March 27, 2007

We are not Sparta

Kung-Fu Monkey on the Unamerican nature of 300:

It is so in a way that's illuminating for you Spec-Monkeys. What got me on to this? The scene where Leonidas and his ab-tastic Spartans run into some Greeks who've decided to tag along to fight for freedom. The Greek leader, Patheticus, points out that Leo's brought just 300 oddly naked dudes to war, while the Greeks have brought quite a few more. Leonidas points to one of the Greek soldiers. "What's your profession?"

"Potter," the fellow replies.

"And you."

"Farmer," says the next.

"And you."


At which point Leonidas yells back at his posse, "Spartans, what is your profession?" And they hoo-ahh! like crazy. Leonidas says "Looks like I brought along more soldiers than you." Pretty cool scene, actually.

Now, what's fascinating here is to roll back our national mythos to 1998, to Saving Private Ryan. This is the definitive film capping off the Baby Boomers' guilty late love letters to the Greatest Generation. In one of its crucial scenes, Captain Miller -- Tom Hanks -- at long last reveals to his guys that he was a teacher back home. In almost every version of the Greatest Generation myth -- and let's be honest, that is the de facto American myth -- the citizen-soldiers, the guys with day jobs who leave 'em behind to fight and die, are the heroes. Even more, this quality of our warriors, their ordinariness, is not just a factor of our national identity, one could argue it defines our national identity. That we are not professional soldiers is why we're the Good Guys. From the Concord Minutemen to the accountants tossing grenades into bunkers at Normandy, the Unlikely Amateur defines the American hero.


Simply, the heroes of 300 heap an enormous amount of scorn on the heroic tradition of America. In the world of 300, Captain Miller, the boys of Easy Company, the Band of Brothers, are fucking saps.

There's a similarly fascinating scene -- from a screenwriting standpoint -- when Leonidas meets the scorned humback who desperately wants to be Spartan. He's got the uniform and everything. Leonidas patiently explains to the humpback that he may have a lot of spirit, but he just isn't big and fast enough to play their Spartan games. If, however, he wants to tend the wounded or carry water, that's right, be the Water Boy ...

... for Notre Dame, sure, but there's no way you can ever play, Rudy. You're just too small. Again, this scene could play in countless American movies, with Leonidas as the antagonist, and barely a word changes. Another defining staple of the American myth, the Little Guy who Overcomes the Odds, gets pissed on. For God's sake, at one point the bad Spartan, Sellouticus, even taunts the Queen by saying "All men are not born equal, that's the Spartan belief." And these are the good guys. Wow.

We are not Sparta. We are Athens. We are Venice. We might be Rome.

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