Historian calls 300 a racist and insulting film

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[Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.]

I always take in the Hollywood period dramas set in ancient Greece or Rome. My film-buff son is into this too, so we went last week to see 300, the Warner Brothers' blockbuster produced by Zack Snyder and based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller about the epic battle of Thermopylae between the Greeks and Persians. It had by that time grossed over 100 million dollars and no doubt influenced a lot of minds.

The film tells a familiar historical tale. (Rather, it ought to be familiar, but history instruction in our public schools is not necessarily comprehensive.) In 480 BCE, Greece was threatened by an invasion by the Persian army, the greatest war machine of its day. The empire of King Xerxes extended from the Indus River to Egypt, and drew its troops from the ends of the realm. The king personally led them in battle against the Greeks.

Or rather, some of the Greeks. Greece at the time was a collection of city-states, politically disunited, divided as much as unified by dialect and culture. Some city-states, including Argos and Thebes, actually aligned themselves with Xerxes. Herodotus, the "Father of History" and perhaps the world's first professional historian, paints a picture of a "free" Greece united against an oppressive "Asia." But that is a chauvinistic simplification. The fact is, Persia and the Greek city-states were all slave-based societies whose notions of "freedom" had little in common with our modern conception.

According to Herodotus (our sole source), 300 Spartan warriors alongside 700 Thespian volunteers defended the pass of Thermopylae against the invaders, inflicting heavy losses on Xerxes' forces. Led by Spartan King Leonidas, they went down in defeat but gave rival Athens time to prepare the fleet that decisively defeated the Persians at Salamis a few months later.

The story has been dramatized before, notably in the 1962 Hollywood production 300 Spartans starring Richard Egan as Leonidas and David Farrar as Xerxes. This new version is distinguished by what one critic calls the "monochromatic, cartoonish quality of [its] computer-generated special effects"---and by its timing. Warner Brothers had been planning a remake of the 1962 film since the late 1990s, based on a novel by Stephen Pressfield entitled Gates of Fire, with Bruce Willis in the role of Leonidas. But that project fell through, paving the way for 300---just in time to help subliminally shape the movie-going public's perception of Persians prior to the attack planned on today's evil empire by Vice President Cheney and his neocon staffers.
Persia is Iran. (I want to say, "Persia, of course, is Iran." But I can't assume that all or even most Americans make the connection.) The word comes from "Fars," a region of modern Iran, while "Iran" is related to the word "Aryan" and connotes "land of the Aryans." In 1935 the Persian shah opted to use the name "Iran" but the two terms are basically interchangeable. "Persia" just doesn't have the emotional baggage of "Iran." During the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-81, many dealers in Iranian rugs decided to call them "rugs from Persia." Persia on occasion has thus served as the good Iran, the historical cultural Iran, as opposed to the modern evil enemy. But 300 makes Persia evil too.

The Iranian government has protested the film; last Wednesday President Ahmadinejad in his Iranian New Year's address called it part of a "psychological warfare" campaign against his country. Javadd Shamaqdare, a cultural advisor to the Iranian government, also denounced the film as "psychological warfare," accusing its producers of "plundering Iran's historic past and insulting its civilization" Editors of the Iranian newspaper Ayandeh-No declared that the film "seeks to tell people that Iran, which is in the Axis of Evil now, has long been the source of evil and modern Iranians' ancestors are the dumb, murderous savages you see in '300'." Iran's UN mission has stated that the film is "so overtly racist, so overflowing with vicious stereotyping of Persians as a dangerous, bestial force fatally threatening the civilised 'free' world", that it encourages "contemporary discourses of hatred ... [and] a 'clash of civilisations'."

Some western film critics have echoed Iranian objections. Dimitris Danikas notes that 300 depicts Persians as "bloodthirsty, underdeveloped zombies" and feeds "racist instincts in Europe and America."

Slate's Dana Stevens calls it "a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war."

On the other hand film critic Dale McFeatters calls the Iranians "picky, picky," alleging (quite falsely), "Well, your leader did threaten to wipe Israel off the map." And Stanford history professor Victor Davis Hanson, reportedly admired by Cheney and his (professional historian) wife, posts his opinion on the right-wing "RealClearPolitics" website: "We rightly consider the ancient Greeks the founders of our present western civilisation and, as millions of movie-goers seem to sense, far more like us than the [Iranian] enemy who ultimately failed to conquer them."

