300: This is Not Sparta!

It’s hard not to reflect on present day politics while watching a film that pits a great warrior democracy against a decadent Persian ruler on the eve of impending conflict between the US and Iran.  Certainly Iranians are reading the film politically, as this recent headline from the Iranian daily Ayandeh-No attests: “Hollywood Declares War on Iranians!”  Setting aside the intentions of Zack Snyder, 300’s director, or Frank Miller, author of the graphic novel the film is based upon, the politics of this blue-screen blood bath are anything but clear.  If Iranian reviewers actually saw 300, they might find that Persia doesn’t come off looking so bad in this movie, nor does Sparta come off looking so good. 

The Spartans led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) are clearly meant to be the underdog heroes.  The plot of 300 centers on the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.E.  After an introduction through key scenes in the life of King Leonidas, we meet the king as he is approached by Persian messengers offering a deal.  If Leonidas pays tribute to Persia, Sparta will be spared.  If he doesn’t, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his massive army of Persian warriors will attack Sparta.  After consulting with the Ephron oracles and being told that it is not a good time for war, Leonidas listens to his wife who counsels him to do what “a free man would do.”  And there’s the rub.  What did freedom mean to the Spartans? 

When King Leonidas shouts the word “freedom” there’s a familiarity to it that sounds remarkably similar to the way George W. Bush uses the word.  The Spartan society certainly was not free, at least not for the Helot slaves who worked the fields while the Spartans were fighting for “glory.”  Although the Spartan warriors are free, they bow down to Leonidas, and only the most fit fighters enjoy that privilege.

Unlike Sparta, the Persian empire is remarkably diverse and multicultural. Xerxes himself is physically marked as different.  He’s 7 feet tall, dripping gold from dozens of piercings, and has an effeminate manner that starkly contrasts with his digitally lowered voice.   Hermaphrodites and homosexuals people his court just as giants and “freaks” make up his army. The messenger Xerxes sends to ask for his tribute of Earth and Water, is black, while his immortal warriors with their broad silver masks are from the far shores of East Asia.  At every level, it is clear that Xerxes embraces diversity. 

What sets Xerxes apart most from his Spartan enemies is the way he invites those with disabilities into his fold.  The Spartans, by contrast, throw their disabled young into a pit as part of their zero tolerance policy toward physical imperfection. This policy backfires on the Spartans when Leonidas is approached by a deformed man dressed in Spartan garb as he waits for the final Persian attack.  Ephialtes is a Spartan hunchback, an anomaly, since he should have been left to die at birth, but his parents fled Sparta rather than lose their son. Now, wearing his father’s armor, Ephialtes wants his chance to prove himself a Spartan warrior.  Leonidas hears him out, but in the end, refuses his request because Ephialtes cannot raise his shield high enough to meet the requirements of the famed Spartan phalanx.  Ephialtes has no choice but to turn to Xerxes, who grants him a panopoly of sensual pleasures in exchange for his information about the Spartans.

Ultimately, of course, Xerxes and his Persian multitudes outflank and destroy the Spartans. In spite of this inevitable outcome, the Spartans' defiance and courage is celebrated in every frame of this film. Their willingness to face insurmountable odds is as heroic today as it was 2500 years ago. But in 300, there is also, perhaps inadvertently, the suggestion that Spartan intolerance is partly responsible for Leonidas' defeat, just as Persian multiculturalism is partly responsible for Xerxes' victory.

Clearly some people will read 300 as a propaganda piece for America’s war on terror. There are many allegorical connections beyond the obvious depiction of Persians as the enemy.  The Spartans are constantly talking about fighting for “freedom,” with quotes like, “Freedom isn’t free!”  Indeed, freedom is not free, not now in post-Patriot Act US, nor was it then in Sparta, a notorious slave state.  Those who see in the 300 Spartans a heroic portrait of go-it-alone America, embroiled in an epic struggle with evil, have closed their eyes to some fairly obvious contradictions.  The US is a multicultural society where every little leaguer gets a trophy just for trying.  The fantasy of a great Spartan warrior nation state may be out there, but let’s face it, this is not Sparta!

Joseph Christopher Schaub, CineMatters: March 2007.