Sunday, November 13, 2011

Roll over, Frank Miller: Or stop lying about prancing-futile Spartans!

Originally published November 13, 2011… based on earlier, informal postings.

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.

Miller's Spartan warriors honestly and openly conveyed the contempt for civilians that was felt across the ages by all feudal warrior castes. An attitude in sharp contrast to American sympathies, which always used to be about Minuteman farmers and shopkeepers - citizen soldiers - the kind who bravely pick up arms to aid their country, adapting and training under fire. Alas, Frank Miller's book and movie "300" ridiculed that kind of soldier...

...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!

BattleMarathon2Frank 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

But the worst slander of all is one of glaring, outrageous omission and tunnel vision. It is what "300" might have shown happening just offstage, simply by turning the camera! Indeed, Leonidas could see it with his own eyes, in plain view throughout the fight, if only he chose to swivel his head.  (Alas, Frank Miller doesn't let him turn, in the comic and film.)

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?

BattleMarathonLook, 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.

I might have just sat and glowered, if they simply omitted the Athenians.  But to sneer at them and call them effeminate cowards?

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.

What I do suggest is this: use your own imagination! Picture an answer to "300," told from the point of view of an escaped Spartan helot-slave serving aboard one of Themistocles's ships, staring up at the frenetic death-prancing of his former masters on the cliff of Thermopylae, shaking his head over their futile, macho posturing, then turning to help the amateur fighters of Athens and Miletus and Corinth get on with the real job of saving civilization.

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 -

- victory.

David Brin
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Anonymous said...

Thank You David Brin! Nice to see at least one great SF writer hasn't become Rush Limbaugh like the great mystery that is Dan Simmons. Even without knowing about Frank Miller's 9/11 conversion (eerily similar to Dennis Miller) I have long thought that he was an overrated macho poseur and lacking when held up to the brilliant light of the Grant Morrisons or Alan Moores out there. He should be forever reviled for what he did to Eisner's Spirit. When heroes (venerated by some) become villains, I don't still sing their accolades. Sure, Miller did some fine, early work, and Simmons wrote one of the best SF series ever (and progressive at that), but they've become werewolves, and in need of a cleansing.

Sylvain said...

But, but... Leonidas makes some of the finest belgian chocolate candy !

and you can't take that from him, no more than you can take the Dark Knight or the dramatization of Daredevil's story from Miller's best years.

As far as his political rants are concerned... since I've been an enthusiast reader of several OS Card's books, I'm getting used to these disappointments.

LarryHart said...


and you can't take that from him, no more than you can take the Dark Knight or the dramatization of Daredevil's story from Miller's best years.

Miller's Daredevil gave us the absolutely wonderful line "A man without a man without FEAR." That line sums up what the OWS protests are about perfectly.

Unfortunately, post-9/11 Frank Miller has become the man with nothing BUT fear. How else to explain the attitude "Do whatever the authorities want, or al-Quaeda might get you"?

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to mention, i read Life Eaters almost 10 years ago-- it stands as one of my absolute favourite comics ever, and I've read a lot. Very smart book.

Charles said...

Thanks for sharing this viewpoint. I watched the movie with a friend who's a huge comic book fan, and he adores the graphic novel and the film as an exercise in myth making. I was, however, horrified by the distortions of the historical record and the near-deification of a culture founded on repression of the helots.

Unknown said...

Turns out Frank Miller's the Schmuck. Miller's adolescent righ-wing pro-military "opinion" is nothing short of Fascist. What a brainwashed drone. He needs to pull his head out of his own theoretical reality and stop drinking his own bathwater.

Global Conquest said...

Very interesting post. You missed the other horribly funny / inaccurate line from the film where King Leonidas refers to some of the other Greeks as 'boy lovers'. I nearly died laughing when I heard that. You can add 'homophobic revisionism' to your list of complaints about the film.

To me though, 300 feels like the movie 'Red Dawn', not so much an accurate film concerning its subject matter, but an amazingly precise example of the Ziegist of the time. Booth read as bald faced propaganda pieces designed to play on people's fears of our 'enemies'.

Huriyya said...

There's really no need to slander the Spartans (and allies) by saying that Leonidas 'failed to hold a narrow pass.' As if it were easy when the Persians had a ridiculous amount of men to throw at them. Anyway, they were betrayed and outflanked.

