Friday, March 30, 2007

300 Reasons to Hate This Film

If Leni Riefenstahl were alive and well, the infamous Nazi propagandist probably would have made the surprise springtime hit “300.”

The “300” in the title refers to the number of Spartan soldiers who bravely stood in the path of multitudinous Persian invaders in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.E. The title, however, might as well refer to the multiple layers of intolerance and small-mindedness that define this ugly little film.

Much of the press attention surrounding the movie has centered on the protests of Iranians who object to the D.W. Griffith-style depiction of their ancestors. Iranians are justifiably angry, but they shouldn’t feel alone. There’s something here to offend everyone, unless you are male, white, and wearing jackboots. This movie spools out at least 300 forms of intolerance. Racism, sexism, homophobia, fear of the disabled, and hyper-macho contempt for peaceniks all flavor this fascist stew.

With second-tier actors like Lena Headey woodenly delivering cliché-ridden platitudes like “freedom isn’t free,” the dialogue sounds like a marginally better-delivered George W. Bush speech. The disavowals of director Zack Snyder aside, this material, based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, can only be read as a battle cry for the morally superior West to rise up in a war on terror against a morally decadent, racially inferior East.

Over and over again, we are told that the Persians are an empire of “100 nations.” Perhaps that phrase is Miller and Snyder’s attempt to capture the vastness of the Persian Empire. But the message that comes through loud and clear is that racial diversity represents one of the primary evils of the Eastern conquerors.

The actors used to represent the Persian empire resemble a white supremacist’s nightmare: sinister, glowering black men; masked warriors dubbed “immortals” bedecked in what looks like samurai regalia; and dark-skinned, effeminate Middle Easterners. The “white” men in the Persian army are monsters: self-indulgent hermaphrodites, a grotesquely deformed Spartan traitor resembling Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo from the 1939 version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and a light-skinned giant with a pointed skull and sharpened teeth embody what has happened to “whiteness” in Frank Miller’s nightmarish representation of multi-culturalism.

The message “300” sends on physical handicaps and disease echo the ideology of Heinrich Himmler’s SS. Oracular priests, diseased and ugly, form the most corrupt element of Spartan society. Audiences are informed in the worst written voice-over since “Bladerunner” that Spartans achieved martial greatness in part because they practiced a heartless, crude form of eugenics. The Spartans abandoned babies with any signs of physical imperfection on a field to die from exposure, hunger or animal attack. One hunchback named Ephialtes, in an odd inversion of the Moses story, survives following his birth when his mother hides him from the authorities.

Ephialtes, played by Andrew Tiernan, then offers to serve his country as a warrior, but the there is no Spartans with Disabilities Act. The Spartan leader, King Leonidas, tells his disabled volunteer that such defectives are only fit to pick up corpses on the battlefield and do womanly work tending to the injured and dying. Enraged, Ephialtes betrays the Spartans by showing the Persians a path around the narrow “Gates of Heat.” The gates have rendered the Persian superiority in numbers irrelevant and allowed Greek defenders to mow down the invasion force. The hunchback’s betrayal dooms Leonidas’ army, thus justifying ancient Sparta’s selective breeding program.

The Persian army of sideshow freaks faces off against a well-waxed and relentlessly European band of Spartans. Snyder depicts the Battle of Thermopylae as a race war, with the darker Persians’ chief weapons their breathtaking talent for reproduction and their ruthlessness. Leonidas (played like Dirty Harry on steroids by Gerard Butler) repeatedly reminds his troops that Greeks have invented logic and reason and that should give the much smaller Spartan force an edge against Persians benighted with Asian superstition.

Much like American Anglos portray the defeat of white forces at the hands of dark Mexicans at the Battle of the Alamo as a moral victory, Snyder depicts the high body count suffered by craven Persians at Thermopylae as a spiritual triumph stemming from superior European intelligence and courage. In spite of the fact that Sparta was a rigidly hierarchical slave society ruled by an absolute monarch, and that Spartan men, as part of their military training, ritualistically slaughtered unarmed and enslaved Greeks from neighboring city-states, we are told over and over again that the Spartans are “free” people fighting politically and intellectually oppressed Persians.

