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Movie.ology: 300, and then we dance "the Persian"

By A.J. Cave

Thermopylae, Greece

With the battle at Thermopylae (meaning Hot Gates) in 480 BCE Persian history became Hellenic (Greek) history, and when the (religious) war-weary Europeans pulling out of the crusading Middle Ages picked the ancient Hellenes and Romans as the pillars of the Western Civilization, Greek history became world history. It echoed the biblical references in Coldplay’s famous hit song Viva la Vida (meaning: Live the Life, 2008, another title: Death and all his Friends) about a king’s castle standing on “pillars of salt, pillars of sands”.

This new version of ancient Hellenic history was more a beautified and idealized construct of a precious past by the nostalgic European historians searching for an alternate utopian universe to fall back on. Since the early days of this rediscovery certain integral aspects of the Greek society like the unmentionable practice of slavery or even more unmentionable practice of “Greek Love” (a perk of Athenian aristocrats but mandatory for Spartan soldiers, enthusiastically adopted as mos Graecorum, the way of the Greeks by the conquering Romans) was carefully removed (not translated or mistranslated into European languages) by the academics, artists, intellectuals, priests, poets and writers.

Anything that sounds too good to be true, usually is. Ancient Greece was a man’s world, oddly and strangely wary of women, and foreigners-they called babblers (meaning barbarians). It was not until a few decades ago that finally the original Hellenic texts were translated without euphemism. But the idealized heroic vision of the “Greeks” (meaning mostly ancient Athenians and Spartans) as the pre-configuration of the “Crusaders: the Western Christian freedom-fighters” lives on in the sword-and-sandal movies.

Speaking of the movies, looking back, there were no surprises at the 86th Academy Awards ceremony on 2 March. As predicted, 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture. But my sister called the show “3.3 hours of belly flop”-meaning boring. Yawn.

Looking sideways, on 7 March, the much dreaded (or anticipated) sequel (sidequel) to the 300 movie, Rise of an Empire will invade theaters globally. And, of course, the Warner Bros. Entertainment (formerly Warner Bros. Studios) and its parent company, the mega mass media conglomerate TimeWarner (NYSE: TWX) are banking on cracking the $1 billion box office this time around.

Reportedly the movie will demonstrate how the mortal King Xerxes became a god. That’s a neat trick, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t part with $10 for the secret(s) of immortality?

Although still hugely profitable, with a radical shift in the consuming and viewing habits of the public (particularly the coveted young and affluent demographics), abundance of user-generated content (mostly free of corporate sponsors and their agendas), and the disintermediation of advertising dollars by the online search and social networks, TimeWarner is on the declining side of the lucrative media business. They also have plenty of ruthless global competitors with more cash on hand than the central banks-the likes of Amazon, Apple, Comcast, Sony, Walt Disney, and now Google’s YouTube and eventually Facebook (or now, if constant surveillance of friends and lovers and competitors counts), and others-nipping at their heels, and they are feeling it-or should-in spite of their fancy glassy twin-tower corporate complex overlooking the Central Park in New York City.

I would write a few lines after I have watched the new 300 movie. Based on the Rotten Tomatoes’ tomatometer, the movie critics who have already seen the movie, like the French actress Eva Green as the Carian dynast Artemisia, but most agree it is too bloody and gory.

As they say, to everything there is a season. Winter of last year was the season of the (mix of old-fashioned hand-drawing and computer-generated animation) feel-good family movie Frozen (Walt Disney, 2013), raking in over $1 billion at the box offices around the world to become the highest grossing Disney animation movie-all without having to rake Xerxes over the coals and drag the Persians through a frozen tundra. And this season and this year might just belong to the movies sparking interesting conversations around faith (or lack of it) and the resurrection of biblical epics with religious implications for believers and observers-or not. Who knows?

Son of God, a movie based on the popular 2013 History Channel miniseries The Bible opened on 28 February, produced by the mega-rich Roman-Catholic Mark Burnett (of the reality TV Survivors) and his wife, Roma Downey (of the CBS TV series Touched by an Angels), who gets a big promotion from being an ordinary angel to becoming the mother of God. The movie is the first big-screen Christian movie after the blockbuster The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, Icon Productions, 2004), and has been heavily promoted to churches across the U.S.

“We are publicly Christian, so this is our community. This is their story,” the movie producers have confidently evangelized. “... For a whole generation, these characters will be the faces when they (the Christians) close their eyes to imagine to pray.” It means the new and improved biblical and historical Jesus would look like the handsome Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado with an Irish Catholic mother. Roughly 33% of world population is Christian (about 1.2 billion people) and 17% of them are Catholics. If Christians were a country, they would be the third largest after China and India-with South America (343 million) and Central America (164 million) growing roughly at a rate of 5% yearly.

