The Thermopylae Psyop

First, I admit I loved the movie. Compelling characters, spectacular visuals, impressive choreography, good dialogue – including lots from the historical record. But it’s the kind of movie where the better the movie, the worse it is. But this isn’t a review of the movie 300. It’s not a take on its historical inaccuracies, which was beautifully done by a classics professor at the University of Toronto – with a very clever title (“Sparta? No. This is madness”)

Ephraim Lytle notes the following, worth reproducing in detail:

History is altered all the time. What matters is how and why. Thus I see no reason to quibble over the absence in 300 of breastplates or modest thigh-length tunics. I can see the graphic necessity of sculpted stomachs and three hundred Spartan-sized packages bulging in spandex thongs. On the other hand, the ways in which 300 selectively idealizes Spartan society are problematic, even disturbing… (snip)

And had Leonidas undergone the agoge, he would have come of age not by slaying a wolf, but by murdering unarmed helots in a rite known as the Crypteia. These helots were the Greeks indigenous to Lakonia and Messenia, reduced to slavery by the tiny fraction of the population enjoying Spartan “freedom.” By living off estates worked by helots, the Spartans could afford to be professional soldiers, although really they had no choice: securing a brutal apartheid state is a full-time job, to which end the Ephors were required to ritually declare war on the helots… (snip)

300′s Persians are ahistorical monsters and freaks. Xerxes is eight feet tall, clad chiefly in body piercings and garishly made up, but not disfigured. No need – it is strongly implied Xerxes is homosexual which, in the moral universe of 300, qualifies him for special freakhood. This is ironic given that pederasty was an obligatory part of a Spartan’s education. This was a frequent target of Athenian comedy, wherein the verb “to Spartanize” meant “to bugger.” In 300, Greek pederasty is, naturally, Athenian.

This touches on 300′s most noteworthy abuse of history: the Persians are turned into monsters, but the non-Spartan Greeks are simply all too human. According to Herodotus, Leonidas led an army of perhaps 7,000 Greeks. These Greeks took turns rotating to the front of the phalanx stationed at Thermoplyae where, fighting in disciplined hoplite fashion, they held the narrow pass for two days. All told, some 4,000 Greeks perished there. In 300 the fighting is not in the hoplite fashion, and the Spartans do all of it, except for a brief interlude in which Leonidas allows a handful of untrained Greeks to taste the action, and they make a hash of it. When it becomes apparent they are surrounded, this contingent flees. In Herodotus’ time there were various accounts of what transpired, but we know 700 hoplites from Thespiae remained, fighting beside the Spartans, they, too, dying to the last man.

No mention is made in 300 of the fact that at the same time a vastly outnumbered fleet led by Athenians was holding off the Persians in the straits adjacent to Thermopylae, or that Athenians would soon save all of Greece by destroying the Persian fleet at Salamis. This would wreck 300′s vision, in which Greek ideals are selectively embodied in their only worthy champions, the Spartans.

Now I know what you’re going to say. It’s just a movie, get over it. But Frank Miller, who wrote the 300 comic, and the filmmakers, who rendered it faithfully, didn’t make 300 the story of the heroes of Gondor fighting the orcs of Mordor. They used ‘Spartans’ and ‘Persians’ – they used history, where they chose to, and they departed from history where they chose to, and if you want to use history then you had better be prepared to answer for historical inaccuracy. If it were a monster movie or fantasy, it would have been good. Although even then, the racial imagery (handsome white heroes killing huge numbers of depraved and monstrous black villains) would have gotten obnoxious at times, as it did in the Lord of the Rings films.

But the fantasy author, Guy Kay, who uses history in his work but does change the names so that he doesn’t have to be constrained by the history, wrote about this problem more effectively than me, in his criticism of the Mel Gibson movie about the American Revolution, the Patriot. In that movie, Gibson has an English military person round up Americans and burn them in a church – an atrocity committed by the Nazis (and probably – though Kay doesn’t talk about it – by any number of British and American and Spanish colonists in the Americas against indigenous people and african slaves) but not committed by the English against the American colonists. Kay describes a press conference at which Gibson was confronted with the invention of this atrocity for the film, also worth reproducing at length I think:

Mel Gibson offered a blunter and more effective rejoinder. ‘Lighten up.’ he essentially told the assembled and outraged scribes, ‘It’s just a movie.’

