Movies and Representing History: The Case of "300"

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Movies and Representing History: The Case of "300"

Postby bretonlass » Sun Jan 28, 2007 12:09 am

From The Guardian:

Spartan epic is last hope for sword and sandal movies

Can a British-led cast hope Thermopylae battle film save a historical genre?

David Smith
Sunday January 28, 2007
The Observer


'Go tell the Spartans, passer-by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.'
So reads the epigram carved into a commemorative stone, appropriately spartan, on a Greek hill. The tale behind it thrilled generations of schoolchildren educated in the classics. Hollywood is now praying it can breathe new life into the genre of the ancient historical epic with the help of a British-led cast.

The Battle of Thermopylae is regarded as one of history's pivotal moments, a doomed yet heroic last stand in 480BC with nothing less than Western civilisation at stake. Led by King Leonidas, an elite force of 300 Spartans, backed by around 7,000 Greeks, was vastly outnumbered by King Xerxes' invading Persian army, which has been estimated at between 80,000 and more than a million. For three days the Spartans stood firm at the 'Hot Gates', the main pass into central Greece, and inflicted appalling losses before being outflanked and killed. The sacrifice inspired all of Greece to unite and drive out the Persians and is therefore seen as enabling the seeds of Western democracy to flourish.

The story has faded from the school curriculum along with Greek and Latin, but a dark and violent £30m film dramatisation, named 300, receives its world premiere next month at the Berlin Film Festival. British actors take leading parts, with Gerard Butler, who played the title role in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera, as Leonidas, rising star Lena Headey as his wife, Queen Gorgo, and Dominic West as the warrior Theron. But cinema-goers will also be assailed by computer-generated special effects featuring monsters, battlefield carnage and superhuman acrobatics - this is no literal interpretation.

Hollywood is pinning hopes on 300 to rediscover the kind of success enjoyed by Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning Gladiator in 2000. Since then the ancient epic has suffered setbacks with Troy, starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom, which was derided by critics as a travesty of Homer, and Alexander, with a bleached-blond Colin Farrell, which flopped at the box office and earned director Oliver Stone some of his worst reviews. Both films were made by Warner Brothers, as is 300. Another turkey could destroy studios' willingness to invest in the genre, just as in 1963 when the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra killed such productions for decades.

'Gladiator was such a huge success in 2000 that a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon,' said historian Paul Cartledge, a Sparta expert who advised the makers of 300 on ancient Greek pronunciations. 'I thought Troy was quite good but my colleagues did not agree. Alexander was a lumbering, shapeless failure, historically and artistically. It's put the notion of making ancient movies back, so there is a lot riding on 300.'

300 is based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller and uses the same technology that brought his comic book Sin City to the big screen. Miller was inspired by Thermopylae when, aged six, he saw the film The 300 Spartans, starring Ralph Richardson. 'It was a shocker, because the heroes died,' Miller recalled. 'I was used to seeing Superman punch out planets. It was an epiphany to realise that the hero wasn't necessarily the guy who won.' Miller researched the battle, interviewed academics and visited the site in Greece but has admitted that he occasionally used artistic licence at the expense of accuracy.

300 has been described as 'the goriest ever film' and its director, Zack Snyder, says it possesses a 'hysterical weirdness'. He reportedly enlisted an extreme fitness trainer and sent the actors and stuntmen to a 'boot camp' for two-and-a-half months, forcing them to endure punishing workouts and live off meat, leaves and berries. Snyder said: 'I told everyone, "You guys have got to be in crazy shape, in superhero shape."' He issued them with T-shirts that read, 'I died at Thermopylae'.

The film recreates the moment when the Spartans were warned that enemy arrows would darken the sun and one soldier replied, 'Then we will fight them in the shade.' Cartledge, author of Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World, said he was not surprised the battle retains its fascination. 'It's one of those iconic moments, like Dunkirk, a defeat but a glorious defeat that marked the turning point towards victory. All 300 Spartans took part on the basis that they had sons so they knew their bloodline would not die out. They had about 7,000 Greek allies, and I think it's reasonable to estimate they were up against 200,000 Persians. Had the Persians won the overall war, where would we be? We can't say democracy in the Athenian manner would have happened in the way it did.'