Another biblical epic movie, Noah (Paramount Pictures), a much more anticipated (or dreaded) movie, depending on your point of view, will open on 28 March.

Divergent (Summit Entertainment), a movie adaptation of another young-adult dystopian novel in the footsteps of the highly successful The Hunger Games (Lionsgate, 2012, 2013), opens on 21 March. It unfolds in a future Chicago where all people are separated into segments based on their strengths. Aren’t we already? The same old social segregation based on race, religion, and riches, is reinvented in form of strength and virtue with sexy special effects (F/X).

So, unlike the original 300 that had virtually no competition at the box office in 2007, the sleek new 300 has to rise between two biblical movies, a teen flick, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman-another feel-good family movie from DreamWorks Animation/20th Century Fox-and has to make its mark outside of the hardcore comic-book fans before the spotlight shifts from the empires of men to the kingdom of God, with a stopover in Chicago.

Rise of an Empire is arguably a “patriotic” movie. On the surface, it pokes at our anxieties over facing insecurity and uncertainty, and having to defend the homeland from a menacing enemy. But at a deeper level, it seems to lack soul and substance-the same old one-dimensional cardboard Cowboys killing Indians=Persians formula.

300 is rated R for: strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity, and some language-sounds like the after Thanksgiving sale at some department stores. I am not really sure what “some language” means. Is it some sort of warning: “Watch out! We had to break the slaughter with some (dirty) words.”?

Freedom (including the freedom of speech) and democracy are not just good things, they are great. But are violent movies like the 300 part of the solution or source of the problem? We know the impact of extremely violent movies and videogames on our kids, but we continue to create and consume them uncritically in the name of increasing shareholder value. Who are these shareholders? Us?!

Outside of the smallish Achaemenids fan club, not too many people seem to be concerned about the broader consequences of this movie, or the greater 300 movie franchise that could theoretically go on indefinitely, feasting like vampires on ancient blood, as long as the moviegoers are willing to accept human carnage as entertaining. Remember the Romans? There has always been (and continue to be) a taste for this sort of “entertainment”.

And speaking of vampires, I bet most of you don’t know the connection between the Persian Achaemenids and the vampires. So, here is the sorted story.

Hellenes probably believed they had won the Helleno-Persian wars. But we are talking Greeks and this is a typical classic Greek tragedy. The victory worked its magic like an old bottle of vintage snake oil. Heartened by the gold and glory of a newly-minted empire, the Hellenes-the Athenians and the Spartans and their allies-started to devour each other in a bloody civil war for Hellas (now roughly modern Greece) called the Peloponnesian War that lasted more or less for 28 long years (431-404 BCE).

Who won?

That is another one of those $64,000 questions that have no snappy answers. Persians are the low-hanging poisonous fruit in the Hellenic history, but when the Athenians and the Spartans and their best friends are gutting each other, who do you root for? This is Hellas!? Hell no.

Through (forced) contact and (elected) contrast with the great civilizations of the ancient Near East, Hellenic art, architecture, democracy and philosophy burst forth and reached for the stars. They even invented the art of narrative history just to dish on the Persians. Through constant conflict as a way of life, Hellenes and Persians finally fell to the barbaric Macedonians. While Persians kicked out the Macedonian invaders in about a century, the Hellenes had to wait until the early 19th century, when the Christian Europeans finally decided to wrest the Orthodox Greeks (from Latin Graecia, what Romans called the Hellenes) from the clutches of the formidable Muslim Turkish Ottomans.

When a Greek who was appointed the governor of the newly-minted Greece (now the Hellenic Republic) was assassinated in 1831, the thoughtful European king-makers gave Greece a proper Bavarian king from the house of Wittelsbach-King Otto (ruled 1832-1862)-who had a clever historian for a friend.

The German historian Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884), famous for his History of Alexander the Great (Berlin, 1833) brilliantly repaired ancient Hellenic history. The period between the death of the Macedonian King Alexander III (336-323 BCE) and the death of the famous Macedonian Queen Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE), last Pharaoh of Egypt, was reinvented as “Hellenistic”-meaning like Hellenes-not Greek, but sort of Greeky.

And the Persians in this new and improved ancient Hellenic history were “vampires” who fed off the people through over-taxation-justly liberated by the (murdering) Macedonians. And their Macedonian King Alexander III was now part and parcel of a glamorous new Greek history and identity. The historical fact that Alexander murdered more Hellenes and Macedonians (and others) than Persians during his conquest of the Persian Empire for the sake of getting famous was swept under the threadbare historical carpet.

