The film 300 is a lot of things. It is borderline racist, possibly misogynist and doubtlessly homoerotic. It is also, in the unintentionally meaningful words of a 15-year-old who shuffled along in front of me as we exited the theatre, “fucking rad.”
The film depicts outrageously-muscled, obviously-white Europeans viciously slaughtering a superior invading force of grotesque-looking Persians in CG-assisted, slow-motion glory. Every now and then the Spartans will take a break from killing to shout something about “freedom” or “glory” at the top of their lungs, but other than a few implied stops to oil themselves up and re-apply their eye shadow, that first sentence just about sums up the whole experience. And, not unsurprisingly, Iran is furious.
Adding to their pyre of “Western things to be angry about” that also includes music, the U.S. dollar and kites, the Iranian government has publicly decried the film and a petition demanding that it be banned from theatres has circulated through Tehran. While the Western gut reaction might be to mutter something about “fundamentalism” through our teeth, is it really that surprising when a Muslim theocracy gets angry about their bronze-age counterparts being depicted as dumb, self-mutilation obsessed hedonists?
Operating under the assumption that director Zack Snyder’s 14-25 demographic has even the vaguest knowledge of ancient geography, Iran–despite any valid justifications for their anger–has missed the point. While Snyder’s stab-fest certainly does have a ham-fisted political subtext, anyone who had their eyes open during the film was more embarrassed for the film- makers than outraged at them. If 300 does set out to prove something by having oiled-up male models hit each other for nearly two hours, it’s that you don’t need to film anal penetration to make gay porn.
While it would be well-in-keeping with the tenants of the Koran to be upset about the veiled homosexuality in the film, it wasn’t the beast Iran chose to fight. Instead, a government spokesman has called it “cultural and psychological warfare” on behalf of a Jewish-controlled Hollywood, preparing the American people for war in Iran.
Government conspiracy and the film’s $70 million opening gross aside, it didn’t help that its release fell on NorouzÂ–the Persian new year– a time when Iranians observe ancient Zoroastrian rites that date back over 3,000 years–far before Islam. To Iranians, it seemed like an open taunt, a cultural watermark on the changing American public opinion regarding the nation. Never mind that it wasn’t the cruel Americans or the wicked Jews who overthrew the Persian Sassanid dynasty in the seventh century and all-but drove out Zoroastrianism over the next hundred years–it was an Arab army.
The problem–and that is to say, the biggest problem–isn’t that the Iranians are completely wrong about 300. They aren’t even that far off the mark, actually. The Spartan bias exists in both the film’s narrative and its visuals–the Anglo heroes depicted as rippling gladiators and the Persians as terrifying monsters led by an eight-foot sexbeast. The problem is that the film’s visual rhetoric is justified by its narrative structure, and everyone seems to be forgetting about that.
At the end of the movie, we learn that the entire story was told by one surviving Spartan to an enormous retaliatory force, and there’s an implication made by doing that on film. A story told once will gain certain embellishments, but a story told thousands of times–enough to make it into an age when it can be re-created and recorded by cameras–will look like a fairytale. Snyder is explicit about this legendary (read: untrustworthy) quality of the narrative, giving him blanket justification for any historical inaccuracy. Even Herodotus–on whose writings Frank Miller based much of the original graphic novel–estimated the actual invading Persian force at around 1.7 million, a number modern historians feel is 10 times too high.
In that way, the Iranian petition that calls 300 “fraudulent and distorted” isn’t wrong at all, it’s just misdirected. Of course the Persians weren’t deformed, sex-crazed sadists–no more than they employed the use of war Rhinos and ogres with jagged blades instead of arms. No one who watches the film will leave believing that. While Snyder might be guilty of having some unintentionally bad politics and some unintentionally hilarious homoeroticism, it’s all just for the sake of good filmmaking.