Winners and losers in ancient tussle

Gladiator (2000)

Based on ancient Rome under emperor Marcus Aurelius

Director Ridley Scott

Stars Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix

Budget $103m (£53m)

Worldwide box office $456m

Critics said 'Just when we thought the day of the sword-and-sandal spectacular was a distant memory, along comes a Roman epic to rival classics such as Ben Hur'

Troy (2004)

Based on Homer's account of the assault on the city by the Greeks

Director Wolfgang Petersen

Stars Eric Bana, Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom

Budget: $175m

Box office: $481m

Critics said 'In Troy, and in overreaching, underachieving productions like it, digital imagery is fast becoming both a Trojan horse and an Achilles heel'

Alexander (2004)

Based on the life of Alexander the Great

Director Oliver Stone

Stars Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins

Budget $155m

Box office $167m

Critics said 'Turkeys don't come any bigger'


I find that this article stirs a number of interesting questions about movies and historical accuracy. Gladiator, for all that I loved the story and the acting (and, yes, Russel Crowe as the first "manly" actor I ever crushed on), is horrendously inaccurate. After all, Commodus did reign for a good twelve years.

And as for Troy, I won't even go there. Our Captain most surely wants to wring the producer/scriptwriter/director's necks for having desecrated Homer in such a way, and I'd agree. Come on, a siege of fourteen days when in the Iliad it took them ten years? It got the criticism it deserved, tough one commendable performance in it was my dear Sean Bean as Odyseus.

But Alexander, even if it was badly received, I found rather more accurate, and I think that most of the critics missed the point of the whole movie. If it dragged on and on and on for the last part, I feel it was to illustrate the whole hubris that was the Macedonian empire at that point. Alexander was crazy, and it showed.

Which brings us to 300. As stated in the article, Frank Miller does take pains to underscore that he indeed took many liberties from the source material (the tale of the one survivor of the whole carnage). I guess that my line of reflection is the following:

To what extent are we allowed to manipulate History in order to make a good story? What is the responsibility of story-makers in shaping the collective memories of people? At what point does entertainment become dangerous propaganda? And how, as movie-goers, do we take an active part in the process? Indeed, how can we conciliate often conflicting forces such as our ethical standpoint and our desire to be plainly entertained?

As Commodus said in Gladiator: "My History is a little hazy, Cassius, but shouldn't the Barbarians loose the battle of Carthage?"

I'll let you chew on that...

Cheers,

Eloise :)
"First, you see the world in black and white. After a while, you begin to see the shades of gray. And if you but have the courage to try, you then get to see all the colours of the rainbow." My philosophy of life

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Films and accuracy

Postby Windwalker » Sun Jan 28, 2007 12:38 am

Dear Eloise,

first of all, lovely avatar!

I agree with your views on both Troy (I liked Sean Bean's Odysseus and, oddly, I found myself liking Pitt's Achilles) and Alexander: indeed, he was dangerously mad in the last few years of his life. The specific fixations with his parents weren't that far from the truth either, apparently, nor his active bisexuality (common to many people of very large needs and appetites, by the way, including Julius Caesar).

The question of historical accuracy is generally a lost cause in film, but I think it's forgivable as long as it tells a good story and retains the kernel of the real event(s). My major disappointment with Troy was not that it was inaccurate, but that it was clunky and boring! The Iliad is neither, when read in a good translation: it bristles with action and human drama.

I think story-makers always distort in (re)telling, it's almost part of their function. I often wonder what the real underpinnings of myths were. As for taking an active part in the process... I think the desire to be entertained almost invariably outweighs other considerations. But that is not a bad thing, as long as we remember that what we see is not reality.
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Postby bretonlass » Sun Jan 28, 2007 11:54 am

Athena,

A quick question about Homer:

Which translations could you recommend (in either French or English)? Are they expensive?

I'm considering taking on the Iliad and/or the Odyssey as my summer reading.

Cheers,

Eloise :)

PS: Thanks for the kind words on the avatar. It's a collage of the Breton hermine and a shot of the Goddess Athena in the anime Saint Seiya.
"First, you see the world in black and white. After a while, you begin to see the shades of gray. And if you but have the courage to try, you then get to see all the colours of the rainbow." My philosophy of life

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Homeric translations

Postby Windwalker » Sun Jan 28, 2007 1:17 pm

I think that the best translations of both Homeric epics in English are by Robert Fagles (he did them in the last decade). They retain the sinew and muscle of the original without sounding stilted, and they have great general introductions by Bernard Knox. They came out as Penguin Classics, so they are very cheap.
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"What Made Alexander Great"

Postby Windwalker » Mon Jan 29, 2007 12:34 am

On the topic of Alexander, there is a tremendous essay by Christopher Hitchens in Slate magazine, which says it all very succinctly:

http://www.slate.com/id/2110188/
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Premier opening of "300"

