Saturday, September 20, 2014

Themistocles or Leonidas?

“Spartans!  Ready your Breakfast and eat hearty for tonight we dine in hell!”  Well, not quite.  If you were a fan of the original 300, and were seeking more Spartan awesomeness, then the sequel may not be your cup of tea.  However, if you are a fan of all things Ancient Greece and really enjoy action-packed sequences with great special effects you are definitely in the right place.  Throw in a little nudity and sex, and you have the recipe for 300:  Rise of an Empire.  What the movie lacks in historical accuracy, it more than makes up for in pure violent entertainment for the masses.  I would give the movie two big thumbs up, to borrow from Siskel and Ebert, mainly due to the dynamic between Themistocles and Artemisia and the very well-done action sequences.  Leonidas is present, but we all know what happened to him, right?

            The movie begins by revisiting Leonidas and the brave 300 at the “hot gates” or Thermopylae pass just in time to see Xerxes take the head of the brave king of Sparta.  However, this is misleading because the entire movie is basically a companion piece to the original.  The naval battle of Artemisium takes places simultaneously with the events at Thermopylae.  We are introduced to Themistocles as the main protagonist, who is painted as the source of all Persian/Greek animosity.  This is due to the events that took place at the Battle of Marathon some ten years earlier.  According to the movie, Themistocles shot King Darius of Persia with an arrow during the battle, which resulted in his untimely demise.  Unfortunately for Themistocles (and basically all of Greece) he shot the wrong guy.  Darius’ son Xerxes was with his father, and the movie makes mention of this as a missed opportunity to do away with the young man who would become the god king of the Persian Empire.  This is one of many historical inaccuracies in the film, and as any competent historian would know Darius was planning another invasion of Greece after the Battle of Marathon, but died due to poor health.  Sorry Themistocles fans, but he didn’t kill Darius.  He may have helped plan the Battle of Marathon as an Athenian “strategoi” or general, but he did not have an opportunity to shoot an arrow at Darius or Xerxes for that matter.  In fact, if that didn’t ruin good old Themistocles for you this will: he later joins the Persians.  Yes, it’s true.  Hollywood is not known for letting truth get in the way of a good story, however, so no one should be surprised.  The idea that Themistocles is trying desperately to make up for a missed opportunity fits the theme of the movie.  300: Rise of an Empire also contains elements of those freedom-loving Greeks battling the evil Persians.  Sound familiar?  In a post 9/11 world, movies like this continue to reflect the struggle for freedom against those who wish to repress it.  However, we must remember that the idea of democracy in Themistocles’ Athens does not resemble the democracy of today in any form or fashion.  That fact doesn’t add to the entertainment value, so it has been omitted – as maybe it should be, because this is entertainment, and not social commentary.

            The director of the film, Noam Murro, described the action as “operatic” in a recent Los Angeles Times interview, and he said he hoped the film was not a sequel or a prequel to the original but an “equal.”  This is a departure for Murro who is best known for directing offbeat feature films like the 2007 comedy Smart People.  A native of Jerusalem, New York, he made a name for himself doing promotional films for companies like E*Trade with his own production company, Biscuit Films.  Murro was able to capture the spirit of the original without venturing too far from the swords and sandals blueprint.  Though he took some creative license, the overall direction was very good.

            One of the main elements that makes this movie so appealing, besides the obvious violence, is the dynamic that forms between our hero Themistocles and his enemy – the beautiful but deadly Artemisia.  Most of what we know about Artemisia comes from Herodotus, and, while she was a female naval commander and an ally of Xerxes, she probably didn’t set the stage for the emergence of Xerxes as the King of Kings and she probably wasn’t nearly as cool as the character in the movie.  Artemisia is deliciously evil.  She will defeat you and you will like it.  Our boy Themistocles gets wrapped up in a love affair with her and fireworks ignite.  The mixture of sex and violence that occurs between the two would make Freud do a double-take.  What does it all mean?  It’s Hollywood telling a pretty good story, and throwing in ribbons of truth to keep it interesting.   I’m not saying that Themistocles couldn’t have hooked up with Artemisia while they were fighting on opposite sides of the Greco-Persian Wars, but the odds are definitely against it.  Though a real-life longshot, the movie wouldn’t have been the same without this plot enhancement.  Chalk one up for Hollywood imagination over authenticity. 

            The crescendo of the movie reaches its peak with the Battle of Salamis.  This is where, historically, the Greek forces led by Themistocles turn away Xerxes and the Persians.  Themistocles retreats to the Bay of Salamis and lays in wait for the Persian Navy.  The big screen depiction is a triumph of Hollywood movie making.  There are flying horses which seemingly appear out of thin air, people dying everywhere, scary looking Persians, and a rousing speech by Spartan Queen Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, who is leading the Spartan naval forces into battle to assist Themistocles and avenge the death of her husband.  Don’t get me wrong, this was goose-bump inducing coolness, but Spartan women – while truly unique in the Ancient world – never commanded a naval unit of any kind.  If you have even a rudimentary knowledge of history, something like this is kind of hard to get past.  Does it play well on the screen?  You bet your sweet bottom it does.  Not only was this a Spartan queen, but Leonidas’ wife who had come to kick some Persian butt.  Not to mention the fact that Lena Headey, the actress who plays Queen Gorgo, has a huge following from her other gig as Cersei on Game of Thrones.  The stars align nicely for the conclusion, but it was difficult to tell what was happening.  This may have been fairly accurate, because it would have been very hard for an observer to follow what was happening at the actual Battle of Salamis.  The great special effects and musical score, coupled with the arrival of the second and third waves of Greek back-up, made the sequence eventful and exciting.

            The biggest disappointment of 300:  Rise of an Empire was the diminished role of Xerxes.  He’s present in all of his gilded, god-like glory, but there seemed to be much less of him this time around.  I felt like Will Ferrell from those Saturday Night Live skits, and I wanted more Xerxes.  I need more Xerxes.  There may have been a reason for less Xerxes, and my hypothesis would be that the negative depiction of the character resulted in a downplayed role.  In the original 300, Xerxes was the poster boy for Orientalism, and maybe the filmmakers caught on to this.  Then again, maybe not.  In this film there was a huge oil spewing barge resembling a “suicide bomber,” heading back down that slippery slope.  Either way, Xerxes was one of my favorite characters from the original movie and I had hoped to see much more of his ostentatious display of Persian dominance, but it was not to be.

            The verdict on 300 part deux?  I enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it.  It was fun, sexy, violent, cool, and even comical.  What else could you ask for?  Well, maybe lines like, “Spartans!  What is your profession!” or “This is where we hold them, this is where we fight.  This is where they die!”  I actually believe that from a Spartan point of view a lot of the first 300 was accurate, but then again I am an undeniable Spartan fan.  Bottom line is that while this movie disregarded the accepted history of events it was very entertaining.  I found myself rooting for Themistocles and on the edge of my seat when Queen Gorgo and the Spartans arrived.  I loved to hate Artemisia, and was oddly attracted to her brutal brand of sexy.  Go ahead and pay the money to see it.  Just don’t let the kids go or use any of this stuff for a history lesson.
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