300 is awful. I wasn’t going to go after it, because it’s the kind of movie that you can’t really argue about. People who enjoy it enjoy it for reasons having nothing, really, to do with its quality as a film. It’s a spectacle, and one devised solely to push easy emotional buttons — but some people like that. I am, myself, often a sucker for sports movies — even when they’re not, technically, good. (My blood pumps harder, despite my better judgement, at the climax of even a fairly awful movie like The Next Karate Kid.)
But in a recent episode of Filmspotting, an ongoing discussion of the film brought up the question of whether it matters, in a film like 300, if the details of how people fought in that era are faithfully observed.
In one sense, of course, it doesn’t matter. 300 hardly claims to be a historical epic, and Frank Miller has introduced all sorts of fantastical conceits — Xerxes is, in the words of one Filmspotting listener, “an 8-foot pre-op transsexual,” the priests of Spartan society are icky, diseased dwarves obssessed with money and nubile teenagers, and war elephants and giant mutants stride among the Persian armies. None of this is particularly problematic in a fantasy, and there’s no law that says that even a story as inherently compelling as that of Thermopylae can’t use a little mythological embellishment. (Indeed, I like Miller’s direct, blunt translation of that Greek place-name as “the Hot Gates,” compared to Steven Pressfield’s faux-thunderous “Gates of Fire.”)
But the film wants to have it both ways. Early on the road to Thermopylae, King Leonidas, leader of the Spartans, meets a deformed man of Spartan birth whose parents hid him to keep him from being killed as a baby. The man tells Leonidas he has his father’s Spartan shield and cloak, and has trained himself to fight. But Leonidas gently explains that his deformities don’t allow him to raise his shield above his head, which is a necessary component of the Spartans’ phalanx tactics.
Okay, fair enough. Personally, I was rather curious to see how that phalanx fighting would work. But once they reach Thermopylae and have to face the Persians, the Spartans never fight in phalanx. They fight individually, in slow-mo and in elaborately choreographed Greek-Fu, and periodically they use their shields for cover. But they never engage in the close, lines-oriented fighting described in interesting article:
The heavily-armed soldiers… were standing in long, parallel lines, close to each other. Every hoplite carried a large round shield (the aspis or hoplon) which covered his own left side and the right side of the man to his left. A phalanx was, therefore, very densely packed and could not easily turn to the left or right. If its allowed to compare war with sport: a hoplite battle was something like a “scrum” in a rugby match: both sides, armed with spears, tried to push over the enemy, and once a phalanx was victorious, the losses at the other side were extremely heavy, because the victors would use their swords to kill the defeated men.
Sounds pretty cool, huh? Never seen in the whole film.
Also never really used to Spartan advantage is the terrain. The whole point of the expedition to Thermopylae is laid out neatly in flashback to Leonidas’ childhood, in which, alone, naked, and armed with a spear, he lures a hungry wolf into a narrow cleft, where its size is less of an advantage and he is able to kill it. Fantastic, good scene, a little on-the-nose as a metaphor, but it’s a comic book and I don’t propose to quibble.
Unfortunately, the whole rest of the movie is about the Spartans utterly failing to use the narrow pass of Thermopylae to their advantage. Time and again they emerge from the safety of the rock walls to fight on the open road along the sea, and they never once draw the Persians into the rocks or lay a cunning trap for them as the young Leonidas did for the wolf. Instead, the Spartans simply wade into the Persian army, predictably slapping the “Asian hordes” (not my words) around the place like Bas Rutten getting mugged.
Now I’m not saying that the Spartans weren’t some hardass guys, and presumably they would have been quite something to watch in single combat. And as we noted to start, this thing is firmly planted in the realm of fantasy. But then why dwell on tactics at all? Why go out of your way to describe or allude to the creative fighting techniques of the real Spartans?
There’s a real disregard for not just the tactics, but the feel of real warfare in this film. The filmmakers seem to treat the mundane details of a warrior’s life with some contempt, feeling, perhaps, that audiences will more readily identify with an oily superman than a real soldier. The film is thoroughly imagistic, all golden wheat fields and scorched cloudscapes, but its images tend to be recycled and less thrilling than the filmmakers think; and meanwhile they have abandoned any verisimilitude which might have lent richness to the bronzy picture-making. The “300” gather outside the city wearing only capes and loincloths and carrying only spears and shields. In what ought to be a catastrophic failure of military planning, not one of them has so much as a knapsack or a skin of water; neither is there any hint of a supply chain. Nonetheless, when the filmmakers want to show Leonidas as jaunty and confident, he strides among the piled-up corpses eating a fresh apple, although the landscape at Thermopylae is completely barren.
This is not nit-picking. I like an iconic clash of great warriors as well as the next person, and a movie about war doesn’t have to be The Things They Carried to have merit. Despite the assertion attributed to Samuel Fuller that the only way to make a war movie “realistic” (and therefore not romanticize war) would be to fire a machine gun into the audience, war is not automatically off-limits as the subject of grand entertainment. War can be funny, or thrilling, or glorious, just like every other aspect of human experience. It baffles civilians and those of us who have yet to go there, but many soldiers re-enlist while in the combat zone; many report that they enjoy doing the work they were trained to do more than simply sitting around in garrison.
