Thursday, 30 August 2012

Is this Sparta?

300 film posterAdapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller, the film 300 (released in 2006) interprets the events around the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE.

When the Greek city states are threatened by an immense Persian army, King Leonidas of Sparta defies opposition at home and takes 300 hand-picked men to lead the Greek defence. His chosen spot is a narrow pass that will render ineffective the Persians’ huge numerical advantage.

The story is framed by a narrator who turns out to be Dilios, a warrior sent home to tell his fellow Spartans, and ourselves, what has happened. The story therefore is being told second-hand and possibly embellished for effect, a device that gives the film licence to stray freely into fantasy.

300 is visually dramatic, but one-dimensional characters, shouty acting and a wearying parade of carnage mean its qualities mostly end there. Politically, too, the film is as sophisticated as a head-butt, glorifying militaristic white males with identikit six-packs as they defend freedom and other cherished ‘Western’ values from a decadent and barbarous Asiatic horde [1].

Reactionism in Sparta

The audience is expected to root for the Spartans in this confrontation, but is given little or no reason to value what they stand for. In fact, their world seems repulsive.

Ephor
One of the Ephors
The entire film reeks with distaste for disability and physical ‘imperfection’. Dilios observes in his narration that if a Spartan newborn was ‘small or puny, sickly or misshapen’, it was condemned to death. Nobody criticises this practice. The ephors – priests whose blessing is required by law before Sparta may go to war – are described as ‘inbred swine, more creature than man’. Their physical deformity is an indication of their corrupt nature, for the ephors are greedy, treacherous and use their position to exploit young women for sex. The army of the Achaemenid empire is packed with disfigured soldiers and ogres. Another example is the Spartan exile Ephialtes, who follows the three hundred and begs Leonidas to let him join in the battle to prove his worth. Leonidas refuses because Ephialtes is a hunchback whose inability to fully raise his shield would create a weakness in the phalanx. Outraged by this rejection, Ephialtes switches his allegiance to the Persians, revealing a route through the pass in return for a uniform and sex with slave girls. This betrayal leads directly to the defeat and death of Leonidas and his men.

The message from all this is clear: physical disability not only means you are unfit for service, it is synonymous with inferiority, slavery, treachery and evil – a corruption of the body manifesting a corruption of the soul. The ancient Greeks may have agreed with this. But we are not ancient Greeks.

Just as distasteful is the open homophobia of the Spartan warriors. Leonidas dismisses the Athenians as ‘philosophers and boy-lovers’. The warrior Stelios, competing with his comrade to kill the most Persians, taunts him with ‘offering his backside to Thespians’. The Persians, including their king, Xerxes, are often portrayed as effete, wearing jewels and makeup as signs of decadence.

There is a stark racial divide throughout the film. The Persians are dark-skinned and, rather like any Middle Eastern throng on a Western news report, are portrayed as an undisciplined rabble. The first casualty of the film is a black messenger kicked down a pit, the first of many black people put to the sword by the finely chiselled white Spartans. The Persian army is likened to a beast, in particular a fearsome wolf.

On the Persian side, women appear only briefly as beautiful concubines, squirming seductively on the ground. Spartan women come out better than one might expect: Leonidas’s wife Gorgo is strong and proud, and displays her own heroic qualities when she pulls a sword on the wily ‘bad guy’ Theron and slays him before the Spartan council. When Xerxes threatens to enslave Sparta’s women, Leonidas warns him, ‘You don’t know our women.’ Historically, women seem to have enjoyed much greater freedom in Sparta than was usual in ancient Greece. But women in Persia also enjoyed greater freedoms than in most of ancient Greece, and this is ignored. Gorgo declares that Spartan women measure their worth as giving birth to ‘real men’, and is the only woman who merits a speaking part in a film dedicated to an orgy of male violence.

