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The Persian Empire Strikes Back

By Darius Kadivar

Will sequel to Frank Miller’s ‘300’ ruffle diplomatic feathers once again between Washington and Tehran ?

© Warner Bros. 300 : Rise of an Empire

Hollywood returns to the battlefield with‘300 : Rise of an Empire’ which made a big splash at this year's Comic Con. It’s a sequel to the Swords and Sandals film adapted from Frank Miller’s controversial comic book about an ancient feud which opposed a handful of Spartan warriors to the invading Persian Army at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Directed by Zack Snyder, the 2006 Warner Bros. production offered an original depiction of this historical confrontation, the outcome of which, according to Herodotus “changed the course of history”. If we are to believe the Greek historian the forces of ‘democracy’ - hardly what Sparta was known for- triumphed over the “tyranny ”  of an oriental despot thanks to the sacrificial martyrdom of a brave few :  The 300 Spartans. To further exploit the franchise Warner Bros set to film a sequel initially titled “Xerxes”. Too busy filming a Superman  adventure, “Man of Steel”, Snyder was replaced by Israeli born director Naom Murro (Smart People).

Miller already enjoyed a cult following which comforted the first film’s international success eight years ago. Where historians seemed divided over the movie’s message, fans of the original comic book cheered Snyder’s ability to bring to life Miller’s fantasy ridden vision thanks to intense visuals and slow motion stunts entirely shot against a virtual backdrop.

The ‘300’ sequel is bound to trigger controversy not unlike another recent Warner Bros. movie ARGO, a contemporary drama about the US Embassy’s ordeal in revolutionary Iran. The untimely release of Snyder’s original epic eight years ago amidst the “War on Terror” prompted passionate reactions from Iranians across the political spectrum ranging from the country’s former Empress Farah Pahlavi to it’s then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many judged the film as another revisionist attempt by Hollywood to rewrite history. Even some American reviewers noted the political overtones of the West-against-Iran story line which seemed to echo the warmongering vocabulary used by Bush era hawks on Capitol Hill.

Ex- James Bond Girl Eva Green Steals the Show as Artemisia © Warner Bros.

Eight years later, Naom Murro’s take on another symbolically spectacular ancient battle, may prove just as untimely given America’s reluctance to engage in further costly wars in the Middle East. Even more so given the Obama administration’s desire to strike a deal with Iran’s newly elected President Rouhani over his country’s controversial nuclear program.

Taking off where 300 ended, Murro’s sequel remains loyal to much of Snyder’s visual aesthetics and script.  However where the Battle of Thermopylae depicted in the first movie took place entirely on land, Murro focuses instead on a second battle, that of Salamis, occurring in the same time frame but at sea ; one which opposed an alliance of Greek city-states led by Athenian admiral Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) to the mighty Persian Empire commanded by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) a King turned God. Themistocles is forced to an unwilling alliance with the traditional rival of Athens, oligarchic Sparta whose might lies with its superior infantry troops. But Xerxes still rules supreme in numbers over land and sea.

What remains an essentially testosterone driven movie does nevertheless include two female characters both of whom are motivated by blind hatred. Lena Headey reprises her role as the widowed Spartan Queen Gorgo seeking to avenge her husband King Leonidas (Gerarld Butler) while ex-James Bond Girl, Eva Green, is cast as Artemisia, Achaemenid Queen of Caria whose wrath against the Greeks is painfully rooted in the childhood memory of her parents violent death.

Historically, Artemisia was one of King Xerxes’ allies, who commanded his navy at the Battle of Salamis, which he lost after failing to take her strategic advice. That loss became a turning point for the Persian conquest of Greece. The film shows how this defeat, combined with other factors, played into the events of 300 (as depicted in the first film), whilst explaining why Xerxes’ ambitions stopped at Sparta.

Shah of Iran followed by Empress Farah and heir Crown Prince Reza
pay tribute to founder of the Persian Empire , Cyrus the Great,
at Pasargardae, Persepolis Celebrations Oct.1971

Both movies offer an unflattering portrayal of the Persians in contrast to the sophisticated image often depicted in history books, one which back in 1971 inspired Iran’s last Shah to proudly showcase to a global audience at the foot of his kingdom’s ancient capital: Persepolis.

As much as the movie celebrates Greek bravado and their warriors as handsome hunks, the Persian Immortals are unrecognizable behind their monkey like masks and silver plated black armor while fanatically obeying their monarch, Xerxes, depicted as a bald bi-sexual oriental despot.

Top Left : The Shah of Iran’s Palace Guards © Roloff Beny, “Elements of Destiny”
Top Right : Persian Immortal as depicted in ‘300’
Bottom: Persian Immortal Guards reenactment during Persepolis parade October 1971
© Roloff Beny ,"Bridge of Turquoise"

Yet, the enduring legend of this “Battle For the West” which the Spartan martyrdom came to symbolize in the western psyche is not new.  Already back in 1962 Rudolphe Mate’s “The 300 Spartans” based on the same battle was also seen as a commentary on the Cold War, with as backdrop news, the looming cuban missile crisis. Many critics referred to the independent Greek states as "the only stronghold of freedom remaining in the then known world", holding out against the Persian "slave empire". Their views prophetically echoed what two decades later Ronald Reagan was to call  “The Evil Empire” in reference to Soviet expansionism, soon to be reversed by Michael Gorbatchev’s “Perestro´ka” reforms.

Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan visit Persepolis Year 1356 - 1978

As for the latest “300” movie franchise if the newly elected Iranian President’s “Glasnost” towards the “Great Satan” proves as earnest as the one carried out by his Soviet counterpart two and half decades earlier, then Iranians have little to fear from what promises to be another Hollywood blockbuster adapted from a popular comic book.

Since ‘300 ‘’s controversial release, two visually stunning films : Disney’s Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time and Universal Pictures The Physician, have shed a positive light on Persian civilization, hence contradicting the often exaggerated conspiracy theories prevalent in Hollywood.

About the Author: Darius KADIVAR is a Freelance Journalist, Film Historian, and Media Consultant.



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