or: Why does King Leonidas hate Private Ryan?
Kevin Drum mentions the weird schizophrenic nature of 24 today -- while Jack Bauer is a conservative torture lover's wet dream who does what he has to to keep us safe, dammit, the political storylines centered in the White House almost always show right-wingers as insane hawks or blubbery messes under thin, posturing candy-coatings of machismo. This more points out the danger of trying to read intent into mass media, than being representative of some fundamental schism in that show's writing staff. Creators are notoriously tunnel-visioned. They have an idea that intrigues them, they pursue it, and many of the accompanying details are so much background music. The audience, however, takes in the work as a whole and strives to create coherence. This is particularly treacherous in television, where the simple feat of getting 22 hours of the bastard to air is the miraculous bit. That all 1,320 minutes be what you intended is impossible.
Watching 300 today, I was struck by ludicrousness of trying to find a single, unifying political or even moral idea in the film. Zach Snyder wanted to shoot the comic, he wanted to fry your brains with pictures. And did so -- kudos to Zack. One can argue Frank Miller has either become a typical post 9/11 chest-beater or that he's always been so but he's forgotten what irony is. His misogyny, of course, has become a feature not a bug. But his religion, his core political/personal framework is not conservative or liberal. It is for the lack of a better term manly anti-authoritarianism. Man the fuck up and do the manly thing, men. Sometimes, as when Batman kicks the high holy snot out of Superman in The Dark Night Returns, this means fighting the very embodiment of stereotypical American virtue. Sometimes, as in 300, this means celebrating what are plainly American proxies going and kicking the high holy snot out of the darkies. (Weirdly, there's a strain of authoritarianism in the writing, too -- always an ur-man, a Batman or Leonidas who we would be blessed to follow. Always looking for a fuhrer or a king...) But what surprised me the most, while watching the movie, and remembering the love heaped upon it by right-wingers ...
... 300 is startlingly anti-American.
It is so in a way that's illuminating for you Spec-Monkeys. What got me on to this? The scene where Leonidas and his ab-tastic Spartans run into some Greeks who've decided to tag along to fight for freedom. The Greek leader, Patheticus, points out that Leo's brought just 300 oddly naked dudes to war, while the Greeks have brought quite a few more. Leonidas points to one of the Greek soldiers. "What's your profession?"
"Potter," the fellow replies.
"Farmer," says the next.
At which point Leonidas yells back at his posse, "Spartans, what is your profession?" And they hoo-ahh! like crazy. Leonidas says "Looks like I brought along more soldiers than you." Pretty cool scene, actually.
Now, what's fascinating here is to roll back our national mythos to 1998, to Saving Private Ryan. This is the definitive film capping off the Baby Boomers' guilty late love letters to the Greatest Generation. In one of its crucial scenes, Captain Miller -- Tom Hanks -- at long last reveals to his guys that he was a teacher back home. In almost every version of the Greatest Generation myth -- and let's be honest, that is the de facto American myth -- the citizen-soldiers, the guys with day jobs who leave 'em behind to fight and die, are the heroes. Even more, this quality of our warriors, their ordinariness, is not just a factor of our national identity, one could argue it defines our national identity. That we are not professional soldiers is why we're the Good Guys. From the Concord Minutemen to the accountants tossing grenades into bunkers at Normandy, the Unlikely Amateur defines the American hero.
At one point in 300, the Spartan narrator even tosses an offhand compliment to the Greeks. "Amateurs. They did their job ... More brawlers than soldiers." (I'm quoting from memory here). That bit of dialogue would fit perfectly in the mouth of the standard Dismissive Authority Figure in about a thousand American movies, who will Soon Be Proven Wrong. You can, in fact, take that scene with Leonidas, drop it into a movie about these brave, untrained Greeks trudging off to fight a war, classic underdog hero story, and you can do so without changing a single word.
Simply, the heroes of 300 heap an enormous amount of scorn on the heroic tradition of America. In the world of 300, Captain Miller, the boys of Easy Company, the Band of Brothers, are fucking saps.
There's a similarly fascinating scene -- from a screenwriting standpoint -- when Leonidas meets the scorned humback who desperately wants to be Spartan. He's got the uniform and everything. Leonidas patiently explains to the humpback that he may have a lot of spirit, but he just isn't big and fast enough to play their Spartan games. If, however, he wants to tend the wounded or carry water, that's right, be the Water Boy ...
... for Notre Dame, sure, but there's no way you can ever play, Rudy. You're just too small. Again, this scene could play in countless American movies, with Leonidas as the antagonist, and barely a word changes. Another defining staple of the American myth, the Little Guy who Overcomes the Odds, gets pissed on. For God's sake, at one point the bad Spartan, Sellouticus, even taunts the Queen by saying "All men are not born equal, that's the Spartan belief." And these are the good guys. Wow.
On the other hand, the independent hero, the guy willing to risk it all and die for freedom, that's classic Americana. To have both in the same movie is whiplash-inducing.
Aside from the interesting exercises in screenwriting analysis, the movable feast conservatives make of movies every year, movies with wildly divergent themes, may be illustrative. From Saving Private Ryan to Lord of the Rings (the point of LotR is not Aragorn uniting the West, it's that the unlikely hobbits nuke Sauron, you idiots), to the various reads on Star Wars to 300, there is no unifying idea but one ...
... We gotta get off our asses and kill some people!
Sometimes reluctantly, sometimes nobly, but let's get to manning the fuck up and doing manly things! By "manliness" I use the same definition of a completely insecure white dude in a suit: other people fighting and dying so he can write about how important fighting and dying is. I think fighting and dying for a cause is noble, too. But it ought to be lower than number three on the list of spiffy things to do. At the very least, I'm certainly not going to have a hard-on while I'm discussing it. I would certainly see the hypocrisy of supporting the guy who lands on the aircraft carrier dressed up like Leonidas, pretending to be Leonidas. Let's just say, when you're rooting for the guys who don't believe All Men Are Created Equal, who would laugh at and mock the Band of Brothers or the Happy Few, you may want to rethink what America means to you.
That said, I liked the movie. But I went in with different needs. I don't need or want a king, or metaphors to help me convince my fellow citizens that another Great War is upon us, that we're just as special as the Greatest Generation and it's time to send more under-armed Tennessee National Guardsmen to fight Xerxes while I cash my think-tank check. I just needed two hours of entertainment. 300 got that job done.