March 20, 2007

He drew the sword from his thigh (a lesser man would have used a scabbard)

Haven't seen "300" yet, although looking at ludicrous stills like this one inevitably bring Armour's quote about Achilles, above, to mind.

The other memory it evokes is of "Go Tell the Spartans," a fascinating little war movie. The character of Lt. Finley Wattsberg remains one of the more interesting portrayals of a combat intelligence officer out there.

UPDATE: Gary Brecher gets it more or less right, again. That's the trouble with any story about the Spartans... they're about as inscrutable to our contemporary morality-influenced eyes as the Maya from Apocalypto. Frank Miller, et al, have imposed Mike Hammer-style (or as Brecher says, football locker room) ethics on them in the telling, because their real ethos, it seems, was just too weird. Imagine the movie where:

a) The Spartans don't say or shout anything when they prepare to fight. Hence the derivation of "laconic," of course. Their Greek enemies found it unnerving. Hard to capture on film, admittedly.
b) All the Spartans have Anthony Kiedis-length hair, and spend some considerable time combing it before battle.
c) "Boy-lovers" is not an epithet reserved for Athenians, but an extended plot element within Sparta's own ranks.
d) Finally, where the Spartans never, ever, ever say, "love you" to their wives, or use the word "freedom," in any sense (two concepts they seem to have actually despised) other than freedom from foreign overlordship, which was their real motivation back in 480 B.C. (and a noble enough aim by itself, mind). Individual Spartans did not enjoy a great deal of personal freedom as we would understand it, and do not seem to have been particularly disappointed by that.

Add all that, and some actual body armour while you're at it, to the movie, and you've had a really interesting anthropological study. Movie would likely have bombed, of course: it'd be like watching two armies of space aliens fighting, to most people. But the sad fact is Brad Pitt's "Troy" would seem to have captured certain aspects of the Greek mentality a lot more closely than this one does, and that's not saying much at all.

Brecher's right about the killing of peaceful people, too, and what it connotes. In some ways Hollywood is turning out better anti-Iranian and pro-American propaganda now than Goebbels' men ever could back in the day. On the other hand, telegenic Spartan historian Bettany Hughes doesn't seem to mind the new movie, the director claims, although I wouldn't mind hearing her thoughts directly.

UPDATE #2: Saw the movie. It's certainly not as bad as it could have been. There is a Herodotean "larger than life" feel about some of the spectacle that almost makes up for the warrior-in-thong ludicrousness, to some extent. Amusing, rather than amazing. And certainly, as Sullivan termed it, "Gayest. Movie. Ever." Not that there's anything, etc.

Posted by BruceR at 03:59 PM

The flag at Vimy

This is a silly argument.

The facts concerning which flag should fly at Vimy Ridge, brought largely by veterans' organizations whose oldest members date from another world war altogether, is accurately conveyed by the article. The decision to fly the modern flag seems the right one.

As the article correctly states, from 1904 to 1921 the official flag of Canada was the pure, unadulterated Union Jack, not any of the Red Ensign derivations that came before and after it. If there had been a flag flying at Vimy in April of 1917 where the Canadians fought, it would only have been that one. So if this was only an exercise in historical recreationism, the Union Jack should be flying over the Vimy Memorial. But it's not.

The flying of ancient flags in place of their modern descendants is most generally used to denote political entities that have disappeared... the obvious example is the Confederate flag at Civil War memorials in the States. However, if the political entity that survived is still extant, then the tradition is generally to fly the current flag of that entity: for instance, no one feels compelled to fly the 48-starred version of the American flag when commemorating Pearl Harbour (or lop off even more stars for even older victories.)

The veterans who are backing this are either remembering a different war (the Canadian flag by the time of World War Two was the Red Ensign), or, less charitably, they're subtly arguing that the Canada of today, or since the 1960s, is politically distinct from the Canada they once fought for. Neither of these motives deserves much respect. The government's right in sticking to their guns on this one.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out that the Imperial War Museum has in its collection a nearly contemporaneous Canadian Red Ensign in their Vimy exhibit. The issue here is the rapidly evolving sense of Canadian national identity following the identity-shaping experiences of the First War. Up to the start of the war, English-Canadian patriotism generally meant a strong identification with Britain... hence the move to replace the Red Ensign with the Union Jack as Canada's national flag in 1904, as a sign of imperial loyalty. After Ypres, and the Currie-Snow Affair, and Vimy, and Passchendaele, Amiens and the Somme, where it was blatantly clear that Canadians and British, if still pursuing the same general aims, at least had different ways of doing it, more distance between each others' symbols seemed appropriate.

Also of issue is the fairly nebulous line between the Red Ensign (a variant of the British flag then still used, without the Canadian defacement, as the flag on all English merchant marine vessels and some warships) and the Union Jack. They were both, in the eyes of the time, "the British flag."

The year of the Statute of Westminster, 1931, arguably the real starting point of Canadian independence, was exactly 10 years after the first "Canadian" flag, insofar as the new Canadian coat of arms of that year, and new Red Ensign flag that came with it, were the first to exhibit explicitly pan-Canadian symbology. Before that the coat of arms had been a mash up of the various former colonies... the new flag of 1921 had, among other things, red maple leaves on a white background, emulating the maple leaf insignia worn by Canadian soldiers overseas. It's an illustration of how the need for greater distance arose directly, in part, from the veterans' experience.

It's an overstretch to say soldiers at Vimy were fighting for an independent Canada, or any of the symbols attached to it. It's not surprising that the Red Ensign, despite not being the official flag of the time, had evocative power to Canadian soldiers even before April 9, 1917. But to say they fought for it, or under it, still seems anachronistic.

NOTE: Typo corrected thanks to Mark C. Twice.

Posted by BruceR at 11:48 AM