Postby Marie » Thu Mar 08, 2007 9:51 pm

Okay, everyone. Tonight at midnight is the premier opening of the film
"300". I have been reading ad nauseum, all of the reviews proceeding the debut. I agree with the wonderful post by Eloise. However, I will formulate my own opinions after my front row seating. (only kidding :) )
I have not read or seen the graphic novel by Miller but have devoured the fantastic recounting of the Battle of Thermopylae and the sacrifice of the Spartans, their retinue of hoplites and allies by Stephen Pressfield. There is also a wonderful web site www.spartan-world.de that was recommended by the author himself. As I told Athena earlier, I am going with an open mind and a box of kosher salt to remind myself that the historic value of this movie will most certainly be close to nil, but the basic essence of the sacrifice of the few for the many will still be evident.
So, on to the visual presentation of guts, gore, glory and gluts (pecs too!) :wink:
Last edited by Marie on Fri Mar 09, 2007 1:32 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Premiere of "300"

Postby Windwalker » Thu Mar 08, 2007 11:05 pm

Marie wrote:I have not read or seen the graphic novel by Miller but have devoured the fantastic recounting of the Battle of Thermopylae and the sacrifice of the Spartans, their retinue of hoplites and allies by Stephen Pressfield. // So, on to the visual presentation of guts, gore, glory and gluts (pecs too!)

Yes, Pressfield's Gates of Fire is a great book. Apparently, 300 is an exact recreation of Miller's graphic novel. Xerxes, of course, looked nothing like he does in the film. He looked much more like Darius in Oliver Stone's Alexander. I agree that nothing of history will be there. I'm of two minds about seeing it, frankly -- not because of lack of accuracy, but because excessive gore doesn't do much for me. But I can be persuaded, if others here like it.
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Postby bretonlass » Thu Mar 08, 2007 11:38 pm

A dit of controversial review that I nonetheless find accurate:

http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/200 ... eview.html

I'll comment more on the movie once I've seen it.

And now to go to its opening tomorrow in IMAX at 1PM. Hasty, you say? Who, me?

Cheers,

Eloise :)

PS: another aticle that made me laugh - Why Women Should Go See 300.
"First, you see the world in black and white. After a while, you begin to see the shades of gray. And if you but have the courage to try, you then get to see all the colours of the rainbow." My philosophy of life

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Reviews and comments on 300

Postby Marie » Fri Mar 09, 2007 1:00 am

I truly dislike controversial reviews on films which associate them in a political venue. As quoted by one of the commentators, "Why Can't a Movie Be Just a Movie? When I go tomorrow, that is the only aspect that I will be assessing. I know that there are so many exaggerations, including monsters, mutants and a Xerxes that is 9 foot tall. So, you just bypass the comic stuff and look for something substantial. I do like the emphasis on the empowerment of women in Spartan life. Historically, they were generally treated as equals.
As for the link to why women should see the movie had me falling off my chair in mirth. I glanced through all 25 responses and searched fruitlessly for one from you Eloise but was extremely disappointed at the lack. :P
I will also have more comments after I see it. I too am not one for excessive gore but I can always cover my eyes and peek through the fingers. Did it as a kid and can't break the habit. :lol:

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Re: Reviews and comments on 300

Postby Windwalker » Fri Mar 09, 2007 10:52 am

Marie wrote:I truly dislike controversial reviews on films which associate them in a political venue. As quoted by one of the commentators, "Why Can't a Movie Be Just a Movie? // I do like the emphasis on the empowerment of women in Spartan life. Historically, they were generally treated as equals.

There is one political/cultural aspect of this film that cannot be avoided. If the Persians had conquered Greece at that particular time, there would have been no Periclean Athens. In other words, no classical Greek golden age, with its innovations on drama, sculpture, political structure and philosophy. It is equally possible there would have been no Alexander, and hence no Hellenistic era, either.

The Spartan women were treated uniquely within that part and time of the world, but in fact their treatment was closer to that of Hassidic women: they had to do everything, because their men were totally absorbed in a single occupation. For the Hassidim, it is study of the Torah; for the Spartans, it was constant war to keep their slaves from revolting.

There are no exact analogies between events, there never are. It is true that the overall defeat of the Persians was an astonishing outcome, given the comparative resources and the disunity of the Greek city-states. Part of the reason is that the Greeks were indeed defending their own territory. Here the Vietnam analogy holds (in fact, like Vietnam, the Persian wars lasted more than a decade). But even better analogies are the invasion of Scotland by England, or the "pacification" of the American frontier.