Even if Zack Snyder and Frank Miller had no intention of making an anti-Iranian film, or promoting any sort of "psychological warfare," they've made a film in which Iranians are indeed generically depicted in the worst possible light. A Warner Bros. spokesman says, "The film 300 is a work of fiction inspired by the Frank Miller graphic novel and loosely based on a historical event. The studio developed this film purely as a fictional work with the sole purpose of entertaining audiences; it is not meant to disparage an ethnicity or culture or make any sort of political statement." But it does disparage.

Herodotus depicted the Persian ruler positively enough: "Among all this multitude of [Persian] men," he wrote, "there was not one who, for beauty and stature, deserved more than Xerxes himself to wield so vast a power" (Persian Wars, Book VII, 187). But the Miller-Snyder Xerxes is not even an Iranian-looking man but (like some other Persians in the film) a distinctly African figure, who happens to be effeminate and wholly vicious. Leonidas in contrast is white and manly and wholly heroic in his fight for "freedom."

Color is kept to a minimum in the film; the warriors appear in shades of black and white, with the Greeks' red cloaks standing out provocatively around the uniformly chiseled abs of the heroes. The Persians in contrast are ugly or deformed.

"The Greeks will know that free men stood against tyrants," says the cartoonish Leonides (Gerard Butler) preparing for his suicidal defense against the evil Persians. Greece is the "world's one hope for reason and justice" versus the "dark will of the Persian kings." "We rescue the world from mysticism and tyranny," he declares. "No retreat, no surrender. That is Spartan law. A new age has dawned, an age of freedom, and all will know that Spartans gave their last breath to defend it."

The message is indeed clear. Sparta = Greece = the Western World = freedom. Persia = slavery and oppression. This was perhaps the gist of Herodotus' message; he did write that while the Greeks knew that men were free, the "Asiatics" knew only that one (the ruler) was free. But that was a skewed notion in his time and can only dangerously circulate in our own, while Iran is in the neocons' crosshairs. Again, I think the Iranians might be over-concerned, since much of the film-viewing crowd won't even associate the ancient Persians with the modern Iranians, but the "clash of civilizations" theme is definitely there.

I would propose that those exposed to it imagine a different Xerxes that the nose-pierced caricature in the film. Imagine a Xerxes who addresses the American audience, including the Christian fundamentalist audience, as follows:

"I am Xerxes, Emperor of Persia, son of Darius, grandson of Cyrus. My grandfather Cyrus liberated the Jews from their Babylonian exile and let them return to Judea and rebuild their temple. My father Darius urged our people to revere the 'God of Daniel.' I myself married Esther, a Jew."

"I come from a long line of believers in the One God preached by Zarathustra, our Persian prophet whose teachings have influenced the Jews during their exile among us. I refer specifically to their concepts of Satan, Heaven and the future Messiah which weren't part of their pre-exile belief system and are clearly borrowings from our Persian religion.

"I am now embarking on the conquest of Greece, a backward region populated by primitive polytheists who worship capricious amoral deities and practice absurd religious rites. But my ancestors and I, having already conquered many Ionian Greeks, respect Greek philosophers and indeed have many of them in our employ. We have established a multi-ethnic empire. In that empire, Greeks fill important roles from the Mediterranean to India.

"These Spartans confronting us at Thermopylae are cruel men who annually--for sport!-- make war on the defenseless helots that live around them. They have nothing to tell us Persians---or the world in general---about 'freedom.'!"

The writer of such a script could claim Biblical authority. In Isaiah 44:28, the God of Israel declares through his prophet that Cyrus "is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose." Throughout Chapter 45 of Isaiah he speaks directly to Cyrus---"his anointed"---calling him "righteous" and informing him that "the wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia" will "come over to you, and be yours." The Book of Ezra opens with King Cyrus issuing an edict declaring, "The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah." In Daniel 6:26 a King Darius issues a decree that "in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel." Esther 2:15-18 describes Xerxes' marriage to the Jewish maiden Esther. None of this is historically reliable; Daniel and Esther are indeed novelettes rather than history. The point is, these texts revered as Holy Writ by many if not most Americans depict Persia positively.

The Greeks, on the other hand, cause "many evils on the earth." They build a gymnasium in Jerusalem, for example (1 Maccabees 1:8). The Jews don't approve of that sort of Greek thing, so Judah rises up in rebellion against Seleucid rule in the second century BCE. Their rebellion against the "free," "rational" Greeks is depicted as heroic.

