Although the exact size and composition of the vast Persian horde that invaded mainland Greece in 480 BC continues to be the subject of debate—Herodotus, eager to underscore his overarching theme of imperial hubris, puts the number of Persian land forces alone at nearly two million, although modern historians suggest it was likely to have numbered only a tenth as many, at the most—it is probably safe to say that the teeming Asiatic multitudes of the Persian emperor Xerxes did not include a corpulent, nose-pierced mutant humanoid with lobster-like claws in place of hands. Nor, as far as we know, did the barbarian host include bald giants, their teeth filed into points, who were kept in chains by their Persian masters until released, like antique weapons of mass destruction, on the unsuspecting Greeks; nor, at least as far as our ancient sources indicate, was Xerxes himself an androgynous, eight-foot-tall shaved-headed Brazilian with a penchant for cheek-piercings and a weakness for metallic eye shadow.
Such fanciful creatures are, however, likely to be indelibly associated henceforth with the Persian Wars in the minds of the millions of moviegoers around the world who have spent over $400 million to see 300 since its release in March. This hugely popular new movie, adapted from the cartoonist Frank Miller’s short 1999 comic book of the same name, takes as its Herodotean subject a historically pivotal and culturally loaded episode from the Persian Wars. In 480, as Xerxes’ grande armée, having crossed from Asia over the Hellespont (which the grandiose monarch famously lashed for its recalcitrance), was inching its destructive way south through upper Greece, the ever-fractious coalition of Greek city-states, uneasily led by Athens and Sparta, decided to send a force to hold the enemy at a choke-point in Central Greece called Thermopylae—the “Hot Gates” beyond which lay easy access to the region of Attica, Athens, and the whole of Greece to the south. Not untypically, some of the perennially parochial Spartans had pressed to abandon the pass in favor of defending the Isthmus of Corinth much further to the south—a strategy that would have guaranteed the destruction of Athens while ensuring a more cogent defense of the Spartan homeland in the Peloponnese, below the Isthmus.
In August of 480, the two armies met. Xerxes did nothing for three days, in order to let the comparatively puny coalition forces get a good look at the immense enemy they were to face; then he sent the first wave of troops in. (The Persian emperor had the canny idea of including in that first batch of warriors relatives of the Persians killed by the Greeks at Marathon, during the first Persian invasion ten years earlier.) The Greek forces, numbering around seven thousand, among them just three hundred Spartans under their king, Leonidas—the full Spartan army of some eight thousand citizen-warriors declared itself unable to attend, since a religious festival was taking place back at home—held the pass with surprising success during two days of intense fighting.
But after the location of an alternate route around the pass was betrayed to the Persians on the evening of the second day of battle, Leonidas, realizing the Greek position was doomed, decided to make a suicidal last stand with his three hundred Spartans—and, it should be said, about two thousand others: four hundred Thebans, seven hundred Phocians from central Greece, and nine hundred Helots, the serfs on whose forced labor the Spartan economy depended. The time purchased by the small Hellenic force at the cost of their own lives made possible the retreat of the remaining Greek soldiers, and gave Athens more time to prepare for the great naval battle at Salamis that would, the following year, decide the course of the war in favor of the Greeks.
The suicidal bravery of the tiny Spartan-led force against overwhelming odds has stood ever since as a model of military heroism—and, often, of the moral and political superiority of free Western societies over Eastern despotisms. In a 1962 film about Thermopylae called The 300 Spartans, starring Richard Egan as Leonidas and Ralph Richardson as the crafty Athenian leader Themistocles, the Greco-Persian conflict became a convenient metaphor for the cold war: in it, there’s a lot of talk about how the Greek states are “the only stronghold of freedom remaining in the then known world,” while Xerxes dreams of “one world—one master,” and so forth.
Herodotus himself notably casts the Greco-Persian conflict as a battle between the forces of slavery (motifs of lashing and punishment are consistently associated with the Persians in his account) and those of liberty. But apart from a couple of shouted references to Greek “freedom,” neither Miller’s comic book nor Zack Snyder’s film shows much serious interest in matters ideological. The primary emphasis of the book (which begins with the Spartans under Leonidas bravely marching off to Thermopylae and ends, more or less, with images of their arrow-pierced bodies) and also, to a large extent, of the film (which adds a bit of a subplot concerning Leonidas’ queen, Gorgo—a decision apparently made by the filmmakers in order to enhance their product’s appeal to women), is on the mechanics of the battle itself: the three successive days of intense fighting, followed by the culminating self-immolation.
