30 April 2007. A World to Win News Service. The 300, a film about a famous battle between the Greek city-state of Sparta and the army of the Persian empire more than 1,500 years ago, is news in is own right and very linked to today’s other headlines as well.
One of the year’s biggest global box-office hits, it brought in half a billion dollars in ticket sales as of the end of April, less than two months after its release in North America and a few weeks after it came out in most of the rest of the world. In fact, it’s filling theatres in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, all the European countries, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, South Korea and Turkey.
The film is extremely skilful in its graphic impact, especially the stylised wielding of colour and visual composition. It looks like what it is – a film adapted from a graphic novel (adult comic book). The book’s author, Frank Miller, a leader in the development of this genre in the U.S., has become a cult figure among many young film fans since the 2005 film adaptation of his Sin City. Miller was this film’s executive producer and consultant. Film director Zack Snyder planned The 300 so that moving picture sequences would climax with freeze-frames to highlight artistically and emotionally powerful images taken panel by panel from the book. It makes highly effective use of bluescreen technology, in which actors perform not in a real landscape or film set but in front of a simple blue screen, which is replaced by computer-enhanced images during postproduction. It’s not hard to understand why so many people, especially youth, are drawn to it. But it is as relentlessly and unambiguously reactionary a film as has been seen in recent years. We mean this not as a vague insult, but scientifically, in terms of the values, ideology and political programme it promotes, and even its aesthetics (what it considers good to look at).
Further, regardless of the intentions of its makers, it fits all too well into the needs and plans of the Bush government. It is, in its objective social role, propaganda – and even a recruiting poster – for the “clash of civilization” wars the U.S. is leading, including the one it is threatening to unleash against Iran (modern Persia). This is not exactly a secret. Numerous reviewers in the mainstream press and elsewhere have pointed it out. It has a post-9/11 Bush-America feel to it: a handful of victimized Western white people (men) standing up for something defined as “freedom” against what are depicted as ugly, dehumanized, “freedom-hating”, enslaved and enslaving Eastern hordes. But because this film is so deeply poisonous, it should be dissected not just in terms of its immediate objective political message but on other levels as well. Despite its high-gore and action content, this film is all about ideas, especially about how people should live, and about values – which is another reason it attracts young viewers. It offers a fantasy vision of a time when men were brothers, not competitors, women were strong, respected and independent, and everyone devoted their lives to the common good and an ideal higher than themselves.
For those who haven’t seen it, here’s a sketch of the plot: The Persian king Xerxes (played by Rodrigo Santoro), who rules an empire stretching from India to Egypt, demands the submission of Sparta. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) refuses and decides to fight. The city’s governing priests, the Ephors, and the city’s political council, have been bought off by the Persians and refuse Leonidas permission to lead Sparta into war. Defiantly declaring that he cannot be bound by the rule of law or custom, Leonidas gathers 300 of the best warriors in this militarised society, choosing only those who have fathered male children so that their names will live on if they die. His queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey), noble and sensual, supports Leonidas totally, telling him, as Spartan wives were said to do, that he should “come home with your shield or on it,” in other words, victorious or dead. As they march north, Leonidas and his men are joined by other Greeks. His strategy is to draw the Persians into fighting within the confines of the narrow cliffs by the sea at Thermopylae (“the Hot Gates”), from which this famous battle took its name. The narrow pass will make it impossible for the Persians to make full use of their vastly superior numbers. The Spartans do most of the fighting. The other Greeks, all “amateurs”, farmers, craftsman and intellectuals, not professional warriors like the Spartans, take their turn at fighting but are shown to be militarily incapable and morally wavering. The 300 Spartans hold off a Persian army of many tens of thousands for two days. But eventually they are betrayed by the Spartan hunchback Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), who is bitter at Leonidas’ refusal to let him fight and thus redeem the honour of his father, an outcast for having refused to follow the Spartan custom of killing his deformed child. The hunchback succumbs to Xerxes’ offer of free access to the king’s harem. He shows the Persians a hidden path, which they use to surround the Spartans on the beach and deploy their cavalry and other advantages, including an assortment of human giants, elephants, a rhinoceros, etc.
