Both Fantasy and Reality

By Zachary Justus

The film 300 has broken box office records and helped pave the way for a new type of cinema that bridges the gaps between video games, animation, and live action. The highly stylized telling of the Battle of Thermopylae has also forged an unlikely link—between popular culture and international relations.

The film tells the story of a brave collection of Spartan warriors who fight against an advancing Persian force. The Spartans number in the 300s while the Persian Empire advances in the millions. The Spartans choose a narrow ravine to make their stand as a way to increase their odds against the overwhelming numbers of better equipped Persian warriors. After several days of fighting, the Spartans are betrayed by one of their own and they all die. However, their story inspires the rest of the Greek world to unite under one flag and defeat the Persians. The retelling of the story is no doubt five parts fiction for every one part fact, but that certainly has not stopped the film from making an international impact beyond the box office.

Government officials from Iran have lodged very public complaints against 300’s depiction of ancient Persia. The Daily Herald compiled the most vibrant attacks by Iranian officials,

The movie is aimed at “humiliating” Iranians, who are descendants of the ancient Persians, said Javad Shamghardi, cultural adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The movie is “part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological warfare aimed at Iranian culture,” Shamghardi said. “Hollywood declares war on Iranians” was the headline in the Ayan Ho newspaper, while state-run television ran several commentaries calling the film insulting.

Reactions have been so severe that Iran has asked China to prevent the film from being screened within Chinese borders. The emphatic attacks on the film from abroad have been matched by endorsement from some United States Marines. The Chicago Tribune reports,

To the U.S. Marines serving at Camp Pendleton, there is much to learn from the Spartans, those heroic warriors of ancient Greece whom one might have called “the few, the proud” centuries before the Marine Corps adopted the motto. In the hit new film “300,” Marines see parallels between the current war in Iraq and the film’s story, which tells of hopelessly outnumbered Spartans fighting heroically to the death against mighty Persian invaders at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.

These disparate reactions seem to call for a deeper analysis of how a piece of popular culture has become a topic of controversy for the nation of Iran and a rallying cry for U.S. Marines.

Principles

Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification is a useful framework for understanding how people come to connect with others. Burke wrote that human beings are naturally separated. We exist within different bodies and have different interests. These natural divisions are compounded by additional separations, for instance people are part of different nations and religious groups. The purpose of studying identification is to try and understand how human beings forge connections with each other despite these differences.

One specific type of identification Burke discussed was what he termed consubstantiality. This term refers to the establishment of identification based on mutual interests. Burke (1968) writes in reference to consubstantiality that “in acting-together, men [sic] have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial” (p. 21). The byproduct of establishing consubstantial identification is frequently the creation of separation from another group of people. This of course refers to a second concept from Burke, his description of humans as the “inventor of the negative” (1968, p. 9). In short, this framework from Burke—that humans overcome natural separation through consubstantial identification, which bonds individuals with similar interests into a group but simultaneously divides them from those who are different—aids in understanding international political reactions to the film 300.

Analysis

Working from Burke’s principles of identification and negation one can now ask the question, how did the Iranian government and members of the U.S. Marines identify within the film? The answer to this question is more complicated than it appears.

Iranian government officials identified with the Persians of 300. This reading of the film is primarily ethnic. Contemporary Iranians are descended from ancient Persians. In fact, up until 1935 or so Iran was still called Persia. Iranian leaders identified a common ethnic heritage with the Persians of 300.

The U.S. Marines took a different road to identify with the Spartans. Ethnically, very few Americans would be able to trace their family lineages to ancient Greece, and even fewer to Sparta. Instead, the Marines identified based on training and ideology. The Los Angeles Times reported on Marine reactions to viewing the film: “Some Marines nodded in recognition at lines in the movie that were familiar from their training — such as when King Leonidas instructs his son that the more troops sweat in training, the less they will bleed in combat.” In a marked departure from the Iranian government, the Marines established consubstantiality through ideology rather than ethnicity. Identifying with the film ideologically means that the nationalities involved become irrelevant.

The irony of the Marine reading of the film is that ideological identification would seem to run the other way. The Spartans represented a vastly outnumbered force, eager to die for their cause, fighting a purely symbolic battle against a collection of nations with overwhelming strength. Ideologically, the Spartans approximate to Al-Qaeda in Iraq much more than the Marines. After all, it is the terrorists who are outnumbered and waiting in line for martyrdom, and the very nature of terrorism is symbolic. Of course this reading also unfavorably positions the coalition forces as the advancing Persian army via Burke’s negation. The coalition has advanced to a foreign land with unprecedented technological advantages and personnel superiority. Yet, despite the fact that these identifications seem obvious and plausible, they are not the ones adopted either by the U.S. Marines or by the Iranian government, both of whom cast Middle-Easterners as Persians and the U.S. as Spartans.

The different examples of identification in relation to 300 could be indicators of any number of issues. First, it is possible that Iran is simply looking for a fight about anything, anytime, anywhere and that popular culture is interesting territory. If this is true then the United States should be increasingly mindful of the cultural productions from Iran and other nations of interest as they circulate internationally in response to Western cultural productions. The second issue deals with the different types of identification. Iran provides an example of identification based on ethnicity, while the Marine reading focuses on ideology. This event may point towards a tendency for the Iranian government to identify ethnically rather than ideologically. If this is true, the United States needs to capitalize on this tendency by foregoing attempts to engage Iran directly, working instead through sympathetic intermediaries that share an ethnic bond with Iran. Third, at the very least, it is certain that Iran and probably other nations of interest are watching Western cultural productions. Perhaps it is time to approach consubstantial identification strategically, by producing cultural artifacts (movies, video games, books) that emphasize the positive contributions of the Middle East and position the nations therein as allies.

Other nations are watching, trying to identify with the themes and characters of cultural production. The question that needs answering is: For the U.S. and the Middle East, will popular culture be a vehicle of alliance building or another zone of conflict?

Further Reading

  • Burke, K. (1969). A grammar of motives. New York, NY: Prentice Hall.