Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Go Tell the Spartans

To hear most film critics tell it, the world is currently divided into those who thought that 300 was a bloodsoaked but essentially soul-less load of crud, and those whose knuckles drag the ground when they walk.

To hear some others tell it, the world is instead divided into those who are able to appreciate shear, pounding, bloody masculinity, and those who are too busy prissing on about "high art" to know a good time when they see it.

Well, chances are I won't get around to seeing 300 till it's on DVD, or more likely won't get around to seeing it at all (given the kind of reviews it's been getting.) But I have to take a moment as your local weapons collecting classicist to say it's a damned shame that when such an eminently filmable story finally got put on screen (where I've been wanting to see it for twenty years, since I knew the story existed) it got there by means of a production team that thinks Greeks fought naked, Persians were Africans with a body piecing and chain fetish, and Spartan women were pretty.

The thing is, with an action spectacular like this, I'm not all that clear how much quality actually increases the box office take. 300 will make a lot of money, because it's an adrenalin pounding event movie about three hundred buff guys who fought to the death against thousands of stunt artists. However, if an incredibly good writer and director had got together on the project and brought in Russell Crowe to play Leonidas, it would still only make slightly more money. So in a sense, where's the incentive? And now no one will be making another Thermopylae movie for another 10-15 years at least, if ever. Sigh...

Well, here's the real story for them as is interested:

Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others however took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors. The struggle, however, continued during the whole day.

Then the Medes, having met so rough a reception, withdrew from the fight; and their place was taken by the band of Persians under Hydarnes, whom the king called his "Immortals: " they, it was thought, would soon finish the business. But when they joined battle with the Greeks, 'twas with no better success than the Median detachment - things went much as before - the two armies fighting in a narrow space, and the barbarians using shorter spears than the Greeks, and having no advantage from their numbers. The Lacedaemonians fought in a way worthy of note, and showed themselves far more skilful in fight than their adversaries, often turning their backs, and making as though they were all flying away, on which the barbarians would rush after them with much noise and shouting, when the Spartans at their approach would wheel round and face their pursuers, in this way destroying vast numbers of the enemy. Some Spartans likewise fell in these encounters, but only a very few. At last the Persians, finding that all their efforts to gain the pass availed nothing, and that, whether they attacked by divisions or in any other way, it was to no purpose, withdrew to their own quarters.

During these assaults, it is said that Xerxes, who was watching the battle, thrice leaped from the throne on which he sat, in terror for his army. Next day the combat was renewed, but with no better success on the part of the barbarians. The Greeks were so few that the barbarians hoped to find them disabled, by reason of their wounds, from offering any further resistance; and so they once more attacked them. But the Greeks were drawn up in detachments according to their cities, and bore the brunt of the battle in turns, - all except the Phocians, who had been stationed on the mountain to guard the pathway. So, when the Persians found no difference between that day and the preceding, they again retired to their quarters.

[The Persians then succeed in flanking the Greeks, who, realizing they are surrounded, send the bulk of their forces home.]

So the allies, when Leonidas ordered them to retire, obeyed him and forthwith departed. Only the Thespians and the Thebans remained with the Spartans; and of these the Thebans were kept back by Leonidas as hostages, very much against their will. The Thespians, on the contrary, stayed entirely of their own accord, refusing to retreat, and declaring that they would not forsake Leonidas and his followers. So they abode with the Spartans, and died with them. Their leader was Demophilus, the son of Diadromes.

At sunrise Xerxes made libations, after which he waited until the time when the forum is wont to fill, and then began his advance. Ephialtes had instructed him thus, as the descent of the mountain is much quicker, and the distance much shorter, than the way round the hills, and the ascent. So the barbarians under Xerxes began to draw nigh; and the Greeks under Leonidas, as they now went forth determined to die, advanced much further than on previous days, until they reached the more open portion of the pass. Hitherto they had held their station within the wall, and from this had gone forth to fight at the point where the pass was the narrowest. Now they joined battle beyond the defile, and carried slaughter among the barbarians, who fell in heaps. Behind them the captains of the squadrons, armed with whips, urged their men forward with continual blows. Many were thrust into the sea, and there perished; a still greater number were trampled to death by their own soldiers; no one heeded the dying. For the Greeks, reckless of their own safety and desperate, since they knew that, as the mountain had been crossed, their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valour against the barbarians.

