300 Seen as a Tool To Work Up Anti-Iran Sentiment

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The Nieman Watchdog Group

300 Seen as a Tool To Work Up Anti-Iran Sentiment

The overseas press: The Movie Draws Much Attention and Scorn, its East v. West Theme is Seen as Hollywood Joining The Bush Administration in the March to Tehran.

by
John Burke

The American military as well as the politics of Washington have a strong and real presence that penetrates many corners of the globe. Even further reaching is American culture, a culture that is occasionally interpreted as portraying a problematic symbolism.

The big screen blockbuster, 300, has raised concern around the world, not only for its subject matter, the battle between Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC in which the Persians play the "villain", but for the timing of its release.

Depending on their point of view, some international leaders now see the White House as tuning the war drums for an attack on Iran; others already hear their faint resonation. Tensions have never been higher as Iran continues to defy international pressures about its nuclear program and 15 British marines are being held in custody after straying into Iranian waters. Many feel a war is inevitable.

The film has certainly not helped matters. Critics everywhere have pointed out the parallels between its plot and the actual diplomatic crisis, have called the depiction of the Persians as blatant propaganda, and have linked neo-conservative ideals to that of the film's Spartan army.

300's producers have denied any simile. But no matter; the damage is done. In the eyes of foreigners, Hollywood has joined the Bush administration in the march to Tehran.

An article entitled "Iranians Everywhere Indignant over 300" in the Iranian state-controlled FarsNews quotes a few Iranian officials and newspapers who denounce the film as an American ploy to stir up anti-Iranian sentiment:

"The American movie 300 has angered the Iranian people due to its intentional insults to the country's ancient culture. Even amongst non-Iranians, it's a movie seen by many as one of overt animosity toward Iran.

"'Hollywood Declares War on Iranians,' blared a headline in Tuesday's edition of the [Iran's] independent Ayande-Nou newspaper…

"Even some American reviewers noted the political overtones of the West-against-Iran storyline, and in contrast to the noble Greeks, the way Persians are depicted as decadent, sexually flamboyant and evil.

"But 300 has still touched a sensitive nerve. Javad Shamghadri, cultural adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said the United States is trying to 'humiliate' Iran to reverse historical reality, deflect attention from its wrongdoing and 'provoke American soldiers and warmongers' against Iran.

"But aside from politics, the film is seen as an attack on Persian history, which is a source of pride for Iranians across the political spectrum, including critics of the current Islamic government…

"This is a new effort to slander the Iranian people and civilization before global public opinion at a time of increasing American threats against Iran," said (one Iranian newspaper article).

"Iran's biggest circulation newspaper, Hamshahri, said 300 'served the policy of the U.S. leadership' and predicted it will 'prompt a wave of protest across the world. ... Iranians living in the U.S. and Europe will not be indifferent to obvious insult.'

The Iranian News Channel calls 300 an "anti-culture Hollywood film" and doesn't mince words in its review of the banned film, saying it is an obvious ploy by Zionists to demonize Iran:

"Screening of the movie 300 which has depicted war between the Persians and the Greeks using an unreal and fabricated story is facing a wave of protests and criticism by Iranians both inside and outside the country.

"Warner Bros., which belongs to the famous and rich American Jew, is the company that has made the movie. This movie, which is totally against Persian culture and civilization, could be considered a production by Zionists and a group of American extremists…

"The director wrongly depicts the Persians as being violent and warmongers. This film is a complete distortion of history. It shows the Spartans, who were warmongers and racists and violent, as peace lovers, and the Persians as uncivilized — which is nothing but a lie.

"In addition to a distortion of history, the Zionist Warner Company is also pursuing cultural and political objectives by producing such a film which has a very shallow script.

"From the cultural point of view, the Zionists and the elements affiliated to the US have tried to launch a propaganda front against ancient and historical roots of Iranians, and the hasty production of this film is an indication of its propaganda aspect.

"But political intentions of Warner have been more important than anything else. This film tries to paint a violent image of Persians who are against peace in today's world, in order to increase the international political pressure on Iran.

