Thursday, March 6, 2014

300: Masculinity & Freedom

The theme of freedom throughout the Spartans struggle is a theme accessible to everyone. When Zach Snyder's 300 first came out in 2006, it changed everything: how films were made, how films looked and, it reminded men of how they were to conduct themselves. This weekend the sequel, 300: Rise Of An Empire will be released, and this is a great time to review the original, not only to prepare us for the follow-up film, but to see how things have changed between 2006 and 2014  because, to be perfectly honest, if 300 were released today, it could be considered an act of treason by the Obama administration (the state of Connecticut is having their guns confiscated, so the shout, "Come and get them!" would be seen as a rally cry). As we noted, freedom is the theme of the film, however, "Freedom" exists on a number of levels, and is therefore threatened by a number of ills; what the film achieves so well is the connecting of freedom and slavery, along with the formula of free will.
It should be noted that the not-so-hidden political agenda of the film is largely a response to the devastation of 9/11 when Muslims attacked the World Trade Centers in New York City (Persia is the ancient name for Iran). There is an important difference between the Spartans of 300 and the Athenians of 300: Rise Of an Empire: the color of their capes. This isn't casual or just to separate the sequel from the original, rather, it will have definite significance in the identity and fighting style of the two sets of warriors. The Spartans' red cape, which has to be earned, and is then worn as a sign of their manhood, symbolizes love because we would be willing to spill our red blood for that which we love, in the case of the Spartans, it's the state of Sparta itself (on the other hand, red is also the color of anger because, when one is angry, they are willing to spill someone else's red blood to appease their wrath). In short, a Spartan male achieves manhood when they have achieved a state of love for Sparta that they are not held back by any fear or other weakness, their love is completely self-sustaining. This is imperative for Christians because it illustrates for us the "controversial" Scripture of Ephesians 5:25, that a man should love his wife as Christ loves the Church, and women should be subject to their husbands. The reason is, the one who has suffered for the beloved, loves the beloved more than the beloved will/can ever love their self. The one who loves, therefore, makes the hard decisions that the beloved can't make because the beloved (who doesn't love their self as much as they should) will choose the lesser-path or even make self-destructive choices. Because Spartan men suffer for their country, so they love their country, and because they are the ones who have suffered, they are the ones who can make the very best decisions for it, hence, the red cape. On the other hand, the Athenians are the philosophers, they are strong in mind, so their capes are blue because wisdom is the greatest treasure there is, so it demands the highest price to be paid: suffering (yes, suffering, again). Wisdom is purchased only on the road of experience, and it is often our most difficult and depressing experiences which purchases wisdom for us, so blue denotes both wisdom and suffering. This is the talent and weapon of choice for the Athenians, and the weapon they will use against the Persians.
The land of Sparta isn't just a beautiful world and a beautiful land, it's their home. The reason it stays beautiful is because the Spartans discipline themselves to accept the agoge. The hardships of discipline are balanced against the beauty of life, so one doesn't indulge and make greed, lust and gluttony a part of their life. Some people would argue--and falsely--that the casting out of puny or deformed children was a sign that Spartans would support abortion; archaeology only reveals the dead bodies of adults, likely criminals, but that doesn't matter because art exists outside the realm of history (history is only a vehicle). There is a symbolic significance for the child being thrown out, and the child that is not thrown out (the deformed Ephialtes who betrays the Spartans).
Isn't this the worst nightmare, having your child dragged off to be whopped? Well, actually, no. This is the "hard love" that makes us better people and enables us to be able to live free: free from political slavery, but also free from self-abuse and addiction. Please note the colors of this image: everything is bland and "drowned out." These men taking the little boy away aren't wearing the red capes of the Spartan warriors, rather, capes the color of the wheat fields, suggesting, that if this boy doesn't go through the agoge, the Spartan training regime, he will stay exactly as he is now: a child. The little boy might become a grown man with strong arms, like the two men escorting him, but mentally, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically, he will remain a child. Instead of becoming the very best he possibly can, a Spartan warrior, he will probably become a farmer (the wheat fields in the background). If, however, he fulfills his destiny, and maximizes his potential, the wheat field in the background isn't a sign of his becoming a farmer, but of the inner-harvest he--and all of Sparta--will reap because he cleaned his fields of all weeds (cleansed his soul of sin) and nurtured the good seed so it would bear fruit (disciplined himself in the virtues). Anyone who has gone through this, has self-respect, which is probably the number one missing asset from a majority of Americans then in 2006 and even more so today in 2014, which means the number one freedom 300 promotes is that of freedom from self-hatred. How can we be sure the film is promoting this? We'll take a look at Xerxes and compare him to Leonides. 
