I have not seen the new buzz movie 300 but it brings up some fascinating issues. My good friend Tim Dees wrestles with the movie in today's fact of the day:
by Tim Dees
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran and a FotD regular, has found a new target for his harangues. These days it's the movie the 300, which opened to a box office windfall last Friday.
The 300 depicts the battle of Thermopylae, which was a battle between 300 Spartans and tens of thousands of Persians. The Spartans slowed down the Persians enough to give the rest of the Greeks time to muster their forces. Basically, it's the Alamo, but in Ancient Greece. One trick to all this is that the story of Thermopylae has been transmuted from history to legend and back so many times that the line between the two has been blurred. So we're dealing with legend as much as history.
What Ahmadinejad is concerned about is the depiction of the Persians in the film. Not surprisingly, they are seen as bloodthirsty, immoral, wicked lechers. And considering that most Iranians are Farsi-speaking Persians, they take exception to this ham-handed characterization. I think on this point Ahmadinejad is dead-on.
The tough thing about the battle at Thermopylae is that the Spartans were the winners, but the Spartans weren't the good guys (not to say that the Persians were). They were violent people who engaged in institutionalized infanticide and pederasty. Two out of every three Spartans were slaves, which makes their portrayal as freedom fighters all the more absurd. Indeed, it's quite difficult to cheer for the Spartans. The Persians were not without fault themselves, but it's hard to imagine a more bleak, oppressive society than ancient Sparta.
But there's one big issue I have with the movie: why does director Zack Snyder portray many of the Persians as black? I can think of no reason why they would be black; modern Persians aren't black, and early Persian art doesn't depict Persians as black. It also seems unlikely that the Persians would have hired/conscripted black fighters to be in their army. I suspect that this choice was made out of latent racism and xenophobia. We have the Spartans, who look more or less like white Americans (albeit white Americans in the Charlton Heston biblical movie sense), and then we have the Spartans, who look like the opposite. It's not a clash of civilizations, but of races.
Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and classicist, wrote the following in a foreword to the graphic novel of the 300:
"Ultimately the film takes a moral stance, Herodotean in nature: there is a difference, an unapologetic difference between free citizens who fight for eleutheria and imperial subjects who give obeisance. We are not left with the usual postmodern quandary 'who are the good guys' in a battle in which the lust for violence plagues both sides. In the end, the defending Spartans are better, not perfect, just better than the invading Persians, and that proves good enough in the end. And to suggest that unambiguously these days has perhaps become a revolutionary thing in itself."
But what makes the Spartans better?