Back in Sparta, Queen Gorgo seeks to rally support for her husband from the council. Theron, a leading council member also corrupted by Xerxes, tricks her into submitting to his sexual humiliation. Meanwhile, at Thermopylae, the other Greeks decide to retreat, while Leonidas and his men decide to die fighting. “The Greeks will know that free men stood against tyrants,” he declares. Greece is “the world’s one hope for reason and justice” against “the dark will of the Persian kings.” “We rescue the world from mysticism and tyranny. No retreat, no surrender. This 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.” He orders one of his men, Dilios (David Wenham), to leave so that he can tell the Greeks of the Spartans’ heroism. At a meeting of the Spartan council, Theron accuses Gorgo of adultery. She snatches a sword and stabs him, and Persian coins full from under his cloak, exposing him as a traitor. On the battlefield, instead of fighting man-to-man like the Spartans, the Persians fire arrows from afar, putting an end to the Spartan resistance. Mortally wounded but unbowed, Leonidas hurls his spear at Xerxes, fulfilling his vow to “make the king bleed” and reveal the human vulnerability of the self-professed “god king”. Dilios takes his tale to Sparta, inspiring the council and eventually bringing about a new offensive against the Persians, this time involving 10,000 Spartans and 30,000 Greeks from other city-states.
A description of the events alone, however, doesn’t fully convey the film’s message, which is visually communicated. Leonidas and his men are “manly” to a (comic book) extreme. They walk and fight almost naked, displaying their well-defined chest and arm muscles and hairless bodies. They are white as white can be in contrast to the Persians and their army, who are all dark-skinned to one degree or another, and led by Xerxes who is a physical freak (two and a half meters tall and equally skinny), full of body and facial piercings and effeminate in his gestures and manners. In a universe sharply divided between people who are absolutely good and absolutely evil, the good people without exception are white and beautiful, and almost all the evil ones non-white, never “manly” and often homosexual. There are some evil white people: the corrupt Spartan priests, who are lepers, and the treasonous Spartan hunchback. The only fair-skinned evil person who is not deformed in some way or another is the arch-traitor Theron, who is merely unmuscular.
In contrast to the many Spartan men individualized characters, there is only one woman with a name or even a real speaking part: Queen Gorgo. Her role as a “strong woman” is said to have attracted many young women to what might otherwise have been all-male theatres. It certainly fooled some youth of both genders who think of themselves as opposing the oppression of women. We’ll come back to the content of her strength later, since this is such a focus of the film and Miller’s graphic novels, but here’s how she defines herself: When a Persian demands of Leonidas how a Spartan woman dares speak out in the presence of men, she retorts that Spartan women are respected because “they give birth to Spartan men.” Her judgment is weak – she allows Theron to trick her and seduce her – but, in the end, she stands by her man, from whom her authority flows. In one of the last scenes we see her faithfully raising Leonidas’ little boy to be his heir to the throne.
A lot of people who enjoyed The 300, and even some who didn’t, don’t see it as reactionary. The film’s director has publicly argued that it has nothing to do with contemporary events. It is true that it was not conceived with the world of 2007 in mind. The graphic novel by Frank Miller was published in the late 1990s, and the book itself was based on a 1961 Hollywood film. Further, the main events, in terms of the Spartan-Persian conflict, are more or less accurately based on the only historical account, written by the Greek historian Herodotus a few decades afterward. So why are we so determined to decode messages that may never have been intended in the first place?
Artists, like everyone else, make choices, and like everyone else they are responsible for the results of what they do regardless of their intentions. The point is not to trash all the movies made by Hollywood and its competitors. Like all art, different films present different (and often contradictory) ideas that ultimately correspond to different outlooks. Nor is it a matter of trying to ferret out some capitalist conspiracy to poison people’s minds, although such conspiracies sometimes exist. Warner Brothers, the Hollywood studio that made The 300, is owned by Time Warner, one of the world’s biggest (and certainly most “mainstream”) entertainment corporations. But Warner Brothers also made The Good German, another recent film that was as politically progressive and morally uplifting as The 300 is reactionary and morally repugnant. So the thinking and the choices of the people who made this film are crucial in determining its content, even if factors beyond their control may have influenced the way the movie has been marketed and received. Some of the details are historically accurate and some are not. Just to mention the most obvious, the Persians and Greeks probably looked pretty much the same in terms of skin colour and physical features, but the author and filmmakers arbitrarily decided to put “race” (“white” versus “black” and “brown”) at the centre of their work. Further, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that King Xerxes was one of the most handsome men of his day – the opposite of the film’s depiction. Even the question of historical accuracy is not as relevant as why the filmmakers selected this and not some other event, and what they focused on in it. The film was made by thinking beings, so it represents how they think about and see the world.
