Saturday, April 7, 2007

300 Misrep

The movie "300" gives a highly stylized account of the battle of Thermopylae fought in 480 BC by three hundred Spartans under the leadership of King Leonidas. I don't need to go into the details of the battle itself, or even the description of the movie; what I want to focus on is the sort of message the movie sends. Throughout the film, there are constant reminders of the value of freedom.

"It is not a question of what a husband, or a Spartan, or a king should do. Instead ask yourself, my dearest love, what would a free man do?"

"We are with you sire! For freedom! For Sparta!"

"When this battle is over, the world will know that few stood against many, that free men stood against a tyrant, and that even a god-king can bleed."

"This is the dawning of a new age, an age of freedom. And all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their last breath to defend it."

Freedom and fighting against tyranny (in various forms: mysticism, subjugation, corruption) is the basic idea behind the film. While I have always believed in personal freedom, I also believe in honesty. And here is where "300" begins to tread on dangerous ground. Your average movie-goer may not understand that the whole point of why Spartans made a culture out of warfare was because of the vast slave population that drove their economy (the Helots, as their were called in Sparta). The city-state of Sparta was fed by slave labour, slaves who were fellow Greeks. It's ironic to think that Spartans would be fighting for the idea of freedom, when they themselves were the most active slavers in ancient Greece.
One can argue that the point of the film isn't really about being historically accurate, but presenting something entertaining. But I think this is beside the point. In the culture of today's generation, film is a powerful medium for expressing information; its persuasive power makes it very political (the idea is Foucauldian), and its even more dangerous because it isn't overtly political, but it masquerades as "mere entertainment". As a student of communication, I've come to the realization that nothing on the media channels is mere entertainment.
The falsehood of Spartan ideals in the film "300" is further reinforced when the film presents the Persians as the ultimate slavers, worshipping a megalomaniac god-king, bound by superstition, and completely opposed to the values of freedom, democracy and equality. This isn't a misrepresentation per se, because the Persian Empire wasn't really known for free elections or participative governance; but to use it as a contrast to a western culture that is made out of be one based on "reason" and "justice" is highly misleading. If anything, the ancient Greeks were just as unreasonable and unjust as the ancient Persians.
Today, we still have that outdated and ancient mode of thought that dictates our identity along geopolitical borders: East vs. West. A lot of the discourse on religion, governance, economies, and philosophies are divided and opposed along these geographical demarcations. This idea of a divided world is part of the problem of terrorism, neo-imperialism, and the sort of close-mindedness that has hindered development and conflict-resolution. What a film like "300" does, with its packaging and message reinforcement, is to catapult a discourse of division into the minds of the audiences. What makes it especially eye-brow raising is that we celebrate this movie as a valuable contribution to our culture.


1 comment:

SU Debate Society said...

Check this out

Prof. Hans Rosling from Sweden's Karolinska Institute makes a great point about the anachronsim of viewing the world as West vs East/ Us vs Them.