The Many, Many Sins Against History in “300: Rise of an Empire”

300: Rise of the Empire: Clio, the muse of history, stifles her outrage.  WARNING: the following is FULL OF SPOILERS! 

Be sure to read: The 300 sequel is Zack Snyder’s greatest  intellectual masterpiece by Analee Nevitz at Io9 for undiluted snarky joy!!

Themistocles: an oily, muscled version. There’s a lot of that in this flick.

For the record, I’m not one of those guys.  You know the type.  If the uniform facing colors are wrong in a historical movie, than of course the whole experienced is ruined? You know the guy, right?

Honest, I’m not that guy.

I realize a movie’s primary function is to entertain.  Seven years ago I did NOT walk into a darkened theater to watch this film’s predecessor (300) and expect that I was going to watch the cinematic equivalent of reading Herodotus.  That movie did not disappoint– it was a rip-snorter, full of odd, tortured imagery, a world where 300 thong-wearing, oily Spartans with chiseled pectoral muscles could hold off a Persian Army reputed to be one million strong (poppycock.. but more on that later).  300’s unique visual look to the story was due in great part to its source material, namely 300, the graphic novel by Frank Miller.   300, in part, draws from Herodotus’ The Histories as well as an earlier motion picture entitled The 300 Spartans.   A movie about a comic book and another movie, then.  300’s unique visuals– with its attendant monsters, freaks of nature, and armored war-rhinos, were explained (by Miller) as a visualization of “the Persian Behemoth” as the Greeks saw it at the time.  If you activate Miller’s filter in your brain, you can enjoy 300 for what it is, which is a movie made from a graphic novel, NOT history.  For me, 300 is a movie that is kinda hard not to like– Gerard Butler’s magnificent scenery chewing lit up the movie and makes it a guilty pleasure to this day.

So what about 300: Rise of an Empire, then?

I’ll admit it up front, since it will sound embarrassing later.   I really wanted to see 300: Rise of an Empire for a few reasons.  Paradoxically, since I know better, most of those reasons were historical in nature.  300RoaE, you see, “historically” depicts events in a space and time that is sometimes concurrent with 300, roughly speaking, and then it explains what happens directly after the earlier movie.   The subject at hand is the great naval battle of Salamis, and I presume its prequel, Artemisium.  Only Salamis is named.  While Thermopylae, the famous standoff depicted in the film 300, was occurring, the naval Battle of Artemisium was also occurring.  Historically, the Greeks lost half as many ships and men as the Persians, but that hardly mattered, so it was a “stalemate” battle.    An indeterminate amount of time later, though probably no more than a few days to a week, the naval Battle of Salamis occurred.   Both of these battles are depicted in 300RoaE.   And that’s why I bought a ticket, really.  There just aren’t that many movies featuring galley combat from the Ancient period out there, bad or good, so when they announced what this movie would be about, I was very interested.  This is a favorite time period of mine.   Imagine doing Salamis with modern CGI technology!

Uh huh. Hrm.. I really need to stop listening to myself.

It didn’t quite work out to my satisfaction, so I might as well start the histrionics and “be that guy” for a while.  Here goes:

1) Really, Gorgo? Really?   The movie starts with the redoubtable Lena Headey (Queen Gorgo of Sparta, Circe of Lannister, and grown up Sarah Connor) performing the standard expository trick as has become standard for Snyder (and now, Noam Murro).   She is standing .. somewhere.. narrating the events that have got us to this point.  Time jumps around a little, we see some 300 flashbacks, but it’s important to note that David Wenham is next to her, wearing an eyepatch, so Thermopylae has already happened.  She describes events at the great Battle of Marathon, a decade before, where the Athenian General Themistocles, seeing the Persians disembarking from their ships, pressed the attack in the center that they were not prepared for, causing them carnage, retreat, and failure.  In the process, Themistocles (in flashbacks) spots the Persian King Darius I  in a ship offshore, picks up a bow and fires an arrow at him.  The young prince present, Xerxes (with a head of hair) delivers the standard dramatic “Noooooooooooo” as it hits Darius clean amidships.  All very fine dramatic material, except it didn’t happen.  Darius I (and needless to say, a younger Xerxes) wasn’t even at the Battle of Marathon.  He delegated the seemingly minor task of wiping out those truculent Greeks to his Admiral, Datis.  No bowshot, no dramatic death, no pain-wracked tearful farewells.   Datis was allegedly one of the 6,200 Persian casualties from that battle, but even that is disputed by Herodotus, who claimed he lived afterward.   As I’ve stated, Gorgo recounts that Themistocles is the brilliant general that pushed the assault forward onto the Persians at Marathon, but that interpretation probably would have come as a surprise to Miltiades, who was actually in command at Marathon, though there are some accounts that also place Themistocles there, but not in overall command.

Did I mention that Greek Soldiers (Spartan or Athenian) looked more like THIS than bare chested, with chiseled abs and a color coded cloak (red for Spartans, blue for Athenians?)? It’s true!

2) Womanly Wiles… The movie now introduces the character of Artemisia.  For me, the Artemisia character as depicted by Eva Green, will forever make this movie a guilty pleasure– she’s a far better villain than Xerxes, and really, this movie needs some over the top action to make up for no Gerard Butler.  In the movie, Artemisia is depicted as a Greek villager whose parents were killed by Greeks, then she was kidnapped as a girl, sexually brutalized (offscreen, in flashbacks) and then discovered by none other than Peter Mensah, the nameless Persian Ambassador that got kicked down a well in 300!  Naturally he takes a shine to her, rehabilitates her, turns her into the Persian killing machine!  She becomes Darius’ right hand gal (in flashbacks), trusted general, and head-lopper. Well, that’s all well and good (if a bit trite by action movie standards), but it commits some major historical blunders.  The historical Artemisia would have been offended at this depiction– she was the daughter of the King of Halicarnassus and actual ruler of Caria (near modern Anatolia).  She took the throne after the death of her husband.  She certainly was of Greek heritage (as were a lot of people living in the Persian Empire and serving in the Imperial armies– nationalism wasn’t such a driving force then).  So.. no peasant girl, no grudge against the Greeks, per se.  The actual Artemisia was present at both Artemisium and Salamis (both depicted in the movie) but she commanded a squadron of five ships.  Artemisia was a subordinate to Xerxes, and performed her duty as she saw it, and did very well indeed– but she was not an uber-Admiral/General of the invasion force.  If anybody was, it was Ariamenes (the older brother of Xerxes) who was nominally in charge of the naval contingent and who died at Salamis, pin cushioned by Greek spears.  Artemisia comes off as a realist from what history records of her.  When Mardonius (the Persian land commander) was sent to her from Xerxes to get her opinion of committing the Persian fleet to a decisive battle against the Greeks, she responded by advising against it– as the Greeks were clearly the masters of the ocean, and the Persian naval allies (particularly the Egyptians and Cyprians) were worse than useless.  History records Xerxes’ decision, and that she did her duty to her overlord– her squadron may have sank as many as 4 galleys at Salamis.  Other than at the day of the battle, Artemisia isn’t mentioned very much in history.  She certainly was NOT the “kingmaker” she is depicted in flashbacks.  There certainly was a woman who advanced Xerxes’ as successor after Darius I died (of natural causes, not an arrow) in 486.  That was Atosa,  his mother and Darius’ widow.  A formidable woman, who, like Ariamenes, isn’t given any screen time.

Where everything was, and when it happened.

Eva Green’s depiction of Artemisia as a sadistic, power mad, head-lopping devoted follower of Xerxes (who secretly has the hots for Themistocles), while entertaining in a campy sense, is about as different from the real Artemisia as she could manage.  Eva Green can act large on screen and I appreciated her performance as “giggle-inducing”, but that’s about as far as it goes.  The real Artemisia wasn’t in charge of the naval forces (just one squadron of it), had no burning hatred of Greeks, didn’t casually lop off heads for no reason, didn’t have sex with the enemy commander (we’ll get to that), didn’t engage in epic sword duels on the ships’ deck, and had no forces of the Imperial Guard under her command– just a lot of backwater yokels who actually did very well indeed for the Persian side.

