I had a new essay prepared -- balanced and funny -- about Ayn Rand and the film version of her epic novel Atlas Shrugged. But that can wait, because a few days ago, the famous comic book writer Frank Miller issued a howl of hatred toward the young people in the Occupy Wall Street movement. After reading even one randomly-chosen paragraph, you'll agree that "howl" understates the red-hot fury and scatalogical spew of Miller's lavish hate:
“Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America."
Well, well, putting aside contemporary left-right politics, I've been fuming silently at Frank Miller for a years. The time's come, so get ready for steam!
I'll do it by dissecting - calmly and devastatingly - his most famous and lucrative piece of modern propaganda. The comic book and movie tale about Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae.
A tale called - "300."
== Leni Riefenstahl would be proud==
Though I'm not best-known for graphic novels*, I've done a few. I've been sketching out a script about one of the greatest heroes of western civilization - Themistocles - the man who actually defeated Xerxes. the Persian emperor, during his brutal invasion of Greece, after the Spartans failed so miserably at Thermopylae. In part, this would be an answer to Frank Miller's "300"... a book and film that I find both visually stunning and morally disturbing.
For one thing, "300" gave all credit to the Spartans, extolling them as role models and peerless examples of manhood. Adorably macho defenders of freedom.
Uh, right. Freedom. Sorry, but the word bears a heavy burden of irony when shouted by Spartans, who maintained one of the worst slave-states ever, treating the vast majority of their people as cattle, routinely quenching their swords in the bodies of poor, brutalized helots... who are never mentioned, even glimpsed, in the romanticized book or movie. Indeed, the very same queen who Frank Miller portrayed as so-earthy, so-kind, was said to be quite brutal with a whip, in real life.
...even though the first invasion by Persia, ten years earlier - under Xerxes's father - had been defeated by just such a militia army... from Athens... made up of farmers, clerks, tradesmen, artists and mathematicians. A rabble of ill-disciplined "brawlers" who, after waiting in vain for promised help from Sparta, finally decided to handle the problem alone.
On that fateful day that citizen militia leveled their spears and their thin blue line attacked a professional Persian force many times their number, slaughtering them to the last man on the legendary beach of Marathon.
== The inconvenient truth of Marathon
Think about that for a moment. Can you picture it? Damn. Please pause here and Wiki "Marathon." Even better, watch it computer dramatized. Prepare to be amazed there were once such men. Go on... I'll wait!
Frank Miller rails against effete, pansy-boy militias of amateur, citizen soldiers. But funny thing, none of his Spartan characters ever mentions those events, just a decade earlier! How bakers, potters and poets from Athens - after vanquishing one giant invading army, then ran 26 miles in full armor to face down a second Persian horde and sent it packing, a feat of endurance that gave its name to the modern marathon race. A feat that goes unmatched today. Especially by Spartans.
That Athenian triumph deserves a movie! And believe me, it weighed heavily on the real life Leonidas, ten years later. "300" author Frank Miller portrays the Spartans' preening arrogance in the best possible light, as a kind of endearing tribal machismo. Miller never hints at the underlying reason for Leonidas's rant, a deep current of smoldering shame over how Sparta sat out Marathon, leaving it to Athenian amateurs, like the playwright Aeschylus, to save all of Greece. The "shopkeepers" whom Leonidas outrageously and ungratefully despises in the film.
With that shame over Marathon fresh in memory, Leonidas was eager to prove Spartan mettle when Persia invaded a second time, even though he could find just three hundred volunteers. That much, "300" gets right. Alas, truth is rare in that book and film. Like the notion that Xerxes cared a whit about rustic Sparta in the first place. Athens was always his chief target. It was the heart of the West.
Even when it comes to the Battle of Thermopylae itself, "300" tells outright lies. For example, 1,000 Thespians refused to leave their comrades at the end. They stayed in the pass and died next to Leonidas's 300 Spartans. More shopkeepers. Their valor was inconvenient to Miller's narrative, So he just wrote them out. Worse, he slandered them, depicting them running away.
Oh, remember those helots? As slavemasters, Spartans made the later Romans seem positively goody-two-shoes, by comparison. In his book and movie "300" Frank Miller never shows the two thousand helot luggage-bearers who Leonidas's gang of bullies whipped before them into the pass at Thermopylae, carrying their masters' gear and food and wine and shields.
Where were those slaves during the battle? Why, in the front line! Handed spears but no armor, they slowed down the Persians with their bodies, then made the ground conveniently slippery with their blood. Huh, funny how that got left out! I'm sure it was just an oversight.
== Thermopylae: what was going on in plain view
The Athenian navy, hard-pressed and outnumbered, guarding his flank in the nearby Artemisium Straits. Again, a citizen militia of fishermen, merchants, blacksmiths and philosophers, they too were at Thermopylae! A few miles out to sea, they battled odds no less desperate than Leonidas faced, without the convenient cliff and wall, against vastly superior Persian forces. Only with this one important difference.
Where Leonidas failed to hold for more than a day or so, the Athenians kept firm! They only retreated when the Spartans let them down!