Miller’s book, which like many comic books revels in stylized tableaux of violence, captioned with inarticulate grunts (“AARR”), has a lurid, looming feel: much of the action—and there is little besides action—is strikingly conveyed in images that are, essentially, silhouettes. Snyder’s film has its own eerily distinctive look; like the comic book, the emphasis is on imaginatively realized images of violence. The director’s wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder, told an Entertainment Weekly reporter that she and her husband wanted to give the film’s violence the stylized look of “a ballet of death”—a choreographical task to which Snyder’s previous Hollywood experience, as the director of a remake of the blood-spattered horror classic Dawn of the Dead, admirably suited him.
And yet—surprisingly for the filmmakers, we are told1—it’s the political implications of the Battle of Thermopylae that have caused trouble. In particular the film’s representation of the Persians as subhuman monstrosities has been seen as tapping into deep and unattractive cultural biases. (To say nothing of wreaking gleeful havoc with historical details. Not the least of the latter sins is the movie’s suggestion that the only Greeks who stood up to the Persians were the macho Spartans: you occasionally glimpse a Phocian or two, but you’d never guess, from 300, that there were brave Greeks other than Spartans present at this history-making engagement. The tag line that appears in the print ads for the movie is “See The Movie That Is Making History”: “making history up” would be more precise.)
It’s a measure of the international atmosphere at present that the cartoonish excesses of Snyder’s film adaptation of Miller’s comic book—the effete or monstrous Persian grotesques no less absurd, to be sure, then the hypertrophied bodybuilder types meant to represent the Greeks—have been taken with considerable seriousness in certain quarters. In Iran (where the film was immediately banned by the indignant government), an adviser to President Ahmadinejad called 300 “part of a comprehensive US psychological warfare aimed at Iranian culture”—a comment notable, perhaps, for its assumption of a coherence in US war policy that is sadly unapparent to less fervent eyes.
In the United States, even more moderate spokesmen for Iranian interests have seen in the film’s representation of the Persians symptoms of a cultural anxiety stemming, ultimately, from the September 11 attacks:
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 [sic] 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.”2
To a certain extent, this is a tempting thesis. Railing against endless Asian hordes is, after all, a time-honored tradition in Western entertainment—one that goes back, as it happens, to the Greeks themselves. The stereotype of the decadent, despotic, effeminate, inscrutable, untrustworthy, servile, fawning, irrational, sexually ambiguous “Oriental” makes its first appearance in Greek literature, particularly in tragedy. The Eastern “barbarian”—whether in the person of the protagonist of Medea or of Bacchae’s seductive Dionysus—often stands as the negative image of the idealized Greek self, which is presented as masculine, rational, and self-controlled. In this light, both Miller’s comic book and Snyder’s movie, with their scenes of hypermasculine posturing on the part of the well-muscled Spartans, and their consistent representation of the Persians as effete (and, strikingly, nonwhite—a portrayal that might have come as a surprise to the fair Persians), may be seen as absolutely faithful to a very old tradition indeed.
And yet it’s hard to believe, as many of the film’s critics do, that these cultural stereotypes, coming at a tense moment in US relations with the Middle East, are the reason for its enormous popularity. Among other things, the sheer hyperbole of the film’s style—the monsters and freaks, the stilted, semaphoric visuals, the Tom of Finland physiques, the clanking, Cecil B. DeMille dialogue—militates against taking it too seriously—or against taking it more seriously than you’d take a comic book. I have seen 300 twice at enormous cineplexes, and I wasn’t particularly aware of any anti-Asian sentiment roiling among the boisterous, hooting, applauding audiences at those showings.
If anything, the audiences’ expressions of derisive amusement, when presented with the images of Xerxes, for instance, seemed to suggest that people understood quite well that they were in the presence of an over-the-top, highly stylized representation that had little pretension to any kind of historical or even cultural verisimilitude. I somehow suspect that, despite the suspiciously burqa-like garb of some Persian soldiers, few of the audience members found themselves inspired by the experience of watching 300 to change their feelings about Iranians or anyone else.
