By John Syragakis
The over-the-top Greek fantasy film 300: Rise of an Empire begins with the historically accurate account of Xerxes after the battle of Thermopylae seeking out Leonidas on the battlefield and beheading him. In the film’s opening shot Xerxes carries out the act astride a mount and swinging down a battle axe to decapitate the dead Greek general. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few historically accurate moments in a film that sacrifices story, plot and logic for cartoonish visual effect and gore almost every time.
Slavish devotion, of course, to Greek history does not guarantee great cinema. Artistic latitude helps animate filmmakers to tell the enormous complexity of the Greco-Persian wars in an intelligible narrative. All of this helps to explain why many of the same filmmakers behind the Rise of an Empire succeeded in their fictional 2007 depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae – the predecessor to the Rise of an Empire. In short, the 300 Spartans battle against Persian warriors finessed the right balance between historical facts and literary license.
Rise of an Empire depicts the battle of Artemesium, a naval war that took place at the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae off the coast of Euboea. The Greek ships, which were heavily outnumbered, and led by the brilliant Athenian general Themistocles, held their own against the Persian navy led by Queen Artemesia, who is played with exquisite wickedness by Eva Green.
Green’s performance – a mix of Vampire-like quality with power of a Greek Amazon – towers over the rest of the largely cardboard cast figures. But the sheer force of her acting and hypersexual presence cannot sustain the film beyond its limping on both legs. Sullivan Stapleton’s Themistocles declares, “I have spent my life on my one true love: the Greek Fleet,” but this passion is not evident in his scenes with his fellow Greek warriors.
Historically, the Greek Navy pulled off some brilliant maneuvers to halt the Persian advance but for the sake of action and spectacle, the naval battle scenes fail to show any of the strategy for which Themistocles earned his reputation and devolve into action set pieces with much carnage and mayhem. It is not clear which side is which or who’s attacking whom or who’s winning and who is losing. Only after the battle when we return to Artemisia’s ship, where she puts a commander to death, do we realize that the Persians must have lost and the Greeks prevailed against overwhelming odds.
There is an attempt to reveal the original justification for the massive Persian naval invasion by cutting back to the Battle of Marathon ten years earlier, but even this scene is compromised by its lack of fidelity to the actual history. The Athenian democracy was under assault by the Persians who were outnumbered by 20,000 men but won by the use of a pincer movement made possible by their heroic dash through the Persian archers. The potential tension and drama of that scene was dissipated by the perfunctory smash and slash that shortchanges the significance of the battle. Themistocles was in the battle but didn’t play the decisive role of killing Darius who was not present at the battle. It would have been possible to highlight Themistocles central role in the battle without sacrificing the essence of the battle of marathon.
After her attempts to breach the Greek defenses fail, Artemesia attempts to seduce Themistocles at a rendezvous under truce. After some hot sex, Themistocles does not fall for her offer of an alliance. But it brought to mind a scene from the actual battle of Salamis where Themistocles seduced the Persians to fight in the narrow straits by sending a message of truce to Xerxes. This was true manipulation played out in the highest of stakes. Again fidelity to the history would have had Themistocles approaching and manipulating Artemesia and the Persians rather than the other way around.
The blood-soaked violence of Rise an Empire is not for the faint of heart. It is based on Frank Miller’s unpublished graphic novel Xerxes. Sadly, too often, the film devotes itself to graphic violence and dismisses the novel quality of Greek history.