"300" Is One of The Greatest Films Ever Made
Frank Miller’s interpretation of the tale of 300 lone Spartan warriors fending off hordes of Persian invaders is hands down one the best films ever made. Though 300 takes some artistic license and contains historical inaccuracies, the purpose of good art is not to teach history but to convey important ideals and themes. 300 is unabashed in its representation of the highest ideals of man, of clear cut good and evil, of right and wrong, and of a heroic defense, to the death, of freedom, justice, and reason. The movie invokes and justifies feelings of empowerment and a renews your idealism, giving you the moral and spiritual fuel for your struggles for the good life by witnessing one of the most spirited defenses of ideals humans have ever accomplished.
Should a sculptor capture the scar on a man’s body or a painter a cold sore on a woman’s mouth? Are these encouragements of humility, professing that mankind is flawed? Or are these dishonest concretizations of temporary flaws into a permanent representation of reality? A beautiful Hellenistic sculpture glorifies all the highest ideals of man; honor, pride, intellect, integrity, and beauty. The broken, disembodied, disheveled forms of modern art are anti-intellectualism, de-humanization, the destruction of ideals and values, brought into permanent physical form.
Art, according to Aristotle, is in it’s best form a representation of man as he ought to be, not as he is. Art, according to Ayn Rand, is the selective concretization of abstractions of the highest ideals of the artist. When someone chooses to capture something, especially an idea or principle, in a permanent form of representation, they are left with the options of how they wish to capture it, and what language they wish to convey the idea in. A modern artist might try to represent a complex idea in an abstract and objectively rational form but when the manifestation in physical form of an idea becomes so disassociated from any rational means to interpret it, it is indifferent from useless Rorschach ink blot tests and is much more an indication of the irrational nature of the thought of the artists, the subjective psychological biases of the viewer (as the French paper Le Monde demonstrated in it’s review of the film "Hostel" when it ranked it as the best American film of that year because they somehow interpreted it as a commentary on American Imperialism, instead of the violent pornographic sadism that it really was) and a thinly veiled abdication of any objective standard in art, than it is an idealized concretization of metaphysical value judgments. Is a spattering of incoherent paint drops on a wall, like any Jackson Pollack painting to be considered "art"? Is a novel of incoherent prose "art", Is a movie with no logical progression, consistency, or plot, like "Lost Highway" art? Is a novel encompassing an entire day of nothing like James Joyce’s "Ulysses" art? These things, lacking barely any objective distinction from randomness, or being glorifications of nothingness, are not art, even though they may hang on walls or have leather bindings, to consider these art, is to take any useful distinguishing character of art away from the word and idea. Readers may disagree on what Aristotle and Ayn Rand considered Art to be, but any definition if held consistently which includes meaningless intellectual vomit indistinguishable from randomness, does indeed renders the concept of art without value.
The proper form of art in a philosophy based on reason, reality, and life as an ethical standard is one that encourages a life based on reason, which can be tangibly connected in a meaningful manner to the reality of the witness to the art, and which advocates and promulgates a ethical system which holds life as it’s standard. Such art must be objectively understandable, but the setting, context, historical accuracy, etc are completely irrelevant to the conveyance of the message. Art is a selective recreation of elements which pertain in and understandable manner to the issues we deal with in reality, based, as Rand, suggested on the artist’s metaphysical value judgments. Art is not a literal recreation of reality (cold sores, bunions, societal flaws and all) but instead is a recreation of the critical elements of reality required for conceptual conveying a message or theme.
Consider then, what great art is, and understand that "300" is probably the greatest concretization of human ideals in visual media ever created. "300" is not a historical documentary and contains technical inaccuracies from the way the Spartan’s fought to the nature and makeup of Spartan society. But if you want a documentary, turn to the History Channel. This movie is absolutely NOT a historical documentary and to dislike it because it is not historically accurate is to assert that all art must be nothing more than accurate retelling of historical accounts. Yet we do not belittle the great works of Shakespeare because they contain linguistic anachronisms or the great epics of Ancient Greece because they contained gods and monsters. "300" is a moral epic told against a historical backdrop, containing real historical figures but representing them as profound human beings we can all look up to and admire, in situations and stories indeed conceptually similar to the factual historical reality. Stories that serve to inspire and encourage us to weather difficult storms, persevere against obstacles blocking our goals, and continue to fight; not because we might win and not because it is our duty, but because it is being true to our own ideals in defense of our deepest values, that these are things ought to do because it is right.