For this reason, it seems to me that indignant concerns about the film’s covert politics or apparent cultural prejudices can be dismissed—just as we can dismiss the indignant repudiation of the film by some historians and classicists around the world who have denounced it on the grounds of historical inaccuracy. “We don’t know that much about the Spartans,” one Australian film critic huffed, “but we have a fair idea of what they wore in battle, and it included leg and chest plates for protection.”3 In view of the presence of lobster-clawed mutants, it seems a bit beside the point to quibble over the precise details of Peloponnesian couture.
Far more worrying, to my mind, was what the tremendous popularity of the new movie suggested not about the current state of international politics, but about the current state of popular entertainment, and of cinematic art. It’s true that for Frank Miller, the creator of 300, the story he wants to tell is a deeply political and even moral one. “I’ve always loved this story,” he told an interviewer for an online film site:
It’s the best story I’ve ever got my hands on. I was a little boy of seven when I saw this clunky old movie from 20th Century Fox called The 300 Spartans. I was sitting next to my brother Steve, who’s two years older than me. We were seven and nine so we were too cool to sit with our parents. Our parents were in a row behind us and toward the end of the thing, I went, “Steve, are the good guys going to lose?” He went, “I don’t know. Ask Dad.” So I jump back over and sat down next to my Dad and said, “Dad, are the good guys going to die?” “I’m afraid so, son.” I went and sat down and watched the end of the movie and the course of my creative life changed because all of a sudden the heroes weren’t the guys who get the medal at the end of Star Wars. They’re people who do the right thing, damn the consequences.
As you flip through Miller’s work, however, you wonder whether the key phrase in that impassioned statement isn’t so much “do the right thing,” with its admirable ethics, as “damn the consequences,” with its macho swagger. Until the release of 300 Miller was famous primarily for Sin City, a series of self-consciously noir graphic novels which traces, among other things, the solitary and very bloody quest for justice by a hulking, overmuscled, much-scarred loner named Marv as he makes his way through a profoundly corrupt urban jungle called Sin City. Marv is given to cynical, Philip Marlowe-esque utterances that everywhere betray—with what degree of tongue-in-cheekness can only be guessed—a gleefully regressive indulgence in a vision of hard-bitten masculinity that, predictably, harks back to the dour heroes of the noir films of the 1940s. This is evident not only in the stark and often strangely beautiful graphics, but in the dialogue that Miller gives his hero. Here’s Marv as he tells a female friend about his thirst for vengeance against the mobsters who killed a prostitute he’d slept with:
There’s no settling down. It’s going to be blood for blood and by the gallons. It’s the old days. The bad days. The all-or-nothing days. They’re back. There’s no choices left and I’m ready for war…. Hell isn’t getting beat up or cut up or hauled in front of some faggot jury. Hell is waking up every god damn morning and not knowing why you’re even here.
A similarly gleeful defiance of PC attitudes colors virtually the entire novel, from its adolescent vision of its female characters as either helpless damsels or busty dominatrices to its offhand references to—well, the barbarian east. “Sin City falls away behind me,” goes one of Marv’s reveries. “Noisy and ugly as all hell. The Mercedes hums and handles like a dream. She may look like some Jap designed her, but the engine’s a beauty.”
To be sure, Miller is working here within a well-defined noir tradition and taking it to an extreme. But it’s hard not to feel that the defiant swagger he so admired as a boy, on seeing The 300 Spartans, has been internalized and then expressed in heightened aesthetic terms in his work—and not only in the Thermopylae-themed 300, which everywhere betrays the same heated investment in exaggerated masculinity and, ostensibly, heterosexuality. (The Athenians are ridiculed by the Spartans as effete “boy-lovers” and “philosophers”; in the case of the former, at least, this is demonstrably an instance of the pot calling the kettle black-figured.) The emotional core of the book—more, even, than of the movie, in which the character of the Spartan queen has been enhanced—lies in this relentless celebration of the defiant, strutting, physically superb Spartan male. Miller and Snyder might be startled to learn that Aristotle, in his Politics, describes the Spartans as gynaikokratoumenoi, “ruled by women.”
The film’s pubescent preoccupation with magnificent male musculature becomes, indeed, a crucial plot-point in its retelling of the old story. In Herodotus, we learn that the man who betrayed the secret back route to the Greeks’ position was a local named Ephialtes, who like many other residents knew the location of the path, and who expected to be rewarded for his betrayal of his fellow Greeks. In the Miller/Snyder version, Ephialtes is, significantly, a grossly deformed, hunchbacked Spartan who betrays his countrymen because they won’t let a physically inferior specimen fight for them. Given the film’s overwhelmingly young, male audience, it is hard not to feel that this fetishizing of masculine posturing and masculine physiques, rather than its representation of the Persian enemy, is where a good part of its appeal resides.
