the gapanese invasion is nigh!

"pinakamaganda ka nga sa buong kapuluan, pero latina na naman ang magwawagi ng korona at sash sa miss world! racism ba ito? lupasay!"

Thursday, March 15, 2007

300 degrees of separation from history

Zack Snyder’s epic film 300 and Frank Miller’s graphic novel (of the same title) of which the film was an adaptation, were about the famed Battle of Thermopylae between 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and more than a million Persian soldiers led by King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Since the film was based on an actual epic war back in 480 B.C., it became rather imperative to compare the cinematic retelling to what was generally inscribed in the annals of world history.
According to press releases, the director claimed 90% historical accuracy of the events in the film. Having read the existing history of the battle, I was amazed that several episodes in 300 were indeed recorded by no less than the father of history himself, Herodotus. Found in both the film and historical records was the account of the Persian emissary who was sent by Xerxes to Greece for earth and water (which Xerxes demanded as a token of Greek submission to that time’s fiercest army in the world); the envoys were eventually thrown down a pit. There was also the consultation of the Oracle at Delphi, where it was predicted that the Greeks would suffer defeat. Even the Persian arrows blotting out the sun and the fighting in the shade as well as the number of soldiers for both sides were included. These along with other instances of historical faithfulness should make the film laudable, especially because the film as a limited audio-visual medium often falls short in terms of historical accuracy in favor of cinematic effect or informational sanitization.
Nonetheless, 300’s aforementioned general fidelity to history should not reflect complete flawlessness on the part of the film (for one, the visualization looks exaggerated—to the film’s advantage—and another, the characterizations are often flat). In fact, some of the said episodes seem to have been interpreted in such a way that certain politics emerge for and against the divided West and East. The discriminative idealization of the Spartan society was terrible—it seems to suggest that non-Spartan Greeks, whose city-states were unmentioned, were cowards or feeble. As history would have it, there was an alliance of Greek city-states and not just Spartan army that fought against the invading Persian soldiers. The city-state of Athens, for instance, also threw the Persian emissary into a pit so the latter might dig water and earth there, as Xerxes demanded. As such, Athens was Sparta’s co-leader in the war against the foreign army. Also, history was silent over the reason for the Oracle’s doomsday prediction for the Spartans, but in the film, the Oracle was portrayed as bribe-hungry: there, the Persians actually bribed the Oracle into dampening the patriotic spirit of Sparta so that it would yield to Persia without a fight.
Likewise, the Persian army was portrayed as barbaric and diabolic and as such, the Persians were practically transmogrified into monsters. One of the sexy belly dancers had a half-face monstrosity; an executioner of Xerxes has oversized blades for arms. His emissary and Xerxes himself were portrayed as androgynous, an obvious foil to the hypermasculine Spartan army. These depictions of ancient Persians are derogatory as they are inaccurate. If only with the androgyny issue, I learned that Xerxes laughed at the report that the small group of Greeks gathered in the “Hot Gates” (literal meaning of Thermopylae) was combing their long hair while waiting for the Persian warriors. Spartans adorn their crowning glory as part of their battle formation, Xerxes was told. What do we make of this very vain instance? Indeed, the visual aspect of the film was severely twisted for presumably racist and sexist ends.
Another historical gap in the film was the portrayal of the traitor Ephialtes as a hunchback. Historical records were silent about this deformed condition of the Greek who treacherously showed the Persians a path they may take to surround the Spartans after King Leonidas dismissed his desire to be a part of the Greek army. Ephialtes’ cinematic deformation seems only to suffice the ideological obssession to portray bad people as ugly.
The film was supposed to be produced to show the tremendous length at which the Spartan’s sacrifice took them which motivated the whole of Greece to come as one and fight the Persian conquerors. It might also be up to some entertainment value, seeing the hardship of adapting the graphic novel look into the film. However, in the process of swaying away from making political statements against another culture, it seemed to have done just that. If 300 ever was historically inaccurate, does this make the film more or less brilliant? For me, historical inaccuracy cannot make an artwork less glowing, in much the same way how I would react to Shakespeare’s dramatic interpretation of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, among other historically inaccurate masterpieces. However, if an artwork, whether intentional or not, becomes a vehicle in promoting racial, religious, gender, or any discrimination whatsoever, that does not make the piece any more admirable, but a plain, cheap propaganda. Therefore, 300 suffers the “unintentional” hostility against an exotic civilization and its epic beauty is not enough to save its face.

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