Our nation’s potential rapprochement with Iran brings to mind an insight embedded in the 2007 film “300,” an unsubtle, comic-book fantasy about the historic clash between East and West.
A vast army of Persians attacks Greece at Thermopylae in 480 BC. Only King Leonidas and 300 Spartans stand in its way. The Spartans are massacred, but they buy enough time for Greece to regroup and defeat the Persians a year later at the Battle of Plataea.
“300” is a competent extension of the tradition of famous-last-stand movies like “The Alamo,” “Beau Geste,” and “Zulu.” Movies like these depend on oversimplification, and their stories are told from one side only-ours. In “300,” the Spartans are depicted as handsome noblemen with spectacular abs. Their nonchalant bravado befits their devotion to freedom, justice, and their preference for death over submission to the Persians.
The Persians, on the other hand, are slaves, driven into battle by the hideous Xerxes, an unnatural, androgynous freak. The few Persians with speaking parts are patently slimy and treacherous, and no normal Westerner would be remotely tempted by Xerxes’ creepy traveling harem. The Persian army is reduced to hordes of one-dimensional cyphers bent on pillage.
Real life is more complicated. The ancient Spartans worshipped a variety of primitive gods, consulted and obeyed the oracles, held slaves, and practiced infanticide. At the time of Xerxes, on the other hand, the Persians had developed a reasonably advanced society that included the civilized, monotheistic principles of Zoroastrianism.
Of course, “300” is just a movie, but it implies a context that bears on the possibilities for the success of an agreement with Iran that would prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Before 1935, Iran was still called Persia, and modern Iranians look back with considerable pride to the heyday of the vast Persian Empire under kings like Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes. Further, many Iranians know their modern history, a mystery to most Americans. It includes the revolution of 1905, which diminished monarchical power, established a parliament, and began a democratic tradition that echoes today, despite Iran’s current government.
Iranians haven’t forgotten the British-sponsored coup of 1921 that re-established a dictatorial shah, Reza Khan, who suppressed democracy and fathered Mohammad Reza, a weak leader with the personality of a playboy.
Nor have they forgotten the coup of 1953, sponsored and financed by the C.I.A., which terminated the democratic and nationalistic leadership of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and re-established the shah’s dictatorial reign, which he maintained with secret police and terror until his overthrow by the Islamic revolution of 1979.
In the current negotiation, the challenge for Iranians is to temper their pride in their 2,000-year history and to discount their grievances against the West of the past century long enough to reach a place that will allow them to back down from their assertion of their “right” to nuclear enrichment.
The challenge for us is to look at Persia (Iran) from the other side of Thermopylae. The regime of the last 30 years hasn’t made this easy, especially as it’s expressed itself in the anti-Semitic blusterings of former President Ahmadinejad.
But members of Congress who are resistant to the modest easing of sanctions or who advocate enhanced sanctions are oversimplifying modern Iran almost as badly as the movie “300” oversimplifies the Persians. Despite the repressive government that’s been empowered at least partly by Iran’s contact with the West, journalists and scholars like Vali Nasr, Sandra Mackey, and Elaine Sciolino have portrayed a young Iranian population with pro-Western, modernist, secular inclinations.
Our movies both reflect and mold what we think about the world. As negotiations proceed, let’s be cautious, but let’s resist the “us” versus the “other” stereotypes that are essential to movies like “300.” Both sides have a lot to gain.
Unfortunately, our understanding of modern Iran is about as accurate as, in the film “300,” the anachronistic smallpox vaccination scar on the left arm of the Queen of Sparta.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email him at email@example.com.