written March 2007
So I saw 300 last week. Driven by action, the movie had enough blood and battle to dazzle the senses and up testosterone levels. As cinematography it was a visual CGI masterpiece—though one might ask when and where reliance on computer generated imagery enhances or devalues a movie. The acting was tolerable—not like Ghostrider where I wanted to gnaw off my left leg rather than sit through the excruciating dialogue. As plots go, it was mediocre— not bad but not exactly filled with complex intrigue. Syriana or Babel this movie was not. Noble Greeks fight scary Persians to Alamo type finish. Freedom. Honor. Glory. The End. But my anticipation of 300 was only partly based on my expectations of it as a film.
300 is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, and is a retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae between Spartan Greeks and the Persian Empire in the 5th Century BC. I read the comic back in 1998, and found it fascinating—yet discomforting. The story itself is a surreal fantasy. And though the film's director Zack Snyder makes the grandiose claims that "the events are 90 percent accurate," I hardly expected it to be factual. So that these Spartans fight bare-chested with CGI enhanced abdomens straight out of Chippendales, instead of in breastplates as would have been common, wasn't really of consequence to me. I took it for Hollywood cosmetic to sell tickets—and maybe even reach that coveted gay male audience. I was more concerned with the changes to the movie—and before that the comic—that had deeper meaning, and give us an interesting mirror into the society we live in.
In 300 there is much celebration of Sparta—the Greek city-state known well for its warrior cult, who pose as the heroes of the film. But these are not the Spartans of history; they are instead, something else. For instance, though it's alluded that Spartans were known for killing infants who may have been born with defects or bad omens (this might be a physical deformity or a birth mark), this ritual infanticide is toned down to ambiguity. While the harsh life of a Spartan male, who endures years of brutality to become a warrior, is portrayed, it too is softened and made noble—in its own way. In the movie Spartan boys are forced out into the wild and must face fierce animals, not becoming a true warrior until they kill one. In reality however, Spartan youths didn't go out and kill animals to prove their worth. They actually had to go out and kill a slave—a Helot, fellow Greeks of nearby Lakonia and Messenia conquered and reduced to bondage by Sparta's "free" militaristic elite.
Perhaps because this sounds too much like a modern gang initiation rite (and the comparison certainly fits), it is altered for the viewing audience. As told by the film, slavery is absent in Spartan society—and is something only their enemies practice. This sanitizing of Spartan history may be because in 300, there is much made about Sparta being a land of "freedom." In fact, this is the central theme of the story—the entire reason for the war against Persia. These Spartans are even mildly homophobic, laughingly scoffing at homosexuality among their fellow Athenian Greeks. This is ironic, as ritualized homosexual liaisons among Spartan boys in training was both common and obligatory at the time. In the film Spartan women are not altogether equal, but gender relations have an air of egalitarianism hard to find in the historical record.
The reality, that Sparta was actually a slave society that conquered fellow Greeks, practiced state sponsored eugenics, and was run by a patriarchal male-dominated military oligarchy who maintained their power through force and violence, is radically altered—as it would no doubt clash with the cries for liberty and the "new era of freedom" Spartans boast of repeatedly throughout the film. Altogether, Spartan culture is re-arranged to fit modern (mostly American) ideas on democracy, masculinity, sexuality and gender. And this is necessary not merely to glorify Sparta, but to make certain they were seen as different from their enemies as ever.
One of the first things I noticed when I read Frank Miller's 300, was the main villain of his story—the Persian King Xerxes. He was black—a towering bald giant with earrings in his ears and face and nose, like a brown-skinned Michael Clarke Duncan merged with Dennis Rodman. More than a few of Xerxes soldiers and generals were also black. I found that odd, because the historical Xerxes was Persian—modern day Iran. While the Persian Empire was certainly massive and assimilated all sorts of people, its black population was probably nowhere near that pronounced. And there are enough depictions of Xerxes to not mistake him for the average brother. So why make Xerxes a black giant?
Frank Miller's version of the Battle of Thermopylae took its cue from age-old western notions of Orientalism—a Western perception of the East as alien, inferior and yet menacing. The Persia of 300 is the opposite of the Greeks, the opposite of the Occidental West: a fantastical imagining of the mysterious East, both exotic and frightening, with bizarre peoples and customs, ruled by superstition and tyrants. Most of all the "Orient" is dangerous, and holds the power to destroy the West if it isn't controlled or beaten back. For Miller, Xerxes as a Persian wasn't enough to embody this dark symbolism. He had to be transformed into a more threatening figure—one that only blackness seemed able to conjure up.
The movie version changed this somewhat. Xerxes is no longer black. He is however still a giant, garbed in a speedo and decked out in about two tons of bling—from earrings to body chains. As opposed to the hyper-masculine Spartans of the film, Xerxes is effeminate, foppish and a gender-bending sexual deviant. His army is either dark and faceless, or horribly monstrous—and, as we are told, all slaves whipped into the service of their tyrannical god-king.
