300 A Propaganda Failure

16 March 2007

300 A Propaganda Failure

By Gwynne Dyer

Being cultural advisor to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be one of the more thankless jobs on the planet, but Javad Shamghadri manages to keep busy. His latest foray is into the cultural space occupied by the teenage bloodlust demographic.

What bothers Shamghadri — and quite a lot of other people in Iran — is the new Hollywood hit “300”, an animated comic-book of a film that shows impossibly buffed and noble Greeks seeing off an attempt by evil Persians to strangle Western civilisation in its cradle 2,487 years ago. They think it’s “psychological warfare” against present-day Iranians, thinly disguised as a story about their wicked Persian ancestors.

Shamghadri is so clueless about the workings of Hollywood that you really want to take him gently by the hand and walk him through it. “Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran (in 1979),” he says, “Hollywood and cultural authorities in the US initiated studies to figure out how to attack Iranian culture. Certainly, the recent movie is a product of such studies.”

After pausing for a moment to savour the notion of “cultural authorities in the US,” let us pass on to the Tehran paper Ayandeh-No, which is quite close to the regime. Under a headline screaming “Hollywood declares war on Iranians,” it complains that “The film depicts Iranians as demons, without culture, feeling or humanity, who think of nothing except attacking other nations and killing people. It is a new effort to slander the Iranian people and civilisation before world public opinion at a time of increasing American threats against Iran.”

Now, I must admit that I haven’t seen “300” (and neither has anybody in Iran). I suppose I should have gone to see the movie before I wrote about it, but a) I’m in Cuba at the moment, where it isn’t playing; and b) I did see the trailer for the movie, which gave you quite enough sense of the thing’s style to let you decide if you really wanted to let it occupy any more of your life.

I don’t know many teenage males who could resist the lure of “300”, but as a somewhat-more-than-teenage male I found myself more in sympathy with the nameless internet reviewer who wrote: “I feel comfortable enough in my masculinity to say that if I had to stand in the presence of these (ultra-macho Greek heroes) for more than ten seconds, I’d spontaneously grow a pair of ovaries.”

So can we all just laugh at those stupid, paranoid Iranians for getting their knickers into a twist about a dumb, harmless splatter-film cleverly disguised as art? Fraid not. It really is war propaganda of the crudest, nastiest kind, even though there are no “American cultural authorities” and the people who made the movie have probably never had a consciously political thought in their money-grubbing lives.

We all swim in the same sea of images, and we all get the same short list of “things to worry about right now” from the media. It’s not a plot, it’s just how things work. So the film-makers had a great story to work with: the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC really did save Greece from conquest by the nearest Asian empire, Persia (although all the Greeks at Thermopylae died). They had the extraordinary images from Frank Miller’s comic-book retelling of the story. And they knew that Iran is next on the US hit-list.

For several decades now, the bad guys in American action films with an international setting have mostly been Middle Easterners (or at least, the rough ones are; the smooth ones are still generally British). Iranians actually do live in the Middle East, so lay it on with a trowel. And as for the stiff, super-patriotic, over-the-top macho dialogue, most of it comes straight from Miller’s comic-book, and he presumably just picked it up from the general culture in the United States, which has been deeply infected by that sort of thing for the past number of years.

So no plot, nobody to blame, and yet the film is everything the Iranians say it is. The Persians are depicted as “ugly, dumb, murderous savages” (in the words of Ayandeh-No) who want to conquer the free people of the world, while the Spartans are clearly Americans, spouting the same slogans about “liberty” and “freedom” that are sprinkled on all political discourse in the United States like sugar on corn-flakes.

What’s more, the Spartans are underdogs. In almost all US-made action films with an international setting, the American heroes are underdogs fighting against enormous odds, even though they actually come from the most powerful country in the history of the world. However, you know that they are in the right, because in the movies the underdogs are always in the right, and they always win in the end.

So the gallant Greek-Americans triumph over the evil Persians, and let that be a lesson to evil-doers everywhere. But our Iranian friends should not worry that this film is juicing American youth up for an invasion of their country, because the kids just won’t get it. Down in the teenage bloodlust demographic, practically nobody knows that the Persians of ancient times and the Iranians of today are the same people.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Now…ovaries”)