Sounds reasonable. Why should we expect accuracy from Hollywood? From any segment of pop culture? Since when are the movies or television or romance thrillers held to any standards of truth?

Well, it seems to me a good question, not a rhetorical one.

Why are they not held to such standards? Why are these frothy little summer entertainments ($100 million dollars worth) deemed immune, as Gibson suggests they should be, to allegations that they are lies? Insidious ones. Lies that erase and obliterate for huge numbers of people any vaguely accurate notion of events, or that diminish the terrible reality of a 20th century atrocity by making it seem to audiences that it was the sort of thing that also happened in an entirely different kind of war…

I am deeply aware that ‘truth’ in history (or, indeed, in contemporary events) is elusive. That history is written by the winners, that past events may be seen in widely differing lights. That appalling things have been done over the centuries, by Huns, Vikings, Mongols, Conquistadors, warriors in so many holy wars … That we cannot always know what is really the truth.

We can know, however, what is a lie. The English did not perform a Gestapo church burning of innocents two hundred years ago… No such action was ever taken. Nothing even close to it occurred.

Nor, it seems to me, should we so mildly accept the ‘just a movie’ retort. The implied premise of this is: everyone knows it isn’t true, it is just for fun. The film industry seems to want it both ways. On the one hand they claim (with cause) to exert a hugely potent influence on the mores and thinking of our culture. On the other, whenever they are taxed with abusing that role, they retreat into ‘it’s just a movie.’ Why should popular entertainment be granted free rein to distort and mangle? Have we so completely accepted that our society will play fast-and-loose with such things? Is it our indifference that creates the climate for this? If so, might it not be time to reconsider such indifference?

I really like Kay – he’s one of my favourite novelists – he’s also thoroughly eurocentric. To find an atrocity comparable to what’s depicted in the film, he doesn’t look at what the Americans were doing to Indians all around in that same time period, but at what the Nazis did to the French. But his points and his questions are valid, important, and relevant to 300.

History is used to make points about the present. The target audience for 300 is young north american males – the cannon fodder of the war on terror. This movie has numerous messages, some of them subtle, some of them not subtle.

The subtle ones relate to the racial and sexual imagery. Heroism is manly and straight. Cowardice is effeminate and gay, and historical accuracy be damned if it conflicts (All the evidence suggests Xerxes was a bearded, average height, fairly austere dressing emperor, not a naked giant who wore nothing but gold jewelry and wanted to give Leonidas a massage). Heroism is white, cowardice is brown and black, and historical accuracy be damned (I don’t see any reason the Spartans would have been lighter-skinnned than the Persians, though I could be missing something. They seem to have chosen Africans to play Persians – or paint white people black – and men and women from the British Isles to play the Greeks). Heroism is about killing large numbers of inferior opponents. The point of life is glory, and a glorious death. Military people can be trusted, but others cannot (and indeed, politicians who argue for peace are probably paid by the other side and will rape your strong and capable but also somehow helpless and vulnerable wife while you are out fighting, though she will prove her strength and honor once again by killing the rapist).

The less subtle ones also involve distortions of history. The battle of Thermopylae didn’t buy Greece extra time they needed to organize politically for war. Thermopylae is presented as, basically, a psychological operation at which a small number of spartan forces took a symbolic action in order to increase the will to fight among the target of the psyop, the Greek population. In fact it was futile – as Lytle points out, the real battle was won at sea, by other Greek forces, and the final battle was won a year later. And there’s a message too – that you have to take a stand, fight and die, no matter whether there is a point to it or not. Or maybe the notion is that it’s not for you, young man, to decide what the point is – that will be decided by people who know better.

300 depicts Thermopylae as a psyop, and maybe 300 could be seen that way too. We have the 300 ‘free’ men (okay there were 7000 and they were slavers) fighting for democracy (ahem) a million Persians (okay there were not close to a million and they were no worse slavers than the greeks) – is this also to build the will to fight? Are we the target? Persia is Iran, after all. And if you search ‘criticism of 300 Iran’, you will get lots of angry Americans writing about how stupid Iranians are for getting so upset – don’t they get that it’s just a movie? The backlash to the backlash, which I suppose is, these days, as predictable as the original backlash or the precipitating incident (a movie like 300… or some cartoons of the prophet Mohammad, perhaps?)

But then again, maybe I should just get over it. It’s just a movie, after all.

Leave a comment