The reason the scene is important is because the child in the scene being examined is something that is given birth within our very selves: if you start to do something, and it's going to make you puny or deformed, you need to cast it out from you. Anything to which we give birth--a business, a relationship, our education, a blog, anything we do, we give birth to it--must be subjected to the fires of purification; if it's not, it won't stand the test of time, and it will be worthless. Purification and virtue are the two great weapons all Spartan warriors have to defeat their enemies: if Leonides (Gerard Butler) were not strong, he would have just given into the Persians demands for his surrender and be satisfied with whatever Xerxes gave him, because Leonides certainly would not be able to stand against the Persian army as he chooses to do instead. How can we deduce all this? The wolf Leonides battles when he's young.
The winter landscape depicts Leonides' spiritual desolation and that it's night symbolizes the proverbial "dark night of the soul." While the primary emphasis in Sparta was the physical training of the body, you can't put yourself through those kinds of physical difficulties without challenging and overcoming your inner-weakness to persevere and triumph, over and over again. It must be remembered as well, even though this isn't directly mentioned in the film, we see evidence of this, that Spartans greatly valued intellect and the arts. When a Persian tells Stelios (Michael Fassbender) that Persian arrows will blot out the sun, and Stelios responds, "Then we will fight in the shade," that kind of verbal "sparring" was treasured by the Spartans and a talent groomed amongst the Spartan elite. As the 300 Spartans march to their battle site, one of the warriors plays a pipe, and, of course, Dilios (David Wenham) is sent back to Sparta because Dilios knows the art and importance of story-telling, and can insure the 300's final battle would be forever remembered in Sparta's art. Am I digressing? No, because these elements reveal the "total training" of Sparta's citizens, and their cultural commitment to each member fulfilling their destiny. Again, in the wolf scene depicted above, Leonides' battle with the wolf (by the way, "Leonides" means born of lion stock") is the battle with himself: lust, greed, gluttony, anger, etc., any vice is summarized in the wolf; specifically, however, I think the wolf symbolizes Leonides' greed for power, because he keeps the tooth, and gives it to Gorgo, who gives it back to him before he goes to battle. Leonides, in other words, is worthy to be king of Sparta because he doesn't want power, unlike Xerxes, so he can insure that Sparta will be free and her citizens free, as opposed to Xerxes who enslaves and this is why Dilios sees the wolf Leonides overcomes in his youth as foreshadowing Leonides' battle against Xerxes: if Leonides hadn't purged himself of his own wolf, that inner-wolf would have weakened him so he would have surrendered to Xerxes without a fight; overcoming the wolf made Leonides strong, so he all ready knew he would win before the battle even started (victory, here, being defined as not giving into Xerxes' demands for surrender).
It's always great when the film does the decoding for you, telling you that the wolf Leonides kills when he's young foreshadows the Xerxes ready to devour all of Greece; but we can't be content with this. Anytime a hero (or potential hero) must overcome a monster or villain in a work of art, it's because that monster all ready exists within the hero or the hero has the potential to become that monster if the hero doesn't check their bad habits/tendencies. Because Leonides overcomes his own most destructive and avaricious traits when he is young, his fellows bow before him because ridding our selves of the beast within is the most difficult task there is (we see the exact same plot in The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug with Bilbo facing the dragon, and Gandalf facing Sauron) so, he who rids himself of the beast will not permit the beast to lurk within himself or others, which leads us to this most telling scene when Leonides and the "beast" Xerxes meet face-to-face:
Obviously, the first lesson we the audience passively receive is, a king who walks on his own two feet, rather than being pulled by dozens of slaves, is a better king: it's not that the Spartan king is equal to his men, rather, his men are equal to the king, because Leonides is free of pride and free of the hunger for power, and would "gladly die for anyone" of his men, because, having self-respect, he also respects others; ultimately, we'll find, Xerxes doesn't respect himself (probably a father complex issue) so he doesn't respect anyone else either, which is the reason he decides to go and conquer other lands, he doesn't respect that they have any right to life, liberty or freedom. When Leonides retorts, "We've been sharing our culture with you all morning," these values and freedoms is what Leonides means to continue sharing with the Persian tyrant.
