When a movie review begins with references to Der Ewige Jude, it is safe to say that it is not going to be a complimentary review.  Dana Stevens of Slate starts out in heavy-handed fashion with the Nazi references and never stops to take a breath.  Then she says:

But to cast 300 as a purely apolitical romp of an action film smacks of either disingenuousness or complete obliviousness.

Only in the most general sense can one cast the telling of this story as political, in that it is a story about a battle (which takes place, after all, in Greece, not in the Near East) and therefore the conflict being depicted has some political dimension as all wars do.  It may therefore have something to say generally about the politics of independence or anti-imperialism or opposition to aggression and conquest (none of which, mind you, does much for the 300-as-Iraq war propaganda argument), but in this it is no more a commentary on current policies than Braveheart referred to the Balkan Wars because both involved questions of national independence to one degree or other.   

I have been similarly unimpressed in the past by attempts to read political messages into the third season of BSG, because it seemed clear to me that a) this was implausible given the content of the New Caprica episodes and b) it was explicitly contrary to what the directors and writers themselves said they were doing.  When everyone involved in the production of something says, “No, we’re not talking about the United States government!” it makes sense to assume that they are probably telling the truth.  After all, it isn’t as if people in the movie and television business make their predominantly left-liberal politics a secret.  If they wanted to state that their project was a pointedly political one, they would do so, because that is what politically active film and TV types do.  Had BSG decided to go that route, they would probably have won as many viewers as they would have lost, so I find it unlikely that they shied away from open criticism of the government because they feared a backlash from fans.  Those who insist that they are not using their art, such as it is, to criticise a specific policy, but who say that they are trying to tell an entertaining and perhaps interesting character-driven story, are probably just trying to tell a story.  If it is set during wartime, wartime themes will keep cropping up that people living through a real war, however remote from the fighting they are, will naturally associate with their war–but that doesn’t mean that the two have any connection at all.  I think the same would hold true for projects that tell a story that might at first seem more favourable to a pro-war view, such as 300 at first appears to be.

I have not seen 300, but I did read the “graphic novel” some years ago and I am, in any case, familiar with the story of Thermopylae.  What are the important details of this story?  It valorises courage against overwhelming odds, praises patriotic defenders of their country against foreign aggression, and espouses the importance of a society governed by nomos and not by the arbitrary will of one man.  Pretty horrifying stuff, let me tell you.  An argument could be made (perhaps I will make it after I have seen the movie) that 300 is one of the most deliciously anti-imperialist, anti-Bush movies ever made.  Bush would obviously play the role of Xerxes (as the Times has already suggested).  His opponents could see themselves as Leonidas and the Spartans, an embattled few who nonetheless prevent the ruin of their country.  It would be really overdrawn and absurd in its own way, but not nearly as absurd as what Ms. Stevens has to say about the film, the experience of which she likens to being raped.  No, really, she does. 

When this sort of story is set at Minas Tirith and the vaguely Oriental hordes of the Hradrim are pressing down on the Riders of Rohan, most left-liberals don’t bat an eye–they cheer on the Men of the West, because they have entered into the fantasy world where the forces arrayed against Minas Tirith are clearly in the service of the Dark Lord.  Not even most multicultis like the Dark Lord, and their radar for ethnic stereotyping seems to turn off as they see strange, vaguely Arab-looking archers on the backs of oliphants.  Even animal rights activists don’t seem to get too upset over the rather mean despatching of the oliphants in Return of the King.  Now, set this same story in history, indeed identify it as a specific, critical moment in the history of our own civilisation, ignoring for the moment that this is an adapted and literally comical retelling of that moment, and watch how the liberal, in this case Ms. Stevens, throws a fit.  Did I not tell you this was coming?  Earlier this week I wrote:

They are pretty much all “over the top” once you see people sprouting claws, leaping from building to building or, in this case, fighting an army depicted with such purely Orientalist imagination that it would make Edward Said spin in his grave.  Everything about 300 the “novel” is over the top.  From the few clips I have seen in previews, the costumes and ethnic stereotypes seem to have leapt full-blown from the deeper reaches of George Lucas’ mind onto the screen.  I expect the cacophony of PC screeching any day now. 

I wrote that on Thursday morning.  By Thursday night, Ms. Stevens’ review had appeared.  Apparently without any sense of irony, Ms. Stevens wrote:

The Persian commander, the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is a towering, bald club fag with facial piercings, kohl-rimmed eyes, and a disturbing predilection for making people kneel before him.

