300: Rise of an Empire

300: Rise of an Empire (2014): Noam Murro

Perhaps the world’s second-most-famous Noam made the second film in the 300 series his second feature directed. He took the reins from Zach Snyder, who moved on to bigger and bigger comic adaptations, and touched on a less famous and arguably harder to film sequel.

The key to understanding the film is its chronology. Rise takes place before, during, and after the events of 300, making it the only film I can think of to run parallel to its predecessor.

Science-fiction author Orson Scott Card penned the famous novel Ender’s Game. He later returned to that world and wrote a series about one of Ender’s compatriots, calling the novel Ender’s ShadowRise of an Empire is 300‘s Shadow.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: If you wanted to know what the seconds in command were doing while Leonidas and Xerxes were fighting at Thermopylae, here’s your chance.

Hero (5/10)

The non-Spartan Greeks have assembled a team of heroes to repel the Persian invading force. Their leader is an Athenian called Themistokles. Sullivan Stapleton plays the blue-eyed visionary, a man blessed with martial skill and the dream of a united Greece.

Convincing Thebes, Corinth, and other city-states to unite with Athens against Persia wasn’t an issue, but Sparta was always the isolated and powerful state the Greeks needed to win the war.

The movie opens with a narration by Leonidas’s Queen Gorgo, as she speaks on the deck of a ship to assembled warriors. She tells them of the long ago Battle of Marathon, which endures in the popular memory as a great Kenyan victory over their Ethiopian rivals.

Turns out the Greeks and the Persians were also there, fighting an extremely bloody duel probably caused by chafing. Themistokles led a coalition force against Darius the Good, king of the Persian Empire and the invading fleet.

The actual Greek general in charge of the battle was Miltiades, but the screenwriters, including ol’ Zach Snyder, went with Themistokles. No biggie; just letting you know. There’s still abs, though. Fear not.

Gorgo tells us (and her assembled hoplites) that Themistokles was daring in his attack, not waiting for the Persians to set up camp and shore defenses.

The fighting at Marathon was brutal, but it led to one not-important event–a horse hoof crushes the face of a prone Persian. But also one important event–Themistokles killed Darius. He grabbed a bow on shore, strung it with an arrow, and loosed it toward Darius, the Persian king watching on his flagship off shore.

The camera tracks the arrow and Darius’s son Xerxes as both speed toward the “good king.” The arrow strikes first, in Darius’s gut. Xerxes is pissed. Gorgo tells us that Themistokles knew, as soon as he shot the arrow, that he should have killed Xerxes, for in killing the boy’s father, Themistokles unleashed a torrent upon the world.

Skip ahead 10 years: Marathon was fought in 490 BCE, Thermopylae and Salamis in 480. Themistokles marshalls Greeks to stop the force he unleashed when he killed the wrong Persian at Marathon.

Themistokles seems to have carried the burden of his mistake for a long time. “Every widow that is made by my decision, every child that will grow without a father, they are my choices. This is the burden of my command.” Stapleton shows the weight of this burden in every scene.

The general proves himself as capable a commander as the lionized Leonidas, while lacking his self-serving glory. Stapleton dialed back the passion where Butler would crank it up.

Themistokles wants to win, but he is more interested in uniting Greece than, as the Spartans love to do, dying for glory. He asks his soldiers to fight for their brothers, for their families, for Greece. Leonidas is always going on about glory this and legends that.

Themistokles proves himself a capable commander. In the first meeting with the Persian fleet, he leads his 50 ships against Persia’s 1,000 by forming a circle, giving the enemy no front to attack. A phalanx on the water. The strategy was effective in that it bored the Persian commander enough to quit the fight.

He later tricks the Persians into following him into a rocky fjord, where the enemy ships break up and the Greek infantry boards them for hand-to-hand combat. Both battles are victories, but the Persian fleet cannot be beaten in small skirmishes.

It was Themistokles’s dealings with women that won him the final victory. After the Greek success in the fjord, Artemisia (Eva Green) invites Themistokles into neutral waters for a peace conference. She offers him a place at her side. She offers him “a deeper ecstasy. The ecstasy of steel and flesh.” They have violent sex, but Themistokles rejects her offer.

Before the final battle, Themistokles visits Queen Gorgo, who grieves the loss of Leonidas and most of the remaining men in Sparta. The general begs the queen for her remaining ships, because he’s literally got only six left to fight the entire Persian navy.

