DSQ > Summer 2007, Volume 27, No.3

Before you strap yourself in to the two-hour testosterocket that is 300, prepare for what my colleague calls "a pep rally for Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations." The film is an action-packed blood-soaked visual extravaganza with a breathless disregard for history or ethics. Those parts of the film that are not rip-offs of Lord of the Rings (with its epic battles including giant elephants, pithy battlefield philosophies, and mysterious figures with deformities following the heroes) and that are not rip-offs of Gladiator (with its rippling pecs and ethereal sepia-toned wheat fields) and that are not rip-offs of Titus (with its nearly identical soundtrack) are stunning. The visual effects are unparalleled; the entire affair is CGI-enhanced, showing that we are now at the point where we are unable to distinguish between real six-pack abs and computer-generated ones. Once it gets going, the action is non-stop, the battles exquisitely rendered, and there's enough blood to satisfy the most stalwart Roger Corman fans. And the representation of disability in this film is more appallingly retrograde than anything to hit the American cinema in recent memory.

300 is a retelling of the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. In the original battle, which took place in 480 bce, a force of 300 fanatic Spartans (with other Greek volunteers), led by the charismatic king Leonidas, sacrificed themselves to delay the advance of an invading army of between 2 and 5 million Persians (experts differ). In the three days of the battle, the 300 Spartans slew over 80,000 Persians sent against them, and might have slain thousands more if they had not been betrayed and outflanked, pinned down by archers and destroyed. The film is far more faithful to Frank Miller's 1999 Dark Horse graphic novel version of these events than to Herodotus, and approaches the ancient accounts of the battle like a buffet, picking what it likes from the history and leaving the rest. It's all a rather cohesive attempt to make the Spartans emblematic of rational Western democracy fighting a desperate battle for survival against Oriental religious fundamentalism and tyranny. The obvious parallel to the current political tensions between Iran (ancient Persia) and the United States is undisguised in this film; the Spartans regularly spout slogans that are unmistakable echoes of the shibboleths of Bush Administration foreign policy and offhand condemnation of "moonbat liberals." For example, when the Persians suggest that the Greeks might benefit from "sharing their cultures," Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler), standing on a mountain of dead Persians, replies laconically "we've been sharing our culture with you all morning."

Orientalism? Well, the Spartans of 300 are macho-men of action and truth, while the Persians are effete deceivers corrupted by both materialism and mysticism. The Persians oppress their women, while the Spartans honor theirs (in front of them at least; when in battle, they make derisive sexist comments at one another). The Spartans fight for homeland, democracy, and honor; the Persians fight for money. The Persians are degenerates, but they are unified; their god-king Xerxes (Roderigo Santoro) sashays around like an eight-foot RuPaul and rules through bribery and whips. The 300 are morally unclouded, but have to deal with treachery, cowardice, and moral turpitude among their own priests, politicians, and allies.

But let's be frank (with apologies to Mr. Miller). The real problem with this movie has to do with bodies. The Spartans are white Greeks; the Persians' multicultural ethnicities vary from beige to black, including more modern stereotypes of Arab horsemen, African assegai-hurlers and, for some inadequately explained reason, katana-wielding Japanese samurai. The Spartans are uniformly perfect specimens of an idealized (if steroid-abusing) manhood. The Persians and other enemies of Leonidas are presented as monstrous mutations; heavily deformed and rendered gigantic or hideous by inbreeding. And there is no wonder about how the Spartans achieve this racial perfection: the first image of the film shows the Spartan practice of throwing "inferior" babies into a pit, already full of tiny skeletons.

In fact this proto-eugenics was historically the practice of Spartans, but one might imagine that a 2007 film might at least find some means to suggest that a real democracy includes everyone, not just beefcakes who look good in leather jockstraps. No fear of that. Soon Leonidas meets Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan). The historical Ephialtes of Trachis, whose name is synonymous in Greek with "nightmare," was a Malian Greek who betrayed the Spartans for Persian gold, showing them a secret path in the mountains through which a contingent of archers were able to flank and ultimately destroy the Spartans. In 300, we meet an Ephialtes who is a mass of visible disabilities. He's got a hunchback on his hunchback, he's stooped, he limps, his eyes are splayed apart and move like a chameleon's, but he's wearing a Spartan uniform. Leonidas' captain reacts like a good Spartan to Ephialtes' unusual body: he recoils in horror and brandishes a weapon. But Leonidas, good king that we're meant to believe he is, reacts with kindness. Ephialtes tells his story: he was born a Spartan, but his parents fled rather than lose their child to the brutal tradition. He was nevertheless raised as a Spartan, trained to fight with a spear, and given his uniform by his father. He wants to join the battle, and offers information: knowledge of the presence of the secret path that could be used to flank the Spartans. Leonidas' kindness turns to condescension as he explains that Ephialtes' body prevents him from raising his shield, and that therefore he would be useless (indeed, fatally destructive) to the Spartan phalanx (key to their tactics, in which each man's shield protects the man next to him). Leonidas offers Ephialtes a different role: tending the wounded and tidying the dead. Ephialtes is enraged; he yells a curse at his parents: "Mother! Father! You were wrong!" And he lurches off to confirm this assessment by betraying Leonidas to Xerxes.

At the court of Xerxes, Ephialtes finds himself surrounded by people with unusual bodies; hermaphrodites, giants, amputees, transgendered people, and people with exotic deformities. This, we infer, is Xerxes' harem, a place where the god-king/drag queen can indulge his most perverse erotic desires. Ephialtes is welcome here, one more freak in a freak show, and Xerxes showers him with gifts both material and sexual in exchange for his betrayal of Leonidas. For some strange reason, Ephialtes does not reveal the location of the secret path; instead, he offers to lead the Immortals (Xerxes' fearsome elite force of, inexplicably, ninjas). Leonidas' last words are to Ephialtes on the battlefield before he is engulfed by a shower of arrows: "I hope you live forever." This, we deduce, is the most profound Spartan insult, incorporating Leonidas' disgust for the traitor with the Spartan ideal of dying a "beautiful death" in battle. Ephialtes, shamed, bows his misshapen head under his shiny new Persian helmet.

This is not mere ableism: this is anti-disability. There is nothing in Herodotus to indicate that Ephialtes exhibited any deformities nor disabilities, nor that he was a Spartan, so the entire Ephialtes subplot in 300 can have only one purpose: to explicitly justify the practice of murdering inferior babies, who have no role to play in a democracy that must fight to stay alive, and in any event they will only grow up to betray us. The stripped-down democracy that the film advocates thus associates disability with everything else it considers "weakness"; mysticism, tyranny, sexual deviance of all sorts, effeminacy, and, well, being foreign.

But the fact remains that the Spartans were cruel eugenicists and that racist nationalism was an important foundation of classical Greek culture. Much of 300's overblown semper fi death-before-compromise narrative is an accurate portrayal of the history. It seems banal to observe that such overtly Malthusian storytelling is becoming acceptable again, a sign that our society may be growing more sympathetic to Peter-Singerism in response to the perceived threat of terrorism. It's bad enough that disability is linked so facilely in this film to giving aid and comfort to the enemies of democracy. But perhaps the larger lesson of this film, which broke all records for a March debut (topping $70 million at the box office), is to exercise caution when we look to the epic histories of the ancients to justify the short-sighted politics of today.

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