And the violence is extreme and frequent. The title screen of 300 promises blood, and keeps the promise. Director Zack Snyder uses slow-motion sequences so we may enjoy the beauty of slaughter. Sprays of blood and severed limbs fly through the air and the Spartans whirl through the middle of it like ballet dancers, admirable for their perfection as killers. Violence has its place in cinema when used appropriately, but this is an aesthetic that would not be out of place in a Nazi propaganda film. It is accompanied on the Spartan side by a kind of locker room machismo. When thrash guitars burst out to accompany their onslaughts, one is reminded of the passages in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 when US troops play heavy metal as a soundtrack to killing Iraqis. This is not accidental, because these Spartans are fantasy US marines in red cloaks, fighting to keep the world free... for eugenics, homophobia and Asian-bashing.

movie still from 300The US marines stick it to the Iranians. Publicity still from 300. Credit: Warner Brothers.

One might argue in the film’s defence that the story is narrated – the fantastical elements for example may represent Dilios’ elaborations on the story – and therefore perhaps should not be taken at face value. But at no point is the audience invited to doubt Dilios as a narrator, or to challenge his narrative.

The main thing one can do with such a silly film is laugh at it, as many film reviewers have done. Peter Bradshaw [2] of the Guardian concluded for example that “no one could possibly take it seriously.” This is true as far as it goes. But however daft the film, its real interest for critics is the way it lays bare a particular thread of Western ideology.

The clash of civilisations

The message of Snyder’s piece of nonsense is that the Battle of Thermopylae was a battle between an enlightened (white) West that celebrates freedom and reason, and a barbarous (black) East based on submission and decadence.

300 of course is not meant to be taken seriously as history. This is underlined by its extravagant use of fantasy: for example, Xerxes appears as a giant about nine feet tall, seated upon a throne that would sink any ship that tried to transport it. But it is often the weakest works of art that teach us most about a society’s preoccupations. 300 is a crass illustration of the thesis known as the ‘clash of civilisations’, whose best-known formulation appears in the book of that name by Samuel P. Huntington.

Huntington contended that ‘the fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future.’[3] But the theme is bigger than any single author. Broadly, it proposes that there is a fundamental historical clash between the ‘values’ of the West and the East, above all the Islamic world. It is no accident that this thesis has appeared in the post-Cold War period when imperialism is turning its military focus onto the Middle East. Imperialism’s version of Islam is well summed up in the words of Frank Miller himself, talking about ‘the enemy’ in a radio interview:

For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbours were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.[4]

Although the religion of Islam did not exist at the time of Thermopylae, Persia roughly corresponds to modern-day Iran and its empire embraced a great swathe of the Middle East. The film-makers strongly identify the Persians with Muslim stereotypes: they wear turbans and veils, and are angry and dark-skinned. By contrast, Leonidas sometimes appears Christ-like, most unambiguously in his final shot where he lies with arms spread (pierced with arrows like that other Christian icon, Saint Sebastian). The film was released at a time when US policy towards Iran was particularly belligerent, and the threat of an imperialist attack hangs over Iran still.

The ‘clash of civilisations’ setting requires that the Persian empire must be represented as tyrannical. This approach is not limited to the frat-house world of 300. In 2007, the historian Bettany Hughes repeated the refrain in a mainstream television documentary when commenting upon the Greeks’ victory at Salamis:

All over the city [Athens] public monuments were set up eulogising the victory. The message was clear: Western democracy could, and should, triumph over Eastern tyranny. The schism between East and West had been set in stone.[5]

Here Persia is casually labelled like a pantomime villain. Hughes should surely know that Persia was the first of the world’s great empires, comprising 5 million square kilometres and perhaps 10 million people. Persian rule usually meant minimal interference in daily life: regions were governed by satraps who collected taxes for the emperor, but kept relative autonomy and their local religious customs were respected. Slavery was in general banned in Persia – unlike in Greece! The empire behaved no more brutally than any other ancient empire, or indeed the Greeks themselves when tearing each other apart in the Peloponnesian War [6].

