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December 9, 2013

Iran at the movies

NORMAN — 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.

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