 23, 10:55:00 am 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great "rant", says it all. I do like '300' as a piece of art. It's also a piece of propaganda useful for invading Iran. That is really horrifying.

Sun Aug 26, 08:53:00 pm 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well if you know your history you know that Xerxes reach was all the way to the east coast of africa.....soo yea i could see xerxes having some African warriors etc etc

Mon Apr 28, 07:00:00 am 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

xerxes empire included the middle east, stretching up to Russia and across to india,
it was the biggest empire in the ancient world.

Sun Nov 02, 01:17:00 am 2008  

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