300’s violent rhetoric, and the Peace Mom’s.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
The climax of the epic propaganda cartoon-movie 300 is prefaced by a speech from the heroic Spartan warrior-king Leonidas, who is about to sacrifice himself and his men.
Leonidas and his small band of Spartans have fought brilliantly for days, holding off a vast army of slave-soldiers (backed by elephant-tanks and an armored rhinoceros). But now they are about to be slaughtered—the hordes are upon them. Gloating, the fey giant Xerxes, god-king of Iran (oops…Persia), promises Leonidas that he and his men will die in vain and be forgotten.
Leonidas responds: “History will remember that a few stood up to many, that free men stood up to slaves, that rationalism stood up to mysticism,” he says (or something to that effect). “History will remember this as the dawn of a new age—an age of freedom and reason.”
Cindy Sheehan has aided those who would marginalize the war’s opponents.
The mythic-historic Battle of Thermopylae, cartooned in the film, is thus seen as a clash of civilizations. The Spartans represent Western modernity; the Persian hordes (played by every variety of dark-skinned actor) represent the terrorists, and the primitive world from which they emerge. Leonidas’ climactic battlefield speech is the culmination of a warmongering, jingoist theme that permeates this terrific piece of entertainment.
Much has been said about it’s outrageous violence—and 300 is definitely a blood-drenched spectacle. But that is not what is most troubling about this movie. The carnage is mostly inflicted by honorable warriors defending their homes and families, so it’s hard not to cheer as they run their spears through their enemies and then decapitate them for good measure. What is truly disturbing is the rhetoric.
The political message is established early on, as Gorgo, Leonidas’ queen, confronts the Persian messenger who has come to announce Xerxes’ arrival. The black (?) messenger, appalled, asks how a woman would dare raise her voice in the company of men. “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men,” Gorgo replies, her racist sentiment almost hidden in the glow of female empowerment.
Later, in a similarly empowering scene, Gorgo addresses the men of the Spartan council, demanding that they raise an army to lend support to her husband and his warriors. “Freedom is not free,” she says.
“Send the army for the preservation of liberty. Send the army for justice. Send the army for order…for reason,” she implores, passionately mouthing platitudes we might fear to hear in the near future from George Bush himself, urging us toward a real war with Persia (oops, Iran).
There in the movie theater, I truly hoped that the Spartan council would heed Gorgo’s brave words. The 300 warriors and their king had shown great valor and skill—I found myself wishing that Sparta would unleash a wave of movie-violence to save them. And I was simultaneously horrified by the monstrosity of the propaganda I was witnessing.
Zach Snyder, 300’s director, insists he intended no political message with his movie. If that is true, he is sublimely naïve. As it happens, in the world outside the movie theater, there are powerful men and women who are itching for a fight. As it happens, the target of their aggression is the nation that Xerxes once ruled.
Early in the movie, before he kicks the Persian messenger into a well, Leonidas tells him that in Sparta a man is accountable for his words. Zach Snyder directed that scene but I’m not sure he got it.
• • •
“Peace Mom” Cindy Sheehan, who will speak at CSUMB on Tuesday, March 20, has been engaged in a war of words ever since she set up camp outside George Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 2005.
Sheehan made international headlines with that protest and went on to become a prominent voice of the anti-war movement. While her story often has inspired sympathy, her words often have incited violent controversy.
Sheehan lost her son Casey to the war in Iraq, and she does nothing to conceal the anger that stems from her belief that he died needlessly in a war based on lies. She routinely calls the president “Bloody George.” She described Bush as “the biggest terrorist in the world…worse than Osama Bin Laden.” She once referred to him as the “Führer.”
Predictably, Sheehan has been vilified by right-wing pundits. Glenn Beck of CNN called her “a pretty big prostitute” and “a tragedy pimp.” The attack-columnist David Horowitz opined that Sheehan “exploits the death of her own son,” and “doesn’t respect her own son’s life.”
Cindy Sheehan has doubtlessly inspired some Americans to question this tragic war. It’s also certain that she has aided those who would marginalize the war’s opponents as shrill wackos. Words can be dangerous.