March 2007


I just finished Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain: A personal journey into the disturbing world of James Bond, a good book that would have been an even better essay. His basic point is suggested by the title: it really really sucked to be Britain in the 1950s. Britain had won the war but lost the peace… it was poor, its manufacturing dribbed away, it was falling behind Europe, its empire was lost, and with it its self-image. James Bond and the Beatles made it cool to be British again. Best of all, Bond invented a way to not compete with the US and still feel superior.

Winder points out that Bond is a puffed-up portrait of Ian Fleming himself: an upper-class twit who demonstrates unexpected competence in the world of espionage. His larger thesis is that Bond expresses an old Tory’s annoyance over Britain losing its position in the world— a loss vaguely blamed on Labour, though Britain really had no resources to preserve it.

This got me interested in the Bond novels, and I picked up a couple of them. I had read only ever read part of The Man with the Golden Gun, and thought that the books would be full of tedious anti-communism… but in fact the politics is marginal in Casino Royale and Doctor No. I’d even say that the obligatory Russian spies bored Fleming; his writing comes alive only as soon as the realistic espionage is left behind, and he can concentrate on luxury, diving, and psychopaths.

Casino Royale has one of the strangest plot structures I’ve ever encountered. The villain is soundly defeated 2/3 of the way through the book. The remainder is taken up with a doomed love story— the doom has been foreshadowed from the start; and the denouement isn’t even triggered by Bond. (And though it’s set in a casino, it’s not even Monte Carlo— the whole book is set in a third-string town in Normandy. Winder tells us that with postwar travel restrictions, this was exotic enough for Fleming’s first readers.)

I’ve also been watching some of the movies again— the Connerys, of course. There’s not much to say about them, except to note that, besides Bond, one of the best things about the films is the music. Who couldn’t be a glamorous secret agent with that soundtrack? (If “secret” is the word for an agent who almost never bothers with an alias.)

The latest movie, by the way, is perhaps the best since the Connery Bonds. It was about time to sweep away the camp.

So, Jeffrey treated us to a showing of 300 during work hours… largely because most people’s wives weren’t interested in it. 300 is about the diametric opposite of a chick flick. (Though one female co-worker went with us and enjoyed all the sweaty pecs on display.)

Miller, a little twerp of a cartoonist, has a thing for extremely red-blooded heroes; he sometimes seems just a couple steps away from fascism, though he does make sure his villains are at least twice as nasty as his heroes. Ancient Sparta is right up his alley.

No matter; it’s a great story, and so long as you’re not expecting Hamlet it’s a great movie. One review I read suggested that its nuanceless glorification of war is tone-deaf when the country is at war. That seems pretty silly; the comic was published in 1998, and celebrates an event that’s been justly famous for 2500 years. The Persians were by no means great villains— note that in the other ancient literature we all know, the Bible, they’re presented very benignly, as they allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem— but their massive invasion of Greece is indefensible, and we have reason to be thankful that the Hellenic city-states preserved their freedom.

Some factoids about the war or the Spartans, gleaned mostly from Wikipedia and from Herodotus:

  • Sparta, like ancient Rome, had two monarchs. (Leonidas’s co-king was Leotychides II.) The system didn’t seem to work that well, and power passed over time to the elected ephors and senate.
  • Despite 300‘s jibe at Athenian “boy-lovers”, homosexuality was common in the Spartan army.
  • Women had a higher status, better education, and greater freedom in Sparta than in other Greek states, including Athens. The political intrigues of Leonidas’s wife Gorgo as shown in the film are invented, but Herodotus credits her with an important role in espionage: a Spartan sent a message home warning of the impending Persian invasion, using a wooden plate covered with wax to allow it to pass unnoticed through enemy lines. The plate baffled the Spartans till Gorgo suggested scraping off the wax.
  • It’s fair enough that the film reflects Sparta’s point of view; but historically it was Athens that the war turned into a great power. It was Athens that won the first victory against the Persians (at Marathon, in 490 BC, ten years before Thermopylae), and their naval victories at Salamis and Mycale were key factors in Xerxes’ decision to withdraw most of his forces.
  • The Greeks didn’t beat the Persians just with machismo while wearing red capes and (in the film) leather underwear or (in the book) nothing at all. One of their advantages was better armor than the Persians used. The film also makes it look like the Spartan spears barely protruded over their shields. In fact they were seven to nine feet long, and the porcupiney appearance of a moving phalanx was a fearsome sight. Herodotus notes that the Persians had shorter spears.
  • The 300 did not stand and die alone; they were joined by 700 Thespians. I guess 1000 didn’t sound as sexy.
  • The pass at Thermopylae was “a single wheel-track” in Leonidas’s day; today, river deposits have widened it to no less than a mile.
  • Ephialtes, the betrayer of the Greeks, wasn’t a Spartan but a Malian (thus, a local).
  • The diagonal on the shields in the film isn’t just decoration; it’s a stylized lambda— L for Laconia, the actual name of the country; Sparta was simply the capital.
  • Despite the film, the Persian army did not actually have orcs.

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