Will she agree? Turns out that her endless (12 minute!) narration to start the movie was occurring on the ships that were sailing to rescue Themistokles at Salamis.

Shrewd negotiator, terrific fighter, inspiring leader: Themistokles extolled these virtues in just the right amount to repel the Persians form Greece.

Stapleton brings a stoicism the finest Zenotic follower would be proud of. He subtracts much of the bravado Butler brought to Leonidas’s role and instill a quiet sense of dedication, not for glory in a separate realm, but in this world, in his time. The effort seems to weigh on Stapleton.

Villain (8/10)

My favorite aspect of this violent tirade of a movie was Eva Green playing Persian general Artemisia. I love Eva Green. She often plays sexual and violent characters, bringing a mantis personality to them, a character trope that Eva Green often finds herself playing.

I admit to being swayed toward the character by the actress, but her story was the most tragic. The movie withholds her backstory for some time, perhaps to raise enmity against the adult Artemisia. Before we learn her past, we’ve seen her murder dozens of people.

We don’t even know she’s Greek until an emissary chides her on her ship, asking the Persians how they can follow a Greek. She admits to being Greek. “But my heart is Persian.” Then she cuts off his head with two dagger stabs, lifts the head, kisses the mouth, and throws the head overboard.

She’s tough, yeah, but how did she get so? Cue backstory. As a child, Artemisia watched Greek soldiers rape and murder her village and family before sending her to the bottom of a slave ship, where she spent the next several years as a sex slave, until a kind Persian rescued and trained her.

That’s as bad as a childhood gets, and her story completely undermines what the Greeks fight for, a fact I’ll touch on later. Still in the flashback, Artemisia brings to Darius’s throne the heads of four of his enemies. The king raises her to general, and treats her as he would a daughter.

Artemisia becomes kingmaker after Darius’s death. She pulls the arrow, shot from Themistokles’s bow, from the ailing king’s chest, easing his passing. She then whispers to Xerxes that his father challenged him to defeat the Greeks, not leave them be. It’s she who wants to return to Greece, to see it burn, and a god-king could help her achieve that.

In battle though, Artemisia stinks. She leaves her underlings to lose the first two battles to Greece. When it’s her turn, she sends her entire navy against the Greek “fleet”, exactly the same mistake Xerxes made against the 300.

Her skills lie in martial combat. At Salamis she leaps, practically flies, into battle, shouting, “I am not here as a witness.” She uses two short swords to hack and stab at Greeks, often using her blades like scissors around their throats.

Let’s talk about Artemisia’s fashion. It’s great. Spikes protrude from the spine of her final battle outfit. Fishnet leggings are a common choice, noticeable when she drapes her leg over a chair arm. Gold and black comprise most of her color palette, in both hard battle corsets and shimmering evening wear.

Is Artemisia a femme fatale? Most likely. She’s given a harrowing character history, so bad that she nearly earns a protagonist role. What’s so great and noble about a society that would permit, even endorse what happened to the young Artemisia?

She tried one time to seduce Themistokles. The had sex, but not for long, and the Athenian refused her offer of alliance. They next meet in their ultimate duel. Themistokles is clearly the better military tactician. Artemisia did not know this until after she tried to seduce him–the Greek victories came against her underlings–but she loses the entire Persian navy (we are led to believe, the film ends before the battle ends) in their only head-to-head fight.

Artemisia and Themistokles are every bit the equals in hand-to-hand combat. They stop their fight with a sword at the other’s throat. Artemisia dies only after she’s figured out that she lost the battle.

Fatales often use sexuality as their primary, if not only, weapon to oppose the seemingly more powerful male. In Rise, Themistokles was the weaker opponent, he used guile to bring down Artemisia’s far more powerful force.

Artemisia was most likely a femme fatale, or tried to be one for a while, but the movie put an interesting twist on the trope.

I’m sure film historians will debate this for centuries.

Action/Effects (6/10)

I’m a great fan of the 300 visual style. Skies are always bleak and murky. Throughout the film, dust and ash float around characters, seemingly in slow motion, even during the few times the action is not in slow motion.

