Friday, April 06, 2007

Take the Spartans Bowling: Persians Just Want to Have Fun

I remember seeing The 300 Spartans on TV at any early age. The Spartan suicide stand at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is a compelling story that's particularly amped and freighted with apocalyptic rhetoric. The current movie version, 300, takes the story to new heights of crazy.

In the 1962 film by cinematographer-turned-director Rudolph Maté, the build-up to the showdown takes nearly an hour. First the Greek statesmen bicker in Athens about how to deal with the massive Persian invasion led by Xerxes, or, as the Cold War-laden narration states, an “enormous slave empire [come] to crush the only free land.” In another scene, Xerxes himself (played with hilarious campiness by David Farrar) chimes in: “At last we are in Europe. . . It was my father’s dream: one world, one master!” Leonidas, one of two reigning Spartan kings, agrees at Athens to lead a delaying action at the Pass of Thermopylae. Next he has to convince the Spartan council to back him. Because of religious considerations (the Carneian festival), the Spartans must delay sending their army, so Leonidas decides to go with his personal bodyguard of 300 men. He chooses only men with at least one living son (imagine such military selection today!)

From the perspective of 2007, it’s easy to see an undercurrent of gender conflict in The 300 Spartans. On the Persian side, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus (Anne Wakefield) has special sway over Xerxes. After she tongue lashes an exiled Spartan, the man quips, “I do not relish the young lady’s wit,” to which she responds saucily, “It has served me well!” Xerxes response? “A woman’s tongue is far mightier than the sword.” Later, amid bright red and solid black backgrounds and shimmering bellydancers, two despondent Persian commanders complain to each other. “I don’t trust that woman,” one says. “Neither do I.” “During the day he seeks our advice. Then night comes. . .

Spartan gender issues are equally evident. There’s a ludicrious romantic subplot between Ellas (woman) and Phylon (man) that reveals mixed messages about proper gender roles (only a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique). Their dialogue is unintentionally silly, but also revealing. Phylon: “Hey, this is a really good war. I love you . . . I think I loved you when we were children.” Ellas: I want you, but we must wait. We must be strong – we are Spartans. Remember what they say: once the rain has fallen, nothing can put it back in the sky.” Phylon, clearly wanting to have sex with her on the spot, shoots back: “And since when have Spartans become afraid of rain?” She shoves him and he falls on his face. They decide to marry, but complications prevent consummation. Spartan Queen Gorgo, wife of Leonidas, presents Phylon with his equipment. In the absence of your dead mother, I present you this shield and say to you Return with the shield or on it.” In another scene, it’s delcared “Until victory or death! With this [shield] or on it!” Ellas explains: “Either return carrying this shield in victory or carried on the shield in death.” Privately she says to Phylon: “How handsome you are. The red war cloaks are so becoming of Spartan men!’ Queen Gorgo later berates Ellas for wavering on the war: “Get ahold of yourself! Sparta gives its women more freedom than any other state. Be strong!”

Even as Persian and Greek men are about to fight each other to the death, the war of the sexes continues on each side. When Phylon and Ellas come upon an older married goatherder couple, the wife says: “Goats have more brains than men.” As soon as she’s safely out of sight, her husband replies: “Who can understand the gods? They create lovely girls – and then turn them into wives.” But Xerxes has the last word. The war and Queen Artemisia are driving him crazy. “Even the gods seem to revolt against me,” he says. “It was a dark day when the first woman came into the world.”

Today's Rune: The Self.

Birthdays: Gustave Moreau, Lowell Thomas, André Previn, Merle Haggard, Billy Dee Williams, Rie Miyazawa. Battle of Shiloh (first day).

Molōn labe! / Μολὼν λαβέ !


JR's Thumbprints said...

Camper Van Beethoven yes; Cyndi Lauper no. I guess I can understand man's competitive spirit, but I'm in denial as to the underlying cause of it.

Charles Gramlich said...

I have to admit to finding women with swords interesting.

Lana said...

The "vileness" of women is rampant in the modern media (as is the "stupidity" of men,) as any TV or radio will show. The question is; how does vilifying a person of the opposite sex (in EITHER case,) equal higher sales? The answer provides the power to change the skewed & antisocial view of the modern media & therefore, the world.

Johnny Yen said...

Love the Camper Van Beethoven reference in the title.

Is it just me, but weren't the Spartans explicitly undemocratic? The history in that movie, from what I've seen in the previews, seems a little muddled.