Spartan Spectators


300 hit our theatres in April, and seems to have gone through a similar destiny as most other epic blockbusters of our times: lots of buzz for a while, then sudden silence. If you weren’t there for the buzz, however, the recent Frank Miller-inspired effort that you missed is a highly belligerent historical movie, narrating (and exalting) King Leonidas’s suicidal military defence of the Thermopylae, in what we now call classical Greece.

While the film’s script and premise can hardly be called daring, it is in the visual compartment that the director hid all his aces. Anyone seeing the trailer for the first time would doubtlessly be impressed: All the colors seem to be highlighted, the outlines of some images are blurred like impressionist paintings, cameras constantly wheel around characters moving in slow motion, and every frame is made to look about as powerful as the armies it depicts.

300 is not the first film of its kind. Sin City (another piece inspired by Frank Miller’s artwork), A Scanner Darkly, and A Very Long Engagement, for example, all have no qualms in heavily manipulating color and lighting to embellish their narratives. And that’s not to discuss Pixar. In fact, these newly discovered ways of presenting images are so appealing to the eye that this might well be only the beginning. If the coming years see a proper growth of the genre, we could even be at the threshold of an important shift in cinema. But while it’s only reasonable to expect these new resources to be fully exploited, it is also to be hoped that the shiny fables they produce are not confused with reality.

300 is case in point, though at the outset there seems little chance of confusing it with reality. Quite the opposite, really. When seeing 300, we don’t wonder how that kid is supposed to survive barefoot in a snowy blizzard, or why the Spartan king must climb bare-chested up a rocky cliff just to have a chat with his oracles. Nor do we question whether the Spartan oracles were actually lepers or whether the Persian army had such a thing as masked ninjas in their royal guard. We accept all this as fiction — the film’s fiction, disjointed from our reality. It comes with the package: If I pay my ticket to go and see a film where all the colors are enhanced, the combat is in slow motion, and the characters in CGI, surely I cannot expect it to have any connection with reality, can I?

Well, that’s the important question, and the one I wish to address in this article.

What is myth? What does it have to do with 300? It’s more than simply a distortion of historical truth. This is not a rant about 300’s historical inaccuracies (though there’s plenty of those. Check out Ephraim Lytle’s account, if that’s what you’re looking for: “Sparta? No. This is madness”, The, 11 March 2007). Rather, myth should be understood as a particular way of telling stories that allows us as spectators to accept 300’s mutilated orcs and Darth Vader-voiced Kings, along with all the other historical absurdities, and that same way of telling stories which today is achieved with remarkable success by means of 300’s special use of airbrushed, superimposed images.

A story that has no pretence at truth is what we normally call myth. Stories of this kind have been told since the most remote of civilizations and are still told with unflagging energy today. A myth may or may not have a basis in history, and when it does (as in 300), it tends to exaggerate the events, to aggrandize and maximize its protagonists and significance. Exaggerated or embellished stories about historical figures also went by another name in ancient times: songs.

But here’s the first irregularity: Songs are taboo in 300. “No songs are sung, but the day is ours forever,” King Leonidas tells his men as the enemy approaches. This sounds a little ironic, considering that the entire film is effectively a song. 300’s exhibition of soldiers with bronze-rimmed six-packs standing their ground against a charging rhinoceros is no different from Homer’s telling us about invulnerable men and gods that walk the earth. But Leonidas is categorical: his final order is “remember us”, but with no tributes and, most explicitly, with “no songs.”

Why is Leonidas so keen that his tale should be told in a form different from that of songs? Is he afraid that the truth of his tussle with a nine foot tall orc might be distorted?

Perhaps what Leonidas is trying to do by insisting that they remember him without songs is to negate the role of myth (or at least its value) in the perpetuation of history. This would be in line with the tendencies of the rest of the film. The entire narrative, after all, consists in the retrospective narration of the battle’s only survivor; we are literally witnessing a story. But instead of drawing attention to this fact, that this is a retelling, the film negates it, like Leonidas does with myth: The narrator is shown to be as airbrushed and superimposed, as artificially embellished and sensationally colored, as the story that he narrates, so that the film’s world and the film’s story are made to correspond. As a result, the distinction between the event and the telling-of-the-event, which is normally one of the most basic in our understanding of media, is here collapsed.

Not that I’m suggesting, of course, that anyone should suddenly be fooled into thinking of 300 as an authentic, reliable historical account. But while our awareness of its specific events not being true remains as strong as ever, our understanding of the difference between the real world and 300’s shiny slow-motion images tends to blur. By negating its own status as myth, the film seduces us into believing that we may enter myth ourselves if we engage with the themes that it treats (in this case, war).

This might all sound a little abstract, so allow me to give a concrete example: in one scene, two soldiers are spying the immense Persian army from behind two rocks. One of them is a Spartan, and the other an Arcadian, a man whose military prowess is considerably inferior to his companion’s. The Arcadian looks suitably terrified, while the Spartan is smiling gleefully. When the Arcadian enquires on what on earth he’s laughing at, the Spartan replies that in all his countless battles no man has ever managed to give him a “beautiful death,” but here, in these endless legions, he can hope there might be one who’s up to the task.

There is a rather striking parallel to be made between the Spartan watching the Persian army and the spectator watching the film (or, perhaps even more validly, the trailer). The feelings we may expect from them are exactly the same: anticipation, catharsis, aesthetic relish, self-exaltation, probably also some sense of tomfoolery, and — the ultimate effect — that sense of something being really, really cool (for the record, I’m including myself in the category of people who reacted this way). In a movie about Spartans, the audience is made to identify with the Spartans, and in this scene, the Spartan is a spectator in two senses: both in his contemplation of the Persian army, and also in his being the locus on which the spectator’s identity is projected — in his embodying the spectator himself.

Even more important, however, is the role of the Arcadian: He is there to be impressed. His role is first to express the most human of sentiments (“there can be no victory here”), and then gape at the superhuman courage and madness of the Spartan, who laughs in the face of danger and relishes that which would terrify any normal man. The Arcadian too is a spectator, but his spectacle is the Spartan rather than the Persian army. He therefore represents the average man’s eye on the Spartans, the eye of the rest of the world, and reveals the film’s most crucial paradigm: to be a Spartan in 300 is to adopt an identity of myth, of song, an identity that is defined in terms of the audience that receives it rather than what one has experienced. The considerable appeal possessed by the Spartans is given to them precisely by their being mythical characters; what we care about is not the actual experiences and the actions of the Spartans — those are discarded in advance as unrealistic, just like the film’s historical pretences. Instead, we are interested in being seen by the rest of the world like the Spartan is seen by the Arcadian — to see ourselves in the same kind of light (in every sense) as the soldiers in 300.

At this stage, it’s easy to understand why the film would be so ideologically adverse to the notion of myth. To allow for a disconnection between how-things-are and how-things-are-told-to-be would be for the film to undermine its identity, because it would negate the truth-value of all its messages. Instead, the film attempts to sell itself by blurring the distinction between reality and myth – between the event and telling-of-the-event.

The implications of this should not be taken lightly. 300 might not be seen as an accurate historical reconstruction (or have similar pretences), but there’s nothing in there to remind us that it’s also not an accurate portrayal of the feelings and emotions involved in war or of the values that it exalts. The risk is being seduced into the belief that it’s ok to just retire into our own myths and forget the gulf that there is between them and reality. The myths in which 300 would have us withdraw are militaristic fantasies, which I’ve always thought to be harmful – but when the next hyper-colored, romantically shaded film comes along preaching myths which I actually happen to like, will I be able to look critically at them too? Or will I be seduced?