One of the main underlying themes in the graphic novel and the film is what is presented as the conflict between “free” Sparta and the Persian king Xerxes who represents slavery. His army is filled with slaves and his wish is to enslave the Spartans. This contrast is a historical lie. Both the Persian empire and Greek society, including Sparta, were based on slavery. (Some historians suggest that the conflict was not mainly about Xerxes’ wanting to defeat Greece for its own sake but control of the Aegean sea lanes.) How could Spartan men spend most of their lives training for and waging war? How could they feed and clothe themselves and their families? The truth is that for every Spartan man, woman and child, there were 7-10 slaves, called Helots. Very early on, Spartans began conquering and enslaving other peoples. At one point, they fought a 17-year-long war against a slave rebellion. Spartan men were required to keep their spears on them at all times, ready to kill Helots. They kept their houses locked at night so that Helots could not kill them in their sleep. The whole organization of their society was centred on the task of putting down slave rebellions and conquering new slaves.
Other Greek city-states like Athens were based on chattel slavery. Farmers forced into debt had to sell their children or be enslaved by wealthy landowners. They became personal property. But in Sparta the Helots were considered to be the property of the Spartans as a whole, and could not be bought or sold. Their use came with the inheritance of the land they worked (in some ways, this system was more like feudalism). They were forced to turn over a pre-set amount of grain, olive oil and wine every year. Allowed to keep the rest, if they were lucky and worked hard, they might have almost enough to eat. But they had no rights whatsoever, and the laws, religion and customs emphasized that. If a Helot became “too fat,” he was put to death and his master punished for abusing community property.
There was a reason why Spartan boys were made to hurt one another and endure whippings in order to teach them to endure pain and fight back. This 13-year process of brutalisation and martial training made them the kind of men slave society needed. They had to earn their privileges as slave masters. In the film, the teenage Leonidas goes through a coming-of-age ceremony in which he goes into the mountains, barefoot and nearly naked in the driving snow, and kills an enormous wolf through cunning and strength. In real life, Spartan coming-of-age ceremonies involved sending boys out to hunt down and kill Helots suspected of rebellion or simply walking around without adequate reason or looking like they had “attitude” – not so different from what has happened to African-Americans throughout US history, from slavery times to today.
The slaves are invisible in the film, but the democracy of the citizens’ council it shows was real. In fact, the historical Sparta had even more claim to be called democratic than the film version. The Ephor priests were elected and rotated in office. These bodies could contradict and even overrule the kings. This made seeking consensus among Spartan citizens even more important. But this real democracy for them was based on dictatorship for the vast majority. In fact, it was the form in which a slave society was ruled. This was no less true in Athens, although it took somewhat different forms there.
Frederick Engels, who along with Karl Marx founded communism, analysed that the oppression of women by men did not exist since the birth of humanity. Neither did slavery. Both only arose when the production of the means to life, especially animal herding, farming and handicrafts, began to create a surplus, with people producing slightly more than their immediate need to eat. Along with turning the division of labour between the sexes into one of domination, this gave rise to private property, which tended to be in the hands of men. When inheritance of property became an issue, men wanted to bring women under their individual control to make sure the children were theirs. This development of surplus and private property gave rise to the possibility of slavery, of some people owning others, because now it became possible to live from the exploitation of others. It also gave rise to the antagonistic contradiction between mental and manual labour, because for the first time society produced enough so that some people could devote themselves to the acquisition of socially necessary knowledge and culture, while others spent their lives breaking their backs. In short, the oppression of women, the emergence of social classes, the antagonistic nature of social contradictions and the emergence of the state itself as an instrument for the rule of one class over another all stem from the same source. All this can be plainly seen in Spartan and Greek history in general, for instance, and of course Persian and other history as well.
Sparta was different in some ways. Many historians believe that women were more independent and outspoken in Sparta than elsewhere in Greece, particularly Athens, where women were the property of their fathers and then their husbands, who often confined them to their homes. Some theorists argue that because Spartan men were away fighting so much of their lives, and often never returned, their wives had to be able to run the household on their own and concern themselves with other matters. It appears that Spartan men did not live with their wives and families, but only visited occasionally for the purposes of procreation. (Whether the men had sexual love relationships with each other is a matter of controversy. Since Sparta disdained stories and poetry, music and the other arts and kept most of their laws secret, it’s hard to know what they were really like.) Because all Spartan babies were considered the children of the community as a whole, husbands were said to be less concerned about being the biological father of their wives’ children, and because slaves were common property, less worried about inheritance. All this had an effect on the status and situation of women.
