Monday, August 27, 2007

This just seems wrong...

...but I can't help but laugh.

Someone posted this mock-up of King Leonidas as portrayed in the new film "300" and embellishing his famous quote with a spoof of the Arby's commercial. Spartan valor combined with American marketing is just too incongruous not to be funny. How can you simply not chortle at this? I've been looking at it for two days and I'm still giggling.

King Leonidas was a truly great man, a hero to warriors around the globe for 2,500 years. He and his heroic 300 Spartans who fought to the death repelling a monstrous Persian army at the "hot gates" of the Pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC have been revered in history and in literature since the days of Herodotus, and on film since at least the late 1950s in the Hollywood epic "300 Spartans." Most recently, of course, their legendary exploits have been told in the form of a Frank Miller comic book come to celluloid (or should we say digital?) life in the movie "300."

"300" has been roundly criticized for taking liberties not only with the story, but with the costumes, the dialog, and other historical and military details. Historians have generally hated the film. But I liked it.

First of all, it is not a documentary nor a reenactment. It is a compelling story told in the style of a comic book. It reminds the viewer of the surreal storytelling in the Spider-man or Batman movies. It also calls to mind the other-worldliness of The Matrix films. It is an iconic work of art based loosely on a historical event. In some ways, it is similar to the relationship of the musical "1776" to the actual events in Philadelphia surrounding the real birth of American independence.

Second, it is a mythical re-tell of a story that has become larger than life. It is a tribute, not only to specific men (Leonidas and his troops), to a people (Spartans, and by extension, all Greeks), but to an ideal: freedom from tyranny; defense against invasion; courage to fight against hopeless odds; defense of home, hearth, women, and children; and the refusal to back down from what is right - even in the face of certain death and annihilation. It is an anthem of devotion to tribe, to homeland, to patriotism, to responsible government. The heroes of "300" are not invading other countries to expand an empire, but are rather defending themselves against an empire.

Third, it is a parallel story of our Lord Jesus. Obviously, Leonidas was not a worshiper of the one true God. However, there is an anachronistic christology reflected in the film. Leonidas is a mighty king, but not one who lords over his people. He is rather a servant-king, one who is willing to shed his own blood and sacrifice his own life for his people.

Fourth, "300" is not ambiguous about good and evil, right and wrong. In our current postmodern era, it has become fashionable to tell stories without clear heroes and villains, or in some cases, to recast and "re-vision" or "reinterpret" the evil characters as good, and the good as evil. In "300," the evil characters are grotesque and ugly. The heroes are manly and well-formed. The violence in the film is not gratuitous, but reflects a purpose of good standing up to evil, of the hero being willing to fight to the death for his ideals. Evil seeks to devour and destroy. Being a hero is not for the weak of knees or stomach.

Fifth, in this age of historical illiteracy, there is a real chance that young people who would never pick up a Loeb's classical book by Herodotus, consider learning to read ancient Greek, or even dreaming of studying Classics in college will be inspired to learn more about Leonidas and the 300, about Sparta, classical Greece, and the Persian Empire. Of course, such an inquirer will discover many details "300" either got wrong or embellished intentionally, but one thing that he will not find is that "300" lied about the courage and legacy of these brave men. History is interesting. "300" is anything but dry, boring, and pedantic. It is the kind of film that can inspire and cultivate curiosity about peoples and cultures of the past.

Which brings me around to the photoShopped picture. Once again, with all due respect to Leonidas, one can't help but think a part of him would approve. The Spartans showed their indifference to death by calmly combing and treating their hair and doing exercises in plain view of the enemy on the eve of battle. The remark "Eat a hearty breakfast, for tonight we dine in hell" attributed to Leonidas reflects a certain tongue-in-cheek bravado that demonstrates the importance of a sense of humor in the face of trials and tribulations. One of Leonidas's men was told that the Persians have so many archers that the arrows would blot out the sun. The nonplussed soldier replied: "Good. Then we'll fight in the shade" - probably in between bites of food. And of course, the most famous one-liner in all of history - one that must turn even Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis green with envy - was when Leonidas was asked by the Persians to lay down his arms. In keeping with the laconic Spartan tradition he replied with only two words: "Molon labe!" ("Come and get them!").

So it is in that spirit that I reproduce someone's clever PhotoShop work above. And in case anyone thinks I don't respect King Leonidas as a real historical person of greatness, you can ask my son about it. We call him "Leo" for short. ;-)

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