Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

Some of you may be aware that at university I studied Ancient History and Archaeology. I focused on Classical Greece and Herodotus’ Histories ranks amongst my favourite books ever. It’s a rich account of a number of legends and historical events centred around the events of the Second Greco-Persian War, when Xerxes invaded Greece in 480-479BCE.

300: Rise of an Empire, starring Sullivan Stapleton as Themistocles, Eva Green as Artemisia and Lena Headey as Gorgo, is not based upon Herodotus’ Histories. It is based upon the comic Xerxes by Frank Miller – which in turn is presumably meant to be based on the events of the battles of Artemisium and Salamis in Herodotus’ Histories. With the threat of Persian invasion, Themistocles leads the Athenian navy to repel Xerxes’ fleet, led by Artemisia, and seeks assistance from the Spartans, now bereaved of their king Leonidas and led by Queen Gorgo.

300 rise of an empire

Had this film not been based upon real events, I would consider it average. The effects are a bit overdone and while the style reflects Miller’s it seems a bit gritty, reflective of the same grey and brown shades with highlights in gold seen in Immortals (and I’ve said what I feel about that particular film before). There were a few stupid moments, and I didn’t feel the characters were given much depth or personality, but most of the set pieces were fairly cool. Without Herodotus standing behind it, this film would be an average sequel, not quite living up to its predecessor but perfectly reasonable.

But it does have Herodotus standing behind it. Now, 300 (the first one) was a bit stupid in places, clearly an exaggerated, romanticised and fantasised account, but for all that it was a pretty good account and a pretty good film. Where 300 exaggerated, though, Rise of an Empire outright made things up. Some of them were stupid. Some of them were anachronistic. Some of them were completely at odds with what Greece was in 480BCE.

I’m not sure I can express the biggest problem with this movie without spoilers, but since I’m not going to recommend anyone actually waste their money on this shit, I feel I’m safe in saying this. If you want to watch the movie and don’t want the ending spoiled, stop reading now. If you’re a fan of Herodotus, as I am, and want to understand my rage, keep reading.

This is Herodotus. I bet he is spinning in his grave.
This is Herodotus. I bet he is spinning in his grave. Source: Wikipedia.

The movie was all about Sparta. While the key characters doing the fighting against Persia most of the film were the Athenians, led by Themistocles, the story was all about Sparta’s sacrifice at Thermopylae and getting Sparta’s help at Salamis. Come the climax, the six surviving ships of the Athenian navy sail against the numerous Persian navy, before reinforcements arrive in the guise of the Spartan fleet, led by Gorgo herself.

This is utter bullshit. The battle of Salamis was not the suicide mission of six ships vs hundreds the film shows. At Salamis, there were navies from a dozen city states, some sending only one or two ships, while some – like Corinth – sent forty. Athens itself still had 180 ships to send against the Persians. Yes, it was a last stand against the invading forces of Persia, but it wasn’t a hopeless last ditch effort where a few ships tried to do what they could, saved at the last minute by the Spartans. It was a co-ordinated and carefully planned battle involving several states in which the Athenian fleet, far from being depleted down to its last six ships, was three times larger than the next largest Greek fleet (Corcyra, 60 ships, absent).

This is what the real battle looked like. Source: Wikipedia.
This is what the real battle looked like. Source: Wikipedia.

Corinth, with the second largest fleet there on the Greek side and the most famed sailors, wasn’t even mentioned in the battle (they got a namedrop early in the movie). In fact action by the Corinthians – appearing to leave before returning against the Persian flank – was pivotal in Herodotus’ account. I’m pretty pissed off on behalf of the Corinthians, not just because they were ignored but also because I have an academic interest in the city and its rich history of ocean-trade and naval battles.

The inaccuracy of the movie, not to mention the anachronisms, is not all of the reason I didn’t think much of it. As with all movies I intend to review on this blog, I made notes while I watched. The most common note I made was some variant on “This is stupid”. Sometimes with swearing, sometimes with large capital letters. Second most common comment: “NO!”

So what were the other problems with it?

  • As in its predecessor, all the hoplites (i.e., landowning warrior class) are fighting without armour. At the Marathon scene at the start of the film, they do so without maintaining the hoplite formation that in fact won the real battle.
  • There was a lot of “FREEDOM!” rhetoric, with freedom vs tyranny as a major theme. While this is certainly in the source material, it does reek of American views of themselves.
  • There’s so much slow-mo you’d think the director had only just discovered the concept of slow-mo for the first time.
  • The sex scene was seriously stupid, and also actually boring.
  • Floating embers. Everywhere there seemed to be embers floating in the air. It was really distracting.
  • Themistocles, at one point in the climactic sea battle, rides a horse into battle, across the decks of ships, jumping through fire. My note on this took up a whole page, half of which was covered by a giant “NO”.
  • For a Spartan, Gorgo sure talks a hell of a lot.
  • The Spartans seem to have forgotten they have two kings; the second, Leotychidas, is never mentioned, even though he did indeed lead Spartan forces during the war.

In short: this was not a good film. Even if it hadn’t been based on historical events written about by the Father of History, it was mediocre, with a lot of stupidity, slow-mo and really poor characterisation. As a story based on real events, it was worse than poor, highly fictionalised. It was basically this big wank over how awesome Sparta apparently was.

I rate 300: Rise of an Empire 2/10. Don’t waste your money or your time.

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