In 1960s, the Italian Cinema took a shine to making (biblical) sword-and-sandal movies about no other than Xerxes and the Persian Wars. If they weren’t taking themselves so seriously as the defenders of democracy, they would have been mildly funny as Greek comedies.

The first one was Esther and the King (20th Century Fox, 1960) and you can watch it here:

The plot was a comical mixed marriage of the biblical Book of Esther and the pseudo-historical classical Histories of Herodotus: Xerxes banishes Vashti, his adulteress wife who stripteases better than a Vegas showgirl in front of the royal court and spits in his face; marries Esther, a beautiful Jewish girl (with a psychic uncle who quotes from the Christian New Testament at least 6 centuries before it was written); goes to war with the Greeks (or with Alexander, the Macedonian youth?); fails and returns to the arms of lovely Esther. Since this was a Catholic flick, Vashti was conveniently killed off by her lover so Xerxes could legally marry again.

The 300 Spartans (20th Century Fox, 1962) that supposedly inspired the new 300, was the second one and is posted here:

The American actor, Richard Egan (1921-1987, born and raised in San Francisco, California, and a graduate of Stanford University), who played the Persian King Xerxes in the first movie, also played the Spartan King Leonidas in the second movie. There is no business like showbiz. The Scottish actor Gerard Butler who played Leonidas in the 300 (2007) hasn’t had a decent role since.

The interesting part of the second movie comes at the end (of DVD):

The producers acknowledge their gratitude to their majesties the King and Queen of the Hellenes, the Greek government, the Royal Hellenic Army and all organizations and persons in Greece whose whole-hearted cooperation made their project possible.

The King and Queen were King Paul (1947-1964) and his German wife Frederica.

Apparently Greek Ministry of Defense had also supplied 5,000 soldiers to play extras, which explains why the Persians and the Spartans look like twins separated at birth.

With the same whole-hearted cooperation, the royal army kicked out the next King of the Hellenes, Constantine II (1964-1973) of the German house of Glucksburg, and declared a (military) republic. Some of the soldiers were probably those who had starred in The 300 Spartans movie over a decade earlier!

Now you might think the relationship between the modern Greeks and Iranians is topsy-turvy. Not really. The two ancient peoples take things with a grain of salt. They have a lot more in common than baklava, Feta cheese, olive oil, remembering razing each other’s palaces and temples over 2,500 years ago and forgetting the mess in the middle. Their modern woes-one against a sinking economy, the other against a suffocating theocracy-swing in the same historical muddy waters.

When it comes to the movies, my late uncle (may he rest in peace) used to say that My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Joel Zwick, 20th Century Fox, 2002) was an Iranian story.

The romantic comedy My Life in Ruins (Donald Petrie, 2009), also written and played by the Greek-Canadian actress Nia Vardalos, is about Georgia, an unemployed professor of classical history, who works as a tour guide for a small Greek tour operator in Athens. While she is seriously (and hopelessly) trying to talk about the ancient history of the ruins against the backdrop of funny sunny Greece, the ragtag bunch of multi-national tourists are more interested in eating ice-cream and shopping for tchotchkes at Greek agoras. They quickly abandon her and happily follow the other tour guide, when he yells: “Enough culture! Who wants souvenirs?”

Georgia quips: “Greece was a happening place 2,500 years ego, then they (the Greeks) discovered nap.”

Her boring tour picks up when one of the (stereo-typed) obnoxious American tourists tells her that history has lots of dirty stories-“sex sells”-and she takes his advice. Whatever the Greeks do in the movie, they dance (like Zorba) afterward. “That is the way the country (Greece) works.”

So like the Iranians. No matter what we do, then we dance and have a good time.

According to one of the (many) classical writers of Persian history:

In only one of the festivals celebrated by the Persians, that to Mithra, the King gets drunk and dances “the persica-the Persian”.

This persica was apparently widely known-some sort of a military dance to build strength. According to Xenophon (~430-354 BCE), the Athenian commander and writer and a student and friend of philosopher Socrates:

Last of all he [a Mysian] danced the Persian dance, clashing the shields together, bending down on one knee and springing up again from ground; and all this he did, keeping time to the sound of the flute.

Anabasis. 6.1.10

So, go grab your family, friends, foes, and all other highly flammable people in your life and go dancing and drinking in the rain (historical ruins optional). That is what ancient Hellenes and Persians should have done!

Live, love and let dance.


About the author: A. J. Cave is an Iranian-American writer. Her Book an idol-worshiper’s Guide to god-stan: a trilogy in 7 parts (2012) is the story of cracking the code of cuneiform script in the 19th century and its political and theological aftermath.

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