A break from the facebook parts for a bit (will come back to them).
So I finally saw the movie 300 the other day. You know, the movie everyone has been talking about.
The graphics, shot sequences and animation were amazing. They’re probably the best thing out there so far. Every head chop, sword clash, and facial expression is captured in a way you’d be hard pressed to find in another movie already out there.
That said, there are some serious problems with the movie. The script, acting, and dialogue weren’t exactly stellar, but that’s only the beginning.
The main problem is the unbelievable Orientalism running throughout the whole movie. I mean my god, talk about Bernard Lewis or Thomas Friedman being orientalist, but this movie takes it to a whole different level.
Spartans are white, good-looking, muscular, strong, noble, manly, and fearsome warriors. They are also British (which is bizarre, considering that Spartans back in the day would’ve never heard of of the place) and Western. Each of them has a well defined personality and is given a human dimension. The Persian hordes (another orientalist stereotype with a long history) are ugly, sissies, faggots, lesbians (which is ironic, considering how homoerotic the Spartans are depicted as, with buffed up totally waxed and tanned guys strutting around in little more than thongs flexing their muscles. They are however of the “manly” type, and if we want to use local Bahraini metaphors they would definitely not be “takers”, where they even at one point refer to Athenians (known for their “taking” and “giving”) as something along the line of “boy lovers”), disrespectful of women, and evil. Most of them (the Persians) are faceless (literally), lack independent personalities or free will, are pretty much machines that follow orders, and are dehumanized to a point where you cannot really say they are people. Their sole goal in life is to wreak havoc and destruction. They are the inferior, unattractive, immmoral and deluded “other”, the complete opposite and mirror image of spartans. Spartans love to rant on about defending freedom, justice and that sort of banter (with their king sounding in the process like a hyper coked-up George W. Bush). In fact, their whole objective in the movie is to defend their civilization, freedom, justice, etc. from the invading barbarians from the east. In contrast the Persians are ruled by a highly authoritarian king who is the antithesis of all of that. Sounds familiar ?
Basically, the Persians are all the bad stereotypes you can think of and more rolled into one. They are evil incarnate. The Spartans, although with fault, defend many of the honourable things in life. The two sides stand in stark contrast to each other and each is used to highlight and accentuate the characteristics of the other side (the evil persians serve to emphasize how good the spartans are, and the noble spartans serve to emphasize how evil the Persians are). And just to throw a spanner into the works, the movie uses the age-old tactic of conflating different vulnerable groups together as well as throwing in a few horrible traits in the mix just to play one group against the other. Thus, to take one example, Persians are often Black or of dark-skin colour. This, when combined with the undesirable traits listed above (being evil, devoid of free will,etc), creates a jumbled up picture of the different groups in which each can percieve a fault in and a reason to hate the other. Thus those who identify more with persians might feel agrieved that they have been likened to blacks or blacks might feel agrieved that they have been likened to persians, and this grievance stems mainly from being associated with the bad characteristics (evil, no free will) that are identified with the other group in the movie, and not from being associated with the other group itself. IN OTHER WORDS (and to simplify this convoluted argument), in the movie blacks might be associated with persians (or vice versa), and this might piss off some people that identify themselves as black (or persian) because in the process the bad traits of being evil hoards, etc that are identified with persians translate over to their group. Unfortunately some Iranian bloggers have fallen into this trap and have started voicing objections to Persians being depicted as “black” or of “African origin.” This is unfortunate as this makes them vulnerable to the accusation of being racist, although it is fundamentally the movie that shows strong overtones of racism.
This is of course to say nothing of historical factual (in)accuracies (which I will not go into since I have no expertise whatsoever on the subject. Pretty much the only thing I’ve ever read that focuses mainly on this is Persian Fire by Tom Holland, from which I take any information mentioned about the battle here). Technically, it is concievable that someone could make an argument that the film is broadly true in terms of historical events, with certain events that did happen (e.g. a battle in a narrow passing) being highlighted in the movie. That’s not the point, however. The point is in the way these events were depicted and how one side was demonized while the other elevated to hero-like status. I could just as well make a movie about the American civil war that is broadly accurate in terms of the events’ time line but that depicts Yankees or Southerners as effeminate, ugly, evil, bloodsucking monsters who like to eat babies for breakfast and unborn feotesus for dinner while drinking fermented vaginal blood as wine.