In classical Greek fashion, Frank Miller was not presenting Sparta (and man) as he is or was, but as he *ought* to be; physically perfect, morally absolute, passionate and intelligent, emotive and rational. When facing the Persian emissaries, King Leonidas does not call for negotiations and capitulations, he does not negotiate with his would be murderers, he kicks them into a well. When debating what to do against the coming Persian onslaught, Leonides abandons the advice of the corrupt mystics and gathers a volunteer force to face the Persian hordes. When faced with the corrupting offer of riches and rule over the entire Hellenistic empire, Leonides, facing certain death, declines, opting to fight in defense of his ideals instead of giving up what he values most to perpetuate his mere mechanical existence, a life which would then be of self torture as demonstrated when he condemns the Spartan Ephialtas who betrayed Leonidas and the 300 to the Persians to “a very long life". Facing absolute certain death, Leonidas and his mean nevertheless stay on and fight, knowing that delaying the Persians at Thermopylae would allow time for the rest of the Spartan army to join with other Greek city states and ultimately repel the Persian invasion - a battle which some historians rank as the most important battle in all of history.
"300" also un-apologetically and flagrantly disregards the false dichotomy between reason and passion. King Leonidas is no barbarian robot, but a passionate lover to his wife, and passionate fighter for justice. He respects and cherishes his wife, who is as morally strong as he, and he fights and dies for her freedom, not wishing to see her condemned to a life of slavery, while she fights to save his life.
When ordered not to fight by the superstitious religious elders, Leonidas disregards their feelings and edicts and mounts a strategic defense of a critical area of Greece, ultimately saving every thing and everyone he values. The coming of this movie reminds me of the context of Star Wars in the late 70’s. Where movies had disco sound tracks and nihilistic themes, coming out of the 70’s Vietnam protest and moral relativism era, Star Wars came along to tell an inspirational and uplifting grand heroic moral epic with a classical and powerfully emotive sound track. Today in our sea of moral relativism and ‘flawed’ heroes (consider the plethora of movies that actually glorify villains, like ‘Natural Born Killers’, mock heroes, like "True Lies" and "Die Hard", or celebrate violent death and torture, like "Saw" and "Hostel" ) "300" comes along to tell a powerful inspiring tale of moral absolutism and heroism. I can not recall the last time I heard people cheer at a movie, and it wasn’t just the style of the movie, it’s the message as well, presented in a good style, that resonates strongly with people. I for one find myself filled with a little more hope for America since a movie like this did so well in the box office. This movie appeals to our innermost capacity for idealism and invokes feelings of empowerment and justifies them. It brings us moral and spiritual fuel for the struggles for a good life we undertake.
Because of all these virtues, "300" has caused quite the firestorms of criticism. Most of them center around the historical inaccuracies in the film, focusing on petty details, such as the armor the Spartans wore and the methods they used to fight, while ignoring glaringly obvious historical inaccuracies, like Xerxes being 14′ tall and having a henchman with bone saw arms, neither of which had any remotely possible intention of being interpreted as a historical accuracy. These critics ignore these things and focus on petty details in an attempt to undermine the moral tale of the story. Yet nobody cries that Homer’s "Iliad" is a historical falsehood, because it is not meant to be a documentary, it is meant to represent the highest ideals of ancient Greek civilization. Nobody attacks Shakespeare for his inaccuracies in Julius Ceaser, nobody derides "Beowulf" because Grendel was not real. Nobody attempts to argue that Dante’s "The Inferno" is worthless because the hero travels into the fictional Hades. The great works of literature last not because they are historically accurate, they rarely if ever are, but usually because they convey great human moral truths in a powerful story and in a manner which people can objectively connect with. Likewise “300" is not a documentary, so critics attacking it’s historical inaccuracies (especially in a time where historical accuracies are difficult to ascertain anyway) are simply trying to make a name for themselves by attacking something better than they are ever capable of.
Many other criticism lay around attacks on the Spartan way of life in general. Critics will say that the real Spartans were mystical and collectivist. They might ask, why not play this movie in Nazi Germany and see all the Storm Troopers yell in delight with the same reaction and inspired Americans do? (Obfuscating of course the ideals which invoke the reaction with the physical reactions themselves, as if rallying in the name of freedom is the same things as rallying in the name of murderous tyranny merely because in both cases one is ‘rallying’) Sparta, they will say, had slavery, was a heavily collectivist society, treated it’s women poorly, etc. In all these cases they completely ignore the context surrounding Sparta and the context of the Ancient world. It was a world where EVERY SINGLE HUMAN BEING WHO EXISTED was a slave, and where most societies did not even have a WORD for Freedom. Only the world of Ancient Greece even had a word for freedom (eluethera) to differentiate a kind of existence from slavery, and had portions of their populations, large or small, identified as free men. Every Ancient Civilization had slavery, ONLY ANCIENT GREECE had freedom, and yes even Sparta had free men. Only Ancient Greece had the idea of Freedom and the ability for men to achieve it.
They might argue that one could represent the heroic soldiers of Nazi Germany in the same manner. But heroism in the name of murderous ideals is merely savage brutality, Nazism advocated forced nationalist servitude in a time where half the world had decent (though flawed) systems which were based on freedom, where every culture had the concept and words for Freedom, and Nazi Germany actively crushed this. The context of Nazi Germany was totalitarianism rising in a sea of Freedom and Liberal Democracy. Nazism was a step backward in a world of freedom, Spartan and Greek civilizations were a step forward in a world of totalitarian enslavement. This film emphasized the only bastion of freedom in an entire world of slavery, indeed, they were the first steps forward toward Freedom in a march which still continues to this day. If you were to make a movie glorifying extreme nationalism and dictatorial rule, Nazi Germany is an optimal setting because it contrasts the concept of freedom embraced by much of the world, if you are making a movie defending and glorifying freedom and reason, Ancient Greece is an excellent setting as it contrasts the prevalence of slavery and tyranny which dominated every other ancient civilization.