And even this may not be the real key to understanding why 300 is the biggest movie of the year. Critics who have disdained it as bloody and visually cartoonish have gone out of their way to deride it as (unsurprisingly) the cinematic equivalent of a comic book: flat, episodic, lurching from one visually explosive moment to the next. But what’s really striking about the film is that it doesn’t even have the aesthetics of a comic book, to say nothing of a graphic novel—the best examples of which, at least, show considerable concern for subtle narrative rhythms.
Apart from the awkwardly larded-through story of Ephialtes and the equally clanking, meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch subplot about Gorgo (who in this version uses her considerable rhetorical and sexual wiles to manipulate the Spartan senate into sending reinforcements to her husband’s outnumbered band—gynaikokratoumenoi, indeed), 300 consists primarily of consecutive scenes depicting the Spartans mowing down ever more scary-looking Persian antagonists who keep coming at them. First there are the ordinary Persian foot soldiers; then the so-called “Immortals,” here represented as wearing metallic, vaguely Kabuki-like masks that conceal grotesque mutant faces and slobbering, fanged mouths; then the freaks and elephants and monsters, all culminating in a last defiant stand in which Leonidas wounds Xerxes himself before being annihilated in a shower of Persian arrows.
As I sat watching this progression during my first viewing of 300, I was reminded of something, but it wasn’t comic books. It was only a few days later, when I was playing PC video games with my kids, that I realized that the experience most closely approximated by a viewing of Snyder’s movie was not even that of reading a comic book, but that of playing one of the newer, graphically sophisticated video games. In such games—for instance, Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, a favorite of mine—the player is often an embattled warrior, charged with making his way through enemy territory in order to reach a certain goal (a spaceship, a treasure, etc).
In order to reach the goal, of course, you have to mow down vast numbers of enemies—aliens, robots, freaks, whatever. These latter are, with each successive “level” of the game, increasingly powerful, scary, and difficult to defeat; the game gets harder as you progress through its imaginary world. There’s no plot or overarching structural dynamic involved; the only meaningful activity is killing a sufficient number of enemies to get to the next level. It’s true that there’s usually some background, some history that seems to provide a kind of “plot” for the proceedings, which comes in the form of a narrative voice-over that plays before each new level of the game begins. (In Jedi Outcast, for instance, you’re told that your mission is to prevent the villains from decimating the Jedi Academy on planet Yavin 4.) But these token narratives, such as they are, are discrete elements detachable from the experience of playing the game itself—indeed, you can just skip over them and go right to the slaughter that is the real point of the game.
All this is as good a description as any of what 300 is like. Whatever its intermittent and feeble preliminary invocations of noble sentiments such as “freedom” for the Greeks and the importance of “reason” as opposed to Eastern unreason (neither of which notions, it must be said, would likely have had much appeal to the historical Spartans, members of a slave-based and deeply, almost stupidly superstitious culture), 300 is wholly lacking in nearly every element we normally associate with drama in even its most debased popular forms. Gone are the distractions of motivation or character—or even dialogue, apart from posturing slogans. “We are SPARTANS!!!!!” Leonidas screams as he pushes some Persian envoys into a well, a line that got a huge laugh both times I saw the film.
What plot there is, is as cursory as the set-up for Jedi Outcast. Herodotus’ narrative of the Second Persian War does have grand and overarching plots, although these clearly weren’t interesting to either Miller or Snyder. For Herodotus there is, on one level, the great organizing moral dynamic, as predictable as physics or mathematics, of overweening pride laid low: in Darius, in his ancestors, in his son Xerxes, all of whom trust foolishly to wealth, size, power, the things that, as time and experience teach the wise person, are ultimately evanescent. And on the Greek side, the plot, indeed the drama, resides in the craftily, excruciatingly drawn out uncertainty whether the perennially quarreling Greek city-states will ever become a coalition capable of repulsing Xerxes’ army—a plot that is not only suspenseful but also deeply political.