By this time the spears of the greater number were all shivered, and with their swords they hewed down the ranks of the Persians; and here, as they strove, Leonidas fell fighting bravely, together with many other famous Spartans, whose names I have taken care to learn on account of their great worthiness, as indeed I have those of all the three hundred. There fell too at the same time very many famous Persians: among them, two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, his children by Phratagune, the daughter of Artanes. Artanes was brother of King Darius, being a son of Hystaspes, the son of Arsames; and when he gave his daughter to the king, he made him heir likewise of all his substance; for she was his only child.

Thus two brothers of Xerxes here fought and fell. And now there arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians over the body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body. This combat was scarcely ended when the Persians with Ephialtes approached; and the Greeks, informed that they drew nigh, made a change in the manner of their fighting. Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except only the Thebans. The hillock whereof I speak is at the entrance of the straits, where the stone lion stands which was set up in honour of Leonidas. Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons.

Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself above all the rest, to wit, Dieneces the Spartan. A speech which he made before the Greeks engaged the Medes, remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, "Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude." Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered, "Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade." Other sayings too of a like nature are reported to have been left on record by this same person.

Next to him two brothers, Lacedaemonians, are reputed to have made themselves conspicuous: they were named Alpheus and Maro, and were the sons of Orsiphantus. There was also a Thespian who gained greater glory than any of his countrymen: he was a man called Dithyrambus, the son of Harmatidas.

The slain were buried where they fell; and in their honour, nor less in honour of those who died before Leonidas sent the allies away, an inscription was set up, which said: -

"Here did four thousand men from Pelops'land
Against three hundred myriads bravely stand."
This was in honour of all. Another was for the Spartans alone: -
"Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell."
This was for the Lacedaemonians. The seer had the following: -
"The great Megistias' tomb you here may view,
Whom slew the Medes, fresh from Spercheius' fords.
Well the wise seer the coming death foreknew,
Yet scorned he to forsake his Spartan lords."

These inscriptions, and the pillars likewise, were all set up by the Amphictyons, except that in honour of Megistias, which was inscribed to him (on account of their sworn friendship) by Simonides, the son of Leoprepes.
Even through the 19th century prose style of Rawlinson's translation, it sounds exciting.


Literacy-chic said...

I'll give you my review when I see it! ;) Have you seen the 300 apologetics on the History Channel? It actually does a decent job of explaining where history and film artistry (or whatever) intersect.

So I suppose Spartan women were like dwarf women--hard to distinguish from the men! ;) (Only Tolkien never would have said that!)

Julie D. said...

it got there by means of a production team that thinks Greeks fought naked, Persians were Africans with a body piecing and chain fetish, and Spartan women were pretty.

Let's also remember what the film makers and critics have repeatedly been reminding everyone about ... this movie is based on the comics not the real historical version. The real wonder here is that the comics are so very close to the history.

Anonymous said...

One reason the 300 movie might seem a little off is that it's based on a 1998 5-part comic book series about the story, not the story itself. I don't think there's any real attempt by the movie-makers to portray the original story. Essentially, they wanted to make a comic-book movie. If you keep that in mind, it's a little easier to overlook the discrepancies, even though Greek history buffs and critics remain disappointed.

Anonymous said...

She beat me to it. Foiled again.

Julie D. said...

But your comment was so muchmore nicely said ... AND had a link. :-)

Pro Ecclesia said...

"... a production team that thinks... Spartan women were pretty."

Wasn't Helen a Spartan? Of course, she was also the daughter of Zeus.

mrsdarwin said...

There ya go, Jay: you've just solved the age-old question of nature vs. nurture.

CMinor said...

Helen was "of Sparta," but she was the daughter of the queen, Leda, and according to legend, the god Zeus. Leda wasn't Spartan by birth, she was Aetolian, which may explain why she was considered such a looker among the Spartans. I don't think anybody's ever commented on the beauty of Helen's half-sister, Clytemnestra, whose father was Tyndareus, king of Sparta.

Wouldn't fighting nude be rather impractical?

Pro Ecclesia said...

"Wouldn't fighting nude be rather impractical?"

The Celts did it. I've read that they also ... uh ... aroused themselves ... into something of a battle frenzy in an attempt to psyche out their enemy.

Darwin said...

One reason the 300 movie might seem a little off is that it's based on a 1998 5-part comic book series about the story, not the story itself.

Actually, I did read about the comic book a year or so ago, though I havent' actually read it. Still, though, just because he got it wrong doesn't mean everyone else has to.