However, there is a second part to all this: eventually, the Greeks slid back into civil wars -- the Peloponnesian most prominently among them -- and the Persians managed to collect tribute from many of the city states. Then came Philip of Macedon and his son. They subdued the city states decisively, and from then till about the 18th century, mainland Greece became a minor player in history.
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Favorite 300 reviews

Postby Windwalker » Fri Mar 09, 2007 1:55 pm

Here are two very different but equally perceptive reviews of the 300:

Village Voice

Salon
Last edited by Windwalker on Sun Mar 11, 2007 2:50 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: "What Made Alexander Great"

Postby sanscardinality » Fri Mar 09, 2007 3:00 pm

Windwalker wrote:On the topic of Alexander, there is a tremendous essay by Christopher Hitchens in Slate magazine, which says it all very succinctly:

http://www.slate.com/id/2110188/


Hitchens is great! I used to love to watch him take apart politicians on talking head shows - clearly just back from the bar he'd been sucking dry for several days with his hair all awry and stubble on his face... He'd wait quietly for a few minutes until Newt or some other blowhard would say something really stupid and then savage them for the next fifteen in the most deserving manner possible - ruthlessly. I can't agree with him on most things, but I do appreciate a character, and he's one.

Good writeup on Alexander too!

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Re: Reviews and comments on 300

Postby caliban » Fri Mar 09, 2007 4:18 pm

Windwalker wrote:There is one political/cultural aspect of this film that cannot be avoided. If the Persians had conquered Greece at that particular time, there would have been no Periclean Athens. In other words, no classical Greek golden age, with its innovations on drama, sculpture, political structure and philosophy. It is equally possible there would have been no Alexander, and hence no Hellenistic era, either.


I'm a bit rusty on this, so everyone feel free to jump in and correct me... But as I recall, the Persians were, for conquerors, less malign than others. Much like Rome later, they allowed their subject nations to keep their language, culture, religion, etc., as long as they paid tribute. This was, I believe, in stark contrast to preceding empires: Assyria, Babylonia, and then the Persians came and kept some Babylonian butt, the peoples the Babylonians conquered welcome Persians as liberators, as a sort.

That doesn't mean the Spartans should have just invited the Persians to come in and give them tribute. Only that--as in so many things--the good and the bad depend on where you've been.

Or perhaps my history is completely wrong.... Do educate me.

Anyway--I think this is why the Persian empire (and Roman later) lasted as long as it did. Genghis Khan, much maligned unfairly, had similar rule: freedom of religion, no slavery, no torture.

And on a related note...every time I hear about Periclean Athens, I can't help but think upon Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae (Women in Parliament), which deconstructs Athenian democracy. :)
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Re: Reviews and comments on 300

Postby Windwalker » Fri Mar 09, 2007 4:33 pm

It is true that the Persians were less oppressive than the Assyrians and, like the Hellenistic Greeks, Romans and Ottoman Turks, they allowed selective local freedoms. They had to, by the sheer size of their empires. However, the Persians had slavery galore. As for torture, beyond the usual gruesome tortures for tresspasses (especially rebellion and treason) they also systematically mutilated prisoners of war.

Make no mistake: I personally consider Spartan society truly bizarre and dysfunctional, a combination of totalitarian Calvinist lockstep and Southern plantation culture. At the same time, I think that the political systems the classical Greeks developed (slavery, pederasty and women's non-status notwithstanding) decisively formed Western thought as we know it.

Needless to say, I'm with you on Aristophanes -- in addition to Ecclesiazusae, his Lysistrata argues (persuasively) that if women stopped swooning over warriors and rushing to have their babies, perhaps war might grind to a halt.

Postscript and edit: this is also the conclusion in Sheri Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country.
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Re: Reviews and comments on 300

Postby sanscardinality » Fri Mar 09, 2007 7:46 pm

Windwalker wrote:Make no mistake: I personally consider Spartan society truly bizarre and dysfunctional, a combination of totalitarian Calvinist lockstep and Southern plantation culture. At the same time, I think that the political systems the classical Greeks developed (slavery, pederasty and women's non-status notwithstanding) decisively formed Western thought as we know it.


While not good things, I think the slavery and women's non-status were/are indeed part of Western society as we know it. We're only this century trying to undo two of them in a meaningful way and while we may think we've put it behind us, I suspect in 200 years it'll be unpleasantly obvious that they still permeate our mindset at the present. Consider the wealth gap which is in effect a form of indirect slavery.

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