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[Film] When “300” Is Just Not Enough

Posted by intellisg on March 26, 2007

“Today, they are trying to tamper with history by making a film and by making Iran’s image look savage.” 21 March 2007.
– Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the film “300.” Reuters, AF-P.

For many Iranians and Arabs in the Middle East, the movie ‘300’ has been greeted with a mixture of anger and outrage. Its one that we may not really appreciate beyond dismissing as just another Arab nation overreacting once again – after all they are so sensitive aren’t they? That’s only because you’ve probably never ever heard of the word, “Thermopylae” before have you? No it’s not a Teflon frying pan. Neither is it even a space age insulator used by astronauts in their space suits. Nor a transparent film that cuts out deadly UV rays commonly used in automobiles.

The battle of Thermopylae 480BC was first recorded by the classical Greek historian, Herodotus, who lived in the Persian city of Halicarnassus. His book, “The Histories” or “The Annals,” has been elevated to the status of reference material by most Historians today. It’s a development that has raised many eyebrows amongst Middle Eastern historians who still prefer to make sense of the Persian period through the ‘Cyropaedia,’ account written by another Greek author named Xenophon. There are compelling reasons why Middle Eastern historians lean towards Xenophon’s account instead of Herodotus. For one, the former paints a more favorable account of the Persian Empire. In the “Cyropaedia,” Xenophon mentions for example how in the city of Halicarnassus different faiths were allowed to practice their beliefs freely by royal decree. Herodotus documents the same only completing the account with a barbed repartee by highlight how these laws which apparently demonstrated an enlightened ideal aped the form rather than embodying the content. Though historians may continue to agree and disagree with which accounts of Persian history constitutes the definitive academic datum.

Virtually all historians are unanimous about the political inclination of these two chroniclers. Herodotus was an unabashed anti Monarchies. Xenophon conversely was an unapologetic monarchist par excellence. The “Cyropaedia” is redolent with praises for what it terms “the divinity of royal wisdom,” which spawned “the gilded age” of learning under King Cyrus.

There lies the battle lines of the divide one which continues to pits Xenophon’s account against Herodotus’s version till this day. You would have thought the matter would have been well settled after 2,500 years give or take a few years. Err…not really judging from “great balls of fire” reception the movie “300” received in Tehran it seems the whole debate might as well have just happened yesterday.

The debut of “300” and the outrage expressed by the Iranian President throws out the question, why are the Iranians and rest of the Arabs so pissed off? After all it’s just a film. Surely they know the entire Persian history can’t be compressed into 120 minutes! Besides given the Xenophon was a monarchist, do these modern day Persians, the Iranians really have a case premised in historical fact to even suggest their history is being gutted? Is it really true that Frank Miller’s stylized cut of the Battle of Thermopylae was simply a mutilation of historical facts? And if so how short does it fall from the mark and more importantly why?

(2) Did Someone Cut and Paste History?

Yes and no. To really get a handle on the “smoking gun,” one doesn’t need to go back to ancient Sparta some 2,450 odd years ago. The truth lies much closer to our age somewhere in the late 18th Century in the Americas – when Herodotus account of the battle of Thermopylae came to symbolize the struggle between the forces of democracy in the Americas against the colonial oppresion of King George III – the metaphor of the Battle of Thermopylae was quickly seized by the American founding fathers who saw it as a rallying cry for a nation of settlers and militia to unite, take up arms and rout the British. So powerful was the image, even the famous painting depicting George Washington crossing the Deleware was an exact copy glorifying the Thermopylae warriors from an earlier Greco-Athenian stone mural that is presently housed in the Syrian National Museum.

300.jpgThe similarities between fact and fiction are so seamlessly interwoven it’s clear for all to seek out. On Christmas day in 1776, G.Washington crossed the Delaware with a small militia (the 300) and outmaneuvered a superior force by cutting a path through the frozen river successfully ambushing a superior force.

The symbolism of the ‘Battle Of Thermopylae’ is one that easy to pick up and run with: for one is speaks of the brave 300 Spartans who once stood against impossible odds against marauding Persians. Its good stuff if your platoon has to hold a line against 10,000 Ottoman troops mounting a cavalry charge. It’s even better if you run out of ammunition. Never mind we can just fix bayonets and do it the old fashion way like those brave Spartans. And even if you end up dead and looking like a sieve, it even works. You can’t complain none of the 300 survived either!

Little wonder the Thermopylae story has always been de rigueur for propagandist to further the cause for nationalism. At the very heart of the “300” story, it’s one that glorifies the martial code of self-discipline, stoicism and unquestioning devotion to duty.

