a fight in the shade: analyzing 300's history and homophobia

Much as Frank Miller took liberties with Herodotus when adapting the story of King Leonidas to the pages of his graphic novel, Zack Snyder took liberties when adapting Miller’s work to the screen. The dramatic demands of each medium are different, and retelling a story requires changes from the source material. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s LOTR trilogy proved, if nothing else, that some critics will never be satisfied with anything other than a slavish recreation of the original. The historian in me sympathizes with the desire for historical accuracy, while the artist recognizes that adaptations—particularly in collaborative media—demand some degree of compromise.

Kenneth Turan of the LA Times notes 300’s stylism, stating that “The film has a striking visual panache, a distinctive style of putting images on film that heightens reality.” AO Scott’s review at the New York Times calls 300 “about as violent as ‘Apocalypto’ and twice as stupid,” and opines that its script “is weighed down by the lumbering portentousness of the original book, whose arresting images are themselves undermined by the kind of pomposity that frequently mistakes itself for genius.” Most media reviews tended to do the same: praising 300’s visuals while decrying both its bloodletting and its dramatic license.

Snyder’s cinematic excesses (the Tree of the Dead, the rhinos, the Uber-Immortal, the Executioner) grate somewhat on my historical sensibilities, but their existence is neither essential to the film nor excessively detrimental. Perhaps they can be edited out as part of a “historian’s cut” version on the DVD. His expanded parallel storyline back in Sparta—primarily focusing on Queen Gorgo’s dealings with the traitorous Theron—serve the vital purpose of providing needed respites from the swordplay at Thermopylae.

An assistant professor of Greek history assesses the film and concludes: “the ways in which 300 selectively idealizes Spartan society are problematic, even disturbing.” He talks about the agoge, the Ephors, Ephialtes, and finally the Persian invaders:

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.

Dana Stevens at Slate comments that “visually, 300 is thrilling, color-processed to a burnished, monochromatic copper, and packed with painterly, if static, tableaux vivants.” She also has some caveats: cast 300 as a purely apolitical romp of an action film smacks of either disingenuousness or complete obliviousness. One 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, 300 is a mythic ode to righteous bellicosity. In at least one way, the film is true to the ethos of ancient Greece: It conflates moral excellence and physical beauty (which, in this movie, means being young, white, male, and fresh from the gyms of Brentwood).

Some viewers were more than a little upset over 300’s portrayals of the Persians. An online petition against the film is here (h/t: Mojoey at Deep Thoughts), calling 300 a “fraudulent and distorted…heresy” that “ignore[s] the proven obvious historical facts, and damage its own reputation by showing the Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae as some monstrous savages.” An Iranian spokesperson complained about 300, saying that “Cultural intrusion is among the tactics always used by the aliens. Such a fabrication of culture and insult to people is not acceptable by any nation or government and we consider this attitude as hostile.”

On a more reasoned plane, CNN discusses the film’s “ahistorical sentiments about ‘defending freedom’ from Persian slavery and mysticism, though this hardly jibes with the regime the movie itself reveals:”

It's noticeable, too, how Miller and his collaborators strain to disavow any whiff of homosexuality (well known throughout ancient Greece), even as they strip their buff warriors down to highly impractical leather briefs. Athenians are dismissed as "boy-lovers," but Spartans are real men.

Meanwhile, Xerxes, the Persian king, is bedecked in jewelry and facial piercings, and has an effeminate, clean-shaven look. He's also distinctly dark-skinned and not at all Persian-looking.

Victor Davis Hanson writes at TownHall that despite the film’s intention “to entertain and shock first, and instruct second,” it nevertheless “mostly conveys the message of Thermopylae.” Answering claims that 300 is “gratuitously violent,” he observes that “the filmmakers omitted the mutilation of King Leonidas, whose head Xerxes ordered impaled on a stake.” As to the dialogue, Hanson writes:

Many of the film's corniest lines - such as the Spartan dare, "Come and take them," when ordered by the Persians to hand over their weapons, or the Spartans' flippant reply, "Then we will fight in the shade," when warned that Persian arrows will blot out the sun - actually come from ancient accounts by Herodotus and Plutarch.

On his own “Private Papers” site, VDH writes that “the script, dialogue, cinematography, and acting all recall scenes of the battle right from Herodotus’s account:”

If critics think that 300 reduces and simplifies the meaning of Thermopylae into freedom versus tyranny, they should reread carefully ancient accounts and then blame Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus — who long ago boasted that Greek freedom was on trial against Persian autocracy, free men in superior fashion dying for their liberty, their enslaved enemies being whipped to enslave others.