"This is while films should be made of crimes committed by the Americans throughout history, all around the world and it should be shown what the so-called civilized Zionists and Americans are doing today with human rights and humanity."

An editorial in The Guardian's Comment is Free by an Iranian-born journalist calls 300 "A Racist Gore Fest," tying the film to neo-conservative idealism:

"The Iranian representative at Unesco has logged a complaint and last week president Mahmood Ahmadinejad of Iran called the movie a psychological assault on the Iranian nation. The president may not be too accomplished at diplomatic niceties but he can spot a rabble-rouser from 300 paces. This, for the Iranians, is the equivalent of the Danish cartoons, but with go-faster stripes…

"The authors are on record as saying that this is a fantasy and not historical film-making, but they haven't explained why they have such racist fantasies.

"History or fantasy, 300 is an out-an-out racist diatribe worthy of contempt. I only need to refer you to Dana Stevens who wrote in her review for Slate: 'If 300 had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war'…

"In 300, the soldiers of King Leonidis utter guttural HOAAWTH! in the exactly the same way American GI's do (or at least we are assured by Jarhead, a movie depicting American soldiers in Iraq), and the soldiers of the imperial Persian army are dressed exactly as modern-day Taliban, badly armed with meat cleavers.

"What is most worrying to me is the idea that 'western civilisation' is not, as I had understood it to be, the cultural, economic and militarily power dominating the globe, but a civilisation on the back foot, cornered, victimised and under siege. This bit isn't just fantasy; this is exactly the world view of the lunatic fringe of the far right politics…

"The Spartans behave as the archetypalid of the neo-conservative regime changers'ego - uncompromising and unforgiving. This is the language of the 'surge' rather than Baker-Hamilton recommendations. King Leonidis is cynical about diplomatic niceties, slaughtering Persian emissaries against all convention. This is the cartoon version of the way John Bolton behaved at the UN, making it clear that he had nothing but disdain for what he considered to be the double-talking, wheeling and dealing that diplomacy usually is all about.

"It may not surprise anyone that King Leonidis repeatedly makes reference to 'freedom' and calls the Persian troops slaves…

"The uniting of the secular westernised Iranians in Los Angeles and the so-called religious fundamentalist government in Tehran demonstrates that nationalism is still a principal energising factor in Iranian politics.

"This means that all the analysis that sees an 'Islamic' threat or civilisitional conflict between imaginary constructs called the west and radical Islam is plain wrong. The fact is that the Islamic revolution and Shia Islam are two of many expressions of Iranian nationalism, and not the other way around.

"Iran is an animal blighted by the sin of national pride, but it rarely bites unless it has been kicked first."

The Rome-based Inter Press Service News Agency describes 300 as "Battling Evil with Abs of Steel," a film with which neo-conservatives relate surprisingly well:

"If the new Hollywood blockbuster '300' weren't so homoerotic, Osama Bin Laden would probably make the film mandatory viewing for all members of al Qaeda.

"He could not fail to be moved by the spirit of resistance and martyrdom that inspired 300 Spartan soldiers to hold off a vastly superior and more technologically advanced — if somewhat effete — enemy force for three days in the name of something greater than themselves.

"Yet according to the Greek historian Herodotus and '300', the new film version of the event, that is precisely what the doughty band of Spartans did at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC against the invading hordes of the Persian Empire — much, perhaps, as al Qaeda held off the swarms of Afghan, British and U.S. soldiers in the rugged terrain of the Tora Bora Mountains in 2001 in order to fight again another day.

"So then, why are assorted neo-conservatives and other war hawks hailing the movie… with such enthusiasm?

"Is it just because the Spartans are white, beautifully — if preternaturally — sculpted fighting machines eager to die for king and country against the black and brown Other of the Persian army?

"Or does it have more to do with the fact that successive historians since Herodotus have depicted Thermopylae as the critical moment when western civilisation and its future hung in the balance against Oriental tyranny?

