The sequel comes nine years after 300 wowed young white men everywhere with CGI, slow mo, and speeches, and tries to recreate that “winning” formula. Its action is roughly contiguous to 300‘s, retelling naval and political clashes leading up to, and including, the decisive Battle of Salamis, throughout the Persian War. 300‘s focus was much narrower: the Battle of Thermopylae, in which three hundred Spartan warriors attempt to protect the Hot Gates (the only real North/South pass on the Eastern coast), from a much larger invading Persian force, and eventually perish. The expanded timeframe of Rise of An Empire provides interesting context for 300, but Rise of An Empire suffers for it–it’s difficult to maintain the shocking momentum that 300 was admired for, when your film takes side trips into Athenian politics, and Greek peninsular identity and foreign policy. By side trips I don’t mean that we get a substantive exploration of the complicated politics, trade and culture clashes of Ancient Greece, but that our lead character goes to a place, and says some words there–but even these off-the-cuff quasi-historical things slow events to a death crawl.
Shall I explain more fully the plot? All right then. Athenian naval commander Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) has been tasked with defending Athens from the invading Persian empire. While Emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is tied up watching Leonides (Gerard Butler) flex his muscles in Thermopylae, Greek-born, culturally Persian commander Artemisia (Eva Green) is decimating the Greek fleets. Artemisia is a famed hero of the Persians, the best commander they’ve ever had, and an old favourite of now-deceased King Darius (Igal Naor). In killing him, Themistocles started this whole Persian Wars tomfoolery and made a personal enemy of Artemisia. She’s very good, and she’s very angry at Greece. (What’s that? Motivated by rape and abuse by Greek hoplites? Looking for one very special dick? Yup. Sigh. Whatever.) In addition to his military duties, Themistocles has the added challenge of rallying Athenian citizens to his mission, and convincing other city states to come to his cause.
Sparta represents a particular challenge–it was an isolationist city state, historically, and the film series loves the idea and makes much of it. Sparta was the only Greek city state to have a permanent standing army, much less one made up of its entire, non-slave, male population. Most Greek city states formed their army by drafting their male citizens into service during times of war. Some had core standing armies and navies, others not. Some used mercenaries, others not. The common practice, though, was that even the most dedicated soldiers would also have civilian lives. Wealthier citizens would receive military training at gymnasia, but most would have only the most rudimentary of training. Sparta’s cradle to the grave full militarization was unique–its warriors were renowned for their skill and ferocity, and for the phalanx, the tactic that would later sweep across Greece and Italy, and be adapted by the Roman Legion. Sparta was also geographically isolated, being a mountainous state, which aided its cultural separation from the rest of the Greek peninsula.
In order to maintain its permanent militarization, women had a similarly unique existence: although married to the men whose children they would bear, they were segregated from all military activities, and from Spartan military life. They were active members of the polis, but because Spartan men often weren’t, being away fighting or training, they spent most of their lives apart. Pop historians sometimes find a bit of modernity in the fact that Spartan women were required to undergo rigorous physical training and could inherit and manage their own property, but these too serve the prop up Spartan permanent militarization. Women must, after all, prove themselves capable of bearing Spartan warriors, and of keeping the hearthfires burning while the men are away.
The 300 film series deals with Spartan life by eliding those cultural differences that might put off its target, white, straight, cis, American male audience, such as the separation of men and women (and baby murder), and emphasizing those aspects which Frank Miller and Zack Snyder think could be points of connection. Sparta is recast as a beacon of freedom, pressed on all sides by forces of assimilating liberals (Athenians) and ignorant savages (Persians). Spartans represent a kind of pure, unsullied masculinity–men at their best, who want only to fight side by side with their fellows; to die for each other, and for their honour. In 300, Athenians are confused, ill-trained man-children who must be guided into true manhood by the three hundred Spartans who would die at Thermopylae and thus inspire them. Rise of An Empire must of course deal with Athenians a little differently, as it’s in this film that Athenians finally get to tell their side of the story.
