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

As most of the classical world lay in pieces on the ground or floating lifeless in the Aegean Sea, Noam Murro, who directs 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) and is, therefore, destined to never have his name become synonymous with grace and restraint, covers the end credits to his movie with the hard rock strains of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” Perhaps Murro has a better understanding of his picture than I think he does. “War Pigs” was meant as an anti-war anthem that has been misunderstood as a rallying cry for violence. 300: Rise of an Empire is a pro-war propaganda movie that is so poorly executed that it played, to me at least, as one of the most damning documents against conflict I’ve ever seen. When I was done, I wasn’t thinking of being all I could be; I was thanking Zeus that I was me and not them, any of them.

The movie is a two-hour bloodbath that pits the forces of a unified Greece against the barbaric hordes of the Persian Empire. Being fair, the Greeks are pretty barbarous too; we just root for them because they’re hotter. The Greeks also use the buzzword of “freedom,” which is something the Persians disdain apparently. The benefits and even the meaning of that freedom remain a mystery. The Greek leader Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), the Athenian general, who wants everyone to be free so badly, he has specialized in making people’s heads free from their bodies.

The original 300 (2006), which I believed I hadn’t seen until I rewatched it and realized that I had (not a compliment) at least had some style (though, being clear, the real original 300 was the Battle of Thermopylae). Rise of an Empire has a lot of blood, blood that splatters like geysers for the benefit of the audience members seeing the movie in 3D (thank Zeus, again, I did not). The blood shoots out at us, gets on the camera, explodes out of wounds in faces, necks, midsections and limbs. Most of the carnage is computer generated, which makes me sad for the corn syrup industry, which would have made a fortune. The craftspeople and material it takes to create convincing severed heads earned their paycheck, however, as those puppies show up all over the place as intimidation models, decorating material and battle ballistics. It might be just me, but once I’ve seen fifty heads and arms get hacked off, I’ve got it; I don’t need 150 more. It’s interesting: the word “tedious” comes from the Latin taedium.The ancient Greek word for “tedious” is 300: Rise of an Empire. 

I was pleased, however, to find that, of the movie’s victims (my good mood being one), history was more or less spared. I wouldn’t recommend anybody cite these movies as a source in their classics class (nor is history the point of the movies), but they are relatively faithful to the highlights of the second Persian invasion of Greece. As 300 told a trumped up version of what happened at Thermopylae, Rise of an Empire gives us the rest of the second Persian invasion of Greece, which was preceded by ten years by the first one, which is succinctly recapped in a voiceover prologue here, particularly that conflict’s ultimate Battle of Marathon (in which the war-mad Spartans did not participate). The meat of Rise of an Empire focuses on the battles of Artemisium and Salamis, the first a tactical stalemate, the second an effective death blow to the Persians. Themistocles was a general in both battles and is, more than the legendary Leonidas, who was the Spartan hero of the previous movie, credited with saving Greece from Persia and, according to some, thereby saving Western civilization. I think that person deserves to be played by someone more than a low-rent Jason Statham, in the person of Sullivan Stapleton, but I digress.

On the Persian side is Artemisia (Eva Green), a real-life Persian general (though the movie fudges her childhood), who is in charge of the navy under the command of the great Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), an 8-foot-tall god-man with elaborate jewelry hanging all about his face, who rules all of Persia. As the legendary 300 Spartans are battling Xerxes at Thermopylae, Themistocles is having it out with Artemisia on the waters of the Aegean, cunningly using his smaller ships and fewer warriors to draw out and expose his bigger nemesis. Later, having dispatched the Spartans, Xerxes joins Artemisia, just in time to watch her be defeated at Salamis (it’s not a spoiler if it happened 2,500 years ago). By combining the battles of Artemisium and Salamis for this picture, the filmmakers have run out of historical battles of the second Persian invasion to film, at least any that include Xerxes. I was hoping they would tease this movie out, focusing just on the Artemisium so that this most homoerotic of franchises could have the title it deserves for the final chapter—300: Salamis on Display.

As Themistocles rallies his troops with clichéd speeches of glory and freedom, Artemisia stalks the Persian ships like a rabid leopard. The first movie was relatively female-free, and that might have been wise in light of how awkwardly women find a place in this ultra-macho 300 universe. The deadly Artemisia becomes a sort of sexual terrorist, equating sex with war and gnashing her teeth in search of a man who can satisfy her in both departments. “You fight better than you fuck,” she tells Themistocles at their climactic swordfight, an assessment she has been able to make due to a pointless and embarrassing sequence in which she invites Themistocles to her private boat to seduce him into surrender, and they engage in a rough sex act that neither appears to be that keen about and is about as erotic as the action of a woodpecker. This sequence is bizarre and unsettling (it ends with her releasing him from her knife, which we don’t believe [but then, military genius Themistocles earlier subdues a Persian general and elects to split his head open with an axe when he might have gotten some strategic information out of him]), and it’s sad to watch Eva Green, whose ability for soapy vampness has enriched other bad material (I’m thinking of Dark Shadows), sleepwalk through this performance out of self-preservation.

More spirited is Gorgo (Lena Headey), the widowed queen of Sparta, but then she is an honorary bro, having been stripped of all femininity and is as bloodthirsty and macho as anyone. Because she doesn’t want to have sex with anyone, the audience is reminded she’s a woman by her weak predilection for blinking away a few tears when she thinks of her fallen husband. The most ladylike character in the movie is Xerxes but that’s only on the strength of his immaculately sculpted eyebrows. Handel’s opera of Xerxes, in which the king is sung by a countertenor and sings to trees, is manlier. This is not an insult, mind you; in a world of swarthy murderers, Xerxes’ preening, manicured effeteness is a breath of fresh air (even if I find the movie’s attempts to equate that traditional femininity with perversion and tyranny distasteful). 

In the end, as the war machine kept turning death and hatred to mankind, I was happy to leave these war pigs in the slop. It’s inspiring that Themistocles would lay down his life for Western culture. If he saw what it has produced in 2014, would he do the same now?

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