'Axis of evil' seeps into Hollywood

by Kaveh L Afrasiabi (source: Asia Times)
Friday, March 16, 2007

No doubt about it, four years after his famous and also infamous "axis of evil" speech, US President George W Bush's crusade mentality has finally found its cinematic counterpart - in 300, a major motion picture centered on the epic battle between the Persians and the Greeks in 480 BC.

It is part history, part fantasy, safely buffering itself against potential criticisms, eg of its historical distortions or shortcomings, by the cinematic license optimally exploited

meanwhile to preach to the audience about the values of freedom against the evil forces of unfreedom.

Portraying the past world in a contemporary language with the help of voiceovers in case we missed the message, the dramatic feature plunges into the midst of a violent battle that fully resonates with the contemporary discourses on "clashing civilizations".

More than pure entertainment, it is a movie that wants people to reflect on what they are seeing, by teaching a lesson or two about history, by eliciting sympathy for its exalted Spartan heroes and heroines standing up to the world's first superpower, the Achaemenid Persians.

Saturated with not-so-subtle Persianphobia, the movie calls for the interrogation of the political agenda behind it, at a time when Iran is constantly threatened with military invasion and "all options are on the table" in Washington. In Los Angeles, the cognitive assault has been raging for some time.

In Into the Night, a leading actress is asked what is her biggest turnoff and answers: "Persians". In Steven Spielberg's movie The Peacemaker, actor George Clooney utters four-letter words when referring to Iran. In the more recent Syriana, Clooney, playing a rogue Central Intelligence Agency operative, blows up Iranians in downtown Tehran with a broad smile on his face.

There is a very large population of Iranians in Los Angeles county, many of them affluent professionals and successful businessmen. Many live in luxurious mansions in Beverly Hills, but you would not know that by watching Hollywood's movies. In House of Sand and Crash, we only see struggling immigrants on the margins of society.

California may be America's ultimate melting pot, but Hollywood's tall walls of exclusion and discrimination have yet to crumble when it comes to the movie industry's persistent misrepresentation of Iranians and their collective identity immersed in a long thread of history.

Speaking of history, it is simultaneously a rich yet exceedingly difficult source material for the art of movie-making, and Hollywood has at best a mixed record on "getting it right", notwithstanding the controversies swirling about Oliver Stone's political movies, or those of Mel Gibson and the like.

When Hollywood seemingly succeeds on this tough terrain, as was the case with Glory, a movie about black soldiers during the American Civil War, or Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, the critics' response is lavish praise. Yet somehow on the egregious flaws and shortcomings of 300, particularly in its intense anti-Persian myth-making, the same critics have been largely quiet.

But who can deny the "reality effect" of 300, to paraphrase the late French literary critic Roland Barthes, in today's context of "West versus the rest" verbiage, also known as the "clash of civilization" thesis? Stylistically fresh and innovative, 300 is fairly conventional in its storyline and uses the cinematic apparatus to offer a morally textured, ideologically correct exaltation of a civic virtue in short supply in the age of "war on terror" and other related Western-origin wars, that is, self-sacrifice and patriotic heroism.

As in a 1978 film about the Vietnam War titled Go Tell the Spartans, 300 taps into the famous asymmetrical battle at 
Thermopylae as a paradigm of Western morality. "Courage," Dan Rather, a former television news anchor, used to finish his program with, and what better example of courage than that displayed by the Spartans, who chose death over retreating before the storming Persians - although the battle scenes show so many Arabs to convey the message that they are all part of one and same "Asian horde"?

"Pile the Persians high," orders the film's main protagonist, the  defiant King Leonidas, although there is no evidence in history books that he ever uttered such a thing. Indeed, none of the subtleties and nuances of the 1962 film  The 300 Spartans, which showed a feeble attempt to portray the Persian King Xerxes correctly, remain in 300, and instead our senses are stormed by a crude binary ideology that separates the good Greeks, frontier soldiers for the Western world, from the monstrous Persians who look every bit evil.

Discursively, the movie owes more to Tom Holland's book Persian Fire, meaningfully subtitled The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. The movie's tacit message is clear: two and a half millennia later, that battle is still going on, and the West had better resurrect the Sparta paradigm, albeit with a feminist twist, or it is doomed.

It would be futile to knock down this movie for its historical distortions, given its self-promotion as a fantasy/adventure. The opening scene, showing the Spartans throwing the Persian emissaries down a well, actually relates not to Xerxes but to an earlier king, Darius, and Herodotus explicitly refers to it as a "crime" and goes on to say that when two Spartans offered themselves to Xerxes in retribution, the Persian king "with truly noble generosity replied that he would not behave like the Spartans".

Obviously, it would be too much to expect the film's producers even to hint at such virtuous behavior on the part of evil Persians, irrespective of the Achaemenid kings' place in history as relatively benevolent empire-builders who freed the slaves and set new standards for peaceful co-existence among nations.

Instead, 300 portrays them as bestial, dark forces descending on the civilized world, without once mentioning that their opponents, the Spartans, were slave-holders who, per the accounts of Herodotus, forced serfs known as Helots to war against Persians at Marathon, Thermopylae and elsewhere.

Nor does the movie bother with the slightest accuracy about Persian attire, while omitting any such casualness about the Greeks' outfits. This discrepancy alone, meant to lend visual impetus to the movie's Manichaean depiction of a timeless battle between the good Westerners versus evil Easterners, betrays its built-in prejudice piled on prejudice, leading to excesses bordering on character assassination of historical figures, eg by depicting King Xerxes as homosexual and Persian women as lesbians, etc.
With their unbounded Persianphobia, the filmmakers could not of course let Xerxes go completely unpunished, thus the facial wound inflicted by the flying spear of Leonidas at the movie's conclusion, meant to draw applause from the gullible audience.

To bruise history, and re-stage it on the screen with brutal manipulation for set political aims, could not be complete with the king completely intact, no matter the lack of any corroborating evidence in history books. Hollywood writes its own version of history not so much to complement as to displace history as we know it through books, and in 300 it succeeds where books and narratives cannot possibly pass through the narrow gates of studios ran by a few moguls with known sympathies.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.