Saturday, March 24, 2007

 

Frank Miller is a Wanker: why I won't ever watch The 300

The night before I went into surgery, I saw a commercial for this movie. It was the first time I had heard about it. I knew Miller's reputation, and had read some of his Batman comics, so my first reaction was that he might have created a good movie.

Before the end of that commercial, I knew I would hate that movie, and swore I would never watch it. Simply put, no one involved in this travesty understood the point of the Battle of Thermopylae. Only a wanker would feel the need to stick all sorts of useless add-ons in this movie to make it more exciting. People, if you can't tell the story of this battle simply, without adding a love story or turning the enemy into monsters, then you can't tell any story of war. Find a line of work more to your level of ability like greeting cards or pornography.

I have been thinking of writing this post for several weks now, but never could find a way to start. It took Gary Brecher's review of this bad movie to finally get me started. Like me, he is critical of the movie. But he says some things about ancient Sparta that I would argue against -- but I'd rather focus on the one, redeeming fact of this entire action that he overlooks, that not only made the Spartans heroic, but Miller and his fellow hacks could not wrap their impaired minds around.

They fought to the death.

Until that moment, all battles that people on either side had fought were not particularly disciplined affairs. Yes, the soldiers fought hard in those earlier battles, and soldiers in those battles died before ever thinking about retreating. But if you read between the lines of Herodotus' account, you can see that neither Greek nor Persian expected the Spartan-led rearguard to fight to the death. Warfare in those days was a matter of fighting until one side sensed that it was getting the worse of the battle -- then leave the battlefield. Sometimes opposing armies would camp across from each other, prey on each other's foraging parties, then decamp and go their own directions. Usually the losing side got away without a pursuit because the winning side wasn't that disciplined either: the soldiers might chase them for a few dozen yards, but then they returned to their camp to unwind after a hard-fought battle, proud that they had proved their opponents were cowards.

Further, since that battle, there have been very few occasions where one army fought to the death like the Spartans did. Some armies, when trap and having no way out, will fight like cornered animals -- but only until they can negotiate a truce or surrender. But most, when the battle reaches a certain point, will break and run, hoping to live to fight another day. (To be part of a defeated army is a situation none want to be in, and none are proud of surviving.) Even the Japanese samurai ethos -- that the way of the warrior is death -- can break down in a battle; some will commit suicide rather than surrender, or fight and die to buy time so their superior can commit suicide; others slip away in the chaos of a disintegrating army. Even the bitter hilltown sieges that the Romans faced in Hispania -- or the siege of Masada in Judea -- were not battles to the death, but instances where the losing side preferred suicide to surrender. They made a grim, but pragmatic, choice: rather than risk a moment's panic -- and capture -- they embraced death by their own hands.

The only other battle I know of where one side fought to the death -- I admit that my knowledge of Japanese history is not complete -- was the Battle of CamarĂ³n, where a company of French Foreign Legionaires were almost wiped out by a superior Mexican force. For understandable reasons, that unit celebrates this rare feat, and has made this event part of its spirit. (I hope Miller never attempts to make a film about that battle!)

The rearguard action at Thermopylae, where the 300 (actually, almost 300 -- Herodotus mentions by name three men who were not at the beginning of the battle for one reason or another) fell could be said to have been an unnecessary loss of men. The Persians had moved thousands of soldiers around the Greek position, and unless the Greeks left Thermopylae all of them would have been annihilated. The entire Greek force could have fallen back -- but king Leonidas decided to stand and fight with his Spartans.

And there were other Greeks in this rearguard action. The largest group was from the city of Thespiae, 700 Thespians, all citizen soldiers. I don't know why they are never mentioned in the text books, except that they are often confused with the other kind of Thespians -- actors -- and no elite soldier wants to contemplate that a group of effinate theatre people could accomplish something he may never be able to do. The other group -- about 400 Thebans -- aren't mentioned for a very understandable reason: at one point on this last day of the battle, they switched over to the Persian side.

Nevertheless, the Spartans and Thespians fought hard, first with a reckless charge, a banzai charge, into the Persian lines with the intention of killing as many of their opponents as they could. Herdotus mentions that many famous Persians fighting this mad assault; they include two brothers of the Emperor Xerxes. Leonidas fell in that assault, as did Captain Danjou at CamarĂ³n; the Greeks fought on, making four assaults to recover the king's body from the more numerous Persians. And when word came that the Persians had emerged from the mountains behind them, they withdrew to a small hill, where they made their last stand. George Rawlinson translates Herodotus' description of their end:
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 around and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons.

Please read that very carefully. These men still fought on with what weapons they had left. The long spears and shields they started the morning left were shattered or lost by this point. Some still had the Greek sword of the period, a short thing about the size and effectiveness of a kitchen knife, but those who lacked even this fought with their hands and teeth. Against this weakened foe, surrounded, outnumbered, doubtlessly lacking any food or water, the Persian generals decided that it was too risky to send their soldiers in, and from a safe distance finished them with volley after volley of arrows.

This was the image I had that night before I underwent surgery. Although it was the first time I ever was put under anesthesia,I knew that I had nothing to worry about. I knew many people who had undergone day surgery, and found that it was uneventful; one of them was Yvette. However, I could not sleep that night due to nerves, so I read that part of Herodotus to pass the night, about men resolute before death, and I felt shame; thinking about this absurd gilding of the lily left me insulted on their behalf.

Geoff

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