How Xerxes dresses reveals his character: both kings wear only loin coverings, but the jewelry Xerxes wears is really more like chains than jewelry. Xerxes must adorn himself with earthly wealth because he doesn't have any wealth of the soul or heart--like Leonides--with which to adorn himself. Again, Leonides wears the red cape of the Spartan warrior (please see discussion above) while Xerxes wears a black cape with gold. There are two types of gold: there is gold that is refined, and there is gold that is unrefined; a character like Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) of Star Trek is the "unrefined gold," because he is gold, but he will continuously have to be put through the fire to purged of his "bad habits." Xerxes is refined gold, however, it's a refinement that has hardened his heart, rather than giving him a natural and pure heart: his heart is only interested in gold and power, nothing else. In clips for 300: Rise Of An Empire, we see Xerxes rising up out of a bath of melted gold, and that's because he has forged a stylized image of what he thinks a "good king" should be, but in reality, is only a tyrant, and the scene is supposed to remind us of the Evil Queen (Charlize Theron) in Snow White and the Huntsman when the Queen bathes in that liquid white substance, which is the "false white" that gives Snow White her true virtue. Just as the Queen isn't capable of understanding what real virtue is, and falsely mimics it by the color of white, but not the virtues white symbolizes, so Xerxes, too, only sees gold, not what gold symbolizes. 
We could go deeply into detail regarding this conversation, however, let's just look at "divinity." Xerxes claims to be divine, but Leonides knows what actual divinity is: immortality, and he knows that immortality will be achieved by him and his men in their stand, and he would rather be remembered by those he respects (his own people in their hearts and stories they tell the next generation) than be worshipped and served like Xerxes in this present life. Xerxes counts on Leonides having something that Leonides doesn't have: pride (Leonides instead has self-respect and dignity; Xerxes exhibits pride when his warriors don't defeat the Spartans and he has heads cut-off). The character who exemplifies pride best in the story is Ephialtes.
This is always a great rule by which to abide: whenever there is an "additional character" in a history or "true" drama, look for that character to serve an important metaphorical purpose. Granted, there was a man who showed the Persians the hidden path to cut-off the Spartans, but we can be quite sure he didn't have the role in real life he has in the film. For example, why doesn't the helmet fit him? Of all the adjustments they could have made to this character, why was a head too big to fit within the Spartan helmet one of them? Because he has a "big head," a head full of pride. To be perfectly honest, and this is going to hurt all of us, but Ephialtes is the character that most of us represent in the film: if we were in as good of shape as the Spartan soldiers, and had the fighting skills, we would be pretty big-headed about ourselves, too. What's the purpose of drawing a character like this? First, it serves as a lesson of how not to be. Secondly, Ephialtes accentuates the virtues of Leonides and how tremendous his sacrifice truly was, and what a loss for Sparta when they lost their good king (and, why we should still honor these men today).
Again, just as with the children who were puny and thrown out, Ephialtes is a metaphor for what happens to us when we don't throw out sin in our lives: Ephialtes is the symbol of pride because he doesn't want to take Leonides' suggestion in bringing water to the dying and tending the wounded; he insists on fighting like a Spartan warrior, but, as Leonides points out, he has a weak spot, and that would endanger the man beside him. Spartans protect the man beside them, they don't think of protecting their self or of winning glory for themselves (the glory comes from what they do as a unit), but Ephialtes is thinking only of himself and we know this because it's he who betrays the Spartans (again, thinking only of his wounded pride, not of the lives of the brave 300, or of all of Greece).