Themistocles, like Leonides before him, represents the best of Athenian life. He is a naval commander who won glory and position by storming a previous Persian expeditionary force and expelling them, and by killing King Darius through a literal long shot, from shore to ship. He lives in a humble home, apparently unmarried, makes speeches about the importance of friendship, freedom, and his dream of a “united Greece.” He fights as a hoplite–ground infantry–as cavalry, and as a commander on the sea. He’s also a politician. He speaks in the forum and travels Greece to use that famous Athenian rhetoric to speak with leaders of other city states. (Too bad all the rhetoric is god awful.) He does it all, and he does it with homespun grace. Leonides was, metaphorically, an American warrior, but Themistocles is an American soldier by day, All-American boy by night.
As with the series’ treatment of Sparta, the 300 films are only interested in certain aspects of Athenian life. Absent from both films are the massive slave populations that sustained Greek life, the lower classes who toiled in inglorious squalor, and the women who could not own property, participate in public life (except in special circumstances), or make meaningful decisions over their lives. Absent too, are the internal cultural tensions of Athens, the imperial ambitions that would eventually, through the growth of its navy, make it the hegemonic power of the peninsula (Themistocles’ “united Greece”), and any hint of the vigorous intellectual and cultural debates that made Athens so special. Instead, Athens, still the “crown jewel of Greece” is conceptually pretty, and has some nice buildings and statues–this is as far as Rise of An Empire gets in explicating why Xerxes and Artemisia are so bent on taking this city in particular. Are there strategic considerations? Who knows.
The conceptual prettiness comes from “Athenian freedom,” of which we learn little. In a convenient speech, we learn that the hoplites who fight with Themistocles are free men who can choose not to serve (nope, not really true), and that cowardly old men can choose not to support Themistocles war efforts, by arguing against them in the forum (yup, actually true), but we don’t get to the core of it: we don’t know, in our hearts, what “Athenian freedom” truly means. This is something that 300 did better–Spartan values were briskly reduced to marketing speak that turned up on hats and t-shirts, and in the mouths of bro-dudes who only wished they could have abs like that. Rise of An Empire lacks any such hook. Rise of An Empire is just plain lacking.
I saw Sin City twice in theatres, cringing through the hammy dialogue, but thoroughly taken by the visuals, the pacing, and the mood.
I saw 300 once, some months after its release, and variously laughed and groused through the showing.
I hate 300. Let me make that clear now. It’s a ponderous, effects-driven, paranoid dick-fantasy that was thoroughly at home in the post-9/11 era. It found its moment, then. The 1998 comic book was popular, but the film was a smash hit. It’s difficult to think of a film that so encapsulates that moment’s atavistic backlash against foreigners, liberals, women, the soft-hearted, and the strange. Ha ha, they beat up the hunchback–and so they should.
Rise of An Empire comes at a time when Americans are less worried about terrorists being in hate with their freedoms, and more worried about the NSA spying on their personal communications and activities. Too, there is the renewed threat of Russia, but as the enemy over the horizon, Russia has a far different character from Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan, not least because it’s a majority white country. The history is different; the ideology and the image. Putin’s personal image is of unrelenting manliness to the extreme, and Russia’s is that of foreign policy hardliners who don’t care one whit what those squabbling Americans think. Its otherness is, for Americans, strangely approachable, and for some, tempting. Russia is America’s beloved enemy, the, dare I say it, Sparta to America’s Athens. The bizarre and effete otherness of Rise of An Empire‘s Xerxes finds little traction in this soil–he’s more buffoon then creepy, foreign threat. And too, the Persian empire, which is denied ideology (its campaign is personal, rather than political, motivated by revenge and ego), is a cartoon villain–hardly a threat tailored to resonate with the American populace of 2014.