But like Sparta, this depiction of Xerxes and the Persian Empire has more to do with modern western—and especially American—imagination than reality. The actual Xerxes of history probably dressed little different than many of his Greek enemies, though much better—in velvet robes or tunics, as Persia was an opulent kingdom. As far as his rule went, while he was probably not someone you'd elect to the local city council, for a monarch of an Empire of his time, he and the other Achaemenid kings of Persia were not precisely the tyrants of Hollywood depiction. They actually instituted what some have called one of the earliest declarations of Human Rights, detailing religious tolerance and (albeit limited) expressions of personal freedom. They even debated the merits of democracy, though choosing against it. Now don't get me wrong. Kings like Xerxes were undoubtedly conquerors, and were no nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize. By our standards, his empire would be unilateralist, rapaciously imperialist and ignore many aspects of international law. But Persian rulers also allowed their territories to have limited independence, demanding only tribute and conscript soldiers. And in what is probably one of the greatest ironies that the movie manages to reverse, under the Achaemenids, for religious reasons, slavery was nominally opposed—though by no means non-existent. This is at least a step-up from Sparta, where the enslavement of fellow Greeks was not a topic up for debate. In the end Xerxes and his fellow rulers were not saints, but neither were they the bloodthirsty tyrants of 300.
The Battle of Thermopylae
Centered on the famed Battle of Thermopylae, 300 depicts fantastic fight scenes—as endless hordes of Persians bash themselves against Spartan soldiers who skillfully hold them off. For Frank Miller's graphic novel and the movie, 300 Spartans led by their king Leonidas hold off 1 million Persians. In reality, the Persians probably numbered between 60,000 to 120,000. The Greeks were actually a force of 7,000—some 4,000 of which were killed—whose success was based mostly on better bronze weapons and a tactical strategy of utilizing the natural landscape.
While it's true that fellow Greeks abandoned the Spartans in the final battle, some 700 remained and also fought to the end. As for the Athenian navy who kept Persia occupied at sea and unable to deploy their full might, these Greeks are wholly absent from 300. The movie instead is certain to give the full glory only to the 300 super-manly Spartan soldiers (not those wimpy "gay" Athenian sailor boys), who in death achieve a cinematic display of quasi-Judeo-Christian sainthood. The undignified beheading of Leonidas and the eventual burning of Athens with the Greeks scurrying away in fright before the Persian forces, is erased from Hollywood-created history, to be sure our Spartan heroes are able to keep their manliness intact.
Just a Movie?
So in the end, what's the point of all this? 300 is just a movie after all, and before that a comic book. It's not history—even if it's director tries to pass it off as such to his audience. It's a story. And it doesn't have to follow the facts. If we're looking for historical accuracy, we'd be better off sticking to a classroom. Films are sold to us as entertainment, not lessons. But at the same time, like any work of art, we would be remiss to leave it at that. Films reflect our culture, our values, our perceptions, what we think of as normal or perverse, right or wrong, good or bad. And they can reinforce larger societal thoughts we take for granted. That Hollywood alters history isn't particularly surprising or even relevant. But how that history is altered, what history is altered and why the altering takes place can reveal a great deal.
The Battle of Thermopylae has long been more than just an ancient event, a comic book or a movie, in modern western imagination. European colonisers and conquerors often portrayed themselves similar to the Spartans, facing hordes of usually darker-skinned enemies—be they Native American Sioux, East Indians or Afghans. In 1964, using the Battle of Thermopylae as partial inspiration, the popular movie Zulu depicted several British soldiers who make a last stand against hordes of fierce African warriors. (Curiously, no one seemed to catch the irony that these latter-day Europeans, unlike the Spartans, were the invaders.) In this way, an ancient battle was changed to not only support European colonialism and the "white man's burden," but also the claimed physical and moral superiority of western civilization, as opposed to the savage multitudes of the East.
Some have accused 300 of being intentional propaganda, portraying the modern West (embodied by the Spartans) as noble freedom fighters and Iran (Xerxes and the Persians) as dangerous threats to freedom and democracy. The film even comes equipped with a local Spartan anti-war movement, who in the end are corrupted or weak and ineffectual. In Iran, the movie has caused an uproar—with protests against what are seen as negative and even racist portrayals of their beloved ancient Persia. Many Iranians even charge 300 is a precursor to a US invasion. Paranoia? Certainly. But given current US threats against Iran, coupled with daily images of US bombs caving in homes in next-door Iraq, those fears aren't merely plucked out of thin air.
Still, I don't think that's the case. I doubt Frank Miller or this movie rendition has anything to do with
current US foreign policy maneuvers. This isn't 24—where Jack Bauer's torture acts were literally tied
to the Bush White House. And the average American may not even know Persia is one-in-the-same
with modern Iran—though hordes of veiled and monstrous enemies from "that" part of the world might
serve the purpose just as equally. Rather, what 300 portray are common images of ourselves—or
how we would like to see ourselves—with themes of masculinity, whiteness, freedom and moral
virtue. And in order to create that image, a foil is needed—darker in both skin and deed, threatening
and powerful, but at the same time able to be overcome if we just show the courage to do so. It is
Orientalism—part of a long history of western perceptions of the "other," made exotic to fit our ideas
of how different "they" are from "us." On some level these perceptions help define "us"—as it
previously helped generations of conquerors and colonizers—by defining "them." In that sense Frank
Miller's 300 is not dangerous new propaganda. Rather, it's the same old propaganda—just more