This guy, and his hand-to-hand combat with Leonides, continuously comes up in films today, like Thor the Dark World, The Chronicles of Narnia Prince Caspian, Sherlock Holmes (2009), The Legend Of Hercules, Brick Mansions (soon to be released) and others I just can't think of at the moment (Robert Maillet plays the same character in most of these films). Why is this so important? Why is the king fighting an enormous challenger so important? First, it demonstrates what a real leader is, that a real king-among-men will take the most difficult opponent for himself, not leave it to another, or let someone else fight his battles for him. Secondly, it validates suffering and hardships in our life. The greater the foe, the greater the victor, as Pope Leo the Great said, and while none of us would want to face an opponent such as this, if Leonides didn't, he would never have overcome him, in other words, we don't know our strength until it's put to the test. Post-2008, however, we can see films quoting this scene as a validation of what Americans hold as "true leadership," which spits in the face of our gold-playing president.
There are many, many more aspects of the film to be explored, but for the moment, I would like to turn out attention to Xerxes' harem as a theme of the "unnatural." If you examine the list of credits, there are two trans-gender characters, a contortionist and, of course, the two kissing females comprising Xerxes' entourage. Why is this important? For at least two reasons: first, that unnatural is very close to Xerxes and part of his inner-circle, which suggests that he himself is unnatural (yea, we knew that, this just substantiates it). Secondly, it reveals Xerxes' sexual perversions. These elements are strong, polarized characteristics (like black-white, male-female, right-wrong); when such ideals are incorporated into a story, the narrative conveys an entire package of cultural morals to the audience and justifies why society holds true the norms it has established (like not tolerating homosexuality, ambiguous sexuality and non-traditional marriage [Xerxes' harem and multiple partners as opposed to Leonides and Gorgo's traditional marriage]). 300, then, was not only identifying the enemy in Xerxes' behavior, but as well reminding viewers why we must adhere to the cultural norms we have always held as true: because once one sin is permitted to enter, more will follow, and it can't be stopped.  
The most notable feature of the Spartan men is their extreme physique, however, their body is a metaphor of their souls, their minds, their hearts: Leonides loves his wife, child and country with the strength we see physically expressed in his body. Leonides doesn't love being king, but he accepts, without flinching, his duty and what he must do to fulfill his office entrusted to him by the people of his land. These qualities, these actions, these realities, are what it means to be a man, and the standards by which men must measure themselves in order to achieve self-respect because a man who doesn't respect himself is not happy, and we certainly see that in both Xerxes and Ephialtes. Misfortune and sadness fall upon them all, however, they are better able to bear those burdens then the fearful, enslaved Persians they kill and destroy (or even the free Greek men who have joined them to fight). In this scene above, the 300 marching off to defend their homeland and suffer death as the price of freedom, the golden wheat field is ripe for the harvest, because the men themselves are ready to be harvested, their own souls are like the wheat that will feed others and strengthen them, whereas the greed, corruption and perversions of Xerxes and his army keeps them going with ever greater depths of depravity.
After 300 was first released, there was a number of possibilities Hollywood was throwing around as potential sequel ideas, one being Leonides' early life, another as other battles, but the battle of Marathon and what we will be seeing this weekend in 300: Rise Of An Empire was not one of the projects for a long while; something in our culture, however, determined that the events depicted in the new film fit our time and our needs better than other possibilities, so it's our job, like the Greek playwright Aeschylus, to see both films through the eyes of art, as statements of what a hero is, what truth is, and above all, why that is still worth fighting for and how intimately our identity is bound with these values. Eat Your Art Out, The Fine Art Diner
In essence, the Spartan men are totally human, with their emotions, their love, their joy and sorrow--even their fear--whereas the Immortals are unnaturally hardened (their face masks symbolize their lack of identity).  The Spartans teach us many lessons, most importantly of which that we should strive for immortality, but the right kind of immortality: that which inspires and sustains others in their own journey of life and freedom. It's not that 300: Rise Of An Empire is a sequel, it's a reminder of what is perhaps the highest and grandest, even the most extreme example of what history has to offer in the way of personal glory and national freedom.