The story of the Spartan boy who in order to conceal the theft of a fox, hid the animal in his cloak and allowed it to gnaw him to death rather than utter a sound. The disgrace, as the account has it, would not have been in the stealing, but in allowing the act to be detected.From the moment of his birth, everything was organized to making each Spartan an exceptional and unwaveringly loyal soldier.

“For nobody was free to live as he wished, but the city was like a military camp, and they had a set way of life and routine in the public service. They were fully convinced that they were the property not of themselves but of the state,”

Its one that’s simply too good to pass up and since then every regime from the Vatican to Nazi Germany has been making a beeline to buy a piece of its yarn to put on their stamps, emboss of a their banknotes right down to even selling detergents, remember the Spartan that wipes out dirt and stains?

But coming back to the film what really disturbs Arabs about “300,” isn’t so much the character distortions. It is not that Xerxes, the Grandson of Cyrus the Great and loving husband of Esther, is depicted as a cross dressing “Ah Kua”* (drag queen). Our even casting the Persians as Africans and the Spartans as white, blue-eyed, Aryan stock. Here we have all sorts of innuendos sloshing around, white against black, civilization against anarchy, right and wrong etc.

What really distresses the Arabs is the movie “300” cuts out whole sale a significant portion of Persian history, thereby eliding centuries of Islamic history: it was one that once spoke of an advance civilization that thrived as a veritable center of learning and culture nurturing the of the sciences, politics and statecraft which continued to attract the brightest minds to Persian gulf. What remains distressing about “300” is how surgically it manages to reduce the Battle of Thermopylae into an allegorical play of virtuosity against the mindless Persians.

It certainly stretches the limits of the imagination, but really it’s a bridge too far. One that even suggest for all the right and wrong reasons “300” just falls short of bridging the divide between fact and fiction that simply makes it entertaining rubbish.

(By Harphoon / Film / History / Politics –EP993838 -2007 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)


14 Responses to “[Film] When “300” Is Just Not Enough”

  1. Daniel said

    How did the Iranian president get ahold of that film in light of US sanctions? Was he watching a bootleg copy? He should be careful or the movie company may sue him for piracy!

  2. Ned Stark said

    Watching the film, it seemed that Mordor was transplanted into ancient times. The Persians seemed to be an offshoot of the hordes of mordor from LOTR rather than an Empire.

  3. Rowen said

    The battle of Thermopylae was a battle of a clash of civilisation. It was also a defience of a weaker power against a stronger one. Greece was weak at that time. It was only in the times of Philip and Alexander that they managed to trounce the persian empire.

    Herodotus and Xenophon are both greeks. Both have forsaken their homeland for various reasons. There is another difference to them.

    Herodotus is a scholar and deals with ideals whereas Xenophon is a mercenary. Xenophon is credited with writing another great history, the march of a 1000. Generally speaking he should be a more practical man.

    However essentially, both are not Spartan and both have forsaken a weaker place (Greece) for a better place (Persia). It is the same in the world today. That is why a lot of people are immigrating looking for a better place.

  4. Galye said

    You all know where the word Xenophobia comes from dont you? As for Herodotus he was no better – what a big fat hypocrite if ever there was one who ever lived! Do you know why he didnt live in Greece and instead called Persia his home! I bet if he wrote the same dribble he passed of as history in Athens or Greece, they would just use him as a dart board.

  5. anongal said


    Although Washington and many romantics continue to insisted it was “the 300” who crossed the Deleware and defeated the British in Trenton. Modern military historians have conclusively confirmed, the actual figure was 2,000 troops.

  6. prima delli said

    I like Harpoon. He is mature not like the rest.

  7. cc said

    Interesting as always and well researched. I just like to say it is nice to see you are incorporating color pics into your articles. I think that goes a very long way to make it more interesting and informative. Do keep it up. You guys are really rocketing ahead of everyone else.:)

  8. onlooker said

    OK lah u ppl very tokong la. We all salandeh to u lah!

  9. onlooker said


    Would the brudderhud press consider writing a featured articled in a magazine? We are willing to pay top $. If you are interested pls reply here.

    just call me estate agent emily – I make the connections that put ideas and ppl together lah, but I dont deal with stooges.

  10. An interesting and informative piece, but you need to avoid some simple mistakes. The Iranian majority, as descendents of the Persians, are not and have never been Arabs. There are too many references in the essay that indicate you think the Persians are/were Arabs, e.g. “why are the Iranians and rest of the Arabs so pissed off?”

