There are a lot of movies set in the ancient past or distant that are meant to be metaphors for our current problems. Frank Herbet’s Dune was a warning about the over reliance of oil dependant on a single source ruled over by a culture that by most standards of civilization is backward and barbaric (one wonders what the book would have looked like if his knowledge of said culture had included their propensity for genocide). There is a certain logic to this, when you provide enough distance between the audience and the subject you allow them to put aside immediate prejudices about party or history and allow us to see the thematic truth of something and then reapply it to our own present situation.
There are a lot of movies and shows, but I have chosen three to highlight this point.
“But from free Greek to free Greek, the word was spread that bold Leonidas and his 300, so far from home, laid down their lives, not just for Sparta, but for all Greece and the promise this country holds […] This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny, and usher in a future brighter than anything we could imagine.”
Ironically this would have been a truly great movie if there hadn’t been as many action scenes. It was odd that the movie that was supposed to be 110% mindless action, actually had strong character development, excellent writing, and a powerful themes…so much so that it was the over-the-top action that ruined the film.
How do I know this is a metaphor for America? Because the tyrannical, dictatorial, make fascists look warm and fuzzy by comparison, Spartans would never speak about an “age of freedom” that was coming. They were pretty much opposed to freedom in all ways, at all times, with all people. The actual economics of Sparta would have a been a dream for Marx, and the rest of society made Nazi Germany look libertine. But this movies isn’t really about the real Sparta…it’s about America.
Now how is this patriotic toward America? Well, to state the obvious, this was a bit of a love letter to the troops fighting in the war against terror. It states that our service men are willing to die not so much for country (the Spartans are certainly fighting for more than just Sparta, and that point is made quite explicit) but to stand against tyranny (represented by Persia instead of the modern world where Iran is one of the major centers of tyranny…hey, wait a second…), to draw a line against an evil which seeks to conquer the world and say you will not cross this line as long as I live. And while there is always the disenchanted minority of whiners in any group, I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of our armed services, do not do it for glory or a pay check, but because they wish to defend the liberties of not only friends and families, but of people they don’t even know.
And how many countries breed an attitude like that?
Now we have to hope this pro-American theme is carried by director Zach Snyder into his next movie, The Man of Steel.
Zoe: Big damn heroes, sir.
Mal: Ain’t we just?
The West. A constant metaphor for the freedom and greatness of America. Also a genre populated by some of the corniest, most poorly done films and TV shows of all time.
But never underestimate Joss Whedon for breathing life back into a genre. Confederate soldiers in a post-Civil War west surviving as bandits, soldiers of fortune, and whatever jobs come their way a little tired….no problem, just put the whole thing in the 23rd century and add a lot of wit.
The crew of the firefly class ship Serenity time and again exemplifies the classic ideal of what makes the cowboy the American ideal of a hero.
Honor and ethics above all else
Sheriff Bourne: You were truthful back in town. These are tough times. A man can get a job, he might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours… well… then he has a choice.
Mal: I don’t believe he does.
Even the law
A government is a body of people; usually, notably ungoverned
“You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed”
“Let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job…I get paid.”
…over the destructive forces of government regulation
Jayne: You save his gorram life, he still takes the cargo. Hwoon dahn.
Mal: He had to. Couldn’t let us profit. Wouldn’t be civilized.
Notably this show does something that is also very America…it points out that when your government (which should not always be confused with your country) is corrupt and in it’s constant arrogance to think that it and it alone can make people better must be opposed. Which in many ways is one of America’s greatest strengths and most heroic qualities (but I will admit that many whiners have stolen the idea of opposition to tyranny and applied the appellation of this form of heroism to a lot of whiners).
If you have the time, go through the virtues listed by Alexis De Toquville when he discusses what makes America a great democracy. You’ll find that almost a T the virtues listed in Democracy in America are the ones that are exemplified in Mal Reynolds and his crew.
Although I will admit I’m getting a little worried about this trope I’m seeing more and more that shows the Confederates to be men who fought for principle and state’s rights and liberty. That may have been the way they viewed themselves, but let us not forget the real Confederacy was not some libertarian dream land, it was an oppressive slave state with very heavy socialist economics. And I while I will admit this trope can be useful in certain contexts, I would be more than happy to see it die for a few years before people actually start viewing the entirety of the Confederacy as a heroic bastion of idealism.
“I will not believe that they fought and died for nothing. They fought for you…and for Rome. I’ve seen much of the rest of the world, it is brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light.”
It’s a favorite thing of historians to compare Rome to America. Always with the implication as with Rome, America will fall not with a bang but with a whimper. And while there are volumes of lessons to be learned from what worked and didn’t work in the Republic, the comparisons can often get a bit to hackneyed to be taken too seriously, in art where the lax rules of allegory allow for some wiggle room, the story of Rome, of a mighty nation that was destroyed more from within than from without, is always an interesting comparison.
In Gladiator we see this from the perspective of a nation at the point of collapse, ready to fall into chaos but still potentially able to rise out of it own corruption and regain the past of being a republic of laws and not a nation that follows one man blindly if he just offers them bread and circuses. “There was once a dream that was Rome” they several times and if you’re looking for the message it would be hard to not find this a bit of a call against the oppressions of our own government which in 2000 and still now is becoming more about Caesar, er, I mean the president, and less and less about law. (Which brings up an interesting point to make about how we view the past. Remember in 2000 when were coming off 10 years of liberals screaming about how wrong it was for a GOP Congress to lower government entitlement spending and balance the budget and how the GOP as tying the hands of Clinton who would have spent more if he could have…and now Clinton is taking all the credit for being the great president who had surpluses in his presidency. People really need to have a better memory of the past.)
“Is Rome worth one good man’s life. We believed it once. Make us believe it again.”
Now unlike Rome we are not going to saved by one man…maybe one president and a Congress that will back him, but really that’s up to the people. But the fact of the matter is that idea of what America is, is waning. And to a degree it is up to up to us to make ourselves believe in America again. May I suggest by booting the tyrant out.
Now again, I’ll admit these are at best allegorical comparison, that are meant to be taken loosely. Don’t read too much into them. There is a reason that these 3 only got one blog and came in below a few films that only made it onto the list because of a single scene…as you will see tomorrow…