It took eight years for Frank Miller’s 300 to go from page to screen, but his unpublished (read: unwritten) follow-up has skipped the graphic novel treatment and gone straight to cinema.
300: Rise of an Empire — what empire? There is no empire doing any rising in this movie — sets up a rivalry between Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and Artemisia (Eva Green). Themistocles fights in the Battle of Marathon and kills King Darius I (Yigal Naor), father of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) from the first movie. After Marathon, the Persians are driven out of Greece for 10 years. Artemisia commands the Persian navy against Themistocles when they return in the battles of Artemisium and Salamis.
In terms of time, Rise of an Empire is a weird parallelquel to 300 — its three battles take place 10 years before, concurrently with and after the Battle of Thermopylae, depicted in the first movie. In terms of actual cinematic merit, it isn’t really related to 300 at all.
300 was a revolutionary stylistic triumph, and because it was also a box office triumph, that style has been imitated endlessly. Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Immortals and January’s Legend of Hercules have made this an already well-recycled kind of film, and with a fraction of the creative team returning (the films have two writers and two producers in common, but don’t have a work by one of the best graphic novel writers that ever lived to fall back on. Not work they’ll show anyone, anyway) and a handful of actors in bit parts coming back (Santoro, Lena Headley, David Wenham and Peter Mensah), Rise of an Empire is much more an imitator than a successor.
And like all that imitate 300, this film doesn’t replicate it. The action is updated, but the dialogue is dumb and the feel is all wrong. 300’s drama, romanticism and sense of heroism in the face of certain death, all inherent in a modernized story about Thermopylae, are missing, not to mention Miller’s poetry and stunning stills.
Though it’s missing heart, Rise of an Empire is an interesting stylistic update. The film adds shaky cam to the same fantastic choreography and immensely ambitious one-shots. Its spurts of blood are different — the blood seems oddly coagulated, as if it were already shed and attempting to seal a wound. The sky is on fire in this movie, and it features a moon that can’t be more than five miles outside the stratosphere. In one key scene, the film goes all the way and completely sexualizes its violence.
But the real victories of style — Sin City, 300, The Matrix — don’t make that style compete with a lack of substance. Every movie that ever revolutionized the medium visually (read: generated a bunch of spin-offs because of visual style) had a very strong story at its heart. 300: Rise of an Empire doesn’t.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and a senior staff writer for the NT Daily. Greek soldiers actually did wear armor, by the way. For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for.
–A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE GRECO-PERSIAN BATTLES DEPICTED IN 300—
*the movies will get a cookie every time they actually match up with the history
300 features the Battles of Thermopylae and Plataea. Rise of an Empire features the Battles of Marathon, Artemisium and Salamis.
The Battle of Marathon took place before the Thermopylae during the first Persian invasion of Greece, after which they were driven out for 10 years*. The Greeks, outnumbered two and a half to one, caught the Persians with their pants down, outflanked them and slaughtered them as they drove them into the sea*. King Darius I was not present at Marathon — he ruled the entirety of Persia, why would he be. After his army was forced back into Asia, Darius began immediate plans to invade Greece a second time, but there was a revolt in Egypt four years later that exacerbated his failing health and he died before the plans came to fruition. His son Xerxes would lead the second invasion personally 10 years after Marathon*. Themistocles did fight in Marathon* but he did not kill Darius who, again, ruled most of West Asia and Northeast Africa at the time.
Themistocles was a politician during Xerxes’ invasion*, and was a key figure in dispatching forces to hold the Persians on the ground at Thermopylae and on the water at Artemisium. The battles of Artemisium and Thermopylae were simultaneous*. Contrary to 300’s notion that Sparta was the only city-state who saw the need to go to war, the army at Thermopylae was actually an allied force of around 7,000 Greeks, most of whom Leonidas sent home when he realized they’d been betrayed by a Greek commoner, Ephialtes of Trachis*, and out-flanked. Leonidas stayed behind in a last stand with 300 Spartans* and about 1,500 other Greeks. The navy at Artemisium was actually trying to protect the army at Thermopylae. The Greeks employed tactics in Artemisium similar to Thermopylae, drawing the Persians into a narrow strait where they could not easily be out-flanked. Themistocles and Artemisia were commanders during the battle* alongside a few others. The Persians were outfought*, but not enough to make up for their vast number advantage*.
Salamis took place in the straits between the mainland and the island of Salamis, which is all the way on the other side of the peninsula from Artemisium. Themistocles and Artemisia were commanders here as well*, but Heaven knows how they both got there so fast. The Greeks again employed chokepoint tactics, this time to better success*. Xerxes was driven out of Greece and the remaining Persian land forces would be driven out in the Battle of Plataea a year later, the note on which 300 ends.
Americans pay more attention to pop media than history class. It’s OK for Hollywood to take real events to their cinematic extreme, but we must not let movies replace history textbooks. Thank you for reading.