Grumble, grumble, grumble...

Wasn't Helen a Spartan? Of course, she was also the daughter of Zeus.

Yeah, as CMinor said, she was born elsewhere and married off to Menelaeus.

I'm trying to remember where it was that I read slams against the looks of Spartan women. I think maybe it was Lysistrata. The comment was basicly along the lines of Sparten women being as strong as horses and generally of that facial appearance as well.

Darwin said...

Wouldn't fighting nude be rather impractical?

I suppose it all depends what you're fighting for...

Julie D. said...

Still, though, just because he got it wrong doesn't mean everyone else has to.

Which I respectfully point out is missing the point. That movie is specifically made from the comics ... just as Sin City was previously made from those comics, though not as successfully from what I can tell. Since I didn't care about those comics I skipped Sin City. However, Hannah and Rose gave 300 nine thumbs up. Although you have to keep in mind that among their comments were Rose's of "row after row of gloriously bare chests, Mom ... you're gonna love it." How well she knows me.

Darwin said...

Hmmm. Seems like my graphics novel fan sources were telling me Sin City was the only Frank Miller adaptation that was any good. Though I haven't got around to seeing that yet either...

Rightly or not, there are certain things there accuracy bugs me enough that I can't really enjoy something even if it's supposedly done really well. For instance, a number of people I like very much assured me that X-Files was just brilliantly written, but having dealt with way too many people over the years who took UFOs seriously, I just couldn't stand the few episodes of the show I saw. Shakespeare could have written a show about UFOs,a nd I still would have hated it.

Or maybe this stems from the same demand for balance of intellectual/artistic merit along with action that had me love Gladiator and Rob Roy but hate Braveheart and The Patriot.

Julie D. said...

Or maybe this stems from the same demand for balance of intellectual/artistic merit along with action that had me love Gladiator and Rob Roy but hate Braveheart and The Patriot.

Which would be indicators that this is a movie you should skip. We aren't meant to see every single movie ... go rent Shaun of the Dead and enjoy that instead. :-D

CMinor said...

Darwin, for shame!
Jay, perhaps that explains why the Romans ended up taking Britain. Doesn't account for the Scots, though.

Anonymous said...

Frank Miller the artist/writer of 300 and Sin City. Is said to be very happy with the adaptation of 300. In interviews he has said to have been enthralled by this story since childhood.

Frank Milller actually went on location to do research before writing and drawing the book (That doesn't mean that he didn't take a few artistic liscence though LOL).

I just pulled out the comic (I have the original 5 issue series). The artwork is gorgeous and the book is entertaining as hell. I notice that when the Spartans aren't running around in what little armor they wear in battle they are mostly naked in when walking around their home town (Frank Miller manages to show this without being explicit or obvious. You really have to look to notice this).

I am going to see the movie. I think I will enjoy it.

I hope the movie gets more people to check out the (now collected) Graphic Novel. For the last 20 years there have been amazing works of comic art being produced and all under the publics radar (Although Hollywood writers and directors have been drawing inspiration from them for years).

A number of great comics have been poorly adapted into bad movies, so hopefully this film might start to open the general publics eyes to the larger world of Comics (I noticed that even during the review on Ebert and Roper a few weeks ago, both critics showed a good knowledge of the comic that it was based on).

But Darwin, If you like the films of Quentin Tarentino (which I know you do) You really should see Sin City, or just read the first Sin City Graphic Novel (There are several, but the first one is the best). When I first saw "Pulp Fiction" I thought to myself "damn, he must have been influenced by "Sin City").

It tuns out he was.

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Darwin said...


Sin City is definately on my watch list.

I dunno... I suspect that I'll see 300 in the end. The cinematography looks interesting enough I won't be able to resistant. But the departures from history (especially the costuming) bugs the heck out of me. (Part of this is that it actually ties in with the plot -- one of the reasons the Greeks were so incredibly successful against the Persians is that they were so much more heavily armored and armed. The greek phalanx was an unrivaled battle machine, and I'd love to see it in action on the big screen in all it's bronze-covered glory.)

I'm impressed that Frank Miller did so much work on the real event. (Even some of the very improbably bits, such as the Persian envoys being thrown down the wells are right out of Herodotus. Though other elements -- such as the Gorgo plot elements are totally made up. And in the real battle, the Greeks fought down to the last man hand to hand rather than dying in a hail of arrows.)