Plutarch preserves the ancient proverb, “who will praise a father, except unhappy sons?” so that we may quieten those who hide behind their forefather’s glory. Which proverb, though, may be used to silence Hollywood? Modern movies draw content from the rich waters of human history, but Hollywood goes further than those unhappy sons of Plutarch. Rather than simply disguise a mediocre production with a glorious tale, Hollywood actively distorts the historical narrative and grossly misrepresents our common ancestors. It is fitting that such a practice be opposed by a nation that takes the time to solemnly commemorate and remember those who came before us.
The most prominent example of this in 2014 is the movie 300: Rise of an Empire. Based on an unreleased comic book, the movie is set in Ancient Greece during the Greco-Persian Wars. Yet, this is not the Ancient Greece related to us in the Classics or revealed in archeological studies. The legends are stripped of countless characters and events, the political and social views are altered to depict modern, Hollywood values, and the tale is told in a manner that would deeply offend those who actually lived it. For our part, those who cherish history are shocked, and those who apply themselves to other fields of study are left deceived.
History comes under attack within the first five minutes of 300, and there is no respite until the credits roll. Although there is no single, agreed-upon historical narrative for the ancient world, 300 depicts a version of events that is thoroughly opposed to any accepted reality. 300 rewrites our past in three deceptive ways: characters are removed, characters are added, and the characters themselves are utterly rewritten. As an example of this treachery, one may focus on the very beginning of the movie, the Battle of Marathon.
First, Hollywood removes the chief actors from this famous battle. Numerous people are erased, including the person responsible for the Athenian battle plan, Miltiades, and the Athenian leader, Kallimachos. The Persian generals are similarly erased from history, Datis and Artaphernes, as is the exiled Athenian tyrant who accompanied them. Gone are the Plataeans, too, who fought and died at Marathon. The very same thing happened in the original 300, where the Spartans were falsely depicted as the only people to remain at Thermopylae and make the ultimate sacrifice.
So, then, who is actually present at Marathon? In place of the Persian generals is none other than King Darius himself, a man who should be countless miles away! If that weren’t bad enough, he is accompanied by the heir to the throne, Xerxes. The two of them watch from a boat; apparently the Persians are attacked immediately upon arriving in Hellas, rather than days later. Why are they there, you ask? Because Darius is apparently annoyed at the “notion” of freedom; never mind the events of the years leading up to Marathon.
Themistocles, at least, was likely present for the battle. However, his presence demonstrates the third point. The Themistocles in 300 is no longer an Odysseus-like character who uses guile and deception, but rather a Schwarzenegger-inspired superhero. His personality is altered beyond recognition, and indeed his physical feats become absurd. Charging out of formation, Themistocles is flanked by people wielding double-headed axes, and he proceeds to carve his way through disorganized Persians until he finally catches sight of King Darius.
Hollywood then performs its ultimate act of sacrilege against the Battle of Marathon, and indeed against the whole historical narrative in general. King Darius is slain by an arrow impossibly shot by Themistocles, thereby inspiring Xerxes to grow ten feet tall and pluck all his hair out. In a few minutes of film, Hollywood distorts the history that led to the Persian invasion of Hellas, blotting out the memory of countless men and women. This is an utter betrayal of Herodotus, who explained the purpose of authoring his Histories as follows,
“So that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other.”
Ultimately, Hollywood’s stunning display of the past is nothing more than a fabrication; the audience leaves deceived and betrayed. Deceived, because they walk away with a misconception of human events and behaviour. Betrayed, because their forefathers have been robbed of honour and dignity. To a people who observe with solemnity the sacrifices of their forefathers, offering pledges of allegiance and national holidays, Hollywood should be considered a deeply offensive institution.
Plutarch held that it is dangerous to make an enemy of a city that has popular playwrights. Certainly, the Iranians appreciate this thought, as they quickly lodged multiple protests against 300 for its portrayal of their Persian ancestors. How much more harmful, though, must it be to live in a city alongside those playwrights. One need only google Xerxes and see the results; instead of finding an ancient depiction of Xerxes, the search engine now displays multiple pictures from this deceptive movie. Hollywood’s ridiculous depictions of the past have poisoned the intellectual well, so to speak.
In our political life, the misdeeds of the entertainment industry should colour our discussions of education, censorship, and media in general. For many viewers, watching 300 is the only occasion in 2014 that they will spend substantial time thinking about the Greco-Persian Wars. While many Americans oppose the idea of outright censorship, it should be kept in mind that we are talking about protecting our history, rather than stopping movie-makers from creating new, fictional worlds. Still, there are less severe options; economic incentives can be offered for historical accuracy, and the creation of offensive movies can be rendered unprofitable. Through the creation of oversight regulations, new jobs may be created for people with history degrees as consultants to the film industry. The current rating systems in place today could be overhauled; Americans warn parents that a movie contains sex, violence, or foul language, but how much more important is it to know that the movie disgraces our ancestors.
Ultimately, if we don’t act to protect the people who came before us and ensure the proper education of our youth, then what of our own history? King Xerxes knew the value of the human experience and its memory; it is said that when he looked down upon the countless soldiers assembled at the border of Asia and Europe, he deemed himself blessed, and then he wept. When asked why he wept, he said,
“I was moved to compassion when I considered the shortness of all human life, since of all this multitude of men not one will be alive a hundred years from now.”
Hollywood is not Herodotus or Thucydides, and none of us will be alive a hundred years from now. Our progeny shouldn’t learn our names and stories from a dissolute entertainment industry.
What would you see done about this situation?