On a wall in the ruins of Persepolis, Iran, there is a relief sculpture of Xerxes the Great, king of the Persian Empire from 485 to 465 BC. Sitting straight-backed on a throne with his bare feet resting on a dainty stool (the better not to touch the humdrum earth), he wears long, pleated robes and holds a lotus flower, symbol of his eternal dominance, in his left hand. Beneath his crown froths a fulsome head of hair, and from his chin juts a great crocheted beard, as long and as thick as his upper arm. Half-god, half-barroom bruiser, this Xerxes seems more than capable of keeping most of the known world under his thumb.
Fast-forward to 2007 and the release of Zach Snyder’s 300. Based on a 1998 Frank Miller comic book of the same name, the film recounts the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, in which three hundred Spartan warriors held off a vast Persian invasion force (Herodotus reports an improbable and improbably specific 5,283,220 men) for three days in a famous last stand that gave the united Greek city-states time to assemble a fleet that would banish Xerxes’s troops from Greece forever. Snyder, however, evokes Thermopylae as a metaphor for present-day tensions between the West and Islam, and more particularly between America and Iran — something not lost on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose blustery spokesman, Gholamhossein Elham, described the film as an act of “cultural and psychological warfare.” And yet, while there is much that is politically suspect about 300, this CGI-heavy, nu-metal-sound-tracked adolescent power fantasy fails in its mission to equate the Spartan king Leonidas’s band of outnumbered brothers with George W. Bush’s military-industrial machine.
In his essay “The True Hollywood Left,” Slavoj Žižek asks whether the Spartans “with their discipline and spirit of sacrifice [are] not much closer to something like the Taliban defending Afghanistan against the US occupation (or, as a matter of fact, the elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard ready to sacrifice itself in the case of an American invasion?).” Well, perhaps. But what’s most interesting about 300 is not that the supposed heroes, with their ripped abs, rubber briefs, and taste for infanticide, are so unappealing; rather, it’s that the villain is so unintentionally attractive. Elsewhere in his essay, Žižek describes Snyder’s depiction of the Persian court as “a kind of multicultural different-lifestyles paradise [where] everyone participates in orgies[:] different races, lesbians and gays, cripples etc.” At its center stands Xerxes the Great. But this Xerxes is not the Achaemenid alpha male of the Persepolis reliefs. Rather, as portrayed by the beautiful Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, 300’s Xerxes is Middle America’s every subterranean fear and desire brought to burnished, glittering life. His unstable ethnicity flickers between southern European, sub-Saharan African, Arab, and Persian. He’s a poster boy for miscegenation, containing within himself a genetic trace of every subject race in his continent-spanning empire. Standing some eight feet tall, he is possessed of a Brad Pitt-in-Fight Club (1999) musculature and a rumbling voice to rival Barry White’s. Yet despite these signifiers of heterosexual hypermasculinity, he has a certain joyfully swishy quality, taking languorous sniffs of Leonidas’s scalp when they meet to parley, wearing clear lip gloss, and dressing like the sartorial stepchild of Liberace and Dhalsim from Street Fighter II (1991). (In a recent South Park spoof of 300, Xerxes is depicted as an Iranian club owner who attempts to buy up an American lesbian bar named “Les Bos” and refurbish it with “blue carpets and gold curtain rods,” only to fall in love with one of the protesting customers and reveal himself to be a drag king. Try applying your postcolonial queer theory to that.)
The only facial hair Snyder’s Xerxes seems to possess is his exquisitely plucked eyebrows. Chains snake across his bald pate, and his smooth cheeks and chin are pierced with rings that glisten and shiver with every grimace or sigh. If these historically anomalous accessories are intended to suggest that the king is an S&M enthusiast, they also, in their asymmetric, almost haphazard, distribution, hint at another sexual peccadillo — what the American porn industry charmingly terms “getting a facial,” which is to say kneeling down before a masturbating man so that he might ejaculate on one’s face. (Significantly, “facial” scenes are often filmed from the standing perspective, allowing the viewer to fantasize that it is he who is, um, delivering the goods.)
In a movie that seeks to portray the Persian king as effeminate — a move beloved of Western Orientalists since Herodotus’s Polymnia — reading these baubles as blobs of semen seems oddly reasonable and becomes even more so when we consider the role proskynesis, or ritual prostration, plays in this tale. Snyder’s 300 is all about not kneeling before a king — only slaves and traitors do so, here — and the implication is that by wearing these gilded sperm proxies, Xerxes is demonstrating that he bends the knee to a higher power. If Snyder is using this device to contrast masculine, rationalist, straight (ha!) Sparta with feminine, mystic, polymorphously perverse Persia, it’s hard to know whether to find it grossly offensive or merely to laugh. With their Muscle Mary glutes and wipe-clean underwear, Leonidas and company look just about as gay as it gets, and one is tempted to suspect the director of a secret, shaming crush on them, like the homophobic frat boy who nurtures private fantasies of rubbing Deep Heat into the star quarterback’s tectonic shoulder blades. Curiously, the director’s other creation, the fictionalized Xerxes, is far better adjusted and seems to find his own ambiguous relationship with sex and power rather fun. An out bi man with the world at his feet, he wears his kinks on his sleeve, or rather his face.
In the concluding battle scene in 300, Leonidas, the sole remaining Spartan, hurls a spear at Xerxes in a final act of defiance. The historical Xerxes did not die at Thermopylae, of course, so Snyder has the spear glance his cheek, ripping out several of his ringlike facial piercings in a slo-mo spurt of blood. Some critics have interpreted this as the moment when the Persian king becomes aware of his mortality, the freedom-loving Spartan having divested him, albeit briefly, of the metaphoric ties that bind him to the idea that he is a living god. Me, I just think he looks disappointed. This Xerxes knows just what to do with a Spartan’s spear, but it’s not blood he had hoped to be wiping from his chin.