The Greco-Roman world continued to make war on Persia off and on up to the end of the Roman Empire. But Alexander the Great, having defeated the Persian King Darius a century and a half after the battle of Thermopylae and acquired his vast empire, admired Persian ways and actively promoted the cultural synthesis we call Hellenism. Roman troops brought the worship of the Persian god Mithras back to Rome from their Persian campaigns; the cult of this god born on December 25 was a formidable rival of Christianity to the fourth century. The greatest of the late Roman philosophers, the second century Neoplatonist Plotinus, admired and sought to learn from the Persians. Manicheanism, founded by the Persian prophet Mani, was another religious rival to Christianity from its inception in the third century. The knowledge of the Persian Magi (Zoroastrian priest-astrologers) was respected in Rome and Magi of course appear in the New Testament (Matthew 2:1-12).

In short: 300's depiction of the battle of Thermopylae is not merely inaccurate, as any film adaptation of a graphic novel has the perfect right to be. It's what the Iranians say it is: racist and insulting. It pits the glorious Greeks with whom the audience must sympathize against a "mystical" and "tyrannical" culture posing an imminent existential threat. It is, de facto, an anti-Persian/anti-Iranian propaganda film, and should be rated appropriately: not just R (for racist) but X---for extremely stupid and vicious and dangerously ill-timed.

Read entire article at Gary Leupp at Counterpunch.com

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Lindsey Michael Francesco - 4/22/2007

This movie is simply fiction based on fantasy that comes from the Greeks' origional views of their war. No one takes it seriously. Most of the people my age I talk to aren't even aware it comes from an actual event. Personaly, I was slightly disturbed by the depictions of Persians in the movie, but it didn't really bother me. I could see a clear differance between these fantasy persians and the actual Persians I have studied. This movie is so over the top that any one even slightly familiar with history will see the differance. If there is a problem, it is not with this movie, but with the terrible ignorance of our population.

Elle K Gray - 4/12/2007

Ah, the "but... but it's just..." argument--one of the most dismissive I've ever encountered.

George Robert Gaston - 4/11/2007

As a new comer to HNN I am quite surprised that so many people here take the movie, or Mr. Leupp so seriously.

Ah for the days of Steve Reeves.

Elliott Aron Green - 4/11/2007

I agree with most of the criticisms made of this film, although I haven't seen it but am aware of and have always been very sensistive to the distorted depictions of peoples, races, and history in film.

Concerning a major theme in the film, I believe that the sharp distinction made so often between "East/Orient" and "West" is very much and very often overdone as applied to ancient times. Walter Burkert, Cyrus Gordon, Howard Marblestone, Martin L West, and others have shown how much ancient Greece owed to Phoenicians, Egyptians, Jews, Babylonians, Assyrians, etc. And ancient Greek writers often willingly admitted Eastern influence on their own culture. Moreover, Xenophon praised Cyrus in his book Cyropedia, which Leupp unfortunately missed. Herodotos, by the way, points out that Thales, believed to be the first "Greek" philosopher, was a Phoenician. Leupp missed this too.

Where Leupp goes most wrong in the context of the present film is where he somehow takes seriously the present Iranian regime's seeming defense of Persia's historical heritage. As fanatic Muslims, they are taught that pre-Islamic cultures were jahiliyya," that is, an age of ignorance, etc. Ahmadinajad's associates who snipe at the present film are simply being opportunistic for the world audience. How much respect for the ancient Persian heritage do they show in their governmental practice? In their educational system? So I agree with much of Leupp's view of the film and its historical distortions. But I am amazed at how Leupp tries to whitewash an oppressive, war-mongering, Judeophobic regime. And on the issue of Judeophobia, the Ahmadinajad gang, products of Khomeini, surely differ with the Cyrus depicted in the Bible's historical portions.

Steven R Alvarado - 4/9/2007

It was only a movie.

Michael Hall Crockett - 4/9/2007

"in time to help subliminally shape the movie-going public's perception of Persians prior to the attack planned on today's evil empire by Vice President Cheney and his neocon staffers"

But I guess Prof. Leupp is not trying to shape anyone's opinions, subliminally or otherwise?

Eric Robinson - 4/9/2007

The author states that "Herodotus depicted the Persian ruler positively enough" and quotes a brief moment of Herodotean praise for Xerxes' physique. Please. Has the author actually read the Histories? Xerxes comes off very badly indeed, in many ways like the power-hungry tyrant depicted in the film. In respect of Xerxes' attitude and other key Herodotean themes (Greek freedom/Spartan law vs Eastern despotism, e.g.), the film rather accurately reflects our main historical account (who was a Greek, after all). Where the film goes off the rails, so to speak, is in the visual depictions. The Persians come off as dark-skinned, depraved, body-piercing specialists. This is the invention of the film-makers and has nothing to do with Herodotus, and it does have the effect of injecting a racial element coded to the contemporary world that Herodotus never imagined. I doubt this has anything to do with a program of disparagement of Iranians that the present author imagines, but that does not justify it.

