The 300 Controversy: Fact v. Fiction

Everyone with a blog and a dream thinks they are a pundit these days. Political pundits are paraded about on CNN and Fox News daily to rant and rave about one side or the other. Film critics, myself included, are pundits in their own right. They only difference is that way play within the politics of Hollywood, a world that is arguably less detrimental to society and often less serious. I mean, who can say that talking about an exit strategy for Iraq is anything comparable to Katie Holmes’ exit strategy, also known as marriage to Tom Cruise. We get to talk about the disturbing, depraved world of celebrity and the schlock that gets put in front of moviegoers everywhere. Real pundits, well, they talk about more important things — or so I’m told.

Another thing that real pundits get more of than the pundits of the silver screen is hate mail. Despite the fact that readers will get very angry when I torch the latest Sandra Bullock movie because I “just don’t get it”, the amount of hate mail I get cannot compare to that of say, Rush Limbaugh — and deservedly so.

But there are those issues that cross over, uniting the world of film with the world of politics and bringing more angry people into the mix. Lets take, for example, an article that I wrote about two weeks ago, titled “The Anti-300 Debate?” It referred to a petition that was put forth by an Iranian doctor who said that the recently released film 300 was both historically inaccurate and “fraudulent and distorted, and its broadcast guarantees the violation of undeniable international legal rights.” My rebuttal, as a member of the film community, was simply that it is “just a movie,” a spectacle created for the mindless enjoyment of college kids everywhere who revel in simple themes like insurmountable odds, gratuitous female nudity and comically gory action. I couldn’t understand how someone, anyone, could be so offended by a simple film. But I had obviously spoke too soon, as I seemed to have awakened a segment of my readership that I did not know that I had.

In just 12 days the article had received over 110 comments, something of a small wonder considering this is my personal blog, a site that attracts less than 1,000 visitors per day. It became apparent then, and even more so when I read an article in Newsweek by Evan Thomas, that this was a broad and heated political issue. I realized that there must be a better way to explain my side of this issue without resorting to the fact that film is film, it is a work of art completely in the hands of the filmmaker and it has no responsibility to be historically accurate. That would obviously not do anything to calm the storm around this issue. I devised a list of statements made about this issue, both from comments on my site and themes from various news sources, in an attempt to find out what is fact, what is fiction and what has been left on the table. So without trying to sell myself as a pundit who knows anything about politics, I humbly present my take on the controversy around 300, a bit of Fact v. Fiction:

300 displays the Persians as a brutal, heinous people who would enslave all of Sparta to expand their Empire.

Fact. There is nothing false here, the Persians are the bad guys. There are ogres, giants with saws for arms and a God-King that dresses like Elizabeth Taylor and stands 8 ft. tall. Rarely have we seen a more comic exaggeration of an evil army. But from my perspective, you have to look at it all in context. The story itself is being told through the eyes (or eye, due to the fact that he only has one) of the Spartan Dilios, played by David Wenham. It is apparent at the outset of the film that he is telling this fantastic tale to a group of young soldiers, most likely to ready them for battle, a common practice among military leaders. Therefore if you are paying enough attention to the story you can easily see that this is not exactly how things went, but rather the hyperbolic ramblings of a leader trying to rally his troops.

This film is historically accurate.

Fiction. The film itself is by no means historically accurate. There was a Battle of Thermopylae, there did exist a King Leonidas and a Xerxes the Great, but I assure you it didn’t go down in the same manner that has been put onto film by Director Zach Snyder. In fact, the film is nearly a frame-by-frame reflection of the graphic novel written by Frank Miller, which was based on how Frank himself saw the battle happen in his own mind after viewing a film (The 300 Spartans) in 1962 which is based on the actual battle. The overall story is true, but the specifics, as you would expect in this long winded game of telephone, have been modified a bit.

Author Frank Miller’s politics lean to the right.

Fact. It is no secret to fans of Frank Miller that he sports some “post-911 conservatism.” As Evan Thomas pointed out, he is working on a new graphic novel that pits Batman against Al Qaeda. There are also several cultural themes within the film, including “Freedom is not free” and the fact that Leonidas goes against the will of both the law and the Spartan council in going to war. For a lesser educated America, these look like political statements ripped right out of our own headlines, when in reality they were themes that existed way back then as well — unfortunately for us, they are still around. So I can see where there would be concern that some of the American audience would be lead to believe that there are parallels between Leonidas and President Bush, between the Persians and terrorists and between the ephors (the grotesque Spartan elders) and Vice President Cheney… Actually, I made that last one up just to keep things light. Moving on…

The U.S. Government secretly funded this film in order to further their anti-Iranian agenda.

Fiction. Someone really did say this to me in one of the afore mentioned articles of hate mail. This is one of those things that would be hard to believe, even if proven to be true. When talking about the U.S. Government and the majority of Hollywood we are talking about two polar ends of the political spectrum. Also, the film was produced by Warner Brothers, a seedling of AOL Time Warner, which is a company who isn’t necessarily in the President’s bedroom closet (as far as I am aware). If we were talking about a movie put out by 20th Century Fox, owned by News Corp., then we’d have a completely different story on our hands.

Historically Persians were a civilized and innovative people.

Fact. Based on both previous knowledge and research that I have done based on this debate, I can honestly say that the Persian culture has contributed a great amount to modern day religion, human rights, education and medicine. Cyrus II the Great was credited with the first documented universal declaration of human rights. Persians were the first to systematically use alcohol in medicine. Zoroastrianism, a religion that came from Persian culture, had a great impact on Judaism, which in turn had great influence on both Christianity and Islam. Also, As far as the film 300 goes, the Persians weren’t depicted all that poorly. Yes, there were the weird ogres and beasts, but in comparison to some of the things that were depicted about the Spartans (i.e. the fact that they threw away weak babies), they were not that uncivilized.

People are making this out to be an unnecessarily larger issue than it should be.

Fact. This is the overwhelming truth of the entire argument, but you already knew that. It is sad that in this period of humanity, a time when we would consider ourselves to be more intellectually advanced than the civilizations of 480 BC, that we would see a work of cinematic art such as this be used to further political agendas on both sides.

An Iranian newspaper published this headline: HOLLYWOOD DECLARES WAR ON IRANIANS. I mean, come on people. Do I possess such a higher sense of logic that I can see that this movie was not intentionally created to ignite more tension between the United States and Iran? I will agree that this film doesn’t help our two cultures understand each other, and it may even create undue prejudices for ignorant and uninformed moviegoers, but we cannot say that this is all a great conspiracy. In the grand scheme of things, if influential pop culture figures like Zach Snyder, Frank Miller and Warner Brothers CEO Alan Horn are going to be leading us into yet another unnecessary and unsubstantiated conflict in the Middle East, then what purpose does the current administration serve? My only hope is that President Bush doesn’t see this flick until he is well out of office, because if it is the propaganda that people say it is, then he is the target demographic, and needless to say we would all be in a lot of trouble.

Neil Miller is the Founder and Publisher of Film School Rejects. For almost a decade, he has been talking movies on television, the radio, and the Internet. As of yet, no one has stopped him.

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