Rise of An Empire‘s cries of freedom, freedom, are out of place and time; a silly, jingoistic wail of a man and a people in search of a perfect enemy. Freedom from whom? The Persians are said to hate Athenian freedom–but do they? There’s no evidence in the film that they’ve given it any thought. Artemisia hates Greece because Greece has done her wrong. Xerxes hates Greece because he does not own it. Themistocles, along with Snyder and Miller, seem very worried about an ephemeral threat–the countervailing ideology simply isn’t there; the threat is purely physical. But with Athens a ghost of its historical self, how can there be? Instead we are left with the threat foreign “weirdos” might pose an America now ascendant–no longer lost in the fog of foreign wars. What does freedom, freedom offer in the face of internal division over values? And actual values, complicated, messy, with a deep history beyond some hip ad agency copy. Likewise, freedom offers no response to renewed Russian aggression, so often understood through the lens of realpolitik. Freedom is a poor rallying cry without direct threat–a lesson Themistocles learns, but poorly. (Hollywood though, loves freedom, especially when it leads to “shock combat,” as Spartan Queen Gorgo, played by Lena Headey, describes, in overheated narration, the first meeting of Persians and Athenian hoplites.) Freedom was not the cri de coeur of the Cold War, or for the innumerable humanitarian crises that the international community has shrugged off. And so Hollywood retreats into underdog fantasies of past wars. It’s a mirage that is, now, in the internet age, all too easy to see through–they hate us, those foreign others, for our TV and film industries.
Rise of An Empire comes at least five years too late. 300‘s Sparta is America’s elite combat culture and the wives who support them, through a glass drunkly. And the Athens of Rise of An Empire is a wider look at American military-political culture. But its mealy-mouthed, chest-beating over freedom-shaped things (the boldness to punch annoying people, huzzah!) is out of step even with its current wall-eyed cinema siblings. Captain America: Winter Soldier stands out as an action film with something serious to say about power, surveillance, and freedom (that word again–but at least CA tries to define it). But in the past few years we’ve seen the White House blown up a couple of times, some white men Falling Down, and the usual paint-by-numbers exploding and shooting. But somehow, even with this paltry competition, Rise of An Empire, stands out for its ill-targeted, all-encompassing anxiety: about America, about masculinity, about dicks, most of all.
“You fight much harder than you fuck,” Artemisia tells Themistocles after an ill-fated attempt to seduce him to her cause. This is what passes for a sick burn, in Rise of An Empire. Likewise, Queen Gorgo puts him down hard, during a diplomatic trip to Sparta. “You’ve come a long way,” she says, “to stroke your cock watching real men train.” Like its predecessor, the visual language and dialogue of Rise of An Empire is an unintentionally homoerotic stew. Strength and fortitude are conveyed through oiled musculature; daring through micro-mini leather gear; brotherhood through lingering glances, touches, and camera pans. These no-homo utterances, from women not men, only serve to underscore its anxiety–now, over women. What will threaten these fine fighting men next?
But never fear, though his masculinity is temporarily compromised by leather-fetish Cleopatra and her fleet–I can’t tell if the sex or the lost battle is meant to be more threatening–Themistocles doesn’t stay down for long. His plan for decisive triumph involves unlikely naval maneuvers, near nude men, and a horse. (Whatever you’re imagining is probably more interesting than the truth–live in that.) Even as Artemisia readies for the final battle, effete Xerxes decamps for Persia, unwilling to risk his reputation by even being close to a battle that’s not a sure thing. Contrasting this, once again, are the ever steadfast Greeks. After annihilating her fleet and a too-long hand-to-hand sequence, Themistocles kills her. It’s not a sexually-charged death. Not explicitly. But he knocks her two swords out of her hands and penetrates her with his more traditional, single, short sword. And she seems at peace, finally, having met her end on a worthy sword. It’s a masculine triumph, and with Queen Gorgo leading her Spartans in support of Themistocles, Artemisia’s death can’t be removed from judgements on her sexuality.
Artemisia dies, Xerxes leaves but his armies are so big that he’s sure to rebound from the loss, and the Greeks, with all their freedom and moxy (and dicks), will rebuild.