Monday, May 07, 2007


In the 1930’s, the curators of the Parthenon Marbles in the British museum decided that the Ancient Athenians erected their edifices in glorious monocolour, in keeping with their own neo-classical conceptions of taste, considering that the Greeks could not have been so barbarous as to paint their glorious Pentelic marble facades in the manner of the effete easterners. As a result, they scraped the original pigment with abrasives, altering their appearance and damaging their surface. Similarly, upon entering Greece during the time of the revolution and witnessing its foustanella-clad inhabitants engaged in a desperate battle for their very survival, they formed the opinion that these strange people with their Byzantine superstitions and adherence to Eastern Orthodoxy could not have been descendants of their mythological cultural ancestors.
What is it about Westerners not being able to deal with Greeks on their own terms and having to skew their portrayal of them in order to fit their own preconceived ideas? This was the first question I asked myself as I saw the muscle-bound, semi-naked simian Spartans lurch about the latest Hollywood attempt to identify with the Greek cultural identity: “300.” The impossibly buff Spartans, engaged in nothing more than killing and grunting looked and behaved more like Vikings or lost members from the set of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.” These were certainly not the well combed and groomed Spartans of the 1962 Hollywood rendition, not the armoured, helmeted human tanks of Herodotus’ histories. Then again, cast a glance at the painting accompanying this Diatribe. It is by the architect of the neo-classical revival in France, Jacques-Louis David and is entitled “Leonidas at Thermopylae.” Here we see the origin of Frank Miller’s idealized conception of Spartans. Two hundred years prior to the screening of the film adaptation of his graphic novel, David depicts them as muscle-bound, red-cloaked precursors of the Chippendales. It is no wonder then that in the ubiquitous Youtube, clips of the Spartans marching and fighting have been set to the tune of “It’s raining men.”
For some reason, there is something paradoxically liberating for Westerners, in the context of their puritan past, to seek affinity with scantily clad, nay, nude pretended ancestors, preferably male because while male nudity is considered ennobling, female nudity is depraved and corrupting. This is well attested in “300” by the earnest nude Spartans chivalrously treating their noble, graceful and clothed females. It is interesting that the only clothed male Spartan in the film is the villain in the pay of Persia, while the only nude female is a young priestess on drugs, a topic to which we shall return. The Persians on the other hand, are portrayed Sahrawi Arab style, clad from head to toe, except for Xerxes, who is clad in glo-mesh speedos. In his tent, nubile and sinuous succubi simulate lesbian acts (see how we exported our culture to the barbarous Persians?) juxtaposing the empowering masculinity of the Spartans against the emasculating femininity of the morally corrupt Persians.
As if the viewer didn’t get it earlier, Leonidas cements his butchness by referring to the boy-loving Athenians, a favourite butt (excuse the pun) of western jokes. This comes despite the fact that Xenophon writes that Lycurgus efficiently managed to cultivate chaste pederasty in the Spartan society. Cicero furthermore asserts that, "The Lacedaemonians, while they permit all things except outrage in the love of youths, certainly distinguish the forbidden by a thin wall of partition from the sanctioned, for they allow embraces and a common couch to lovers.' The latent homophobia has a purpose. When we want to denigrate Greeks, we call them poofs. When we want to identify with them, we need them to be real men.
Jacques-Louis David, used elements of ancient Greek and Roman history, ostensibly in order to glorify the triumph of the human spirit and civic pride. In actual fact, he was a propagandist for Napoleon’s imperialist march across Europe and it is evident that like its predecessor, the current “300” movie displays many of the social prejudices and perceptions of our times. One of these is a decidedly anti-religious bias. There is an inescapable feeling that the viewer is observing our boys defend freedom, democracy, (though Sparta was the first fascist state and Napoleon’s France the third after Rome,) and the foundations of western culture against a barbarian horde of crypto-Muslims who come in a combination of recognisable groups: whirling dervishes, suicide bombers and devil-worship-invoking goats (and other antlered) heads. And though the Spartans obviously are not Christian, they seem to have rejected the old (pagan) gods, considering that seeking the mediation of the gods through nude virgins high on drugs and monstrous, leprosy-ridden priests subject to bribery is decidedly uncivilized. Instead they talk about 'god' in the singular, simultaneously disparaging religion and placating the Bible-belt.
Such sentiment is apparent throughout the film, but only hits home right at the end, when David Wenham’s character, the narrator Dilias makes a statement about ushering in a new age of reason and banishing the old ways of mysticism. Combine that with the aforementioned rejection of the pagan gods, and the fact that Xerxes shares various epithets with God (‘Lord of Lords’) and the anti-religious bent is apparent, as well as historically incorrect since it was the Spartan adherence to religion that did not permit them to send their entire army to Thermopylae and further, it was Alexander, not Xerxes, who demanded of his subjects to worship him as a god.
