Star Wars, 300, History, and Whatnot

Well, Websurdity’s mock-serious post suggesting that the climactic destruction of the Death Star by Luke Skywalker in the movie Star Wars, AKA Episode 4, must have been an inside job certainly captured the imaginations of the Watcher’s Council. At least, I hope it was mock-serious. It’s certainly clever, pointing out just a few of the many oddities and inconsistencies in the movie.

There’s a reason for all of the inconsistencies and quirks in the movie and there’s no need to resort to conspiracies or occult knowledge for the explanation: George Lucas is a lousy writer.

I remember standing in line for hours 30 years ago with a couple of friend waiting for the opening showing of Star Wars back in 1977. Ten minutes into the picture I turned to one of my friends and whispered: “Buy stock in 20th Century Fox.” Unfortunately, I didn’t take my own advice. We sat in the dark, eyes glued to the screen and, for 121 minutes, we were transported to a time long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars is a technical masterwork that exploits mythic themes (and the talents of the late, great Alec Guinness) to give a little weight and substance to what is otherwise a pretty vapid mess. I think that George Lucas is a visual thinker who doesn’t honestly care much about a tight plot or witty or memorable dialogue and doesn’t really have a great deal to say. The Academy got it right, giving Star Wars a half dozen mostly technical awards (and original score) and passing over it for direction, picture, and original screenplay.

There’s been quite a bit of blogospheric attention devoted lately to another movie that resembles Star Wars in some ways: 300. Matthew Yglesias, Marc Danziger, The Jawa Report, and, no doubt, thousands of less notable blogs and bloggers have commented on the movie. Armchair Generalist has a small round-up of reviews.

I haven’t decided whether I’ll go and see 300. I suspect that it’s too violent and, ultimately, amoral for me.

Back to the similarities between Star Wars and 300. Judging by the commentary 300 is a technical triumph and in all probability, just as Star Wars before it, represents the future of movie-making. And it’s also pretty obviously clumsy, crude, harnesses mythic themes (the Battle of Thermopylae, as it’s come down to us, is unquestionably a foundational culture myth), and may have not much of a meaning. The New York Times review suggests that what message there really is in the movie may be “Buy a Ticket”. Viewers will, no doubt, bring their own messages with them an impose them on the movie itself. For an example of this check out Dana Stevens’s breast-beating Slate review.

I’m rather surprised that anyone could take the Spartans as presented in popular culture (and, presumably, in this movie) as historic or spiritual antecedents of 21st century Americans in any real sense. From the standpoint of history, actual accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae are pretty sparse: the only accounts are those of Herodotus and the epitomes of Ctesias that have come down to us. There are no first-hand reports from anybody nor any particularly reliable second-hand reports. There is a pile of tradition going back 2,500 years. There’s considerably more third-hand hearsay and outright myth than there is history.

Claims of spiritual kinship are even more puzzling. Traditionally, when Americans claim spiritual descent from the Greeks they mean the Athenians (Athens was sacked by the Persians; the Athenians are the guys that lost). I find claiming spiritual descent from the Athenians pretty farfetched, too, but that’s another story. It’s doubly ironic that some are noting 300 as a parallel to the War on Terror when most of what influence the Athenian philosophers have had on our own civilization is through Latin translations of Arabic translations, carefully preserved by Muslim scribes, of the tiny fraction of ancient Greek writings that have come down to us (it’s estimated that at most 20% of Aristotle’s works have survived in any form whatever).

To the best of my knowledge the Spartans themselves left no histories, literature, or written laws. Indeed, such things were expressly prohibited so what we know of them was written by others. Those accounts describe a country in which everything was either prohibited or mandatory. The only occupation for male Spartan citizens was war; Spartan women maintained the land; other occupations were performed by non-citizen Spartans, in many cases by slaves.

Only male Spartans descended from the original natives were allowed to undergo the military training; only Spartans who had undergone the military training were considered full citizens. A very small minority.

This isn’t really a great deal like the United States in which our volunteer military is drawn from the citizenry at large, most of the inhabitants are citizens, and there’s an enormous amount of freedom for everybody (particularly freedom of expression as the movie 300 demonstrates). Our great national heroes are Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Washington was proclaimed “the American Cincinnatus” for laying down arms and power voluntarily; Jefferson was renowned as an intellectual and never served in the military at all; Lincoln was a captain in the Blackhawk War and never saw combat.

