The movie 300 situates the telling of a story in a world where historical narratives are less likely to appeal without the embellishment of contemporary values. The fight between the Spartans and Persians recreates a world all too familiar with those living in a post 9/11 society. By distorting the accounts of the events at Thermopylae, the film 300 skews ideologies—history is made to fit into a contemporary narrative that violates and fabricates the past in the pursuit of domestic and foreign policy through propaganda. The film medium creates a different history, one that captures a large audience’s attention, resulting in a blurred line between fact and fiction, and acts as a tool to shape contemporary memories and opinion. Zack Snyder’s 300 both distorts and omits elements of the Battle of Thermopylae while strengthening contemporary moral and political divisions not dissimilar from the Spartan as a ‘free man’ (found in modern Western democracies) and the tyrannical Persians (representing today’s Iran and the Middle East). Although it can be argued that historical accounts on film provide a multi-layered approach away from the linear accounts found in textbooks, the distorting of historical events within a film risks losing the objectivity required to analyse history. The film 300 spoon feeds a glorified history to the audience without providing a true account of the Spartan civilisation as a pariah state. Instead, it glosses over such facts by mocking the Athenians and emphasising the Spartan fight for individual freedom instead. As the movie documents at length the negligible autonomy a Spartan has, Gerard Butler’s character King Leonidas concerns himself with ‘What must a king do to save his world’ to which his wife responds, ‘Instead ask yourself, what should a free man do?’ This hijacking of the historical account negates the film’s events as factual, but rather, it places a political propagandistic spin that enables pro-war themes to become established in the modern psyche.
The film medium creates a new history that, as Nietzsche puts it, allows for the hero to be ‘fetishised’ and is ‘neither innocent nor objective.’ King Leonidas’ portrayal as a hero leading Sparta and uniting city-state armies to the ‘Hot Gates’ to defeat the tyrannical Persians, though based in historical fact, frames the hero to minimise his true nature as a benevolent ruler that has subverted democracy rather than salvage it from corruption. Though Snyder has proclaimed the movie to be more entertainment than historical, the film’s portrayal of Leonidas as infallible and incorruptible leaves little option to side with the Persians, skewing history and ill-informing ideological bias in front of captive world-wide audiences. The historical grey areas of the classical past are omitted for a decisive black and white, good versus evil bloody battle, narrated by Dilios to an army at the start of the movie to set the tone:
‘Now, as then, a beast approaches,’ Dilios refers to the Persians and continues, ‘Patient and confident. Savouring the meal to come. The beast is made of men and horses, swords and spears. An army of slaves vast beyond imagining, ready to devour tiny Greece. Ready to snuff out the world’s one hope of reason and justice. A beast approaches. It was King Leonidas himself who provoked it.’
The narration therefore raises Spartans to hero status while trapping the Persians into a tyrannical identity that the movie’s narrator Dilios confirms as those who come from ‘the darkest corners of Persia,’ and is verified by a child dying in Leonidas’ arms who whispers ‘they came from the darkness.’ Dilios’ narration constructs a reverse racism, stereotyping the Persian as the Other to maintain an ‘us versus them’ agenda. The ideology reflects the time in which the film 300 was produced, where a post September eleven political agenda rendered a Middle East incapable of freedom and democracy.
The film is peppered with historical inaccuracies that transform the meaning of the past, all the while soliciting historical empathy for a culture fighting its enemy. Political agendas, ideology and propaganda are offered, and the political consequences that Scriver describes in the analysis of 300’s subtext reflect current cultural attitudes that justify conflict. By using “historical empathy” for a nation of people fighting against a massive army, and encouraging the historical imaginations of many—which 300 does—perception can be distorted to justify modern-day military and political actions.