But war is a serious subject, and no one who makes films about it or writes about it can avoid the enormous stakes of it. There’s nothing wrong with making warriors larger-than-life — Homer, the great-grandfather of all Western war poets, certainly didn’t write them small. Gary Payton-style trash-talking alone probably makes up a third of the bulk of the Iliad. But he also had respect for man’s natural unwillingness to die for political causes, and he further had respect for the ordinary considerations of war planning — ships, soldiers, carpenters, cattle — precisely because it is those elements which generally determine the outcome of a war. Homer lovingly (some might say obssessively) catalogs the men and commanders of every ship and army among the Achaeans as a way of paying tribute to Agammemnon’s ability to raise and supply a mighty force, an invading coalition of a size and preparedness to cast fear into the heart of even well-defended Troy. Homer’s detailed record of the Greeks’ elements and supplies of war is a more sophisticated form of inflating his heroes than Miller and director Zach Snyder’s greased flesh and trick photography, because it suggests that unlike 300‘s Spartans, who don’t even pack a lunch, they know how to wage war.
Fortunately, television has picked up the slack, providing us with any number of compelling, realistic looks into today’s wars and insurgencies. The second season of Showtime’s Sleeper Cell is now available on DVD, and if it is not quite as tightly written or as tense as the first season, it nonetheless takes us in new directions and cleverly plays with our sympathies.
The season’s weaknesses and strengths both revolve around Oded Fehr and his character, Faris al-Farik. The major reason that the second season can’t sustain the gooseflesh suspense of the first season is that much of that suspense came from the thoroughly creepy feeling that al-Farik was everywhere, a genius puppet-master and panopticon, always a step ahead of our hero, Darwyn. And Fehr gave his iron fist its velvet glove, delivering al-Farik’s pious insanity with the charm of a movie star and the sophisticated logic of an Oxford debater. There’s always something wrong with what al-Farik is saying, the ways he justifies his terrifying violence — but in the moment, he’s maddeningly convincing. Unfortunately, he spends almost this entire season in various CIA detention cells, and Darwyn, of all people, is left to lead a new cell, receiving instructions from “the base” (al-Qaeda, literally) and wrangling an unruly new gang of terrorists while trying to see the outlines of the plan in time to prevent a nuclear attack on LA. Gripping stuff, and of course we’re all rooting for him, but somehow the potential deaths of millions are less exciting, scene by scene, than the possibility that one, very scary guy might cut our hero’s throat at any moment.
But putting Faris al-Farik in chains isn’t a mistake on the filmmakers’ part; it’s a trade-off. What we lose in creepy-villain chills, we gain in moral ambiguity and complexity. From minute one, Farik’s interrogation by the CIA is brutal, frightening, and unrelenting. There’s a predictable good-cop, bad-cop setup, but with a knife-twist: the bad cop beats up on Farik physically, but the “good cop” undermines his faith. This combination is so wearing, on us as well as on the character, that we wind up starting to root for him to stay strong, to resist intimidation and brutality. This remains true even after, perhaps because, he seems to lose faith and collapse.
Of course, the first series made most of the terrorists quite human and at times sympathetic. But this is the first time the audience has been subtly moved over into partly wanting the terrorist to win. And in a weird mirroring move, the writers make Darwyn simultaneously less sympathetic, especially in the final episode, when, driven by revenge, he utterly erases the moral line between himself and Farik. This is a bold, frightening move, one which might draw cries of “Treason!” from the war-on-terror faithful, if they were smart enough to see it.
The show that goes the farthest in educating us about insurgency and terrorism never mentions Iraq, al-Qaeda, or 9/11, and is, in fact, a remake (or, if you prefer, a “re-imagining”) of a mediocre 1970s space opera. That show, of course, is Battlestar Galactica.
I’ve resisted joining the “best show on television” bandwagon about this show, in part because I haven’t seen HBO’s The Wire, which many people are also calling the “best.” But now that the first two seasons are available on DVD, I can confidently say that it’s the most ambitious show I’ve seen since The West Wing. It is, in fact, both more wide-ranging and more consistent than West Wing, managing to touch on terrorism, the costs of war, presidential politics, faith (the Cylons’ insistent monotheism specifically invokes that of Islam), the clash of cultures, losing and regaining individuality in an industrial society, and even abortion without ever losing its head or becoming preachy. It does this by rigorously adhering to both the rules of its make-believe world and the primary motivating forces in its characters — one never, ever gets the sense on Galactica that a character is simply a puppet for the writer’s own voice. Even when they engage in sweeping, unbelievable rhetoric, it is always sweeping, unbelievable rhetoric for their own purposes, not for ours or the writers’.
Perhaps the thing I like the most about the show is its potent evocation of military life. From the small details — it mixes U.S. Army and Navy ranks, but uses them consistently in its own system — to its grand philosophical considerations — the show examines quite carefully what happens when the civilian government is not fully in command of the military — Galactica gives a better indication of how soldiers, sailors, and Marines really live than any show I’ve ever seen. (Yes, it’s better than M*A*S*H.) I’m particularly impressed that the traditional relationship between sailing ships and their Marines has been transplanted effectively here. But I’m even more impressed that problems of supply and materiel are smartly addressed. Just when you’re beginning to wonder, “Hey, aren’t these guys going to run out of fuel?” the fleet has to stop to mine new fuel. When the fleet stops at a planet for a year, hoping the running might finally be over, new problems begin to arise, as their supplies of antibiotics and other manufactured goods dwindle away.
Only one small complaint mars my otherwise complete love for this series. The Sci-Fi Channel and Universal, recognizing that they have the genuine article and seeking a little extra cash, have split the second season into two separate releases, unhelpfully labeled “Season 2.0” and “Season 2.5.” I didn’t realize this at first, and shelled out $40 for what I thought was the second season, only to have to spend another $40 to get the rest of the story. There’s a certain dishonesty to this marketing tactic, as there’s nothing on the “2.0” box to indicate that it’s not the entire season. I’m not sure I would have paid $80 for a single season of television, even television I like as much as this, but of course once I had seen half the season…. Well, they got me. Frakkin’ toasters.