But what were these “strong women” strong for? For their privileges as Spartans and their slave master husbands. For the Spartan slave state. For a society where a woman’s role was to reproduce a society in which females were held as lesser humans, valuable as a “mother of men”, essentially a walking vagina and especially womb. Burial with a nameplate over the grave was a special honour due only to men who died in battle and women who died in childbirth. In the film, we see that while boys are separated from their mothers and other females at age seven, the mothers play a central role in inculcating Spartan values in their sons, just as women everywhere, through combinations of training, social pressure and individual decision, go along with oppressive and exploitative societies and play a key role in the reproduction not only of children, but of social accepted roles, values, morals, customs, etc.
To emphasize the highly ideological quality of this film, we need to look more at the question of aesthetics and morals. It clearly conveys the notion that a certain kind of masculine beauty is the external sign of inner righteousness. It portrays the butchery of human beings as beautiful – a fault it shares with a million other big screen products, but unlike most battle epics, it doesn’t even give lip service to the “war is hell” cliché but instead proclaims “war is fun”. It also applauds death worship and the welcoming of death in battle as a joyous, glorious and glamorous end in itself. (Are the Spartans in this film any different from religious fundamentalist suicide bombers?) The filmmakers could protest that they weren’t defending the features of Spartan society not shown in the film, but they have made a film that Spartan men – and their modern-day wannabes – would love. The 300 simply upholds Spartan values without telling the truth about what kind of society these values were an expression of.
In addition to these ideological issues, the film can be called fascistic in a scientific sense for more immediate and obvious reasons. It promotes the myth of white men (or Europeans) as victims of coloured peoples, of the desirability of military rule (here by a warrior king) as opposed to the democratic form of dictatorship through parliament, and the standard Nazi/Bush rant about the military being stabbed in the back by civilian politicians, etc. Reviewers in the US and UK have read the film’s account of Leonidas going to war against the wishes of the priests as a parallel to Bush’s defiance of the UN, and the sleazy, unpatriotic politicians as analogous to the Bush regime’s depiction of its political rivals, the Democrats, as aiding “the enemy”. The film’s Sparta certainly has a lot in common with the kind of society Bush and his ilk (including in the U.S. military) and other political leaders in today’s world seek to create.The Iranian government has made a unique series of diplomatic complaints to the governments of countries where the film is showing. It has also denounced it to the Iranian public as “psychological warfare” and “insulting [Iran’s] civilization.” Of course, this is true. The film is slanderous and humiliating toward Iran. It would be fair to argue that the Persian empire, with its highly developed culture, represented “civilization” against the barbarian Spartans – although the Iranian regime’s glorification of that empire today is a justification of their own rule, including the oppression of Iran’s non-Persian peoples.
It is not true that any slave-based society was fundamentally better than another – especially in light of what the world’s people need today. In real life, Greek and Persian culture eventually merged to a large extent. Today’s “civilization”, whether Western or in the form of an Islamic republic, is a synthesis of all that came before it, especially in the sense of the heritage of those ancient slave-based empires that is now universal. All existing societies are based on the exploitation of the labouring classes, so that the products of labour are used to further enslave the labourers; with the oppression of women as a foundation and centrepiece; the monopoly by a handful of exploiters of the sciences, arts and other mental pursuits; and the state as the administrator and enforcer of this system, the dictatorship of the exploiters. Even when it takes the form of parliaments, what the West calls “freedom” is the same kind of “freedom” the Spartans fought and died for – the enslavement of the vast majority of people in the “homeland” and the conquest and looting of other peoples. Today’s capitalism in its imperialist stage is different than Sparta, but it stands on the same foundations.
In the time of ancient Greece and the Persian empire, the productive powers of humanity were still so backward that the development of society could only proceed through the enslavement of the many by the few. Today, the organization of society for exploitation and the social divisions that first arose with the oppression of women and slavery – and all the ideas, customs and institutions that developed on that basis – are an obstacle to human development. They have to be overthrown by a revolution led by an enslaved class, the proletariat, whose interests lie in abolishing all classes and all that has arisen on the basis of the division of humanity into classes – including the outlook that is at the heart of what The 300 considers beautiful and good.
If millions of today’s youth and others want to become warriors, and heroes, dedicating their lives to some cause bigger than themselves, they will have to chose which world they want to fight for: one or another more extreme version of today’s world or a truly new and liberating society. And they will need to grapple with Marxism so that they can understand which viewpoint, the fascistic-utopian recycling of the old world in comic book form or the scientific outlook of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, is the more liberating – and more realistic.