What's always seemed important to me is that the Second Persian War is one of the few times the Spartans and the Athenians cooperated. Leonidas knew the Athenians needed him to defend that pass. Yes, the Spartans were fascists, but how about the Athenians at Melos - now that would make a great movie. "δυνατὰ δὲ οἱ προύχοντες πράσσουσι καὶ οἱ ἀσθενεῖς ξυγχωροῦσιν"." Those in power act, the powerless get out of the way.

I would be a little wary about fetishizing any of the ancient Greeks. It's no better when it's Pericles being glorified than when it's Leonidas.

Brandon Hyder said...

let me turn this discussion back to occupy wall street.

We all realize the is a huge difference between conservation of our culture and "conservatism" right? "Conservatism" in this country means not only holding batshit economic theories, but holding them above human values. Conservative Christians are our warhawks. Neoconservatism isn't even an ideology-- it's an oxymoron. Mr. Brin, our country is being destroyed by your generation-- history's welfare generation. It seems as if the greatest generation bore the worst-- you are far more materially wealthy and spiritually impoverished than any yet on earth (though maybe we x and y gens will prove yet worse). You folks think yourselves entitled to whatever you can dig up and maintain by force-- and I believe the profound apologetics for robber barons springs from your generation's own buried guilt at owning great suburban castles for gossiping in the office for 40 hours a week, and transferring the real costs to the working poor and the future. The Boomers are a bunch of stupid but well trained specialists, and they all became amateur economists as soon as a black man became president...

All the kids of OWS don't know how to solve these huge endemic problems, but your breakdown of Miller aptly tells the story of your generation. Nationalism, economic and darwinian logic supersedes traditional culture. If Frank Miller wants the world to look like Robocop 2, well, we're getting there.

History, Frank Miller proves, means nothing to boomers: how easily can it be rewritten! Your generation looks backwards on our history as a race and a nation with nothing but contempt, except maybe the Reagan era, which is scrictly D-grade so far as science-fantasy goes. The contemporary political scene is not a story of conservative versus liberal, but neoconservative vs neoliberal-- two parties united by their putting economics first among their values, the center of their cosmology.

From "All You Need is Love" to the Patriot Act, from Protesting Vietnam to Invading Iraq (Iran, next?): History shall shit upon you all as the spiritual brothers of GWB, Ephialtes your President. Anti- humanist Christians. Morally bankrupt, spoiled brats.

That being said, I'm really a big fan, sir, and I'm glad I found this article-- I found it insightful and lovely. We are not in power, and we need help. This is not about handouts: it's about the fact that so many working families cannot survive without them. Our health is in the hands of insurance companies and our employers. Our minimum wage is not a living wage. Personal greed is sacred and endemic, the golden cow is praised, running down the government is patriotic and y'all are damaging our country incalculably. Nothing personal.... Fuck Star Wars too.. thanks so much for that critique as well. Lucas, that bastard ripped off H. Beam Piper's "Space Viking" for most his universe and "Little Fuzzy" for his ewoks, taking Piper's lucid yet lurid anti- socialist political philosophy and devolving it into the bland, idiotic "force" and a black-and-white disney-eye view of the universe.

With Love, Brandon

Adam said...

Very enlightening and thought provoking. I knew they neglected a few details, such as helot and Thespian help, but Wow.

I am curious as to what you mean by "idiotic foreign adventures."

Anonymous said...

So this article is generally right on, but I need to point a couple things out.

1.) The Marathon did not get its name from the march of the Athenian army but rather one messenger delivering the news of victory to Athens. This veracity of this story is in question/

2.) The Athenians did use slave soldiers, as well as LOTS of mercenaries. I am not sure what the proportions are but claiming all Athenian soldiers were proto minutemen is committing the same sin as the film pretending the Spartan army was exclusively some proto spec ops deal.

3.) The Spartan shop keepers, fishermen, blacksmiths, etc. none professional soldiers did serve in the Spartan Army. They were called Perioeci and they served as light infantry and auxiliaries.

4.)I am not sure where you got this idea that there were 1K helots slaughtered to "slick the ground" so it were, but the only other Spartan forces there were 1K Perioeci who served the already mentioned light infantry. They were neither sacrificed or otherwise degraded, they simply did not have the endurance of the heavy hoplite infantry. It is indeed a shame these and other participants were omitted, but again you seem to be committing the same sin you criticize degrading them to slave cannon fodder.

Anonymous said...

Also, I forgot some things:

5.) They held the Persians for seven days, not three.