The very concept of "freedom" had to originate somewhere for it to develop into it’s modern form. Yes Sparta also had slaves, no not all Spartans were free. But let us not forget that women in the US did not get the right to vote until the 20’s and black men until after the civil war. Give the ancient Hellenes a break as the rest of the world would not even match their limited gains toward freedom for nearly 2,000 years. Would we chide a movie about the bravery of Union soldiers in the American Civil War by saying "well women couldn’t vote"? No, every salient step toward freedom should be celebrated, and the Ancient Greek city states steps took the first and most important steps in that direction, and at the battle of Thermopylae and in the greater context of the Persian wars, would come face to face with the greatest threat that ideal would ever encounter in a victory whose repercussions resonate throughout the world for thousands of years.
My only major complaint with 300 was that the Spartan 300 did not in fact stay and fight out of duty, as was depicted in the film, but in fact stayed and fought, even knowing it would bring their deaths, to give their land the vital time necessary to collect an army to defend the city states of Greece. Though this is a historical inaccuracy, I cite it because the accurate story was thematically much more powerful. Leonidas appealed to the Spartan honor code of never surrendering in the movie, yet it was in fact this very event which founded the Spartan tradition of never surrendering.
Also, as Leonidas left his wife for the final time, the narration insisted that the Spartan code did not allow the expression of love or regret at this moment, as it would have been a sign of ‘weakness’. This, to me, deviated from the intense passion and love of values that Leonidas showed at all other times with his wife and the Spartans embraced. A minor complaint, but it was out of place with the character the Miller had established with Leonidas.
Additionally, Frank Miller appears to feel that true heroism is sacrificing ones life in the name of a higher ideal. Sacrificing ones own life for a higher ideal, for something that is more important to someone than their life, is noble and just, but only when it is the last and necessary course of action. Fighting for ones highest ideals, perpetually and indefinitely through the whole course of one’s life, is far more difficult and far more admirable. Dying in the name of a cause, many people think, is the highest and most noble sacrifice, but in reality it is a fleeting moment and temporary decision made permanent, Living for a cause and fighting perpetually for it is far more noble, far more difficult, and far more rational.
This film is not about the Greeks versus the Persians, nor is it a historical docudrama, these are only the setting where a theme is played out. Good stories transcend the backdrop they are performed on and speak to people of all eras because they speak to an important ideal. The theme of this movie, the message it was conveying, the ideals it’s characters were embracing and fighting for, was not in defense of mysticism and slavery, but was in defense of individuals fighting to their last breath for their highest ideals, but not just any ideals, specifically the ideals of reason and freedom. The theme is of these brave men (brave because courage in the name of evil ideals is not courage, but savagery) fighting against the brutal enslavement of them and the people they care for at the hands of a murderous tyrant.
Like great historical fictional figures of Antigone and Hector, like the true to life historical figures of Cicero and Cato, and Raul Wallenberg of the modern era, and countless others who refused to capitulate and turn in their loved ones or loved way of life and died because of it at the hands of murderous thugs, the theme is of these valiant people standing up for and defending what they know is right and just in the face of the most brutal forms of oppression and savagery. It is a theme not only of moral courage but also of perseverance and overwhelming tenacity, of struggling through the most tremendous odds for what you know to be right, even if you face death along the way.
For the purpose of life is not to perpetuate the mere mechanical structure of our existence, it is to perpetuate not just life but a particular kind of life, an Aristotealan Eudaimonic life, a life of productive and intellectual growth, a life of goals and challenges, a vibrant life of learning and experiencing new ideas, new cultures, a life where your highest values, the health and well being of yourself and your loved ones and the growth you pursue, are passionately identified and defended at all costs, and are never surrendered and never abandoned. Where your passion and your goals drive your life and your friends and lovers are fellow travelers in your journey.
When you struggle at pursuing your goals and values, think of Leonidas and the brave 300, fighting for days on end through piles of bodies, the Persian hordes in front of them and their wives and children in the cities behind them. Know you have it in you to push yourself that much harder in pursuit of your goals and ideals. But be sure your goals are sound and ideals are good, fancy clothes and big houses do not necessarily make a good life, and pursuit of the irrational may actually damage the things you do value. When you are exhausted and battered, think of the 300 Spartans facing millions of Persians, fighting for freedom and justice and reason, think of their courage and tenacity and find strength in yourself that they as fellow humans found and that you know you have in you. Always fight for your ideals and the things you value in homage to Leonidas and the 300 and your own highest potential. This is one of the greatest movies ever made, see it, enjoy it, feel it, love it.