The 2006 original was all effects (except those abs!), and the 2014 all-quel was too, but I wonder if the bar was raised. The action scenes occur on water–seething, frothy water. Having some guys fight on a green set with a few rocks around is difficult enough, but I can hardly imagine trying to computer generate wave motions, white caps, and oar splashes.

For the most part the effects people succeeded. The naval actions can be followed, thanks to a reduced size of the navies employed. A few frames offer a god’s eye view of the battles, especially the last one, where we see the six Greek ships sailing into Persia’s navy.

And what of the battles? Themistokles tells his troops that Persian ships are strong in the front and weak in the center. In the first battle, he orders the circle to break and let a few ships into the center. The Greek ships are faster, able to sandwich the Persian ships, sinking them and breaking the chains of the slaves rowing them. At least they died free.

This first battle is but a taste. Artemisia loses patience after about five minutes and 75 lost ships. She quits the fight. For the next engagement she has a second commander to face the Greek front. But Themistokles has another scheme. When the ships are sighted he orders full retreat into fog.

Hiding in the fog are the shallow fjords I mentioned earlier. We don’t know exactly where the Greek ships go, but the Persian ones break on the rocks, creating a literal log jam. The Greek infantry, awaiting on the cliffs above, leap down. The camera follows Scyllias as he leaps from the edge onto a wrecked Persian ship and breaks neither ankle nor leg.

Another Persian loses his life to Artemisia’s rage. That battle literally cost him an arm and a leg. Then she cleaves his head. The Artemisia-Themistokles sex scene occurs after the second sea battle. After Themistokles returns from scorning Artemisia, he tells his men, “The next time we face her, she’s going to bring all of hell with her.” I guess you can’t get any closer to saying “Hell hath no fury…” than that.

The next night, the Persians attack a third time, this time with an ironclad ship spilling tar onto the water before the fight. The stunning night engagement forces the Artemisia to try to kill Themistokles. She sends her explosive-packed guards swimming to his ship. They board as she rains fire arrows on the tar spills.

The ogre-like men turning the tar spigots also hurl flaming rocks that resemble the hammer throw at the Summer Olympics. A Greek tosses a spear at one, igniting him. The man, aflame, runs off the ship, igniting a spout of tar that blows up the Greek ship but also arcs back to the ironclad, exploding it.

Artemisia shoots a flaming arrow onto the shield of one of her guards on Themistokles’s ship. His boat explodes, and you can read on her face her disappointment. The only man she considered her equal, someone she might love, is dead.

The Persians have seemingly invented flamethrowers, grenades, and ironclads in one battle. How did they lose this war?

Sidekicks (1/8)

What would Greece be without its free men? Themistokles leads the fight, but he is backed not by slaves, but soldiers, men who will die for Greece and their families.

The general’s best buddy is Scyllias, a man sent to spy on the Persian fleet and who escapes from it. He tells Themistokles that Artemisia commands them, and of her nasty history.

Scyllias has a son in the army. Calisto is not yet man enough, in his father’s opinion, to fight alongside Themistokles. Eventually the dad comes around when he sees his skill during the second naval engagement.

Scyllias is shot thrice by Artemisia in the penultimate battle. Before he dies he tells Themistokles, who later tells Calisto, that the boy’s earned his place in battle.

That’s cute. The other Greeks barely registered in the movie. They were mostly on screen to die and be audience to the stirring speeches of Themistokles. If not for my duty to figure out these things, I would not know their names or care.

Henchmen (3/8)

Xerxes might be both the Persian king and a god twice the size of humans, but in Rise he plays second kamancheh to Artemisia. Darius, on his deathbed, tells Xerxes to “leave the noble Greeks to their ways. Only the gods can defeat them.” Artemisia convinces young Xerxes that the statement was a challenge, and that he should try for deification. He agrees.

The process requires Xerxes to be bathed in oils and wander the desert. Jesus tried this to commune with God, and it worked. It worked for Xerxes too, but, we are told by the biased narrator Queen Gorgo, he found a cave and gave in to total evil. It’s like being accepted to Duke.

His wanderings worked, as he is reborn a god. “No part of a human man that was Xerxes survived.” He was a god “glamorous and smooth.” In his night of deified rebirth, Artemisia helps him by killing all his advisors. The next morning, Xerxes addresses the assembled masses below his palace. He bellows while Artemisia whispers behind him, Iago-like, “For glory’s sake. For vengeance’s sake. WAR.” Now that’s a speech.

