I saw Zack Snyder’s 300 at a sleepy suburban movie theatre near Chicago. The lady behind me was telling her husband that she did not expect to like the movie because “it sounds too violent!” Those who came for that exact reason got their fill of digital gore. There were other dark premonitions. Hours before the movie I opened a forwarded Internet petition singed by some 10,000 bewildered Iranians who were shocked that their Persian identity could be just as savagely demonized as their “Muslim” heritage.
I didn’t sign. It is after all, a comic book movie made by a director whose last masterpiece was a remake of the “Dawn of the Dead.” Protests should be preserved for threatening preemptive invasions not fantasy flicks – even when they bang on the drums of jingoism. To my mind, Snyder’s 300 drinks deeply at the cauldron of rage that is still boiling over in the United States six years after that bloody Tuesday. Two invasions, a trillion dollars in smoke and three thousand dead Americans have not sated the Achellian anger in a remote part of the American psyche. The movie 300 unleashes that abiding desire to curse, brag and rave at “endless Asian hordes.” Bring’em on you barbarian slaves, you, you…, black, gay, effeminate, depraved cowards. Your friends are hunchbacks, deformed giants, midgets, magicians, eunuchs, perverts, lesbians and executioners. To hell with you all and your “mysticism and tyranny!”
Nobody expects historical accuracy from a Hollywood movie based on a graphic novel. But using domestic racial and sexual stereotypes to demonize the enemy is breaking new ground. In the movie 300 Persian “immortal” knights are snarling beasts beneath their sinister masks and their king is a pierced and bejeweled androgynous savage. But, more significantly, Snyder’s Persians – I am not talking about the disposable extras covered up to their eyes in male burqas – are predominantly black and by implication of mannerism and affect, homosexual. Allowing the widest berth for the genre and medium one still marvels at Snyder’s audacity in demonizing the “Asiatic hordes” while morphing the Spartan warrior into the typical white American survivalist. Snyder’s Spartans are white guys fighting a sea of racially inferior blacks, yellows and browns. They are staunchly heterosexual and weary of their elected elders (ephors) who are seen as sacrilegious lepers, traitors and scheming politicians.
The real Spartans were the opposite of these: fond of their “ephebes,” superstitiously religious and obedient to the authority of their tortuous political system. While jealous of their autonomy, the Spartans never cared one whit about Greece. They had turned themselves into a savage garrison state, not to defend freedom of Greeks but to take away that of their fellow Greek (Messenian) neighbors. Far from the idyllic portrayal of the movie, the rite of passage for an adult Spartan “equal” was not to confront a lone wolf but to skewer an unsuspecting Messenian helot. That is why the Spartans invented the boot camp. And, that is how they invented state terrorism. It is true that the Spartans valiantly fought one Persian king at Thermopylae. But they were not averse to taking the gold of his successor a few decades later to bring low another group of their fellow Greeks (this time, Athenians) at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian Wars.
But the most significant difference between the real Greeks and their avatars in Snyder’s 300 is that the real Greeks were not racists. The word “barbarian” had cultural (not racial) connotations. The philosopher and soldier of fortune Xenophon admired the Persian king Cyrus and wrote a book on the superiority of the Persian to Greek education. Herodotus the main chronicler of the dual Persian expeditions under both Darius (492 B.C.) and Xerxes (480 B.C.) never attempted to dehumanize – let alone, demonize – them. His account of Xerxes’ invasion reads like a Greek tragedy where Gods tempt a tragic hero into a self destructive course.
It is instructive to compare this movie’s Orientalist vision of a savage Persian king to Herodotus description: “Among all this multitude of men there was not one who, for beauty and stature, deserved more than Xerxes himself to wield so vast a power.” Only a decade after the events portrayed in this movie the preeminent Greek playwright Aeschylus dedicated a tragedy to the Persians. The play was not a triumphalist ode to heroes of Marathon, Salamis, Thermopylae or Platea. Staged at the Persian court in Susa, it was about Persian grief. The play’s protagonists were Xerxes, the queen mother Atosa and the ghost of her husband, the first invader of Greece, Darius. It described the Greeks and Persians as: “sisters of one race… flawless in beauty and grace.” And the Greeks openly wept in their amphitheaters, not for their own but for their enemy’s tragic end. A century and a half later when Alexander of Macedon invaded Iran and burned Persepolis, the Iranians would return the favor. They preferred to eulogize their invader and remember him not as a vandal but as a prophet in search of eternal life and wisdom.
Turning its back to Hollywood, our world can learn an important lesson from the cataclysmic war between the Persian empire and the Greek confederates: it is possible to gallantly fight a pitched battle against the fiercest of enemies without conceiving of them as hordes of degenerate subhumans.
About Ahmad Sadri is Professor of Islamic World Studies, Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See Features. See homepage.