March 09, 2007

I'm Just Saying, Some Respect Would Be in Order

ONE SUSPECTS THAT if A.O. Scott, the chief movie critic for The New York Times, had been around for the Battle of Thermopylae, he would be the first to welcome Greece’s new Persian overlords. It is the only conclusion one can draw from Mr Scott’s unfriendly review of “300,” the new movie devoted to the battle in question, as most of his ire is aimed at the plot and not the various technical aspects of the film.

The kicker, of course, is that the plot – despite its considerable artistic licenses – is taken from the very fabric of history itself. Back in 480 B.C., a small band of Spartans and their allies held off a vastly superior force of subject conscripts and Persian elite units at Thermopylae, a key mountain pass. Their three-day stand – which was only broken due to treachery – paved the way for the epic Battle of Salamis, in which Persia was badly beaten.

It is no exaggeration to say the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae pretty much saved all of Western Civilization from Persia’s cruel despotism, which was the standard governance model of the day back in 480 B.C. It is also no exaggeration to say the Spartans’ stand was one of the greatest military accomplishments of the ancient era, given that Persia’s forces outnumbered the Greeks by at least 30 to 1, and perhaps as much as 300 to 1, depending on which commentator one believes.

However, Mr Scott does not seem to care. Nor does he seem to care that certain artistic licenses were taken in making the story into a comic – from which the movie is adapted. Here are some of his observations:

Devotees of the pectoral, deltoid and other fine muscle groups will find much to savor as King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads 300 prime Spartan porterhouses into battle against Persian forces commanded by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), a decadent self-proclaimed deity who wants, as all good movie villains do, to rule the world.

The Persians, pioneers in the art of facial piercing, have vastly greater numbers — including ninjas, dervishes, elephants, a charging rhino and an angry bald giant — but the Spartans clearly have superior health clubs and electrolysis facilities. They also hew to a warrior ethic of valor and freedom that makes them, despite their gleeful appetite for killing, the good guys in this tale. (It may be worth pointing out that unlike their mostly black and brown foes, the Spartans and their fellow Greeks are white.) …

… There are a few combat sequences that achieve a grim, brutal grandeur, notably an early engagement in which the Spartans, hunkered behind their shields, push back against a Persian line, forcing enemy soldiers off a cliff into the water. The big idea, spelled out over and over in voice-over and dialogue in case the action is too subtle, is that the free, manly men of Sparta fight harder and more valiantly than the enslaved masses under Xerxes’ command.

I suppose this might be a bad time to mention that Xerxes pretty much did, in fact, want to rule the world. I mean, if you look at history around 500 BC, the Persian Empire is IT in terms of powerful empires at the time. Persia controlled Egypt and a lot of other Near Eastern real estate, plus what is now Iran and other Central Asian territory. So why else would he consider expanding west? Also, as much as I hate to break it to Mr Scott, back in the old days people fought battles and killed each other in hand-to-hand combat, often for reasons that people today don’t really understand.

Now, it may be that “300” just really stinks; not having seen the film, I can’t offer a defense on artistic merits. But my argument with Mr Scott is not over that; it is rather that his review treats the historic import of Thermopylae as barely an afterthought, when the historic import of the battle is fundamental to the work. Basically, Mr Scott ought recognize that some 25 centuries ago, a group of people made a great sacrifice, and its benefits still accrue today.

That said, Mr Scott does in his review somewhat address what he considers fundamental shortcomings with the film itself. Here’s one standard criticism:

Zack Snyder’s first film, a remake of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” showed wit as well as technical dexterity. While some of that filmmaking acumen is evident here, the script for “300,” which he wrote with Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, is weighed down by the lumbering portentousness of the original book, whose arresting images are themselves undermined by the kind of pomposity that frequently mistakes itself for genius.

Well, if that ain’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 9, 2007 11:37 PM | TrackBack
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