The commander of that brave flotilla, Themistocles, is a hero far more in keeping with American traditions. A Washington-like commander who makes good use of volunteers - plus new technology and brains - to stave off hordes of arrogant, professional conquerors. Less interested in pompous bragging and macho preening, he cared about his men, striving to achieve both victory and survival. He despised "bold gestures." What mattered were results. Saving his country. His civilization. His men.
And now that you know this, can you believe that Miller and his partners refused to let Leonidas turn his head and witness such a wonderful thing? And maybe give a brief, respectful nod to his allies' epic courage? Don't you feel cheated? You were.
Forced to give way when Leonidas failed to hold a narrow pass, Themistocles and his sailor militia kept up a fighting retreat, survived the burning of their city, (where their dauntless women handled a skillful evacuation)... till they finally drew the vast Persian navy into a trap at a little island called Salamis... glorious Salamis...
...where outnumbered Athenians - and their neighbors - utterly crushed the invading armada, sending Xerxes fleeing for his life. THAT was what saved Greece, not futile boasting and choreographed prancing on the bluffs of Thermopylae. (And again, what a movie someone might make out of the true story!)
As for the later land battle at Platea - glorified by the book and film "300" - it was hard-fought tactically. But strategically it wasn't much more than a mopping-up, slaughtering a demoralized and cut-off Persian force that Xerxes had already abandoned. And even at Platea, there were more men from Athens (and Attican towns) than Spartans! And it was Athenians who raced ahead and turned the Persians' flank.
Oh, one more thing about Platea. At the exact moment that Frank Miller portrays the Spartan Dilios taunting and deriding his own allies before a desperate fight -- (yeah, that's likely) -- it happens that simultaneously Themistocles and his fleet of volunteer sailors were also finishing off the rest of the Persian navy, at Mycale. Dig it, the Athenians fought two epic battles on that same, fateful day. The day the West triumphed and survived. A day worthy of Tolkien and Peter Jackson! And those are the facts. Live with it Miller.
Do the Spartans at least get credit for commanding Greek armies ashore? A couple of years after Platea, repelled by Spartan arrogance and brutality, the Greek cities dumped Sparta from any further leadership role as they spent the next thirty years pushing Persia ever further back, expelling them entirely from Europe and liberating enslaved populations. Led by the democratic rabble from Athens.
In other words. History wasn't at all like the book, or the movie "300." It was much, much better!
== Artistic license? Or goddam evil-batshit lying?
Look, artists get a lot of leeway. At least in this society of freedom they do. (They sure didn't get any slack in feudal times, dominated by warrior-caste bullies.) Miller and the makers of the 300 flick were entitled to emphasize the Spartans and their martial spirit, even though their brave "sacrifice" at Thermopylae accomplished very little, except to make a fine tale of futile bravado. A three-day delay? We're supposed to be impressed by a three-day delaying action?
Well, okay, that's about equal to Davy Crockett at the Alamo. I'm willing to give credit and always have been! Okay, Leonidas and the brave 300 Spartans (and 1000 Thespians!) deserve a movie. (They've had several.) But please. This was a small "feat" at best.
Okay, okay. I'll also admit, "300" certainly offered a great excuse for ninety minutes of homoerotic dancing! Hey, I can appreciate the aesthetics, in abstract. It's not especially my thing - and real Spartans did NOT engage in combat that way - still, 300 gets full marks as a lavishly choreographed fight'n'flex number. And for terrific painted-on abs.
But there comes a point when artistic license turns into deliberate, malicious omission. And then omission becomes blatant, outright-evil lying propaganda. "300" not only crosses that line, it forges into territory that we haven't seen since the propaganda machine of 1930s Germany. White is black. Black is white. Good is defined by the triumph of will.
After Athens' citizen soldiers accomplished epic triumphs the Spartans never imagined and that they would never, ever come remotely close to equaling? At battles whose names still roll off our tongues today? Achieved by the same kind of "cincinnatus" militias that propelled both Republican Rome and the United States to unparalleled heights, during their time of vigor?
The kind of soldiers who make up our U.S. military today! Citizens-first, despite their vaunted professionalism.
(Historical note: Yes, the Athenians had their faults too! They owned slaves, though far more gently than Sparta. Women had few rights - though the legend of Lysistrata was born there. After they lost Great Pericles, their democracy fell into the kind of populist foolishness that we see in America today, idiotic foreign adventures and callousness toward neighbors. But all of that came later. And at their worst, they kept the basic virtues that are at-issue in this matter of "300"... and in my response. Fierce pride in citizenship.)
No, this is not just artistic license. Expressed repeatedly - with the relentlessness of deliberate, moralizing indoctrination - "300" idolizes the same arrogant contempt for citizenship that eventually ruined classical Greece and Republican Rome, and that might bring the same fate to America.
My own graphic novel "The Life Eaters" never sold as well as Miller's. Heck, that's not my expertise. (Though it was a finalist in France, where they adore the Graphic Novel art form.) With gorgeous art by Scott Hampton, "The Life Eaters" tells a vivid story of rebellion and resistance to a very Spartan-like oppression. But forget the shameless plug. I'm not competing with Frank Miller on his turf. I've got plenty-enough turf of my own.
Doing it without boasting -- or painted-on abs -- but with wit, courage, comradeship, skill... and the one thing that matters most. Something Leonidas never came close to achieving.
The only truly indispensable accomplishment. Something that is often best won by citizen soldiers -