Friday, March 23, 2007

Woodward: Go Tell the Spartans

Vehige has already made most of the worthwhile points about 300. (I need to start posting earlier.)

I pretty much second everything he says, although I think he was perhaps a bit rough on the “intellectual elites.” If he's applying that binomial nomenclature to the movie reviewers of the New York Times and the Washington Post, I would suggest that he's wrong on at least the first count, and arguably on the second as well. (Besides, Vehige, why don't we just declare ourselves to be the intellectual elite and have done with it? I think that's what the Times and the Post did, and it worked for them.)

What hit home with me in watching 300, aside from what Vehige has already commented on, was something I noticed at the very beginning and the very end of the movie.

Item One. In the opening sequence, we see the young (maybe ten-year-old?) Leonidas being trained in hand-to-hand combat by his father (King Anaxandridas – I had to look it up). It's an unequal contest to begin with, and it ends with the beefy, muscle-bound father delivering a backhand blow to his young son that sends the boy flying across the courtyard, his face smeared with blood. This is child abuse, by any standard applicable anywhere in Western civilization today. Yet the father obviously loves his son. He is teaching him the very skills – and virtues – that, thirty years later, will enable Leonidas to turn the course of history and ensure the survival of that same Western civilization which now rejects the Spartan values of physical courage, self-denial, and sacrifice for the common good. Ironic, no?

Item Two. Toward the end of the movie, when Leonidas realizes that the Spartans' mission is doomed and that he and all his comrades will soon be dead, he chooses one of his best fighters – a man also skilled in speech – to go back to Sparta and carry the account of how the battle went. (It is, in fact, this man's account that frames the entire movie.) Leonidas is concerned about his reputation, about history, about teaching to another generation the lesson his own father taught him in that unequal contest thirty years earlier in the palace courtyard. These considerations, these motives are in fact the beginnings of literature – narratives of the exploits of brave and noble men (and women – don't give me a hard time) that are meant to instruct and inspire those who read/hear/watch them. The reason there can be anti-heroes today is that there once, long ago, were heroes.

The qualities celebrated in 300 are what we once called the “civic virtues.” Love of country. Love of family. Love of civilization – although relatively few human beings in the history of the world have found themselves caught up, as Leonidas was, in a true contest of civilizations. We don't really think in those terms any more. All the virtues publicly celebrated in our own time are virtues linked to individual freedom – the virtues of personal expression, the supreme virtue of being ourselves. If we are exhorted to any “civic virtues” nowadays, they are virtues that would have seemed quite alien, and quite trivial, to the 300 Spartans: avoiding “offensive speech”; minimizing our “carbon footprint” (or paying someone to do it for us); voting higher taxes so that the government can “take care of” all those inconvenient people that we would rather not have to worry about as individual human beings.

I walked out of the theater last night feeling rather ashamed.