The racist undertones of the movie are even more concerning. They reek of Orientalism of the most crass kind. Herodotus and the movie directors paint a picture of a ‘free’ Greece (west) united against an oppressive ‘Asia.’ But that is a naïve simplification. The fact is, Persia and the Greek city-states were all slave-based societies whose notions of ‘freedom’ had little in common with our modern conception. In Sparta’s case, the entire prefecture of Messenia was subjugated forcibly to its will. Nonetheless, though a myth, it is a noble and inspiring one.
One would be hard pressed to understand why no effort was made to accurately portray the Persians. Instead, we are treated to an ingenious Barnum & Barnum display of freaks that even Lord of the Rings would envy. Indeed, most of the Persian soldiers seem to be disfigured Orcs that were too ugly even for the head of casting for that aforementioned movie. Of course one is less inclined to sympathise with one’s fellow man when that fellow man is actually a hideous beast who serves Sauron.
Given such an unjustifiably silly depiction of the Persians, it is difficult not to at least consider the view propounded by Iranian newspaper Ayander, that: the film “seeks to tell people that Iran, which is in the Axis of Evil now, has long been the source of evil and modern Iranians’ ancestors are the dumb, murderous savages you see in ‘300’.” Iran's UN mission has stated that the film is “so overtly racist, so overflowing with vicious stereotyping of Persians as a dangerous, bestial force fatally threatening the civilised ‘free world”, that it encourages “contemporary discourses of hatred ... [and] a clash of civilizations.” Almost to a man, Greek film critics have echoed Iranian objections. Dimitris Danikas notes that ‘300’ depicts Persians as “bloodthirsty, underdeveloped zombies” and feeds “racist instincts in Europe and America.”
On the other hand Stanford history professor Victor Davis Hanson, reportedly admired by US Vice-President Cheney posits: "We rightly consider the ancient Greeks the founders of our present western civilisation and, as millions of movie-goers seem to sense, far more like us than the [Iranian] enemy who ultimately failed to conquer them.”
The truth is that we are as much victims of western Occidentalism as our Iranian counterparts are of Orientalism. Greece has tantalisingly stood on the crossroads of diverse cultures, resisting classification and taxonomy, lending and borrowing from all. Now it appears, our values and legacy are being selectively appropriated and we are being used as pawns for a nefarious, more insidious purpose than the mere paying of homage to those who fought selflessly at Thermopylae. Unlike the Manichaean, absolutist west, Greece was able to resist Persia, but also to come to some sort of concord with her. Herodotus for one, depicted the Persian ruler positively enough: “Among all this multitude of [Persian] men, there was not one who, for beauty and stature, deserved more than Xerxes himself to wield so vast a power.” However, the ‘300’ Xerxes is not even an Iranian-looking man but like some other Persians in the film, a distinctly African figure, who happens to be effeminate and wholly vicious. Leonidas in contrast is white and manly and wholly heroic in his fight for ‘freedom.’
As if to highlight the difference between the sophisticated Greek approach to her eastern neighbours that the clumsy, absolutist approach of the west, colour is kept to a minimum in the film; the warriors appear in shades of black and white, with the Greeks' red cloaks standing out provocatively around the uniformly chiseled abs of the heroes. The Persians in contrast are ugly or deformed.
“The Greeks will know that free men stood against tyrants,” barks the cartoonish Leonidas in Scottish brogue, preparing for his suicidal defense against the evil Persians. Greece is the “world's one hope for reason and justice” versus the “dark will of the Persian kings.” “We rescue the world from mysticism and tyranny,” (here read Muslim fundamentalism) he declares. “No retreat, no surrender. That is Spartan law. A new age has dawned, an age of freedom, and all will know that Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.” Actually, this reads as if the scriptwriters amassed the slogans from Hollywood action movies where the main character, an outcast with a high sense of justice and honour, shoots, maims and kills his way back into legitimacy, were sewn together. It is just unfortunate that the mantra of the US as defender of democracy is wearing decidedly thin.
I found the film engrossing and am agog with anticipation for the sequel: “10,000” the story of how Spartan Xenophon and his army went over to Mesopotamia to intervene in Persian politics and not being able to hold the country against insurgents, had to beat a hasty retreat to Trapezounta. Until next time, an abounding in butchness ‘300’ Spartan salute: “Urrrrrgh!”


First published in NKEE on 7 May 2007