"It may well have been (Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian, Iraq-war booster, and favorite dinner guest of US Vice President Dick Cheney), who persuaded the filmmaker, Zack Snyder, to include a key passage which doesn't appear in the graphic novel but which frames the story in a way that would most appeal to contemporary neo-conservatives worried that Washington is losing its will to fight in Iraq and beyond.

"When the Spartan Queen Gorgo calls for urgent reinforcements for the 300-man force led by her husband, King Leonidas, at Thermopylae, Theron, a calculating and profoundly cynical politician, rejects the appeal, observing, 'Leonidas is an idealist.'

''[O]ur king has taken 300 of our finest to slaughter,'' he goes on. ''He's broken our laws and left without the council's consent. I'm simply a realist.'

"Theron proceeds to betray the queen, who then stabs him to death in such a way that Persian coins fall from his tunic, demonstrating to all the world that 'realists' are worse than cynical. They will consort with evil itself…

"The portrayal of realist politicians as disloyal and artisans and philosophers as weak paints an interesting picture of what is valued in this cinematic portrait of society and by those who admire it.

"The film relentlessly beats into viewers that what free men need is an idealistic leader whose stated mission in life is to die on the battlefields for his country. Everything else is petty. Such minor details as politics and survival are considered wasteful and destructive to the minds of Spartan men.

"The neo-conservatives have claimed these Spartan ideals as their own since the film's release, with a surprising number of laudatory reviews in periodicals such as the Weekly Standard — which printed two reviews in ten days — and one in the National Review…

"True, parallels can be drawn between the current escalation of tensions between Washington and Tehran. But the Thermopylae story is a classic and the 'barbarian hordes' play the necessary role of a frightening enemy in the finest tradition of melodrama.

"Perhaps more strikingly, the film's depiction of idealist warriors and crooked, realist politicians does contain many parallels to neo-conservative views on the troop surge in Iraq and the opposition of realist politicians.

"Neo-conservative film critics and fans of '300' see unrestrained idealism, suicide through warfare, and a take-no-prisoners approach to war as the ideals which should be exemplified…

"It should come as no surprise to neo-conservative reviewers of this film that Nazi leaders held up Sparta's society as a model on which to build their own utopia. Fascist-type militarism, both in appearance and practice, is displayed throughout the film as the tool through which free men remain free and good can be separated from evil.

"Although the '300' Spartans portrayed in the film ultimately did not triumph in their heroic attempt to repel the Persian hordes, they did strike a chord with militarist war hawks in the U.S. To the neo-conservatives, '300' represents a triumph of the will."

The Asia Times Online shows that "Why Hollywood portrays Muslims as villains" has much to do with their financial standing in the world economy:

"For all its liberal persuasions, the Hollywood film model is firmly rooted in the 'if you are not with us, you are against us…'

"Forcing art to conform to the audience's empathy produces horrible results all too often, a recent example of which would be Hollywood's homicide of Homer's Iliad in the film Troy, which not only sees the Trojans as the heroic figures but also portrays the Greeks as marauding hooligans. The mistake would be to evaluate the film as a rendition of the Iliad, rather than as a political commentary on the current US government, an intentional rebuke of America's war on Iraq…

"The logical follow-through from that process of (the audience) identifying with the protagonist is to have villains one cannot simply abide. Thus the sneering stereotypes of Italian gangsters and drunken Irishmen represented the wholesale rejection of Roman Catholic values by Protestant Americans. As these peoples were more directly integrated into the mainstream, the search for the next set of villains focused on black Americans and then on to other ethnic groups. Common to all these peoples was their economic backwardness, a cold calculation of Hollywood forsaking non-existent revenues from the poor while chasing box-office success…

"In any event, the rest of Hollywood wishing to document the more tenable human condition had to confront the perverse effects of the politically correct portrayal of villainy. Simply put, they were left with no option but to exaggerate the villainy of certain groups of people. The most obvious victims of this sublime Hollywood trend are Muslims, who have come to represent all that is against the American way of life. Other, less obvious victims of this trend include Europeans, whose increased demonization is simply a reflection of their declining economic prowess.

