Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Persian Portrayal in the movie "300"


300,  a dramatic film directed by Zack Snyder of the legendary battle of Thermopylae in Greece, involves three hundred brave Greek heroes squaring off against legions of monstrous Persian warriors in order to save their homeland. Many elements of the story, of course, have been exaggerated for the sake of making a blockbuster hit, but the most fascinating part of the film involves the way Snyder chose to portray the "enemy", the Persians, and the "heroes", the Spartans. Many of his choices reveal bias that seems to translate over from medieval portrayals of Saracens, while the heroes are given qualities that they, as bloodthirsty Greek warriors, may not have had in the first place.

The Persians are depicted as dark-skinned, sexually depraved, even monstrous creatures, with their leader Xerxes dressed flamboyantly and enjoying a harem of women, some of whom have physical deformities. Indeed, even Xerxes' ranks of soldiers include a two-headed monster. Many soldiers also wear masks, which dehumanize them even more (much like Storm Troopers in Star Wars). Xerxes also dresses very richly, wearing lavish armor and piercings, and he sits on a high throne even during battle, which indicates that he considers himself worthy of worship. He is inhuman and even sexually threatening. Even the cinematic effects involved in portraying the Persians are dark and tend to obscure their features, making them even less human. This distancing reminds me of the portrayal of Saracens in the works we've read so far: very rich, usually sexually driven (King of Tars, Sultan of Babylon) and very much inhuman. Snyder has stated that he wished to make the Persians more intimidating and monstrous, which makes senses from a director's perspective. What's curious are the ways he went about it.

On the other hand, Snyder had to humanize the Spartan forces. The Spartan warriors are famed for their discipline, but historically they were not great people. They disposed of babies which were not physically perfect, they killed one another as a matter of course, and they lived and breathed war. Snyder contrasted them with the Persians by making them austere and disciplined, fighting mostly naked against the heavily armed Persian forces, making them seem brave. They are also contrasted with the other Greeks they're defending, who are portrayed as "soft." The leader, Leonidas, is portrayed as a tough, incorruptible man of the people, fighting alongside his soldiers instead of atop a throne, as Xerxes does. It's also difficult to ignore that Xerxes is portrayed by a black man when it's more likely that he would have appeared Middle Eastern, while Leonidas, who was Mediterranean and would have had darker skin, is portrayed by the lily-white, Scottish Gerard Butler. This disciplined, white, uncorrupted model hearkens back to the portrayals we've seen of Christian leaders which fight against Saracens in the works we've read.

It seems that medieval visual prototypes of "good" and "bad" are still very much alive in popular media today.

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