Sparta was no more ‘free’ than Persia. The film makes no mention for example of the helots, who were kept in slavery so the Spartans might exploit the wealth of Messenia [7]; it was the need to oppress this great mass of slaves that prompted Sparta to develop its ferocious military system in the first place. Sparta, on the film’s evidence, is a nasty regime that kills children with disabilities, abuses those who survive, and scorns any softness or weakness. Even the Greek cities that did have democracy only granted it to a minority of citizens, and never to women. After the victories against the Persians, Athens created its own empire through the Delian League, imposing its authority over other Greeks and punishing cities that tried to assert independence.

There’s no space to expose the full stupidity of the ‘clash of civilisations’ here. Suffice to say, it is misguided to identify the US or Iran too strongly with ancient Greece or Persia, or to try and impose slogans about democracy onto ancient history. The division into west and east would have made no sense to the ancients. Despite this, the battle of Thermopylae, and the Greek victories over Persia that followed, have long been held up by Western scholarship as moments of definition for the West. Here 300 resembles its plodding 1962 ancestor, The 300 Spartans, in which the Spartans again act as proxy Americans defending freedom against the hordes, in this instance, of eastern communism. Today the story has been updated for a new enemy.

Why is there such fascination with the strategically insignificant engagement at Thermopylae, given that the battles of Salamis and Plataea were more decisive in throwing back the Persian invasions? Probably for the same reason that the Greek historian Herodotus grossly over-estimated Persian numbers at nearly two million. Salamis and Plataea have not been as fruitful for comic books, novels and movies because they capture much less vividly the ‘few against many’ symbolism attractive to a superpower ludicrously trying to present itself as a heroic underdog. The real relation of forces at present – a nuclear-armed military superpower and its allies attacking much weaker Third World states – lends itself very poorly to romanticisation. The situation at Thermopylae also lends itself to the racist image, familiar in fascist literature, of a small but superior global community of white people besieged by a vast rabble of black people.

The ‘clash of civilisations’ is intellectual propaganda for a series of wars initiated by US imperialism in the Middle East. These wars are designed to win advantages for the declining superpower that it cannot win by non-military means, most importantly the strategic control of some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Since the peoples of the Middle East will not surrender their resources voluntarily, the US bourgeoisie must kill them in enormous numbers to get its way – a process so brutal that it requires a huge campaign of misrepresentation to make it acceptable to at least part of the masses in the US and its allied Western nations.

It would probably go too far to claim that Snyder’s film is a conscious rallying cry for US warmongering in the Middle East, or that most of the audience who helped it earn nearly $456 million cared much about its reactionary politics. But the work is nonetheless the product of a particular ideological context. 300 is ancient history reinvented according to the most half-witted fantasies of the US bourgeoisie: reactionary in its admiration of a regressive society, repulsive in its homophobia and disabilism, racist in its portrayal of the Middle East, and pro-imperialist in its implicit support for US militarism.



[1] The narrator actually refers at one point to ‘Asia’s endless hordes’.
[2] Peter Bradshaw, 300 (Guardian, 23 March 2007). Although Bradshaw is correct and amusing about the silliness of 300, he recycles the usual stereotypes of Iranians as
quick to quarrel and associated with holocaust denial, and denies any imperialist subtext to the film.
[3] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996). You can watch a lecture by Edward Said explaining and then demolishing Huntington here.
[4] Interview on National Public Radio (NPR) on 24 January 2007. Islam emerged in the 7th century CE, not the 6th as Miller thinks. Genital mutilation is not unique to Muslim communities but is also practiced by Christians.
[5] ‘Athens: the truth about democracy’, Channel 4, broadcast July 2007.
[6] One gruesome episode came at the end of Athens’ failed attack on Syracuse, when the Syracusans packed 7000 Athenians into a stone quarry for ten weeks. Many died of disease and starvation before the remainder were sold into slavery.
[7] Another means of terrorising the helots was the Krypteia, selected from the toughest young Spartan boys, who had leave every autumn to travel into Messenia and kill with impunity whomever they found: a kind of adolescent death squad.

1 comment:

  1. Very good overview of some newly-forged, but otherwise well-known means of US imperialistic propaganda!I certainly recommend this article to everyone who is concerned about what the "America -likers" and medias usually oversight or even deliberately diminish.

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