Ben Shapiro weights in, also at TownHall, with “Why the Left [allegedly] Hates 300.” After some specious cracks about “decadent bisexual promiscuity,” Shapiro is reduced to railing against nonexistent moral relativism: “it is not surprising that the left objects to any movie pitting freedom against tyranny and coming out squarely on the side of freedom.” Actually, Mr Shapiro, we object to those who draw phantom parallels between historical bravery and contemporary idiocy. Also, the film’s homophobia—braggadocio on the part of the Spartans—serves to do little besides support current prejudice.

While some see a homophobic subtext in the film, others see a homoerotic one. One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers calls 300 “perhaps the gayest movie that I’ve ever seen that wasn’t porn.” Dan Savage handles the film’s homophobia this way:

I enjoyed 300 in part because the Persian Emperor is played by an eight foot tall black drag queen. Emperor RuPaul.

I mean, my God, the lengths the filmmakers went to in order to reassure the straight boys in the audience that there was nothing homoerotic about staring at men in thongs for three hours.

Frank Miller was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly here, and remarked on his artistic license with costuming:

I was looking for more an evocation than a history lesson. The best result I can hope for is that if the movie excites someone, they'll go explore the histories themselves. Because the histories are endlessly fascinating. [emphasis added]

One can only hope.

A homophobic reading of Thermopylae-era Greek masculinity is certainly ahistoric; it will not survive even a passing familiarity with Sparta’s defeats at the Battles of Leuctra and Mantinea by the Thebans and their all-gay Sacred Bank of Thebes. I’d love to see those 300 soldiers (150 pairs of lovers) headline a movie, but Hollywood wouldn’t touch their history with a ten-foot spear.

Odious comments and comparisons still reign in mainstream political commentary, as do fantasies of Bush as a decisive and principles leader. For an example, check out Bill Walsh’s nearly allegorical line of analysis at The Weekly Standard:

If 300 has something to say to us, it is not a facile analogy to our own times, but an occasion, however sensational and simple, for considering the meaning of values such as sacrifice, liberty, honor, and valor.

Such praise was typical of the conservative press: attempting, however tentatively, to draw a parallel between Leonidas and Bush. Lance Mannion’s review “The 300 died for the oil” punctures the Busheviks’ hero-worship succinctly:

You would have to be incredibly paranoid, in addition to being afflicted with crippling self-pity and narcissism, to see the position of the United States today as analogous to that of the three hundred Spartans surrounded and about to be overwhelmed and annihilated by the the [sic] well-trained, well-equipped army of the most powerful empire in the world.

And you would have to be entirely deluded by a homoerotic hero-worship to think that Leonidas, an actual warrior-king who personally led his Spartans into battle and lay down his life along with theirs, and George Bush have anything in common.

Which is why I expect a whole lot of bloggers on the Right side of the bandwidth to love this movie.


I'll get a kick out of thinking about the chickenhawks on the Right imagining they would have lasted five minutes in Sparta.

Digby’s take on 300 also makes quick work of wingnut hero-worship:

These flabby keyboarders are just big babies like their hero Dick Cheney, getting all hot and bothered at the sight of all those rock-hard abs and all that death. If they want a piece of it, there are military recruiters everywhere who would be more than willing to sign them up and send them to the marine version of agoge. It's called boot camp. Once they get through that and do some time in an actual war zone then maybe they can cheer wildly at "gladiator" movies and talk about manly-men without sounding like a bunch of fools or closet cases.

This AlterNet review by Steve Burgess describes the wingnut mindset that endeavors to transform 300’s celebration of honor and duty into a defense of the Bush administration. Burgess calls the film “an adolescent wet dream to its very core, a homoerotic paean to half-naked Greeks and their bloody, thrusting swords:”

300 will likely be a masturbatory experience for the Ann Coulter crowd. Cruel, militaristic Sparta is the ideal; weak, artsy Athens is mocked, particularly in a scene where Athenian soldiers are revealed to be potters, sculptors, poets. Brave men who leave what they love to defend their country? Bah! Weaklings, according to this flick. As a tribute to a particular world view, 300 could play on a double bill with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.

And no doubt it will be screened at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Bush will certainly relish a film in which King Leonidas tries, and fails, to get authorization from Sparta's governing council for an attack against the forces of Persia, a.k.a. modern-day Iran. Leonidas goes ahead anyway. History calls him a hero. So much for congressional funding.

300 is worth viewing, but prepare to cringe at the worldview of those who blindly cheer the violence without comprehending the history.


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