Breath & Shadow
Fall 2015 - Vol. 12, Issue 4
"The Troubling Depiction of Disability in 300"
Few recent movies are as troubling in their depiction of disability as the 2007 film 300. This movie is bizarre, and sometimes contradictory, in several ways.
Directed by Zack Snyder, 300 is adapted from a graphic series by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Like the Miller-Varley graphics, the film is a highly fictionalized and fanciful retelling of an actual historic event, the Battle of Thermopylae, at which a military alliance of Greek city-states attempted to repel an invasion led by Persia’s King Xerxes.
The film starts with a voiceover telling the backstory of King Leonidas ,the monarch who will lead Sparta. The narrator says, “When the boy was born, like all Spartans, he was inspected. Had he been puny or misshapen, he would have been discarded.” This announcement is followed by the sight of a little hill of infant skulls – presumably those of “puny or misshapen” Spartan babies who were killed according to the society’s tradition of dealing death to its disabled.
We see little Leonidas learning sword fighting and leaving his mother when he is seven to be schooled in the ways of the warrior. The narrator relates, “He was forced to fight, steal, and kill. He was punished by the rod and the lash.” We see images of the boy getting brutally whipped. We see him fighting ferocious animals.
And we see him as an adult: King Leonidas (Gerard Butler). A messenger from Persia’s King Xerxes visits Sparta’s monarch. He informs King Leonidas that Xerxes expects him to give an offering of “earth and water” indicative of his submission to the Persian King. King Leonidas shouts, “This is Sparta!” Then he brutally murders the Persian messenger by kicking him into a huge well. Persian agents who accompanied the messenger are similarly murdered. Thus, we expect Persia to launch an invasion of Sparta.
Many commentators are discomfited by seemingly obvious parallels between the ancient conflict as depicted in this movie and contemporary conflicts between the United States and Iran or the United States and Middle Eastern terrorists of various stripes. It is hard to be oblivious to such parallels when Sparta’s Queen Gordo (Lena Headey) actually says such contemporary clichés as “freedom is not free.”
A true oddity about the film is its confused attitude toward homosexuality. At one point, it is said that Spartans must resist Xerxes since the Athenians already have – the Athenians who are described as “philosophers and boy-lovers.” The latter contemptuous characterization could not possibly be more historically ironic since Sparta expected adult men and adolescent boys to form sexual relationships. The film manages to be at once homophobic and homoerotic. Along with the forgoing quote, there is the strange depiction of King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Multiply pierced, heavily made-up, and bountifully bejeweled, the villainous enemy of our Greek heroes is portrayed as wildly effeminate and probably homosexual. At the same time, the camera lingers lovingly over the chiseled biceps and pecs as well as the washboard abs – all cleanly denuded of body hair – of the Spartan military.
Early in the film, we learn that Sparta’s King is expected to request the blessings of the “Ephors” before taking Sparta to war. King Leonidas makes a trek to the Ephors – whom we see are all handicapped and grotesquely deformed. Although the reasons for their defects are never specified, it is likely we are meant to believe that these physically repulsive men have leprosy. The Ephors employ “Oracles,” who are lovely Spartan women – who are required to sexually service the Ephors. The depiction of the Ephors strongly links disability to that which is corrupt and repellant.
That unfortunate link is made far more strongly through the pivotal character of Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan). It should be noted that there was a historical Ephialtes. Like the character in 300, he was a Greek who betrayed the secret of a hidden path to the Persians.
However, the historical figure was not a Spartan but a Malian. More significantly, the historical Ephialtes was able-bodied, while the Ephialtes of is severely handicapped. He is depicted as having an extreme spinal curvature as well as other deformities.
In 300, the disabled Ephialtes approaches King Leonidas. At the approach of the hunchbacked man, an assistant to Leonidas cries, “Monster!”