The god-king fades during the battle scenes, as he’s busy trying to kill Leonidas at Thermopylae. Artemisia enlists several captains to lead her naval war on Themistokles. Most of them fail. The guy leading the first failure against the Greek naval phalanx dies after iron shackles are affixed to his wrists and he is thrown in the sea.

(Side question: would this man die first from drowning or from water pressure?)

The rest of the Persians are so worthless compared to Artemisia that they don’t deserve mention.

Stunts (2/6)

With so much CGI it’s very hard to tell who was stunting. The masked Immortals fighting at Salamis are obviously CGI, their moves too fast to be natural. I don’t even know if the horses were real. The abs sure looked great, which is a feat on its own. I will give the movie the benefit of the doubt.

Climax (3/6)

The action pauses a bit after the ironclad explosion. Artemisia clearly sulks, believing her wannabe lover dead. She spats with Xerxes, fresh from his Pyrrhic victory at Thermopylae, knowing how foolish his destruction of the Spartan 300 was. “Now Greece has her martyrs.”

Themistokles, meanwhile, tries to garner the Spartan ships needed to stop Artemisia. Gorgo is mourning Leonidas and all the Spartan dead. “Do not lecture me of sacrifice,” she snaps at Themistokles. She spurns him, telling him Sparta has done enough for a united Greece. This is funny because earlier she rejected Themistokles’s idea of a united Greece.

Athens is ready to revolt, learning of the Spartan defeat. Still, Themistokles will fight. Such is his duty. Before the battle he tells his men, “If you choose to turn your back on me, I will not judge you. You are free to leave.” None do. He says, “Let it be shown that we chose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees.”

Persia and Greece meet once more at sea, this time at Salamis. There’s colliding and sword fighting again. But deep in the hold of the ship, Themistokles has a surprise–a horse! The equine springs forth from the ship’s bowels, launching Themistokles and viewers on a two-minute long take in which horse and rider run across one ship, under another, and onto Artemisia’s ship.

The shot echoes the opening foray at Marathon, when Themistokles kills a dozen enemies in one take. At Salamis, Themistokles’s horse runs through fire AND water to reach the ship before crashing onto several Immortals.

Themistokles kills and maims at least six of the metal-masked Immortals, using his sword, a spear, and even throwing a hammer at one standing beside Artemisia. Then he removes his helmet.

Now comes the duel we wanted. Artemisia and her two swords are much faster than Themistokles, but he has the strength advantage. She gets close and forces him to fight defensively, dodging her thrusts, until he gets a punch in. During a lull she taunts him with, “You fight much harder than you fuck.”

She’s madder now and slices his thigh deeply. Both her swords meet his. She draws them back, generating sparks that blind Themistokles. They spar a moment more before they stalemate with a blade at the other’s throat.

Themistokles says, “I would rather die a free man than a slave, even if the chain was attached to you.” The camera captures Artemisia’s face as she contemplates this. He DOES have thing for her, but loves his freedom more.

Just then, Gorgo’s narration returns as Artemisia feels the wind and possibly smells the approach of the Spartan ships. Gorgo, who began the movie narrating the Battle of Marathon, was speaking to the soldiers currently sailing to Salamis, to relieve Themistokles when Artemisia had a blade at his throat. “Only stout wooded ships can save them,” the queen says. “And a tidal wave of heroes’ blood.”

Seeing the ships, now it’s Themistokles’s turn to offer his near-paramour a spot at his side. She refuses, and he penetrates her with his sword, this one metallic. He joins Gorgo, the only Greek fighting without a shield, and the other hoplites on the ships as they, presumably, win the battle. The credits roll before we find out.

Jokes (1/4)

Not much room for humor in the ancient Greek epic retellings inspired by Frank Miller. Themistokles tells one joke when he offers Calisto a piece of advice. “Don’t get killed on the first day.” Ha.

Now I think there’s another joke. Themistokles first arrives in Sparta to speak with Gorgo. He watches a trainee brutally beaten by four other men. Gorgo approaches him and says, at least I think she says, “You’ve come a long way to stroke your cock while watching real men train.” I listened to this line three times, and I think she put another syllable after “cock,” but I can’t for the life of me be sure if she did, and if so what it was.