"In a contrasting vein to my above observation about the film Troy, the notion of casting the Muslim hero Saladin as a noble conqueror in The Kingdom of Heaven failed because mainstream America could not adjust to the idea of a Muslim superhero, much less the morally ambiguous Christians populating the film.

"The path less traveled has too many potholes from an economic perspective for the big movie studios, thus sticking to well-worn stereotypes of villains is essential. Thus it is that a big studio backs 300, safe in its assumption that Americans will revel at the sight of the barbaric Persians…

"This rubric is observable in the choice of villains and heroes as I noted above - Hollywood does not dare insult or ignore any culture that could provide it significant future revenues. Hence its grudging respect for China's communist government, even with all the liberal pretensions that actors and directors cling to.

"No studio can afford not to show its films in China when the market opens. Thus the idea of placating the powers that be remains firmly entrenched across these companies. Chinese people are now portrayed as hard-working if a little boring in Hollywood movies, a marked contrast to their portrayal during the previous 50 years as poor and desperate immigrants. In much the same way, the portrayal of other ethnic groups has undergone serial upgrades, commensurate with emerging economic realities.

The bottom line to Muslims upset with their portrayal in Hollywood is thus quite simple — the greater the economic clout they gain, the less likely movie moguls are to airbrush their proud history."

Turkey's Zaman considers 300 an obvious portrayal of current political sentiments and lambastes Hollywood for its regular distortions of history:

"What's the thesis (of the film)? That the West began its fight for freedom and democracy all the way back in 480 B.C., whereas the East was - just like today - a slave that was enslaving. On the path marked out by 300 Spartans, was laid the foundation of a free future, saving the world from mysticism as well as tyranny. There is no exaggeration in my words; in the movie there is actually an expression like 'goddamn mysticism'; but the 'mystics' referred to were the Spartan mystics called Ephor, whereas the tyrants imposing the tyranny are of course the Persians and accompanying Asians.

"Spartan King Leonidas not only fights a war against the Persians, but against religious rulings considered 'holy' by the council of Ephors, who are depicted as ugly creatures. It's as if secularism is the only way to have fully-fledged freedom…

"No one should be offended, but this reveals a great irony of Western civilization. Taking things one step further — this movie takes an epic legend and turns it into an American version of imbecility…

"It's common knowledge that the past is forever rewritten. The aim of this particular rewriting is to beautify the past to affirm the political positions of the current winners and argue that the defeated were ontologically wrong or imperfect.

"Don't be fooled by the words of 300's producers, who say that this is the wrong way to see this movie. Some people will do anything to twist the idea of a clash of civilizations, thinking they can get away with moral supremacy by explaining it away as a 'difference of perception.' This doesn't work.

"I would like to remind you of a sentence from the movie [as King Leonidas orders the messenger of Kink Xerxes into the death pit: 'Sebastio, show ourguest the way!' This is the agreed-on movie translation of 'slave.' What's more, is it possible that those involved with making this movie haven't seen Steven Spielberg's Amistad, produced by a man who assumed the role as cultural ambassador to the neo-cons?

"Those who sell freedom must have forgotten how many of their movies we have seen."

The Times of India turns the table on the standard anti-300 diatribe, taking the perhaps more realistic view of an anti-Bush Hollywood:

"…Sparta itself comes across as a brutal, fascist society that slaughters political emissaries and weak children at birth. Scenes with its soldiers talking of freedom and democracy are hilariously ironic. So why are Iranians perturbed but not the Greeks?

"Ah, but the Greeks are in little danger of being invaded by the United States, did you say? As many have pointed out, 300 is an example of the Bush administration using Hollywood to peddle its imperialistic agenda. Never mind that Christian conservatives, that bastion of Bush support, have long nursed a hatred for the decadent, sinful entertainment industry, particularly hotshot young directors and musicians who get their rocks off on gore and sex. Never mind that Hollywood is so completely Democratic and anti-Bush that the odds of it being used as a propaganda tool by the Bush government are poorer still than the 300 had against the mighty Persian army.

"Why let facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory - especially when it's so much fun to moan about the xenophobia of the wicked, racist West?

© 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

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