300 Turns Five: Text and Intertext

Leonidas at Thermopylae. Jacques-Louis David, 1814.

The film 300 turns five this year and to mark the occasion, Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute will screen the film and host a discussion among faculty and students about the film—as it did in 2008. Back then I contributed in person to the discussion: this time I’m in the Republic of Macedonia—some distance north of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas staged his defense.  The re-screening has prompted me to think again about the film and, especially, its intertextuality.  It seems especially apt that the originator of the concept, Julia Kristeva, was born in neighboring Bulgaria, which is also the location for 300’s long-awaited parallelquel, 300: Rise of an Empire.  

In an oft-cited phrase Kristeva states that “Every text is from the outset under the jurisdiction of other discourses which impose a universe upon it.” (Kristeva, La Révolution du Langage Poétique, Paris, Seuil, 1974: 388-9: translated in Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, London, Routledge, 1981, 105).  Regardless of our relationship as viewers with Gerard Butler’s pectorals, Rodrigo Santoro’s full-body shave and nose-rings, or the snuffling, lascivious ephors—all, I think, pretty faithful to the vision of graphic novelist Frank Miller, on which the film is ultimately based—there are deeper structures at work here. 300 is, self-evidently, a “last stand/honor and righteousness/everlasting glory” narrative—and the extent to which it is thereby under the jurisdiction of a host of culturally intimate discourses around the world—Israel’s Masada, Serbia’s Kosovo Polje, Shi’a Islam’s Karbala, and the U.S.A’s Alamo—goes some way to explaining its global box office success.  That, plus, of course, the erotics of violence—300 shades of red, if you like.

But besides this, and the generic orientalism that a lot of scholarly commentators have picked up on, there are at least two other con-texts that demand our attention. One emerges if we look at what many consider Frank Miller’s masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns, which informed 2012’s summer blockbuster, The Dark Knight Rises.  In 2008, 300’s director Zack Snyder called this dark, visionary work, which completed Miller’s reinvention of the Batman story, his favorite graphic novel. Besides depicting, 15 years before 9/11, a passenger jet crashing into Gotham City’s skyline (as a result of a Soviet-generated electro-magnetic pulse, not a terrorist attack) and a gunman’s rampage in a movie theater (reported as Batman-inspired, thus eerily anticipating the Aurora shootings), the work upended the superhero genre.  In a United States where a vapid, bellicose President relies on folksiness, where a self-serving elite cut deals with criminal gangs, and are oblivious to working folks, and where stories only matter when they are on TV, the Batman challenges the corrupt and shallow status quo, and establishes his own rival system of rough justice.  The book concludes with a showdown between Batman, as righteous renegade, and Superman, who has become nothing more than the slavish enforcer for a morally bankrupt failed state.

Channeling a similar brand of reactionary, vigilante rage, Miller recently created a stir by voicing his contempt for the Occupy protesters. His Batman and his Leonidas are cut from similar cloth. The graphic novel of 300, perhaps more than the film, paints Leonidas as the experienced, grizzled fighter – and most of the 300 being young. It’s a distinctive part of Miller’s work – a world-weary narrator, mourning a lost world, fighting for it, and inspiring younger followers. In the graphic novel, when Leonidas crouches to throw the spear at Xerxes, one of the young Spartans has to jump out to dispatch the Persian underling closest to him – Leonidas says “good boy.” The tone is exactly that of the last Batman story – where the hero – who has lived with iron discipline, managed his fear and used it against enemies, uses his wits – needs the help of younger, loyal folks—in particular, a teenaged, female, Robin—whom he has inspired, and yet whose loyalty he knows will be their death. 

The other aspect of the Batman series that 300 also features is the line that Miller’s heroes have crossed. The targets of their anger and their vengeance are not confined to their armed enemies—whether the explicitly named “Mutant gang” that Batman takes down, or the hideously disfigured Immortals, and their pet ogre (who they seem to have borrowed from J.R.R. Tolkein’s Mines of Moria) of 300.  They also show no mercy for soft politicians who create a permissive environment, and seductive talkers who enslave others. Both types are, in Miller’s universe, beyond persuasion (or too good at persuasion themselves) – and are treated with no respect for conventions. It’s a kind of frontiersman moralism – evident in Leonidas’ treatment of envoys, especially—shared among a band of brothers who find in each other’s company, and in a warrior code that they share, a line of defense against a corrupt and corrupting world.

