A friend of mine described the story line in Frank Miller’s “300” this way (I’m paraphrasing): “An army led by a dictator comes out of the Middle East and threatens the very existence of democracy, so a heroic leader defies the democratic majority and stands alone in the defense of freedom. How can you not see a pro-war allegory?”
He had a point, especially considering the weapons of mass destruction (elephants, mutants, masked swordsmen) that the Persians throw at the Spartans. Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to imagine the big, bad, computerized United States armed forces as analogous to 300 nearly naked infantrymen. Plus, a comparison between “300” and the Iraq war would necessarily cast George W. Bush in the role of a bearded, thong-and-cape-wearing general with eight-pack abs who leads the troops from the front line. No matter how hard I try, my mind won’t go there.
“300” does, however, offer something beyond stylized, gratuitous violence (which in itself says something about our society, but I’ll leave that discussion to Joe Lieberman). The movie tells a loose version of the battle of Thermopylae, in which a group of Spartan-led Greeks hold off the world’s largest army for two days before being outflanked and routed. In the movie, 300 Spartans stand alone in the pass; history suggests that they were supported by other Greek soldiers. In the movie, the troops in the field are undermined by civilians at home; historically, religious and historical festivals taking place in Sparta limited the number of troops the Spartans could send.
The film’s historical revisionism is hardly egregious (except, perhaps, to serious scholars) and even less unexpected. “300” aims to entertain, not to educate; the sheer volume of blood spilled and the otherwise inexplicable introduction of otherworldly beasts amply testify to the movie’s principal goal. But the way Frank Miller alters the history eliminates entirely any moral dilemma that the hero Leonidas may have faced. By portraying the priests who deliver prophecy as lecherous and selfish, and the senator who doesn’t want to send troops as smarmy and ultimately treacherous, Miller makes Leonidas’ decision clear-cut and easy. He eliminates the shades of gray that cloud any ethical choice, buying his audience’s support for Leonidas and hatred of the institutions that stab him in the back at every turn. Then, for two hours, we get to watch Spartans slaughter Persians, splatter the camera with their CGI blood and build a wall of their corpses.
“300” offers an easy pop culture example of our growing distaste for moral relativism. The phrase “moral relativism” has itself become a slur for anyone who maybe doesn’t think the United States is perfect, or who doesn’t see the world as divided into pure good and pure evil. “300” feeds our appetite for moral relativism by making Leonidas’ decision to lead his troops into battle easy: The Persians are clearly a threat, and the people trying to stop me from doing my job are either blatantly evil or have ulterior motives. No shades of gray there.
But moral decision making isn’t about seeing an obvious answer and pursuing it at all costs. Often, it’s about finding an answer that is anything but obvious. “300” took a story about finding an answer and transformed it into a movie about dying for an obvious cause. The ensuing entertainment value is difficult to deny. But watching it, I couldn’t help but think about the troubling idea that, as a society, we’ve started to make decisions the way Frank Miller does — demonizing those who disagree to make our process easier. It may work in Hollywood. It’s less effective in the real world.
Xan White is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.