One person told me, “but in the beginning of the movie it is obvious that the narrator is Spartan, and so this movie is told from point of the view of the ancient Greeks (which historical records show was in the main (obviously) very anti-persian) and this excuses the depicition and the viewer knows that.” I sincerely doubt that 95% of those who watched it realized that. I’ve had more than one person tell me this is based on true events, and the movie leaves beyond doubt as to whose side your affections should lie and who you should be cheering. Some people excuse it by saying it is a ficitional story albeit loosely based on true events and hence should not be taken seriously (which is an argument the producers and the company that made the movie used). This does not wash either. As mentioned before, many people failed to realize that the movie is a pure work of fiction (beyond realizing that monsters are fictitious). For many people this is the first time that they ever hear about this battle or event in history, and if I am to make a rash statement I bet most people will come out from that movie actually believing that the Spartans were indeed in the right, that they were the good guys while the Persians were the evil and bad guys. i.e. they will come out believing that the spartans really were the goodies and the Persians really were the baddies. The movie obviously also tries to make a strong connection to the actual historical events, or why would so many historical occurences be reproduced in the movie? If the whole point was a fictional story loosely based on the original events, then it would make much more sense just to make up events as one goes along and not relate it so much to the actual historical events. The fact that there has been such a great effort to stick to the broad historical timeline of events suggests strongly that there was a concerted effort to try to present the movie as broadly “historically accurate”, if one disregards the fantasy-novels features in it (e.g. monsters), and indeed this is what many people have argued about it!
If one does believe this, and he/she does swallow the movie’s take on historical events (while disregarding the fantasy noverl parts) then one most probably will also gullibly swallow the ideas in the movie of the Persians being the baddies, ugly, devoid of free will, effeminate, etc (for these themes are not logically related in anyway to the fantasy parts of the movie). Unfortunately this I fear is what many people will come out of the movie believing.
One person has argued to me that the movie is so bombastic, so in-your-face, so crassly racist that in fact it is just one big irony. In reality, the makers were depicting the American government as the Persians and the local populations defending against invasion (e.g. Iran, Iraq) as the Spartans. After all, it is the Persians (in the movie) who similar to the American government are invading other territories and are made up of an array of armies from all around the world , and it is the Spartans like Iran or Iraq who are defending their countries. This, although a nice thought, is completely dillusional. To believe this you would have to assume that everything in the movie is supposed to stand for the opposite of what it stands for. The Spartans, who are white, talk about democracy and justice, very independent-minded, etc, should instead stand for people who are invariably depicted in the Western media as the complete opposite of these traits. That just sounds utterly ridiculous to me. Indeed, since time immemorial the battle of Thermopylae specifically and the war(s) between the ancient Greeks and Persians generally have often been held as a defining moment of the “west and “western civilization” in contrast to “the east”, “the orient”, etc. Montaigne, Byron, John Stuart Mill, and Hegel, to name but a few, all commented on this.
It is hard not to conclude that this movie is a racist propaganda piece of the most in-your-face and no-subtlety-whatsoever type. It is not the first (“Rambo 3″ versus. the soviets comes to mind, although this pales in comparison and looks like a model of sensitivity/evenhandedness when compared to 300) nor is it the last. It also takes on a heightened dimension when one takes into account that the U.S./U.K vs. Iran governments are in an adversarial standoff at the moment in real life, with the former constantly using arguments about democracy, freedom, lack of self expression etc to discredit the latter (not to mention the fact that many people are talking about a “clash of civilization” now between “muslims” and the “west” with the west being the “superior civilization” that should be defended, and this movie will only serve to fuel such talk). And indeed many people have not failed to take notice of this. Just look at some of the comments being written about 300 on the internet. Many liken the Spartans’ experience to the American government and America’s war on terror. Others explicitly identify Spartans with Israel (which is not a new idea. Israel, described as a small, paranoid and highly militarized nation that seeks to dominate and exploit its neighbours by force has often been compared to Sparta).
The apologist for the movie try to defend it by using a banal “it is a fictional story” excuse. One could easily imagine a movie about the Crusades or a battle between the Byzantines and the Arabs which also depicts Arabs and muslims in an equally bombastic and horrendous manner.
To take an extreme example, Leni Riefenstahl’s (of the Nazi propaganda movie “Triumph of the Will” fame) experience show that masterpieces of art can unfortunately be used to produce questionable propaganda (it is interesting that Hitler himself explicitly compared the German 6th army to the Spartan 300. In fact, the battle of Thermopylae has been often used in Nazi propaganda). It is a shame that such amazing use of graphics and technology was used to produce a shamelessly Orientalist piece of propaganda as 300.
Orientalism, nearly 30 years after the publication of Said’s groundbreaking book with the same name, is still unfortunately alive and well.