6.) There were about 7,000 total Greek defenders at the pass. Leonides actually sent all but 1500 Greeks (volunteers, more non Spartan than Spartan) away once he found out he had been flanked and their position was doomed. The 1500 stayed to form a rearguard to keep the Persian cavalry from running down the retreating army. This would have made great cinema, again a lost opportunity.

Anonymous said...

You suck, guy. Remember that 300 were not volunteers, but the amount of soldiers Sparta could send to slow Xerxes down while there armies prepare for the end of the Carneia, noob. And remember that had not the Spartans delay Xerxes, Athens along with the Athenians would have burned. The Battle of Thermopylae gave the Athenians time to seek refuge in the island of Salamis. If Leonidas really did try to stop all of Xerxes' invasion force, then he should have brought his whole army. They were not desperate in proving themselves, because from the start they did not expect to survive. And remember that Darius' first invasion was hastily built, with no geographical knowledge of where they are going. Xerxes' force was built for ten days. The Athenians attacked the Persians using surprised attacks and did not completely obliterate the whole force. The Spartans at Thermopylae camped for 5 days, giving Xerxes time to plan how to defeat them. And when a traitor did show him a way, Leonidas and his heavily outnumbered force still amazingly repelled them. He just used volleys after volleys of arrows to finally kill them. Leonidas and his 300 inflicted the highest amount of casualties to Xerxes in the whole war, even defeating the Immortals and killing two of Xerxes' brothers. You're just jealous of Frank Miller's 300 being a success and immortalized, you invented a bunch of stuffs in ancient history to support your theories. And there were 900 helots, by the way, not 2000. They fought fairly along with the Spartans, Thebes, and Thespia. And remember that Leonidas sent the other Greeks to safety when he found about the betrayal. If he were desperate, then he would have forced the other Greeks to die alongside him. Bold Leonidas and brave 300 did not ail to defeat the Persians at Thermopylae. They simply gave crucial time for Athens and the other Greeks to build forces, emphasis on ATHENS.

Peter Dacey said...

Mr. Brin,

I just came across your posting here (years after you made it), and I enjoyed the way you picked apart the history behind the "real" history here.

But I think the aggressive tone against Miller here missed the point: 300 was never meant to be a piece of history. It's historical fiction. You ask Miller to "use his imagination", and that is exactly what he did (to almost as much an extreme as your alternate history work that you cited in the post). Anyone who takes either the graphic novel or the movie seriously never paid attention in history class, and it's as simple as that. It was an intentionally macho work that focused on visuals first. The fact that its history is crazily distorted just adds to the fun, not detracts from it.

You perhaps would have been better served using this as a "compare/contrast" post, or maybe just focused on Miller's recent rant. But the very critical attitude towards the "truth" of Miller's work was rather unnecessary. Additionally, one of your largest criticisms of 300 (the disdain the Spartans had for "citizen soldiers") is also distorted. Yes, the Spartans had some choice words for everyone else, but the words came off as more Machismo, rather than a fully honest attitude. It's smack talk from one group to another, as you would see on an athletic field, rather than a field of battle (all fitting the tone of the work as a whole).

As an afternote, this is when I have to remind you that the "history" that you cite is, at best, third-hand? There are no primary sources regarding the history of these wars, and I'm sure you're well aware of who the creators of the bulk of the surviving history are. We shouldn't get to wrapped up in the truth/fiction of a history that all has to be taken with a grain of salt, wouldn't you agree?

Anonymous said...

On the other hand if you wanted to make a movie about a similar situation, you could recreate the Monocacy River battle, when a vasty outnumbered Union force help back the Confederate Army long enough for another Union Army come defend Washington DC.

And by the way, if you are about historical revisionism, how about letting the NeoConfederates have it? The ones that say "Lincoln was a tyrant" and "The war had nothing to do with slavery"?

Unknown said...

The professional and well-trained Spartan hoplites with their distinctive red cloaks, long hair, and lambda-emblazoned shields were probably the best and most feared fighters in Greece, fighting with distinction at such key battles asThermopylae and Plataea in the early 5th century BCE. The city was also in constant rivalry with the other major Greek cities ofAthens and Corinth and became involved in two protracted and hugely damaging conflicts, the Peloponnesian Wars of the mid- to late 5th century BCE and the Corinthian Wars of in the early 4th century BCE. I liked your blog, Take the time to visit the me and say that the change in design and meniu?

Vlad said...

Of course Sparta was a totalitarian, evil, oppressive city-state; it had a communist-ish regime...

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