"The 300 Spartans" (1962). Courtesy Twentieth
Ancient Persia's virtual absence in Hollywood
By Darius Kadivar
August 28, 2000
Unlike many ancient civilizations, such as Greece, Rome or Egypt, Persia
has hardly been given significant attention in Hollywood. This is mainly
due to lack of significant feedback and study on Persian civilization which
has never quite penetrated Western popular culture. Only an elite group
of Western scholars ponder on the "mysterious" Persian Empire.
To many, Persia, before changing it's name to Iran in 1926 (for Iranians,
Iran and Persia have always been synonymous, only that Persia refers to
the province of Pars or Fars in southern Iran) was no more than an imaginary
country often confused with the legend of Atlantis. Apart from a few films
such as Robert Rossen's "Alexander the Great" or a Raoul Walsh's
and the King", it is rare to see Persian characters and culture
in Hollywood films.
However a few films do emerge beneath the veil that seems to cover ancient
Persian history. Persia's Hollywood presence goes back to 1916 in D.W Griffith's
film "Intolerance". To situate the context in which Griffith
made the film, one should remember that despite being an undeniable talent
as a cinematographer, Griffith was rightly accused of racism and xenophobia,
for his portrayal of American history in "The Birth of a Nation"
shot a year before.
Being a Southerner and therefore a confederate, Griffith's vision of
American history was colored by racial considerations. Griffith's version
of the American South after the Civil War South is through the emblematic
image of the Klu-Klux-Klan who see Blacks as lazy and stupid. Griffith
pleads for a sacred union between the "Aryans" of the North and
South. Organizations that fought for civil rights such as the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), strongly protested.
The film was pulled from movie theaters in several states.
It was therefore an act of redemption when Griffith decided to make
his masterpiece "Intolerance". Through different ages in history,
starting with the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, through the Barthelemy
Massacre in Middle Age France, up to modern America, Griffith attempts
to portray intolerance as a consistent historical fact. He shows a woman
milking her baby in a rocking chair as a transition between the different
"Intolerance" was shot in sixteen weeks with a budget of $400,000.
Some 5,000 extras were employed in the three-hour epic. The reconstruction
of Babylon is truly magnificent and the famous "push in" of the
camera through the Gates of Babylon (45 meters high) and it's famous falling
Gardens is to remain in film history as an icon of what Hollywood was capable
during the silent era.
However, it is a mystery why Griffith did not stick to historical fact.
Cyrus, the Persian king and founder of the Persian Empire was depicted
as a ruthless barbarian who wishes to destroy Babylon and it's inhabitants.
Yet Cyrus is known by historians as the very ruler to have established
what was to become known as the first declaration of human rights. The
Cyrus Cylinder, now at the British Museum, describes how the Persian king
liberates the inhabitants of Babylon, notably the Jews, from tyranny.
The Persian Empire reached it's peak under Darius, but it is his son
Xerxes I who is best remembered. It was his army that invaded Greece and
was initially resisted only by a minute Spartan force of three hundred
at Thermoplae. "The 300 Spartans" (1962) directed by Rudolph
Mate is a sensible unpretentious movie that does a pretty good job of retelling
the story of Leonidas and his tiny army facing the mighty Persian Empire.
There's an attempt to convey the complex politics of the Greek city-states,
and the Spartan Council is cast as the villains, advocating surrender.
Nevertheless, Leonidas and his men march off to Thermoplae. The Persian
expeditionary force is as lavish as one can desire, including Artemisia
of Halicarnassus, a Persian vassal, portrayed as an exotic oriental lady
with Greek sympathies.
The battle at Thermoplae is kept as simple as wars were back then (walk
up to an enemy and stab him), with one telling shot of the thin red wedge
of Spartans cutting through the black-garbed Persian horde. There is also
a suitable sense of place since the film was made on location in Greece.
The strong-jawed Richard Egan is suitably laconic as Leonidas, and Ralph
Richardson is as wily Themistocles of Athens.
Richard Egan turns up again
in the fifth century B.C. as, of all people, Xerxes/Ahasuerus in "Esther
and the King" (1960). Fair-haired and clean-shaven, he is a peculiar
picture of a Persian monarch, but then the movie is a peculiar picture
of the Persian Empire. On the other hand Joan Collins plays opposite Egan
as Esther. Just as she is about to be married to her soldier-fiancé,
back from the Egyptian wars with Ahasuerus (as Xerxes is referred to in
the Bible), she is carried off to be part of the beauty contest for Persia's
For some obscure reasons she takes the fancy of the chief eunuch, who
aids her in winning the crown. She learns to love Ahasuerus, a monarch
beleaguered by all the intrigues of an Oriental court, and bothered by
the upstart Greeks - "Alexander, I'll cut him off in his youth",
he mutters presciently, since the boy conqueror is yet to be born.
"Alexander The Great" (1956) directed by Robert Rossen, is
an interesting portrayal of Alexander the Conqueror of the Persian Empire.
Historically, it is surprisingly accurate in event and production, and
certain scenes, such as the decisive battle against the Persians, are beautifully
handled. The scenes were shot with the help of the Spanish army, 45,000
extras (10,000 more men than the actual army of Alexander). As for Richard
Burton, well, he is Alexander; his splendid voice and polished acting is
enough to convince us.
There is no mention of Persians in Stanley Kubricks Spartacus (1960)
yet it is interesting to note for those who felt sorry for Spartacus' (Kirk
Douglas) fate that his life was avenged by no more than the Parthians,
the Persian dynasty contemporary of the Roman Empire. Indeed the Roman
senator and General Crassus played by the magnificent Laurence Olivier
was historically killed during a battle against the Parthians shortly after
having crushed and gladiators rebellion, and crucified them along the Appian
Indeed the only Empire to have resisted the Roman conquests was that
of Parthians or Persians, if you will. A short but memorable reference
is made in Samuel Bronston's megalomaniac production "The fall of
the Roman Empire" (1964) with freshly wigged Stephen Boyed (best known
for his magnificent portrayal of Messala in William Wyler's "Ben Hur"
(1959)) and the lovely Sophia Loren as Marcus Aurelius, the dying Emperor's
daughter and Commodus' (portrayed by Christopher Plummer) incestuous sister.
No serious allusion is made to this ambiguous relationship, especially
in the Hollywood of the early 60's, unlike Ridley Scott's latest film "The
Gladiator" in which this relationship is verbally suggested. The reason
I mention "The Gladiator", which is a good attempt to revive
epic films, is also to remind the costume designers for their lack of historic
documentation. Indeed the Emperor Commodus bares two medallions on each
shoulder to carry his cloak, which represent a winged griffin. Far from
being a Roman symbol this griffin is an Aechamedian (first Persian Dynasty)
But back to "The Fall of the Roman Empire", for the battle
of the four armies between the Persians and the Romans, 8,000 soldiers
and 2,000 horseman of the Spanish army were mobilized. No other film to
my knowledge refers to the Persian Empire. There are rumors that an adaptation
of Steven Pressfield's best selling novel "The Gates of Fire"
will be directed by Michael Mann, which will be a remake of the battle
The summit in recreating the splendors of Persian armies -- which would
have made Cecile B de Mille blush -- was most probably achieved by the
late Shah during the celebrations marking the 2,500th anniversary of the
Persian monarchy back in October 1971. Recreations of the Persian armies
from the time of Cyrus the Great to the Pahlavi Dynasty marched in front
of the ruins of Persepolis. During the ceremony, a documentary was made
with Orson Welles as the narrator.