    “But coming back to the film what really disturbs Arabs about ‘300,’” you asked. I don’t think the Arabs have objected to the film.

    “What really distresses the Arabs is the movie ‘300’ cuts out whole sale a significant portion of Persian history, thereby eliding centuries of Islamic history” – I very much doubt that this can be an issue, since during the period in question, Islam had not appeared. And Arabs are not likely to be distressed over misrepresentation of Persian history, they being separate and at times hostile ethnic groups.

  11. Harphoon said

    [“You need to avoid some simple mistakes.” The Iranian majority, as descendents of the Persians, are not and have never been Arabs. There are too many references in the essay that indicate you think the Persians are/were Arabs, e.g. “why are the Iranians and rest of the Arabs so pissed off?”]

    The question here is simply this where do you think Iranian, Arab or Islamic history begins? You are drawing lines on sand. Let me put it another way. When did man’s preoccupation with space begin? Did it start from Yuri Gagarin in the 50’s? Or perhaps over 2,000 years ago, when the aeolipile first theorize propulsion as a viable proposition for space travel?

    Do I believe the descendent of Persians are Arabs? No not historically and I don’t think most of them believe that either. But we are not dealing with historical truths here – we are dealing with perceptions. Otherwise they wouldn’t have any locus standing to get hot under the collar. Thermoplyae has nothing to do with Arabs and even less to do with Islam or the Iranians by your definition of historical fact, that I agree. But the question here is not one which relates to academic truths. Rather it one that ask the question: does the average Arab (not only Iranians) identify with Persian history to even suggest their identity is inextricably one of the same reality? Yes. If you bothered to do your research bfr claiming that I made “simple mistakes.” Then perhaps you will allude yourself to the reality what many consider “Arab identity” did not begin with the advent of Islamic history. Even Nasser and Ben Gurion accepted this as a lingua franca truth. That may be a version of truth that makes historical sense, but from an anthropological or sociological reality it makes a lot of sense as to how most Arabs see themselves historically. Even if historians continually cite the great age after Ka’b al-Ahbar reportage of Islam as being a definitive marker of Arab identity. That could only be true if the language, narrative and metaphors employed in the Quran or for that matter even the Jewish Talmud was so alien as to suggest it was foreign to the people who eventually adopted it as faith. But that is not the case.

    Therefore all the empirical evidence suggest Persian and Arab history is often perceived at a ground level as one of the same reality. This naturally begs the question (going back to our earlier analogy): where do you start the stopwatch to mark the point when man first started his relationship with space? According to your understanding of how people make sense of who they are in the context of their history, we should press the button just around the time when monkeys were blasted off into space? By your analogy of linear history, monkeys should also be building rockets to go to Mars today bc they were the first living creatures in space. And man was never part of the equation bc he was number two and we all know, ppl only remember number 1. Or would you perhaps entertain the proposition monkeys were just there for the ride? Now you understand why when you write something like this, “I very much doubt that this can be an issue, since during the period in question, Islam had not appeared.” I cannot even respond logically.

    I did not ask whether they (the Iranians) or Arabs have an irrefutable right premised on historical fact to get pissed off. I asked why are they pissed off? That of course suggest foreknowledge that I have already reconciled myself with these dichotomies.

    As for your suggestion the Arabs have not objected, that’s like saying, if tomorrow the US bombs nuclear reactors in Iran, Arab reaction will remain muted. That’s simply unrealistic as it is naïve. The history of the intifada was shown only one thing, they (the Arabs) may appear divisive most of the time, but when it comes to their identity as an Arab grouping be it Sunni or Shia’a, they are truly one. That is why US foreign policy remains mired bc they simply don’t understand how people in that region make sense of their histories or even try to see the world through their eyes.

  12. Iamusingmybflaptoptopost said

    One thing about you guys, u r too fierce la. Like Israel, anyone attack you go on a full scale offensive.

    If that doesn’t work then a strategy of intimidation follows.

    You are definitely a superpower in singapore blogosphere that is feared and to some extent even highly respected, but if you notice you also have no friends.

  13. scholarboy said

    If the cost of friendship means we have to deal with ppl who dont even bother to respect us enough to do their homework bfr criticizing us. Then pls keep your friendship.

    Besides the brotherhood has a critical mass of loyal readers and they run into the thousands.

  14. osf said

    Was it really necessary to bury Alex like that? All of you recently seem to be deliberately chasing ppl out of here why?

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