Joseph Mutik - 4/9/2007

They use propaganda, big way, like the Holocaust denial conference, abduction of British soldiers and "gifting" them back to UK and much more. In this context an anti Iran propaganda movie is quite normal. Hollywood is, after all, the place where D.W. Griffith made "The Birth of a Nation" considered by most historians a "great" contribution to the rebirth of the KKK and the strengthening of the anti-Black racism in the USA. In the same place Mel Gibson successfully promoted his anti-Jewish propaganda movie "The Passion of the Christ".
The place is a part of the show business industry and as in any kind of industry the customer has the final choice to buy or not to buy the products. I didn't buy any of these products but I believe that every person should have the freedom to buy cartoon depictions of history movies or sadomasochistic "religious" products if he/she wants.
There is no reason for pseudo-history political propaganda articles, like the present one, warning us about the perils of the entertainment industry, most of the grownups can defend themselves against show business attacks or can defend their children against such attacks. The grownups less likely to defend themselves against such attacks, are not going to read this article because they are more likely to enjoy a six pack in front of the TV (where the same Hollywood exercises quite a lot of control)

E. Simon - 4/9/2007

It's interesting that your attempt to redeem historic Persia's image in Western eyes from the distortions of 300 focuses on the civilization's contributions to Judaism, which, while one component of Western Civilization, is not the only one. What was also incorporated by Persia from the Greeks is something that your essay touches upon, even if it simultaneously minimizes it, for what I think must be obvious reasons.

Inspiring a deeper appreciation for the distinctly Greco-Roman influences on Western Civilization is far from a bad thing, even if 300 does quite a poor job of this and restricts itself to overly nationalistic and militaristic themes and the impulses and level of enjoyment with which those themes will unfortunately resonate in your typical movie-goer. But as for your actual criticisms of the movie and what it is supposed to (and not supposed to) accomplish, those directed against the wardrobe and physical depictions are probably the most relevant. I recommend the Dana Stevens Slate article itself for an even broader and more penetrating analysis, and if that doesn't do the trick, one could pick up on where some of his ideas left off through Andrew Sullivan.

The current geopolitical backdrop is surely an interesting perspective through which to view and direct some of the criticisms, but probably not all that cutting or balanced when allegations of the current regime in Tehran's "pickiness" is picked back apart by minimizing the latter's own nationalistic and aggressive stands. The prophet Daniel might redeem the image of some of Persia's leaders, but likely not that of Ahmedinejad - however "falsely" you claim his intentions are allegedly misunderstood.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/9/2007

Marvin Kalb said recently that half the student body at Harvard thinks LBJ was complicit in the murder of JFK, thanks to the films of Oliver Stone... Stone also portrayed Richard Nixon as a slobbering drunk, and J. Edgar Hoover as a slobbering homosexual. So why does it really matter what the majority of Americans think about Xerxes and his men, if they are so stupid as to take their instruction from films? Should Americans care what skin color these people had, or how many slaves they owned? And what should Americans think about the Sparta and Athens? For decades we were fed the views of Spiros Skuras, a major film distributor, about everything Greek in the movies. He acted as censor. People like us are perfectly able to get the truth on Thermopylae from Sir Edward Creasy, or the 11th edition Britannica, and do not have to rely on Hollywood hacks. But if we were going to be upset by Tinseltown's perversions of history, there are many more important places to begin. Finally, that this movie gives offense to the mad mullahs of Teheran should be the LAST reason for anyone to complain about it. They will continue wanting to kill us whether we appease them by sanitizing our films about Persia or not.

George R Robinson - 4/9/2007

I've already weighed in on this dreadful trash from a film critic's standpoint on my blog (www.cine-journal.blogspot.com), but it is truly heartening to read the work of a professional historian, demolishing the lies, half-truths and distortions that fueled this monstrosity. One accepts that a "historical" film must succeed within the framework of narrative and genre conventions, sometimes at the expense of historical accuracy, and it is a commonplace (but nonetheless true) that such a work is about the period in which it is made, not the one in which it is set. But "300" is such a dire product that it really raised my hackles.