Before I finish this post I do want to mention the single aspect of the mythology of Thermopylae that I find moving. At the site of the battle for many years there was a stone engraved with the funeral epigram of Simonides:

Stranger, tell the Spartans
We lie here, obedient to their will.

A modern stone is there now.

Update

Dienekes, too, is commenting on the historical aspects of 300 and he’s favorably impressed.

Von at Obsidian Wings weighs in, saying that the Spartans are receiving far too much credit.  This comment from that thread is so good that I want to quote it in full:

Sparta fetishism is a bit like Roman Empire fetishism. Neither has much base in reality and the people who indulge these fetishes always see themselves as male members of the upper classes rather than as helots, slaves, women, or any of the multitude of subhuman categories that the majority of people were forced into.

Spartan women had considerably more freedom and influence than most women in the ancient world (I suspect that’s one of the things that Cicero had against the Spartans).  That aside I think the commenter is about right.  Romanticization of a pretty loathsome society.

13 comments… add one
  • I’m probably going to go see it, though I would really like a less cartoonish depiction of the events than the comments I’ve seen indicate the movie to be. That said, the mythic view of the Spartans (which is apparently part of the movie: the hoplites don’t wear armor!) is a part of our cultural makeup. Certainly the Romans absorbed much of Greek cultural ideas, which is good, because Roman culture was pretty arid without them. The combination of Roman ideas of law, war and governance and Greek ideas of citizenship, war and freedom are to a very large extent the very ideas that gave shape to the British Empire, the Enlightenment, and ultimately the Constitution of the United States.

    The Western way of war derives from the Greeks (heroism, dedication, devotion and other manly virtues) and the Romans (precision, mobility, overwhelming force, attacking the enemy’s moral as well as his physical center). The Western way of governance by representation derives, too, from Greek roots (the Democracy and the Republic were both Greek developments) as well as from the Roman Republic’s organizational structures.

    So all in all, I’ll probably see it. I just will be expecting a mythic, rather than a realist, view of what happened. And given how badly our culture needs to recapture it’s myths, I’ll probably cheer it for that alone, if it is what I expect it to be.

  • I saw it and liked it very much. The film is not a documentary, nor is it a history lesson. It’s the filmic version of a graphic novel based on an event that happend in 480 BCE. The story is told from the POV of the Spartans, naturally.

    There are no great subtleties in the film, but most of the stories of Sparta and Spartan values that I learned from the nuns, back some 50+ years ago, were all there. All the great little speeches, notions of bravery, honor, valor, and duty were there, too.

    No, Sparta is probably not an appropriate role model for today. It’s politics were xenophobic, expansionist, militaristic. It practiced slavery and daily brutality of its own citizens. Outside of a frat house, their behavior would be considered pretty boorish.

    That does not mean, though, that they were negligible nor that what happened at Thermopylae was unimportant. That battle, along with the naval battle of Salamis and the definitive battle of Plataea, kept what became classical Greece from becoming part of the Persian Empire.

    That, to my eye, is pretty foundational, mythic or not. Remembering it, perhaps even inspiring some kid who generally dozes off in history class to learn more about it, is sufficient excuse for an action film in my book.

  • Good points all, John, and I probably heard all the same stories (albeit from different nuns) as you did. Perhaps I’m more inclined to take my myths straight.

    But I also wanted to point out how little we really know about Thermopylae and, indeed, the Spartans of 480BCE. Cicero, more than 400 years later, thought the Spartans of his day were pretty scandalous.

  • I must point out, while his reasoning on natural law is to be admired, along with his ultimately futile efforts to preserve the Roman republic against the Casears, Cicero could also be quite the pompous ass.

    Your main point on modern assumptions about antiquity are quite sound though. Great post !

  • Fletcher Christian

    Sparta may have had many bad points (rabid xenophobia, dictatorship and pederasty being some of them) but I think that there is no doubt that if they hadn’t made their sacrifice then none of us on this blog would be here, there would be no democracies anywhere, America would probably have been colonised by the Chinese and there would be no Internet, for sure; the world would have been locked in a series of theocratic dictatorships forever.

