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