Apparently nicer than his assistant, Leonidas allows the handicapped man to talk. The very start of 300, in which a voiceover narration reveals that Leonidas would have been killed as an infant had he been “puny or misshapen,” is recalled as Ephialtes tells his life story to Sparta’s King. Ephialtes’s parents fled Sparta when their son was born with a spinal deformation so their baby would not be killed. The handicapped man relates that his father taught him to use weapons. Ephialtes demonstrates a fine sword thrust.
However, Leonidas points out that the spinal deformation prevents Ephialtes from raising his shield in the manner required of Spartan soldiers. Leonidas suggests that Ephialtes could “clear the battlefield of the dead” and “tend the wounded” but says he cannot fight. Ephraim Lytle commented in The Toronto Star, “This is a transparent defense of Spartan eugenics, and laughably convenient given that infanticide could as easily have been precipitated by an ill-omened birthmark.”
Leonidas departs from the frustrated and disappointed Ephialtes.
Battle scenes in 300 suggest a connection between villainy and handicaps. Only the Persians employ soldiers who do not look like they should be advertising exercise machines. The Persians bring a giant with pointed teeth into battle; Leonidas beheads him. A battlefield beheading is also performed by a soldier for the Persians – a deformed man whose arms are shaped like saws. As Lytle aptly notes, “300’s Persians are a-historical monsters and freaks.”
The film shows Ephialtes, after being rejected by Leonidas, in what appears to be a harem of King Xerxes. The harem is filled with beautiful women in sensuous garb. One lovely has a face that is partially scarred. Ephialtes looks around in delight as if, for the first time, he will be allowed to partake of sexual pleasure. Talking to Ephialtes, Xerxes says, “The Spartans were cruel to reject you – but I am kind.”
Dazzled by the fleshly rewards Xerxes offers, Ephialtes eagerly betrays Sparta by informing Xerxes of a secret path by which the Persians may attack the Spartans.
At battle, Leonidas spots the disabled Ephialtes wearing a Persian cap. Leonidas tells the hunchback, “You there, Ephialtes, may you live forever.” This does not appear to be well wishing borne of forgiveness, but a peculiar curse relating to the presumed impossibility of Ephialtes dying honorably as was the ultimate glory in martial Sparta.
Throughout 300, disability is reviled. The Ephors are repulsive because they are scarred, apparently with leprosy. The enemy Persians employ handicapped and deformed soldiers. And finally, disability is irrevocably linked with betrayal in the figure of Ephialtes.
It should be noted that Ephialtes inevitably arouses a certain amount of sympathy in the viewer (although he is the only disabled character to do so). He is an outcast, someone who wants to help, who wants to act patriotically, but cannot. This does not excuse the truth that he is, in the film, ultimately a symbol of treason and betrayal.
The historical Ephialtes was not disabled. However, Frank Miller apparently thought it made the story more dramatic to place disabilities on the betrayer. Miller has defended his treatment of Ephialtes, saying, “I have King Leonidas very gently tell Ephialtes, the hunchback, that they can’t use him because of his deformity. It would be much more classically Spartan if Leonidas laughed and kicked him off the cliff.” That may well be true. However, that the graphic series Ephialtes is disabled while the historical Ephialtes was not seems a deliberate jab at disabled people. Writing in the Disability Studies Quarterly, Michael M. Chemers astutely asserts that “the representation of disability in this film is more appallingly retrograde than anything to hit the American cinema in recent memory.”
300 is set in ancient times, but it is a contemporary movie. That a modern day movie should so consistently and strongly associate physical handicaps is highly distasteful and ultimately inexcusable.
300. Internet Movie Database.
Chemers, Michael M. “’With Your Shield, or On It’: Disability Representation in 300.”
Disability Studies Quarterly. Summer 2007.
Daly, Steve. “How ‘300’ went from the page to the screen.”
Entertainment Weekly. Jan. 17, 2015.
Lytle, Ephraim. “Sparta? No. This is madness.” The Toronto Star. Mar. 11, 2007.
Denise Noe suffers from schizotypal personality disorder with obsessive and compulsive features. She is also a chronic pain sufferer due to lower back problems. She has published essays, articles, poems, and short stories about a variety of subjects in a number of venues.