Does Bush Resemble Leonidas or Xerxes?

The leader of the most powerful empire in the world invades a small country to avenge his father's failure to do so years ago. His army is relentlessly attacked by a proud group of insurgents who denounce the empire's decadence.

The leader of a brave fighting force vows to defend freedom at all costs against an enemy from the Middle East. To rally his troops, he makes a speech, declaring, "The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant."

Is one of them President Bush?

That's the question on the minds of some political observers who've seen "300," the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Although the movie tells the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., in which Spartan leader Leonidas and his band of 300 soldiers fought to the death against Persian king Xerxes, many see analogies to the war in Iraq and American policy in the Middle East.

Since before the movie's release, ideological warriors on the left and right and even the president of Iran have been dueling over the movie's significance and its success -- is it just a reflection of a yearning for heroes by Americans dismayed over the grim news coming out of Iraq?

"It's open to different interpretations," said Kerill O'Neill, a classics professor at Colby College. "The rhetoric of the Spartans about defending freedom is comparable to that said by the administration and the treacherous politicians who seem to be selling out to the enemy could be seen as Democrats who are soft on terror. The distinction I would make is that in the current war, Islamic fundamentalists see themselves as defending against Western decadence whereas here the decadence comes from the East and the Spartans are pure and espouse simple family values."

Some conservative commentators see Bush as Leonidas, defending America's freedom from the threat of Islamofascists and Iranian leaders. And some liberals agree, arguing that the Spartan's stubborn refusal to negotiate and his use of extreme measures parallels Bush's defiance of the international community and use of torture to fight the war on terror.

Others see the president in the mold of Xerxes, an all-powerful leader who is determined to avenge his father and wipe out a small band of warriors. One commentator on the liberal blog Alternet wrote on the Persian king's motives: "Because he thought he was a god and therefore was taking what was rightfully his -- everything in the world. Who does that sound like? Think oil."

And the Spartans? They "were more like any handful of 'enemy combatants' whom refuse to give in 'till the death," the commentator wrote. "Suicidal you might say," wrote another commentator.

The movie's portrayal of the Persian forces has helped fuel some of these arguments. Xerxes is portrayed as a towering giant covered in facial piercings and makeup. And the rest of the Persians? They're lesbians, disfigured people, disfigured lesbians, gay men, elephants and rhinos, according to Dana Stevens, whose review in Slate quickly made the rounds of the blogosphere.

Stevens condemned the movie, comparing it with Nazi-era propaganda films and calling it "a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war."

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