Miller in his graphic novel and director Snyder both opt to make Persian culture appear as alien to Western values as possible, an ironic bit of post-9/11 propaganda since modern Western religion probably more closely resembles the Persians' Zoroastrian faith than Spartan paganism.

Ancient Jews had no concept of Satan until their occupation by the Persian Empire. Any such demigod would violate strict Jewish monotheism. Zoroastrianism, however, depicts the world as defined by the battle between good, personified by a supreme god Ahura Mazda, and the spirit of evil represented by a supernatural eminence Angra Mainyu. This later figure emerged in Judaic mythology as the devil, an innovation that allowed Jews and their Christian offspring to reconcile an often evil world with the concept of an all-good, all-powerful deity.

Unlike the pagan religion of the Spartans, which centered on libertine gods unconcerned with human suffering and which focused not on morality but on ritually appeasing capricious divine will, Persian religion concerned itself with ethics. Ironically, the simplistic Manichean worldview of George W. Bush and his neo-con supporters rests on a long-evolving distortion of ancient Zoroastrianism.

It is also worth also noting that, even if Miller and Snyder saw Thermopylae as a struggle between Greek “freedom” and Persian autocracy, ancient Jews and other religious minorities enjoyed the right to practice their religion in the Persian Empire. Alexander the Great greatly admired the Persian culture and its openness after his conquest of the Persians about 150 years after Thermopylae.

By contrast, ancient Israelites suffered some of the worst persecution in their history under the Hellenistic King Antiochus IV, who launched a campaign to force Jews to convert to Greek paganism. Antiochus banned circumcision, forced Jews to eat pork, and grossly insulted the Jewish faith by erecting a statue of Zeus in the second temple in Jerusalem, an act sparking the Maccabean revolt celebrated every Chanukah. In short, Persia was in many ways a great deal more liberty loving than ancient Greece and certainly more than Sparta, a culture built on militarism and strict obedience to authority.

“300”’s depiction of Persian culture does not represent the film’s only historical lie. Leonidas at one point absurdly ridicules the Athenians as “lovers of boys.” This is another deliberate distortion. In fact, the Spartan army openly embraced pederasty as a means of building army unity, with Spartan warriors often adopting younger male acolytes as sexual partners. The youthful warriors-in-training were often children by today’s standards. To make the Spartans palatable heroes to contemporary audiences, however, Miller and Snyder delete this inconvenient truth.

Homophobia, meanwhile, marks the depiction of the Persians. Ephialtes falls to bribery at a drugged-out bacchanalia hosted by Persian King Xerxes (played with flamboyant effeminacy by Rodrigo Santoro), a scary frat party in which a slithering mass of dimly lit hermaphrodites make out in a swords-and-sandals version of “Boogie Nights.”

The homosexuality of Xerxes is not explicitly depicted, although several reviews and blogs have alluded to Santoro appearing in the film as “RuPaul Beyond the Thunderdome." Xerxes sashaying about as he proclaims himself “king of kings” (“queen of queens” is more like it) stands in stark contrast to the Spartans’ relentless machismo. All this seething anti-gay sentiment is ironic since the bare and buff Spartan soldiers look like they stepped straight out of 1950s gay bodybuilder porn.

Along with people of color, foreigners, the handicapped and gays, the makers of “300” seem to really hate pacifists. The script celebrates that the Spartans essentially kidnapped boys at age seven to turn them into homicidal militarists. The chief villains in the movie are Spartans who oppose war with the Persians. The peace party, without exception, is depicted as a fifth column of sexual predators motivated by greed. Their hostility to war stems not from idealism but from Persian lucre.

No one desiring peace can have a noble purpose, according to this film. Peace activists are traitors, Miller and Snyder warn. The Cindy Shehans of ancient Sparta almost destroyed that nation and they represent a virus eroding the West today. War is peace And freedom is slavery. And “300” is Orwell for simpletons.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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