Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Oracle at Fresno speaks

Maverick classics scholar Victor Davis Hanson returned to a packed house at his old Fresno State stomping grounds tonight to weigh in on his involvement with 300 and the history that inspired it.

And when I say packed, I'm talking Starkist tuna.

I ended up party to this egregious violation of fire code in a "seat" on the floor down one aisle with scores of others assembled to bask in the glory.

In his usual odd mix of academic brilliance and raisin farmer earthiness (seriously, the farm's been in the family for generations -- he once recreated an ancient battle there with students wearing 70 lbs of armor like true hoplites) Hanson spoke for about 30 minutes before taking questions from the audience of all ages and media affiliations.

I would have opened my laptop to take notes if I wasn't pretty much spooning my aisle-mates by the time we actually got rolling, so here goes the random highlights.

Yes, 300 was his first movie gig, though he passed up hanging with Colin Farrell for Alexander after getting a phone call from "an obnoxious sounding woman with a British accent" requesting the meeting. Hanson had never heard of Farrell -- and had no problem trashing the film when he saw it. Ditto for Troy.

Zack Snyder, co-writer Kurt Johnstad and Frank Miller, fans of Hanson's writings, hounded him for some time to view an early cut of the film, Johnstad ultimately driving all the way to Selma with a DVD.

"When someone phones you and lists Dawn of the Dead and Sin City as their credentials, you have to be careful," Hanson joked. "I've already done enough to discredit the profession."

After initial skepticism over visual embellishments and details like the lack of armor, Hanson was won over by the accurate themes and spirit of the thing.

He considers 300 historically accurate, merely delivered in a hyper stylized form -- something guys like Herodotus and Plutarch would have been just fine with.

He was also impressed with the lengths the filmmakers went to stay real with the script. The film contains some 16 lines lifted directly from history and a slew of whole scenes. That cool bit with Xerxes' messengers tossed into the well? That happened too.

Also accurate, the phalanx style of fighting. But surprisingly, even the one-on-one fighting scenes are grounded in history. Mini sorties and hand-to-hand combat often followed the phalanx charge, Hanson said.

There was one truly Hollywood aspect...

Hanson said he couldn't help but notice, too, the -- er, hyper-reality of the upper female anatomy on screen at times.

"We have makeup for everything," Snyder said.

Colleagues have given Hanson grief for defending the film, mostly for political reasons.

“Why are you working with this right-wing, comic-book guy Frank Miller?” they ask.

"What I love about these guys is that they're outsiders, doing this with a handful of people beyond the mainstream, on a budget of $26 million," Hanson said.

He never officially outed Snyder and Johstad as conservatives. But he did say Gorgo's troop surge senate speech was added after the Bush Administration's decision to up the ante in Iraq.

"That wasn't in the version I saw late last year," he said.

He also said he just got an email from one of them, "thrilled" at reports people were walking out of the movie in Germany after calling it an American propaganda movie.

"I can only assume they're ecstatic now that Iran is outraged too," Hanson said.

Other completely random highlights:

* Hanson stayed a phone call away during final and post-production, with Snyder calling on at least one occasion for quick tips and fix-it advice.

* Hanson attended the big So Cal premier last week.

* Are you a super fan planning to visit the actual pass at Thermopylae? You may be disappointed. It's now a highway, with the sea below the cliffs silted over for some distance.

* Archeology at Thermopylae has unearthed hundreds of arrowheads on the spot the 300 died, confirming they fought in the "shade."

* Hanson was once contacted by a military unit in Iraq, asking for the correct Greek form of their proposed tattoos: "Come and take them,” the taunt used by Leonidas' men in the film.

* Our troops in Iraq routinely find porn and drug paraphernalia in raided Jihadist enclaves. “They’re just as corrupt as anyone else.” (He digresses during the Q&A.)

* What would have happened if Persia had subjugated Greece? The same thing that happened to culturally rich Ionia when it happened there: a total dark age.

* To the criticism Sparta was oligarchical and depended on serfs: Imperfect as it was, by the standards of the day, constitutional government in Greece was unique -- and light years ahead of the rest of the world. In Persia, there was no debate over slavery being immoral. Nor was history even recorded. "History" was writing what Xerxes told you to write about Xerxes.

* New U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. Petraeus is destined to be either Bush's Gen. Sherman or his Gen. McClellan. (Lincoln was politically dead in the water until Sherman destroyed Atlanta in his march to the sea and won the Civil War.)

VDH: "Today, 20 percent on the left believe the war in Iraq is inherently evil and all for oil, 20 percent on the right believe we could democratize the moon if we set our mind to it, and 60 percent in the middle just want to back a winner."

* NPR interview audio covering some of the same topics discussed tonight.

* Website of the man himself. Highly recommended.


Cato said...

Informative report. That tidbit about adding Gorgo's speech after the surge was announced is a dead giveaway. I wonder which one's the conservative, though -- Snyder or Johnstad. Or maybe both? Mwu-hahhahaha!!!

Splash said...

Based on that "Major League Infidel" T-shirt Snyder was wearing for that MTV photo posted at Libertas, I'm guessing he at least skews right a wee bit


Cato said...

I'm sure you're right. Incidentally, I just ordered one of those T-shirts. They're cool (as the kids say).

adamjbernay said...

I'm in Fresno; I know Hanson, wish I'd known about this speaking engagement.

George said...

Yeah, Zack must swing to the right - his interview demeanor reminds me of that other famous militarist, Matt Sanchez.