3. Our whey-faced non-hero.  And now, for Themistocles himself, the architect of Greek naval victory.  As played by Sullivan Stapleton in the film, Themistocles isn’t so much inaccurate as he is a bit of a dud.  Here is where the manic scenery chewing of Gerard Butler is missed the most.  Stapleton portrays Themistocles as a martial hero (with an inferiority complex about Spartans, apparently) and cunning strategist. The real Themistocles was both of those things, to be sure, but his character was far more complex than the blank-faced automaton given to us by Stapleton.  Themistocles was a politician by trade, a consensus builder and powerful persuader of groups.  If any one person is responsible for the Greek naval victory at Salamis, it’s Themistocles.  He not only persuaded the Athenians to build a very large fleet (by Greek standards) but he also roped in most (but not all) of the naval forces available to the Greeks to join together in an allied fleet to confront the Persians.  INCLUDING THE SPARTANS, who sent a token force of 5 ships, then demanded to be in charge!  Themistocles allowed a nominal Spartan commander (Eurybiades), understanding that even with such a weak commitment from their side, he could claim that the Spartans were with him and get even more reluctant allies to join in.  The movie shows Themistocles in the Agora one time, trying to convince the delegates from other city-states to join the defense forces, and twice trying to appeal to Gorgo for assistance (unsuccessfully each time).  Of some interest are her motivations– she doesn’t want to see a “United Greece” as a future rival for Spartan dominance.  Oddly enough, that’s exactly what happened in real history, but that was after the second Persian invasion was repelled.  My biggest problems with the filmic Themistocles were that he wasn’t nearly charming enough and just seems to going through the motions when trying to exert leadership.  His inspirational speeches were flat and unemotional and hardly inspiring.   His so called tactical genius, alluded to many times by Artemisia, was difficult to follow the way it the two great naval battles were depicted in the movie.  (shot in that by-n0w-irritating grainy film with a rainstorm to hide the CGI lines, a trick we all know from the Matrix era, thank you very much) We know a trick is being played at one point in the Battle of Artemisia, but it’s not clear what’s going on.   Sadly the Persian galleys didn’t look hugely different from the Greek ones (except bigger with more ornate prows), which led to the visual confusion.  I guess the worst part about Themistocles is that he doesn’t convince us that he is anywhere near as clever and tactically superior as his historical counterpart, although the facts of the battles aren’t grievously divergent, if you can shrug off things like Armored Tankers spewing oil and Suicide Swimmers.

What was the point of the most un-erotic sex scene ever between Themistocles and Artemisia the night before the conclusive battle?  Just to show off Eva Green’s considerable natural charms?  You’ll be shocked to discover that nothing like that ever happened, though what actually  did happen would have made a better story– the Persians made an offer to switch sides to Themistocles the night before the battle which (apparently) Themistocles convinced them that he was considering.  People switched sides a lot back then, it wasn’t such a bad tactic when you’re outnumbered 5 to 1.  The next day, the Persians were convinced there wouldn’t BE  a battle and weren’t in formation at the onset– yet the Greek fleet was already singing the mighty Paean to the gods and rowing out to meet them at top speed and in formation.  Wouldn’t THAT have made a better visual?  Come on, Hollywood!

