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The Persian Empire Strikes Back



Controversial yet Visually Stunning screen adaptation of Frank Miller '300’


©Warner Bros


"A Thousand Nations of the Persian Empire Descend Upon You ! Our Arrows Will Blot out the Sun" - Persian King Xerxes' Emissary


"Then we will fight in the shade." -Stelios the Spartan Warrior



The timing for the latest Warner Bros Epic battle movie 300 is clearly unfortunate but maybe not so. Based on Veteran comic book artist Frank Miller’s gory depiction of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C, that is said to have opposed 300 Spartans to the massive Persian Army of King Xerxes the Great, it is an action packed, sexually provocative and bloody spectacle that clearly deserves its R-Rated label.  In a particularly tense climate of international politics where threats of an imminent  US or Israeli attack on Iran ( once known as Persia ) is on everyone’s mind it would be easy to see in this movie as many bellicose metaphors as there are sand pebbles in the entire desert landscapes of the Middle East. Before succumbing to what is our national sport that is seeing conspiracy theories of monstrous proportions in any non Iranian/Persian depiction of our land and history, let us take a closer look at what would be considered, by any one with a minimum of film knowledge, as merely a  B-Rated Film albeit directed with a visually stunning approach.


Zack Snyder’s 300 was initially a project that was in the Vaults of Warner Bros since the late 1990’s. It was to be a remake of a low budget Hollywood classic Sword and Sandals film entitled the 300 Spartans ( which I had already reviewed for the in 2002 under the title Battle for the West ) directed by Rudolph Maté and starring Richard Egan and David Farrar in the title roles of Spartan King Leonidas and Persian King Xerxes. The remake was initially to be directed by Michael Mann ( Heat, Miami Vice, Last of the Mohicans) and produced by George Clooney with Bruce Willis in the title role of Leonidas and rumors that Spanish machismo Antonio Banderas would portray the Persian King of Kings. The script was to be based on the Best Selling novel by Stephen Pressfield entitled Gates of Fire. However due to the fact that Mann went on to direct Ali a Bio Epic on Box Legend Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali starring Will Smith who hoped for an Oscar nomination in the title role, the Sword and Sandals project was abandoned.  In early 2000 newcomer independent Horror movie  filmmaker Zack Snyder ( Dawn of the Dead) suggested the adaptation of another version of this epic story based on Frank Miller’s dark and graphically stylized depiction of the ultimate Spartan sacrifice. The 1962 version has been a cult film for all aficionados of a film genre that went extinct after the mid 60’s due to the increasing appeal of the public for realism on film as well as a more contemporary related stories which the TV as a medium would also encourage and take credit for. James Bond Stunts with a quick hygienic and stylish kill were to replace the massive realistic battle scenes opposing foes in shining armour while Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish films were to illustrate an unorthodox conception of Law and Order where the major characters were to render personal justice in the name of self defense often with a simplistic far-right conservative conception of how society should be dealing with its so-called scums and outcasts. This realistic and graphic approach to violence that were to rank such films as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather sequels, or his equally violent Apocalypse Now as award winning masterpieces at such well known film festivals as Cannes or the Oscars were nevertheless far more violent with morally more ambiguous messages than most Sword and Sandals Technicolor films of the previous era or even that of the most recent Epic film: Ridley Scott’s excellent Gladiator that launched the film genre to critical acclaim and Box Office success.


Interestingly the rising stars of these “modern era films” like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino or the highly acclaimed and in my humble opinion overestimated Robert De Niro (whose role in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver was to inspire John Hinckley Jr. to commit his failed assassination attempt on Former US President Ronald Reagan) have become role models for many actors today. Strangely I have come across several Iranian actors or directors in the Diaspora including some of the most popular and talented in the Diaspora  who clearly hail such performances certainly for the good reasons but also most certainly because of the physical identification that Al Pacino’s Scarface or De Niro’s Don Corleone could have with lets say someone like the great Behrouz Vossoughi or the younger and no less talented Houshang Touzie. There may also be another explanation to this identification in that the inner violence that appears on screen through their performances is also something their generation to some degree could identified with.


There is nothing moral about violence on film but it is undeniably photogenic and exciting to the viewer. Directors know that and so do the actors. Was it not the great Hollywood Star and Mr. Tough Guy  Kirk Douglas ( Spartacus, The Vikings)  also greatly admired by Iranian New Wave director Mohsen Makhmalbaf ( I am Referring to a scene in his movie Nun va Goldoon ) who said:


"Virtue is not photogenic. What is it to be a nice guy? To be nothing, that's what. A big fat zero with a smile for everybody."




"I've made a career of playing sons of bitches." ?


To claim the contrary would be as hypocritical as to imagine Western films without Cowboys & Indians and equally Sword & Sandals without Persians fighting Greeks or Romans not crucifying Christians or not feeding them to the lions in the Arena …


Why should acknowledging  this fact be interpreted as a justification of  violence or of a denial of the negative consequences that violent depictions can have on young and unstable adult viewers ? Should we see an obscure ideological message ( if there is one) or an indulgence of real life sadism in what is meant to be a tribute to a film genre ?  Should that mean that we have to adopt a partisan attitude towards a film we have not even seen ?  Any alerted viewer or critic can see the movie’s subtle qualities in pushing the boundaries of the Epic genre through the use of CGI effects like shooting the movie nearly entirely on blue screen with little if no real Sets. Should Motion Pictures for that matter be accountable for the unpredictable reaction of viewers ? In that case NO ONE would make movies nor go to see films.


Personally there are two major questions that intrigue me and which I think are at the core of the debate on a “would be outrage” of the Persian Community ( spearheaded so vehemently by our fellow compatriot and Satirist  Siamak Baniameri   and by the following petition ). I do not have the answers to them but I would like to submit it to the readers sagacity  :


What is more shocking:


To be depicted as Villains in a film that is supposed to be anything but a history lesson about an event that took place 25 centuries ago?