It is that message that helps explain the film’s enduring appeal in another specific culture: the US Marine Corps. Of course, part of the films’ appeal for Marines—reported by at least one Gunnery Sergeant with whom I spoke a while ago—is the choreography of violence.  But intertextuality is part of all readers’ experience; and where Brown students and faculty might focus on 300’s relationship with Herodotus’ account in The Histories, or Edward Said’s Orientalism, Marines are more likely to reflect on resonances with Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. Pressfield is himself a Duke graduate and a Marine—I don’t say “former Marine” because my understanding, gleaned in part from Thomas Ricks’ Making the Corps, is that the Marine Corps is a boot camp to grave social network. Pressfield’s book appears on variants of the Marine Commandant’s reading list, assigned to all enlisted and commissioned officers as part of their Professional and Military Education program: he also wrote the preface to a collection of Marine memoirs, Blood Stripes, speaks at Marine bases, and maintains his own website which hosts, among other strands, discussions on counter-insurgency in tribal contexts.

Compared with 300, Gates of Fire offers a deeper reflection on the realities of combat and training. Pressfield’s characters discuss the science of fear—their helmets are designed to present an non-human face to the enemy—and the capacity of trained soldiers, who fight with precision, who can switch out of the altered state that fear, anger or adrenalin generate, and recognize that war is work. In his book, as in Herodotus, the enemy fight bravely but lack the discipline of the Spartans and their allies. Those that are more professional—including, perhaps as a sly homage to the Corps, a group of Egyptian Marines—establish, during truce times, a rapport and mutual respect with the Spartans.

Pressfield also invests the action with a language that bridges the centuries. His Spartans identify themselves as light infantry, and have virtual dog tags, each before conflict takes a twig, breaks it in half, carries one half on him, stacks the other in the rear, where he retrieves it after battle. His Spartans plan and launch a complex night raid on Xerxes’ tent in which, as modern warriors would, they divide into fire teams, identify a rally-point, and think through contingencies ahead of time.

In Pressfield’s book, unlike 300, no-one in the Persian army is disfigured, monstrous; nor do pig-like ephors, back in Sparta, drool over virtuous Spartan maidens.  The two stories do share a frame and certain plot elements; both use the device of the single (honorably discharged) survivor as narrator; the laconic quips—“then we shall fight in the shade” of course, stems from Herodotus’ account—are all included, as well as the near-escape for Xerxes, when one of the central characters gets close enough to throw a spear at him.  But while we might agree with A.O. Scott’s assessment that the film turns this material into lumbering moralism--"the battle of the manly men" --Pressfield’s novel weaves them into powerful tragedy. Gates of Fire engages our empathy in a story of common humanity undone and common sense undone, for an ideal that is somehow nonetheless worth it.

Perhaps with Pressfield’s framing in mind, The Marine Corps Times reviewed 300 much more positively.  While acknowledging the film’s “beefcake, butchery and bombast” reviewer Susan Wloszczyna also noted how it spoke to Marine keywords: Discipline. Duty. Honor. Country. The image at the heart of Leonidas’s psyche, as imagined by Frank Miller—his confrontation with a wild beast during his harsh training—connects not so much with Herodotus or any other ancient account of the agoge, but the famous recruiting video entitled “Rite of Passage” in which the young recruit slays a monster and emerges as a Marine. We are watching the few and the proud, as they put their bodies on the line for the greater good.

Especially in view of the apparent glorification of violence in the film, and Miller’s own reactionary politics, one can choose to 300 as naïve, dangerous militarism. But much has changed since the film’s release in 2007—U.S military fatalities in Iraq have dropped from their peak that year (904) to 1 in 2012, while troop levels and casualties in Afghanistan rose to a peak in 2010, and are now also declining. All texts, including starkly drawn films, can be as intertextual as we make them.  Alongside Gates of Fire, 300 can also stand as monument to the horror and the waste of war, and a standing invitation to reflect on wider issues of service, and the reciprocal obligations that exist between national leaders, civilians and a professional military.