Swords, sandals, and guilty pleasures: in defence of ‘300 ROAE’

Four days ago ‘300, Rise of An Empire’; the sequel to the Zak Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel ‘300’ was released in UK cinemas. For those of you who missed the first film (and you call yourselves history geeks) or for those who need a quick recap, here is How It Should Have Ended:

That last line is particularly relevant because, at least in some circles, there has been some hang-wringing over how historically accurate the film is. This article by Cambridge professor Paul Cartledge is probably the most high-profile criticism out there, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. I’m arguing that focusing on whether it is historically accurate is completely the wrong approach. As the HISHE film subtly suggested, ‘300’ was never meant to be an accurate depiction of how things went down circa 480BC. This ain’t no fly on the wall documentary.

In my last post I came down pretty hard on the suspension of disbelief; arguing that pumpkins and potatoes should not have existed in the Lord of the Rings and that, yes, Gandalf was a dope smoker. This week, I’m going in the opposite direction. I’m arguing that there is no way you can sit down to watch a film like ‘300 ROAE’ and expect the story to follow the consensus historical narrative. To write a critique of a story like this on the basis of its historical accuracy is to be willfully disingenuous. It’s also a helluva way to set yourself up for frustration every time you watch a vaguely ‘historical’ movie.

Ross Wittenham 300
Yours truly, as ‘Themistokles’

Full disclosure; I haven’t seen ‘300 ROAE’ yet, and I probably won’t do for a while. This is for personal reasons, not because I consider myself above the genre. I really don’t. Swords and sandals movies are one of my guilty pleasures. The only one I really disliked was that godawful Colin Farrell ‘Alexander’ movie, and that doesn’t count because everyone everywhere hated it.

I love ‘historical’ films even if they bear little resemblance to the events they purport to depict. I also love historical documentaries, but I am smart enough to know the difference. So is everyone. No-one, no matter how clueless they are, goes into an action film like this and believes that what they see is what really happened. In a discussion that followed the publication of my last blog post, I highlighted the ridiculousness of my own problems with historical accuracy: I was quibbling the choice of foods, but had no issue with the existence of wizards and dragons.

This is probably the real root of Paul Cartledge et al’s issues. Just like me, they love the swords and sandals genre. But over the years, as they have gained more expertise in the history surrounding the stories, they have started to spot things that they know aren’t right. This breaks (sod it, hands up, I’m guilty of this too) our suspension of disbelief. We want to talk about how awesome the film is, but because we are human, and English at that, we also feel the need to complain when something distracts us. So we raise our voices in the hope that filmmakers will hear them, and will focus their dabbling on things that will only make the film more awesome.

And we are not alone. There are geeks from other walks of life who are equally frustrated that their subject is being willfully ignored in the pursuit of storylines. Check out, for example, Movie Code. Or, just because I’ll take any opportunity to illustrate an argument with XKCD cartoons, check this out.

Somehow, I doubt that the filmmakers are going to hear us. Swords and sandals films have probably been popular for longer than ones featuring science or code, and we’re still suffering the same problems. We stand on the shoulders of giants like ‘Ben Hur’, all our complaints have got us precisely nowhere. So what can we do?

In one of the bonus features on the original feature film, someone had the audacity to argue that Greeks often depicted their heroes as nudes, and that this was why the film featured so many naked dudes. The suggestion was that this film should be seen as the extension of a traditional Greek oral history, as told by David Wenham’s narrator ‘Dilios’. I prefer to think of it as an homage; a nod to the original events, with lashings of artistic licence. It’s a story worth telling, so let’s not get hung up on the details.

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