To be associated to an entity that exists no more that is the Persian Empire itself ever since its removal by a widely popular Islamic Revolution that put an end for ever to what its supporters considered as an evil and corrupt institution?


What the controversy about this film reveals as in the case of Oliver Stone’s movie Alexander is that the Persian Empire, with or without its King or legitimate heir, still exists in the minds of all Iranians and probably transcends even political convictions. It probably has more to do with our own Ego ( justified or not ) or is it a Freudian sense of self preservation and of our role as a nation in the History of Mankind ?



Do we as viewers have adopt a partisan attitude towards a film we have not even seen ?


As an Iranian/Persian I would say YES be it by the inevitable patriotic upheaval such a movie will generate in us as descendants of a proud and civilized people who would prefer to be seen for some of the values that define us in the positive light and which are totally ignored in this movie such as for Cyrus’ Declaration of Human Rights or the great architectural and scientific accomplishments that virtually civilized the ancient world. If criticism of such a commercial film can indeed generate a debate on our role in the history of mankind and that it can give us the opportunity to educate fellow Americans then why not ? 


As a Movie Buff I would certainly say NO because there is nothing particularly mature in the political statement made in Zack Snyder’s movie no more than in most of fellow talented feature writer Siamak Baniameri’s The Iranican Dream. It is meant to be a Pop Corn  Entertainment to an American audience who at best ( and sadly enough unless proven otherwise ) hardly even knows if Persia even exists or existed nor can they distinguish between Iran and Iraq. 


Again from a purely non partisan point of view I would even come to think that the Persians are even quite COOL looking. The Merchandizing of immortal masks or Persian and Greek figurines are no more shocking or despicable than George Lucas’ Star Wars figurines and toys some of which have become collector items today. The movie is visually far more brilliant and attractive than Frank Miller’s original comic book that is overall anything but beautiful. The movie’s SFX and sound effects and a music score that uses the vocals of Iranian Singer Azam Ali enhance the original comic book storyboard to more dynamic effect. Another Iranian Stuntman Darren Shahlavi also took part in the action scenes.


In short if you are looking for entertainment and unrealistic 2nd or 3rd degree violence, there is nothing to be afraid of but if you hope to find in this movie historical truth albeit the fact that we won the battle and the Spartans lost ( But allowed Greece to win the Greco-Persian War), then you are going for a sheer disappointment.


Were we to show the World a different face then we should try to make our film version of the same battle. I very much doubt that we would deliver a more objective and propaganda devoid version. An interesting example is that of the Turkish War movie Valley of the Wolves shot with an international cast including Hollywood Stars Billy Zane (Titanic) and Garey Busy ( Shut Up and Shoot) as the movie’s villains. The film was a huge success in Turkey and Germany, shot with the same production value as a Hollywood Block Buster and received outrageous critics in the Western Press for describing the Americans soldiers in Iraq as sadistic and blood thirsty (as if that was a stretch of an imagination ?) and for its anti-Semitic tones which was the reason the film did not get a Visa for a wider Theatrical release in France, Britain and the US. 


Sword and Sandal movies never claimed to be masterpieces or monuments of Art no more than Western Spaghettis so why treat them for what they are not ?


Zack Snyder’s 300 as much as Ridley Scott’s  Gladiator are first and foremost entertainments that tease the little kid in us: Go and be a Man my Son !


In a recent press conference given after the movie’s Premiere in Hollywood some journalists questioned its director on the movie’s metaphors. Some saw in Xerxes and his Empire an analogy with George Bush and the American invasion of Iraq. Others claimed on the contrary that Bush was actually Leonidas who fights to the near end to defend the democratic values of the West. As interesting and predictable a comparison as they may seem, non of these arguments truly convince me that this movie even has a message other than go and buy a ticket and have some fun. The movie can very well be exploited as a propaganda tool by both the White House and why not Iran’s President Ahmadinejad in trying to rally the most reluctant citizens in seeing subliminal metaphors in a Box Office success. If so it would mean that their own political agendas are so weak and fragile that they need to have recourse to motion pictures to self promote themselves or their ideologies.    


If you wish to do yourself and your community a favor then start by supporting your actors, directors and artists who throughout our own history have so often been either instrumentalized by political power, censored when questioning authority or simply disregarded by their fellow compatriots as being of no importance or even useful to society. 




©photo composition Darius KADIVAR (*)


Maybe a good start would be to support filmmaker Cyrus KAR and his bio Epic documentary In Search of Cyrus the Great or the equally interesting film project Xerxes by writer Ren A Hakim both of which offer an alternative and positive outlook on the founding fathers of our ancient and noble Land … 




Author’s Notes:  


(*) Disclaimer, the items of the Movie 300 are properties of © Neca and 300 logo is ©Warner Bros



300 Official Website:


Recommended Readings :

- 300: The Art Of The Film by Frank Miller , Zack Snyder

Persia ? Ancient Persia’s Virtual absence in Hollywood by Darius KADIVAR (


-Battle for The West The Original 300 Technicolor cult movie shot in 1962 by Darius KADIVAR (


- That Film’s Real Message? It Could Be: ‘Buy a Ticket’ By MICHAEL CIEPLY ( NY Times)


- Beyond the Valley of the Wolves on the Turkish controversial blockbuster by Cem Özdemir ( Der Spiegal)



Recommended Viewing: History Channel documentary titled Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked with an analysis of Frank Miller’s work notable on Batman, Superman and Robin



About the Author:
Darius KADIVAR is a freelance journalist and Film Historian born to an Iranian father and French mother. He works and lives in France

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