What gives structure to 300, by contrast, is not so much an evolving narrative as simply an increase in the number and ugliness of the combatants who keep pouring toward the Spartans, who blast their way through greater and more savage onslaughts of freakish enemies until the final, gory extermination—all of it punctuated occasionally by slogans about freedom and so forth. But just to talk about “freedom” and “reason” is not, of course, the same as dramatizing the importance of freedom and reason; Snyder’s film, like Miller’s comic, lingers on the avenging violence while giving only the most superficial nod to the concepts that, we are constantly told, motivated that violence. For that very reason the violence, of which there is a great deal, isn’t exhausting or affecting, because it has the candy-colored, hallucinatory, stylized quality that the violence in video games has; it’s not tethered to anything that we might feel. It’s just the colorful stuff that happens to the cardboardy figures on the screen before they disappear and new cardboardy figures need to be dealt with. And then—GAME OVER.
Something, indeed, seems to be over, if the extraordinary success of this movie is to be taken seriously. A curious part of the story of Thermopylae—a part that didn’t make it into Miller’s 300, perhaps because it has to do with those boy-loving, philosophical Athenians rather than the manly Spartans—concerns the origins of the tragic theater. There is a long-standing tradition that when Xerxes abandoned his forces and returned to Susa, he left behind his opulent tent, which was among the spoils taken from his general, Mardonius, when the Greeks finally vanquished the invaders at Plataea in 479. According to some sources, this fabulous trophy came to be used as the backdrop in the theater of Dionysus at Athens; the Greek word skênê, from which we derive the word “scene,” means “tent.” Another fascinating, if perhaps apocryphal, story holds that timber from the Persian ships destroyed at Salamis was used in the construction of yet another theater.
The presence of Xerxes’ tent on the Greek tragic stage—a visible (if eventually fraying) trophy snatched from a hubristic imperial overlord—would have constituted a remarkable material symbol of the interweaving of history, politics, and art; at the very least, it would certainly account for a number of striking references in early Greek tragedy to opulent Eastern cloths and weavings. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (458 BC), for instance, the returning Greek king’s hubristic decision to tread on a sumptuous carpet—fit, as the text reminds us, for an Eastern potentate—heralds his imminent demise; in the same playwright’s Persians (472 BC), there are repeated allusions to the soft, lush, ornate fabrics with which the Persians adorn themselves. All such references would, of course, have taken on powerful additional meaning for the original audience if the very artifacts of Persian hubris were visibly present in the theater.
This is merely a way of saying that it’s quite possible that the battle that inspired Frank Miller’s comic book, and now Zack Snyder’s movie version of the same, was intimately tied to the origins of the Western theater itself. If so, the connection was not merely a superficial, material one (the tent, the broken planking) but rather something larger. For the grand themes that seemed to inhere in the lived history of the Persian Wars—the foolishness of overweening arrogance; the way in which moral conviction can be a match for sheer power; the dangers inherent in underestimating a disdained “other”—were to provide tragedy with its grand themes over the seventy-five years of its magnificent acme, a period that began with the end of the Persian Wars and ended with the exhausted conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, a conflict in which, as Herodotus seems to have foreseen, the Athenians themselves eventually came to resemble the blustering, despotic Persians of old. To better serve its themes of spectacular rises and terrible falls, the tragedians honed and perfected the array of elements and techniques that became the cultural inheritance of the Western theater: the organically coherent plot, which suggests that endings are the logical and necessary outcomes of beginnings; character development as expressed in both monologue and dialogue; the meaningful dynamics of entrances and exits, visual spectacle counterpointed by lyric rapture.
To various degrees, these elements have provided the underpinnings for every kind of theatrical entertainment ever since, from Venetian opera to soap opera, from Shakespeare to Star Wars. That Zack Snyder’s flatly stylized 300—which invokes the dramatic history of the Persian Wars but which has no quality of drama, no serious interest in history whatsoever—has packed some of the largest audiences in movie history into our theaters suggests that the tradition that began at Thermopylae may well have ended there, too.
May 31, 2007
See Michael Cieply, “That Film’s Real Message? It Could Be: ‘Buy a Ticket,'” The New York Times, March 5, 2007. ↩
See Ahmad Sadri, a professor of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College, in Payvand, an online journal of Iranian news and culture, at www.payvand.com/news/07/mar/1293.html. In a similar vein, a critic for Slate referred to the film as “a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war.” ↩
Paul Byrnes, “There Must Be 300 Reasons to Avoid This Violent Exercise in Military Propaganda,” The Sydney Morning Herald, April 6, 2007. ↩