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Film On Ancient Persian-Greek Battle Angers Iranians

By Breffni O'Rourke
March 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A Hollywood film with the simple title '300' is arousing anger in Iran. Directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Zack Snyder, the film portrays the ancient battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Greek Spartans barred the way to the grand army of Persian King Xerxes I. The Iranians say the movie gives a distorted view of the Persians as decadent, cruel, and stupid.


The Iranian government has taken the row over "300" to the United Nations. In a letter to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Iranian Ambassador Mohammad-Reza Dehshiri described the film as an "insult" to Iranian culture.

He called on UNESCO to take up its responsibility to promote coexistence rather than "hatred, war, and arrogance."

In Tehran, "Time" magazine correspondent Azadeh Moaveni says there is a general sense of outrage among Iranians. Iranians living abroad are also disturbed.

"Sparta was a slave society, so the whole idea of them being upholders of democracy is kind of ridiculous," one film critic told RFE/RL.

'I Was Shocked'

"It's very important for me not to remain silent, particularly about issues that are very sensitive in my view, and national honor and prestige are among them," Mitra Farokhzad, an Iranian living in the U.S. state of Arizona, told Radio Farda. "When I watched the movie's trailer and some parts of it, first I didn't understand it because it was very weird. But when I saw how they are portraying King Xerxes, I was shocked and thought, why are they giving such a [negative] picture of a great person?"

Some observers believe the Iranian government is exploiting the anger over the Hollywood production to advance its own political agenda. They say the authorities are provoking nationalistic feelings to get Iranians to rally in support of the government at a time when the Islamic republic is under international pressure over its nuclear program.

The U.S. film distributors, Warner Brothers, deny that "300" is deliberately meant to disparage any culture. They say it is a fictional work with the sole purpose of entertaining audiences. The film is proving something of a hit among the public, taking in $70 million in its first week.

History And Art

"300" tells the story of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, when 300 Greek Spartans were able for three days to block the advance of a Persian army numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Thermopylae is a narrow pass between the mountains and the sea, where the sheer numbers of the Persians was to no advantage. Repeatedly the Persians attacked, only to be thrown back with heavy casualties.

In the end, through an act of Greek treachery, King Xerxes' army was able to surround the Spartans, who were all killed, along with their leader, King Leonidas.

The film sticks closely to the account given by ancient historians, including Herodotus, a Greek. It's the portrayal of the two warring sides that has caused the antagonism. The Greeks are seen as noble defenders of Western culture, while the invading Persians are seen as decadent, irrational, and barbarous, with King Xerxes receiving a particularly unflattering portrait.

Victors Write The History

But U.S.-based film critic Joe Queenan questions the need for so much fuss over "300." He told RFE/RL that the film is merely "ridiculous," with its comic-book style and likeness to a video game.

Queenan also notes that history is written by the victor, in this case the Greeks, who have elevated the story to the level of myth. He says the Persians have their own stories and, if they don't like the Greek version of Thermopylae, they could have written their own version.

 Queenan suggested that today's Iranians should view the affair from a broader angle.

"If the Iranians made a film about Genghiz Khan's invasion and destruction of Persia in the 13th century, then the Mongols might turn around and complain about the way they were portrayed," he argues.

Queenan also takes issue with the film's underlying suggestion that Spartans had set out to protect proto-Western democratic values from the Asian hordes.

"Sparta was a slave society, so the whole idea of them being upholders of democracy is kind of ridiculous," Queenan says. "The Athenians did not let women vote and had a lot of slaves, but still the situation [concerning democracy] was not completely out of control there like in Sparta, where they killed children. They killed deformed children. They killed off a lot of girls. It was a total militaristic society, so there is a direct line from the Spartans to the junkers and Prussian military, to the Nazis."

The battle of Thermopylae gave heart to the Greeks, who later that year won a decisive naval victory at Salamis. A victory on land followed the next year, and Xerxes withdrew, ending the Persian attempt to extend its empire into Europe.

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