War Film: The Politics and Drama of '300'

The New York Times and the government of Iran agree: the movie "300" has no redeeming social value. The movie, which depicts the brave stand of 300 Spartans against a marauding army of hundreds of thousands of Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., "is about as violent as 'Apocalypto' and twice as stupid," according to A. O. Scott, the Times' movie critic. The Iranians, who presumably don't screen many Mel Gibson movies, were nonetheless even more offended. The movie is aimed at "humiliating" Iranians, who are descendants of the ancient Persians, said Javad Shamghardi, cultural adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "300" is "part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological warfare aimed at Iranian culture." And this was the headline in the Ayan No newspaper: HOLLYWOOD DECLARES WAR ON IRANIANS.

To most moviegoers, "300" may or may not evoke the Clash of Civilizations, but it certainly is popular among young American men. The R-rated film grossed more than $70 million its opening weekend, the biggest March debut ever. The majority of the audience was under 25 (though there were a surprising number of older viewers). They were probably not drawn by their interest in classical Greece. The bloody 2004 epics "Troy" and "Alexander" were expensive box-office duds; "300" was made for $65 million in a warehouse in Montreal, using B-list actors filmed against a blue screen, with the digital mayhem painted in. Aggressively marketed online, "300" may be none too cerebral, but it is disturbingly beautiful. It looks and feels like a lavish slash-and-chop videogame.

Still, the cultural significance and popular appeal of "300" reach beyond the thrill of watching pixilated decapitations. The Persians in "300" are the forces of evil: dark-skinned, depraved and determined to terrorize the West. The noble, light-skinned Spartans possess a fierce love of liberty, not to mention fierce six-pack abs. "Freedom is not free," says the wife of Spartan King Leonidas. The movie was adapted from a graphic novel by Frank Miller ("Sin City"). Miller's post-9/11 conservatism (he is reportedly working on a new graphic novel pitting Batman against Al Qaeda, titled "Holy Terror, Batman!") suffuses his comic-book fantasies. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that "300" resonates for some real warriors. At a theater near Camp Pendleton outside San Diego, cheers erupted at a showing of "300," the Los Angeles Times reported. The Marines ("The Few, the Proud") identify with the outnumbered Spartans. In fact, "Gates of Fire," a novelized version of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield, is on the Marine Corps commandant's recommended reading list.

The analogy between the war on terror and the death struggle of ancient Greece with Persia has not been lost on some high administration officials either, especially Vice President Dick Cheney. (A White House spokesman declined to comment about the film.) In the months after 9/11, a classics scholar named Victor Davis Hanson wrote a series of powerful pieces for the National Review Online, later collected and published as a book, "An Autumn of War." Moved by Hanson's evocative essays, Cheney invited Hanson to dine with him and talk about the wars the Greeks waged against the Asian hordes, in defense of justice and reason, two and a half millennia ago.

The movie is a cartoon, based very loosely on historical fact. The Persians are depicted as either effeminate or vicious abusers of women, while the Greeks are manly men. The bad guys in "300" also include corrupt Spartan politicians who refuse to send more troops to the battle. Some right-wing bloggers have likened them to liberal Democrats voting against the surge in Iraq. Moviegoers may be a little confused by other cultural echoes in the film. The Spartan heroes seem to be in love with what one of them calls "a beautiful death." Just like, er, Islamic suicide bombers.