The blurring of fact and fictional lines throughout 300 allows for the elevation of Leonidas to Godlike hero status, despite the irony of the Spartans’ reproach of Xerxes’ claim to superhuman abilities. Again, the subtext in 300 hijacks the historical context of the Battle of Thermopylae, offering the audience with a distinction between both sides where only the Spartans who hold Western values at heart are worthy of divine status. Dilios’ narrative of events as the Persian’s naval fleet is swallowed into the sea boosts this characterisation of King Leonidas, propping up his intelligence and charisma as a Spartan warrior king, adding that ‘only one among us keeps his Spartan reserve. Only He. Only our King.’ These characterisations cement the ideological undertones of the movie that encourage an apathy against the (East) Persians by dehumanising them as the corruptible Other who is undeserving of humane treatment.
The movie is more about the divide between the Persians and Spartans in a 21st century context rather than the historic battle that actually occurred in 480 BC. The film 300’s representations of the East and West help to ‘construct particular representations of the world,’ depicting the dark-skinned Persians as indulgent, barbaric, and uncivilised ‘beasts,’ intolerable by the white Spartans who refuse to identify with them. The similarities of a United States acting as Sparta become even more striking, situating the West as the irreproachable nation fighting for freedom and justice.
The ancient narrative is commandeered to promote Western values during a period where President Bush declared a War on Terror, and for every account where the Persians are delegitimised in the movie, Western violence is legitimised in the real world. The uncompromising aggression reiterated in the movie with cries to ‘Never retreat. Never surrender’ identifies with the American way of life as much as it does with the ancient Spartans and rationalises indoctrination. Murat explains that ‘300 is a representative … that fictionalises historically grounded events and heroes from the time of ancient Greece and Rome; the privileged, self-attributed cultural ancestors of Western civilization.’ For if the Other is depicted as a primitive and cruel institution, the distorted account of events only aids in sustaining a hierarchy of racial power that privileges the Western ethos, and maintains the East versus West divide.
The ‘ill-timed’ release of the movie has been criticised as ‘peddling propaganda for George W. Bush’s ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ and is accused of tampering with history to make a film where ‘Iran’s image looks savage.’ Henry Giroux argues that the representations of violence and racism in film can have subversive effects on society and are interconnected with the violence and racism in the world. Few mediums, he argues, can change the way in which society thinks about cultural politics, identity, and values. The dangers inflicted by 300’s portrayal of the Persians as the barbaric enemy that cannot be reasoned with justifies the Spartan’s extreme violence used to defeat them, and in turn, justifies and reinforces Western violence against modern day Iran. The omitting of ancient historical fact, where Greece joined in a revolt to plunder the Persian capital of Sardis and where they enjoyed defeating Persia frequently prior to the Battle of Thermopylae, distorts the public perception through a linear narrative that Persia was strictly the suppressor and only permits one side of the story to prevail. Again, the hijacking of the historical narrative maximises the reasoning for violence against the East and normalises this volatile relationship with minority groups.
Just as the distortion of the history in 300 antagonises the already prevalent racism, it also depicts the patriarchal society seen to repress another minority group, the women. Although depicting ancient Sparta and Persia as patriarchal societies is accurate, the power of film, in the instance of 300, is used to normalise the patriarchal attitude of dominance. Zack Snyder’s movie is saturated with visual content that places the woman as an object with little relevance, despite the first notable words in the film of King Leonidas’ Queen, Gorgo declaring a historically correct ‘Only Spartan women can give birth to real men.’ If anything, 300 downplays the strength of the Spartan women documented in history to engage with familiar attitudes of modern indifference, perpetuating, in Giroux’s observation, a darkened discourse in society.
The distorting of historical facts to aid the advancement of contemporary values violates the audience’s trust as much as it does the historical account. Zack Snyder’s 300 takes the Battle of Thermopylae and shapes it into a contemporary war between the United States and Iran without apology and frames it as ‘entertainment.’ The fight between the Spartans and Persians recreates a world of division between the East and the West. By distorting the accounts of Thermopylae, the film 300 promotes Western political ideologies that easily distort public perception and shift contemporary memories and opinion. The glorification of these ideologies endangers the future perceptions that one day may inspire peace.