This part made me laugh. The hunchback from 300, the guy who betrayed the Spartans, shows up near the end of this movie. He’s in the Athenian council telling them what will happen. “The god-king will burn this city to the ground,” he says. Then some guy off screen shouts, “Does he mean Xerxes?” Like, how many god-kings do you know, dude?

Setting (3/4)

Like I said before, I love the palette of the 300 world. Greece appears as a dark, desert land teetering on the edge of hell. Not the green-and-blue land and sea of its island world. Greece looks like a place that gods would drop into at any moment to foment some chaos and fun.

No gods in this one, at least not on the Greek side. Xerxes is a god, of course, and his palace is a spartan (maybe not the right word) luxury hall of black marble and obsidian. He lives in a spotless environment, contrasting with the rocky, dirty, desolate realm of the free Greeks. Freedom might be dirty, but at leasts it’s free dirt.

Commentary (2/2)

Queen Gorgo narrates, “Darius, annoyed by the notion of Greek freedom, has come to Greece to bring us to heel.”

The Greeks, Themistokles especially, drone on and on about freedom and how much they love it. They probably do. But how free are they, and who is free?

Artemisia’s story undermines all the freedom rhetoric. She spent her adolescence chained to a ship, raped again and again by Greeks. She’s a Greek, so to hell with your logic, Greece.

Several shots depict slaves chained and whipped while rowing the Persian warships. The Greek ships are being rowed by well paid citizens, right? Sure, let’s believe that.

Intentionally or not, the movie speaks much about American political ideals. The idea that eastern terrorists have attacked America because they “hate our freedoms” endures long after 9/11. Such is Darius’s prime motivation, according to Gorgo.

Artemisia echoes this idea when she tells Themistokles, “With my sword I will take your Greek freedom.” As if Persia is only in it for the taking of freedom, and not any personal gain. Believing that is akin to believing the US invaded Iraq solely to “spread democracy.”

The contrast between Athens and Sparta is stark, if not always touched upon. Again, it might be an accident, but the Spartans are clad in red and their compatriot Athenians in blue. One Athenian, proud of his brothers, praises the martial skill of “poets and sculptors.” Poets in blue, war hawks in red. Sound familiar, Yanks?

The movie also has a bit to say about methods of government, perhaps without meaning to. When we first see the Athenian Assembly, we see two guys grappling. Discourse today ain’t what it used to be, folks.

Those free men participating in “an Athenian experiment called democracy” calm down long enough to listen to Themistokles give away his entire military strategy. Someone in the assembly shouts that they should negotiate with Xerxes.

Themistokles mockingly asks, “Negotiate with tyranny?” Greece invented tyranny, a word then devoid of negative connotations. A tyrant was merely an authoritative ruler, especially of Athens, that was just perhaps achieving its modern form as naughty word. Would Themistokles and his brethren yet think of tyranny so poorly? I don’t know, but the movie offers no evidence either way.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Artemisia is every bit the equal of her peers in combat. She is never questioned by her underlings or ridiculed by her Greek foes.

In an overwrought trope, Artemisia uses her “feminine wiles” to entice Themistokles into joining him. He refuses.

Others

  • (1) Junkie XL provides a terrific score mixing scaled back guitar notes with heavy drums and male rhythmic chanting.
  • “A tidal wave of heroes’ blood” is a good line.
  • There’s a shot of Aretmisia and Xerxes observing the construction of the famous bridge across the Hellespont that Herodotus recorded.
  • For some reason the Greeks have painted themselves to resemble CATS characters on the way to the Salamis battle.
  • I seven times counted blood on the camera.
  • Sabbath plays over the credits, which retell the entire movie in graphic form.
Summary (35/68): 51%

Artemisia and Themistokles have an Antony and Cleopatra love story simmering beneath their nations’ war. During their sex scene, she tells him, “Die with me each night and be born again each morning.” Which is as passionate as love statements come. He tells her “I have spent my entire adult life with my one true love–the Greek fleet–and my one passion–readying it for you.”

It’s this tete-a-tete and the battles that string from it that make 300: Rise of an Empire an enjoyable flick. In the world derived from the Miller comic, heroes are everywhere.

Themistokles can spot enemy commanders from hundreds of yards away and shoot them from any distance. I’d normally call such behaviors outlandish and unbelievable, but Greeks have been telling such tales for millennia. We still tell their tales today.