My love of the subject, however, does come with this one drawback: historically based films tend to annoy me no end. It’s not that I have anything against the genre per se; I simply find that no matter how much I want to suspend my disbelief I can’t help noticing what the producers got wrong. Even such an innocuous film as the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice annoys me when I watch it. There’s nothing wrong with the film, of course; with a screenplay by Aldous Huxley and starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, this version of Jane Austen’s classic is one of the best cinematic adaptations of a great work of literature ever made. What annoys me is that while the novel is set at some unnamed point in the 1790’s and early 1800’s, the women in this adaptation are wearing clothing that wouldn’t be in style for another thirty or forty years. Pointing out this sort of thing tends to mark one as insufferably pedantic at best and as an unspeakable bore at worst, so I usually try to go to such films by myself, the better to gloat over the stupidity of the producers, who spent all of that money getting the facts wrong when they could have gotten the facts right and still have an excellent film.
This leads, invariably, I think, to a discussion of 300, the new multimillion-dollar cartoon about the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae. This film is based on a graphic novel, a form of publication people my age still call comic books because calling them comic books annoys teenagers no end, and let’s face it, anything that can annoy a teenager no end can’t be all bad. The trouble is that the comic book and its sensibility, if you want to call them that, damage this film from start to finish. There are so many problems with this flick that the mind boggles at where to start, so let’s start with the basics: the script bites the big one.
At this point in my movie going career, I know the drill when it comes to historical epics: the dialogue is always stilted, stiff, and altogether dopey, and does not, in any way, shape, or form, resemble human speech as such speech is known to occur in all human societies at all periods since the Paleolithic Age. The further back in history you go, the worse this problem gets. The 1964 movie version of this battle, The 300 Spartans, starring Richard Egan and a host of other people whose names escape me at the moment, has the same problem, although it has one great line that somehow managed to get into the script: “the gods give us beautiful girls to marry, and then they turn them into wives.” This sort of heavy wooden dialogue is simply part of the genre package. Ten-ton dialogue is especially prevalent in almost any movie based on the Bible. In The Ten Commandments, for example, Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner could have raised a couple of pyramids using the words in the script alone, and I would be willing to bet good money that the reason Heston and Brynner got those roles is that they were the only two actors in Hollywood who could say those lines and one, make them sound even vaguely credible, and two, not collapse in hysterical fits of laughter on a regular basis while trying to say them.
Most people, however, other than the usual suspects, do not speak as if they thought the FBI had a bug in the room and they didn’t want get caught saying something incriminating. Even people in 480 BC didn’t talk that way. 300’s dialogue problem occurs because no one should be saying this stuff out loud in the first place; you should be reading it in a balloon over the character’s head, and now, freed from the space limitations of the printed page, you can listen to more of it than you really want to. The dialogue feels like someone’s pumped it full of steroids and couldn’t care less if the actors can’t pass the drug test. The actors aren’t really delivering their lines, they’re bloviating on camera, and their inexperience shows; only politicians can really bloviate well, and why would you spend ten bucks to see actors bloviate badly on a movie screen when you can, in the comfort of your own home, watch Congress bloviate for free on C-Span?
The battle scenes are suitably gory, as befits a war film, but even here, where the film should be on solid footing, the whoppers accumulate like crabgrass. If the producers of 300 had taken the trouble to consult a book about Sparta other than the comic book they based the film on, they would have quickly learned that the Spartans, like the Prussians, were not a country with an army; they were an army with a country. The Spartans were, without a doubt, the premier soldiers of ancient Greece, the individual Spartan soldier being the final and finest product of a militaristic society that brutally trained men from childhood to withstand anything any enemy could throw at them. War and the preparations for war were the central focus of all Spartan society, subsuming every other field of intellecual, artistic, or commercial endeavor. Combat provided the Spartan state and the individual Spartan soldier with the very reason for their existence. In short, unlike the cinematic Spartans of 300, the real Spartans were probably the last group of men in ancient Greece to show up for a major battle wearing only their underwear.
Yet, in the movies, as with the Almighty, all things are possible, and in 300, the Spartans fight while bare-chested and wearing leather underwear (I am assuming that it’s leather and not very dirty Fruit of the Looms). The producers let the cinematic Spartans keep their shields, swords, spears, and greaves; I suppose they did not want to strain the audience’s credulity too much, although I should point out that there were no elephants at Thermopylae, no cavalry charge at Thermopylae, and no armored rhinoceros at Thermopylae, either (I thought the rhino was pretty cool, though). If Xerxes really wanted to bring along an elephant or a rhinoceros he could have found someone to get him a pair, I guess; he was the king, after all, and as Mel Brooks says, it’s good to be king; but he didn’t. Neither did he order a cavalry charge; if had done something that stupid Herodotus would have mentioned it in his history of the war. No, Thermopylae was a straight up infantry battle that the Persians won because they found a way around the Spartan position; a man named Ephialtes told the Persians about the mountain track that led around the position, ratting his fellow Greeks out for money. Herodotus does not mention if this two-bit stool pigeon looked, as 300 would have it, like a Hellenic version of Gollum.
As for the political intriguing in Sparta, the less said the better. Much as I like watching a good-looking woman eviscerate a crooked politician with a sword, this scene poses two immediate problems. First, why doesn’t this scheming pol have his money at home in the freezer like any good anti-war politician should, instead of carrying his boodle around in his wallet, and second, the Persians paid the man off in gold. The man was a Spartan. Where was he going to spend the money? The Spartans used iron bars tempered in vinegar for currency; they wanted to make sure no one spent a lot of time trying to get rich when they should be out training to fight someone. The Spartans had little use for commerce in general and none at all for luxury goods. They were a plainspoken, simple, agrarian society and the Spartans intended to stay that way.
As for the Persians in 300, well, if I were an Iranian government official looking at this film, I wouldn’t be happy, either. Iranians regard this period, from the rise of Cyrus the Great to the toppling of the ancient monarchy by Alexander, as one of the greatest eras in their long national history, and watching Hollywood turn your culture into prolonged camp cannot be that easy to stomach. I mean, really, is it just me or does Xerxes and his travelling freak show look remarkably like they’re trying to find their way to San Francisco’s annual Gay Pride parade? The producers make Xerxes look like an epicene twit who’d have a monumental hissy fit if those nasty Spartans broke just one of his fingernails. And there were entirely too many shots, I thought, of bare-chested Spartans standing around looking buff in their leather briefs. Gay erotica is all very well and good if you like that sort of thing, but 300 is, ostensibly, a war movie, even a tragedy, and not, as the producers seem to believe, a celebration of beefcake.
And I suppose in these politically correct times I should point out that, for all their talk of freedom, the Spartans weren’t exactly the most inclusively democratic people who ever lived, but that is anachronism in its purest form, and I had a history professor who warned all his students that engaging in anachronism, speculation, and the genetic fallacy were historical sins you should avoid at all costs. So, I will take his advice and skip the usual rant about the gross inequities of Spartan society, and just say that if you really want to know what happened read Herodotus’ The Histories. There is a great film in the epic Greek stand against the Persians in the mountain pass of Thermopylae. 300, unfortunately, is not it; in fact, 300 barely qualifies as the cartoon version.