So…there’s this movie, called the 300, and it’s about Thermopylae, and I should be happy because people are learning about history, and instead I’m cranky because there are war elephants 150 years too early, and other discrepancies, and important history SHOULD BE ACCURATE. Then people slapped me, and I felt better. OK, there was no slapping, and I’m still a little cranky…but that’s the gist.
I’ll be honest here…I don’t watch a lot of movies anymore first run; we Netflix almost everything we see, unless we’re making an event of going out with friends. Plus, I watch very little network/cable televsion, so I don’t even see trailers. I’m usually not in the loop on what’s coming up. So I actually didn’t even hear about
300 until about 2 months ago. And I only realized it was based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel about 3 WEEKS ago…when I saw and flipped through the novel at a local bookstore. It was at this point that my hackles started to rise a bit, as Miller has taken some…liberties, shall we say, with the histories here. All in the quest of a good story, I’m sure…but as far as I am aware (feel free to comment if you know otherwise, please!) there’s no indication or suggestion in the historical record that the Leonidas’s consultation with the Delphic Oracle was rigged by Persian spies, or that the
Gorgo in Sparta subplot (from the movie) existed in any way. As I heard more about the movie I began to become irritated: weapon, armor, and tactics inaccuracies, a mistatement (for dramatic license) of Sparta’s belief system, and finally, the straw that broke my back…war elephants and rhinos. There were no war rhinos, and it’s generally thought that the first Europeans to see war elephants were Alexander the Great’s men once they reached India…150 years after Thermopylae. With that much chronological slippage, the next American Revolutionary War movie could include biplanes and machine guns…for the drama!
Now, I realize many of you fans of the movie couldn’t care less about these inaccuracies. And believe it or not, I often try to forgive them, because otherwise, historical fiction is difficult (if not impossible) to write. But a) some of these are pretty bad, and b) this is Thermopylae. And the course of Western civilization turned during this campaign, via Thermopylae and (more directly) Salamis. After his loss against the Athenian navy at Salamis, Xerxes left the Greek peninsula, and history continued on the course we know. The Greek victory allowed the city-states to continue the evolution of the democratic ideas that influenced (for a while) Rome, the Enlightenment, and the founders of the United States (among others). Note: counterfactual history is a tricky thing, and I’m not trying to say that Persians are bad, or that there was some great good vs. evil battle going on here. I’m simply stating that history, world history, would have been very different had Xerxes conquered Greece at this point.
WRT historical fiction blockbusters, I always end up of two minds. I’m glad that people who don’t read Herodotus’ Histories are learning something about the historical underpinnings of our civilization…but when they’re learning half-truths, half-dramatization for the sake of the plot, it can lead their education astray. (off-topic case in point…I’m sick and tired about hearing about the hero in
24 torturing people into giving him the info that he needs, RIGHT NOW, to solve a problem. People who study the use of torture historically know that people LIE when tortured. People say anything to get it to stop. Innocent people confess to crimes they know little or nothing about…*sigh* I’ll get off that soapbox. Rant off.) Point being, fake history isn’t REAL history, so you can’t learn fake history in an attempt to apply it’s lessons to the future. Our understanding of history isn’t perfect, of course, but the goal is to head closer to the TRUTH, not closer to what sells.
But after some discussions this weekend, I’ve adjusted my stance a bit. I’m not going to stop pointing out the inaccuracies (thus this post), because it’s important. But several friends have pointed out that problems with the history are being brought up and discussed in blogs, in reviews, and in specials on the History Channel. Which people apparently DO watch; sweet. So that’s good. And the movie’s
look is supposedly very comic-book like…that sounds trivial, but I really do think it’s important. People use these sorts of unconscious cues to tweak the level of truth they impart to a movie or book; a documentary-style show gets evaluated differently than a over-the-top saga-style movie, regardless of the actual level of accuracy. The comic-book style actually helps here, IMO.
So go have fun (heck, it’s already in my Netflix queue), but there were no war elephants. Seriously. Oh, yeah…and Spartans fought with chest armor. Always a good idea. And go watch a History Channel documentary on this, please!
(Ironically, I’m happily watching the Order right now on my 770, which is a schlocky
conspiracy in the Catholic Church, angels and demons B-film, with made up religious orders, secret rituals, and forbidden magicks. In other words, not exactly historically accurate. Hm…so call it cognitive dissonance, eh? *sigh* Maybe I should have a little more faith. (
faith…LOL. Good one, Ken.)
Of course, I don’t let the fact that a movie has demons in it cause me to believe in demons. I’d say that I’ll give folks the benefit of the doubt on that one…but Da Vinci Code grossed $200+ million, and The Passion of the Christ $300+ million. On the gripping hand, though, there’s also a thriving industry of
the truth about the Da Vinci Code types who keep the conversation going, tossing facts and assertions and hearsay and accusations back and forth like a live hand grenade. And as long as people are willing to have the discussion, I guess that’s all I can ask for, you know?)