Er, well, I don’t know about the traits of a “club fag” (a phrase which, if stated at CPAC, would probably merit denunciations from Hugh Hewitt), but to depict the Persian shahanshah as bejeweled and heavily decorated with makeup is not really that far from what we understand about Persian court ceremonials (at least in the late Achaemenid and again in the Sasanian periods) and proskynesis, which was the hateful barbarian custom that Alexander demanded of his commanders, was the ritual prostration before, or at the feet of, the emperor.  Obviously, it symbolises complete submission to the will of the ruler and represents a reminder of the prostrator’s much lower status.  Diocletian, probably not someone whom anyone would have called a “club fag” (certainly not to his face!), adopted proskynesis from the Persians and made it an integral part of what became Byzantine court ceremony.  So in other words, one of the things that really bothers Ms. Stevens is one of the things that 300 actually gets more or less historically right.  Um…okay. 

Since proskynesis is something that an imperial autocrat demands of his subjects, or indeed his slaves, it doesn’t seem so terribly outrageous to depict a ruler who demands such servility as being, well, an arbitrary ruler who demands servility.  Making the heroes of the movie into the opposite, free men who will not abase themselves before a mere mortal, also makes sense from the perspective of telling the story as a morality play (which, at bottom, almost every comic book worth its salt does).  That it actually has more than a little connection with the real Spartans and Persians of history is an added bonus! 

If the story were about heroic resistance fighters battling a Panzer division, or if there were derogatory references to “goose-stepping,” Ms. Stevens would probably be enthralled.  “Race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth” are great for most left-liberals, provided that the “race” being baited is German and the nationalist myth being promoted is that of FDR’s America.  It all depends on whose gigantic rhinoceros is being gored. 

To recount the story of Thermopylae as shown in 300, which is essentially a hyped-up version of an historically true account, is not necessarily to actually embrace the entire binary structure of Greek conceptions of identity where the free, rational Greek men are set off against effeminate, slavish barbarians and irrational women.  Of course, the point is that the Greeks perceived things in this way and understood the peoples around them through this lens, which Miller (probably unthinkingly) reproduces with his own exaggerated flourishes.  Perhaps it does not jibe with multiculti sensibilities as much as the multiracial rebels of The Matrix series, but the story is actually much the same: a dedicated few fighting off hordes of enemies, who are themselves enslaved by the ruler.  Possibly, the movie may try to subvert or alter the entire structure by making the story into one of the resistance of the relatively weak against the mighty. 

Ms. Stevens goes on:

Leonidas likes to rally the troops with bellowed speeches about “freedom,” “honor,” and “glory,” promising that they will be remembered for having created “a world free from mysticism and tyranny.”

This is apparently, from her perspective, a bad thing.  Now let’s understand something.  This is a perfect example of how Miller’s version of Thermopylae, and apparently the movie’s as well, is distorted by Miller’s own biases.  The Spartans weren’t fighting against mysticism.  Only the Romans were more superstititious than the Greeks when it came to mystery cults, oracles and divination, and the Spartans were no exception.  They may have been fighting, in some sense, for the gods of their city, but the rationalist, anti-religious strain that comes through here is entirely anachronistic and better suited to Ridley Scott’s nonsense of medieval history in Kingdom of Heaven.  In any case, these were not 5th century B.C. Voltaireans duking it out with theocrats.  Left-liberals and libertarians alike should love this angle of 300.  It is like V for Vendetta on speed in its bloody hostility to both religion and authority.  (This may be why an Objectivist friend of mine, who introduced me to 300, thought it was such a great story when we were in college.) 

It’s conservatives who should feel reluctant to lend 300 any cheers or support.  Why, after all, are mysticism and tyranny paired together?  What does one really have to do with the other, unless you believe that reason is reason-against-piety and hold that religion is the enemy of human liberty?  Isn’t this just some rehashed Gibbonian Enlightenment garbage about religion as a tool of despotism?  Yes, it is, and conservatives should be on their guard against it.  In this respect, 300 is a gorier version of Ryan Sager’s book or one of Andrew Sullivan’s madcap posts about “big-government Christianists.”  Slate readers should be thrilled by it, and it should tell religious conservatives something about him and his colleagues that Victor Davis Hanson is a big booster of the film.