  • Ymarsakar

    Sparta didn’t have a dictatorship. Which is why romanticization of the ancients and assumptions about that time in history, doesn’t mean what people think it means.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephors

    In point of fact, Leonidas didn’t appear to have the authority to send the army because of a religious festival. Not something known as a handicap that dictators had to deal with.

  • Ymarsakar

    I made a reply, too long to put here.

    http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/2007/03/14/reply-concerning-glittering-eyes-300-post/

    The Persians would have kept safe the documents, but would probably have shut down the free flow of ideas for the next few centuries. Until things started to fall down. So certainy a cut off, which maybe in another 1000 years would renew itself.

  • Athens-Sparta has been a touchstone. In the American Civil War, the South = Sparta, North = Athens comparison was made on both sides of the line. The South certainly didn’t regard it as an insult. The Founders themselves, in 1787, regarded Athens as a bad example of democracy run amok, and Sparta as a better example of a balanced, mixed government. They were following Roman writers in this.

    In the Cold War, however, America thought of itself as Athens as opposed to the Soviet Sparta.

    Americans will never be Spartans, even if we admire them. We’re too materialistic and hedonistic to live on black broth and iron money.

    But I wonder what commentary would be flowing now if the movie had been made about Marathon or Salamis.

  • This isn’t really a great deal like the United States

    I think this is the point. The movie seems to be making a call for America to become Sparta, or at least claiming it must do so to defeat the Persians (Iran, or possibly by extension the rest of the Persian Empire, which includes most of the Middle East and Eastern Europe).

    The Spartans – an insanely belligerent and repressive culture – are depicted as epitomes of today’s model gym-toned warrior male (I’ve seen an interview in which the director acknowledges that they did not fight in loincloths, but he thought it presented a better visual image). The Persians are depicted as pierced and tattooed (also historically inaccurate) waves of berserker invaders. In one image we have Spartans as conservative/military and Persians as liberal/jihadi. There are subplots involving anti-war quislings and a Senate plan to refuse reinforcements to the forces fighting the Persians (its leader turns out to be a deformed rapist). And so on . . .

    Visually appealing it may be (though both critics and defenders of the film have likened it to Triumph of the Will), but its politics seem all too obvious – another right-wing hero-myth built on paranoia, racism, and aggrandizing self-delusion.

  • Stranger, tell the Spartans
    We lie here, obedient to their will.

    Often translated as: “Stranger, you who are passing here, go tell the Spartans we have done their bidding.”

    Another “American Sparta” movie that was much more thoughtful and much less offensive is the little-known Vietnam War movie Go Tell the Spartans – starring Burt Lancaster as a washed-up infantry colonel running a group of “military advisors” in the early days of the war. A good look at America’s unwitting descent into that war, and an examination of the roles and obligations of the military.

  • Richard Cook

    Keith

    Where do you get all this stuff? The movie is just an adaptation of a comic book. Nothing more, nothing less. He was not looking for historical accuracy. All of my aquaintances that saw the movie loved the action and technical wizardy. They were not thinking about the battle, they just want to be entertained. If you are seeing politics there you are seeing something that is not noticed by all of the theatre goers I have spoken to.
    Who wants to be sparta?

  • Richard Cook

    “Those accounts describe a country in which everything was either prohibited or mandatory. The only occupation for male Spartan citizens was war; Spartan women maintained the land; other occupations were performed by non-citizen Spartans, in many cases by slaves.”

    The reason the spartans converted their society to a military one was that the population of slaves….mostly helots which were at 3 to 4 times the spartan population and made it necessary that they be on guard all the time. Several helot uprisings drove home this point. Spartans could not drink alcohol, but helots could. If you keep the helots relatively weak sparta would stand a better chance at crushing the uprisings. Anything other than war and religion was done by slaves.

  • Mary

    Aristotle on Sparta:

    “The charge which Plato brings, in the Laws, against the intention of the legislator, is likewise justified; the whole constitution has regard to one part of virtue only—the virtue of the soldier, which gives victory in war. So long as they were at war, therefore, their power was preserved, but when they had attained empire they fell for of the arts of peace they knew nothing, and had never engaged in any employment higher than war. “

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