I could go on and on about the little things I found were howlers in 300: Rise of an Empire.  I don’t think that’s much of an exercise and the movie is just too easy of a target, bloated and rotting like an apple that’s been hanging for too long on a dead branch.  I will address the worst bit– the ending.  Salamis ensues.  By this point, I was drumming my fingers.  Ships crash together.  The Persians have discovered metal SHIP ARMOR and Greek Fire.. before the Greeks did!   Wait, what?  Really?  Was the giant flame ship the naval equivalent of a the armored rhino?   Of course we have to have a stunning denouement, at which point Themistocles RIDES A HORSE from his boat to the Persian flagship (they’re all smashed together you see, and they make a wooden path right to the enemy flagship…) where of course he fights Artemisia in deadly hand to hand combat.   And wins.  Even with that small victory things look bleak for the Greeks  as they have taken so many losses.. but of course.  the curtain rises and here we find Gorgo and the Spartan fleet, rowing in to save the day.  Remember how she started the movie by providing all the background narrative?  Well, she was doing it on the deck of the Spartan flagship all along, as they were speeding in to battle to save the Allied fleet form destruction!  Of course.  Because we can’t have a movie in the 300 franchise without having SPARTANS in it, can we?  All of it is poppycock– the Spartans couldn’t come to the rescue .. they were already there (five ships worth).  They certainly wouldn’t have been led into battle by Gorgo the Warrior Queen– whose historical accomplishments were considerable, but she never led troops in any battle.

I could go on and on, but really this is a pointless exercise.   The original 300 got a lot of things wrong but I was willing to forgive most of them for reasons stated– it was a movie based upon a comic book that was about Thermopylae.  THIS movie is a movie based upon ANOTHER movie based upon a comic book which was based upon another movie.  In the original 300, I still had the impression that someone (Frank Miller, really) read an actual history book at some point in his life.  In RISE OF AN EMPIRE, not so much.   I only marginally enjoyed the movie for the non-fantastical galley fight sequences, even when they were hard to follow.  My main problem with Snyder as a visual stylist is that he insists on filming action sequences in a gray grainy haze, or pouring rain.  In reality, NO SHIP FROM EITHER SIDE would have taken to sea in those sea conditions!  They would have been swamped!

IN CONCLUSION, At best, 2 stars out of 5.  If you’re a fan of this historical period, you’ll be chewing on your beard at the mistakes, omissions and hollywood dreck that’s jammed into this film.  If you’re a fan of light hearted action pablum, you might rate it higher.

Some points to ponder, if you decide to go:

Keep in mind that the “Empire” in the title.. what does it mean?  Not the Persian empire.  It’s a reference to the (eventual) ATHENIAN empire, which was an outgrowth of the Athens-led Delian League, set up to defend greater Greece against the Persian threat.

The Persians didn’t have another cataclysmic encounter with the Greeks again.  They remained enemies, but their strategies changed after Salamis and Plataea.  The Persians recognized that they could foster the rivalry between Sparta and Athens by supporting political divisions within the alliance, and thus achieve greater security without risking their army in a third great defeat.

VERY briefly we see the greatest achievement of the whole Second Invasion happening over Xerxes shoulder in one scene– namely, bridging the Hellespont and moving his gigantic army over it to attack the Greek mainland.  By the standards of the day, this was one hell of a trick– with logistics as primitive as they were back then.  The movie could have done so much more with this!

Did you know that this was Xerxes last visit to the homeland of those troublemaking Greeks?  You see Xerxes (as portrayed by Rodrigo Santoro) trudging away “Godlike” after his fleets were defeated at Salamis.  The real Xerxes didn’t style himself as a god, by the way.  He went home to a rebellion in Egypt, then a palace coup which killed him and placed his son Ataxerxes on the throne.

Did you know that that Greek nationalist, hero and military genius Themistocles ended up disgraced, persecuted and finally on the run from his erstwhile friends and allies in Greece?  Exiling leaders who had done particularly well was part of Greek political life– early democratic systems had a distaste for leaders who were *too* popular.  Themistocles’ Spartan enemies pursued his exile to the point of mania and he ended up having to flee for his life to none other than the Persians who made him a governor of a province, where lived out the rest of his days.

The real story, the real history– was so much better than the hackneyed, action hero glop served up by 300: Rise of an Empire, it makes my brain hurt.