2006’s blockbuster film 300 introduced theater-going audiences to Frank Miller’s artistic envisioning of the Battle of Thermopylae. It was a world that bore only a tangential similarity to the historical reality of Ancient Greece and the Persian Wars; well documented by such historians as Herodotus (called the “Father of History”). It displayed a gloomy world of monochromatic colors punctuated only by the brilliantly bright crimson cloaks of its Spartan heroes; and by the buckets of bright, splattering blood. It was a world of seven-foot tall, cross-dressing God-Emperors; treacherous, deformed hunchbacks; battle rhinos; and Spartan heroes with magnificently chiseled physiques wearing little more than very brief leather breechcloths.
A fantastical retelling of an immortal tale, it grossed $210,614,939 domestically. Its art-style and innovative stunts and special effects have influenced similar historical-based projects ever since (the most obvious of which was the Starz television miniseries, “Spartacus“). Now, eight years later comes the sequel.
300: Rise of an Empire (presumably the Athenian Empire) is an entertaining and interesting film, from a historian’s perspective. It provides a much broader view of the Persian Wars, providing much back-story to the original. The audience discovers the (fantasy) origins of the Persian God-King Xerxes’ supposed divinity. It shows the earlier attempt by his father, Darius the Great to subdue Athens 10 years before the events of 300; and show the defeat of that expedition at the Battle of Marathon. Rise of Empire also displays such interesting bits of historical fact as the bridge of boats constructed by Xerxes’ engineers to cross the straits known as the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles), which separated Europe from Asia; a bridge that allowed his vast horde to cross into Greece.
This film intersects the first most directly in showing the three-day naval battle at Cape Artemisium; which took place simultaneous to the fight at Thermopylae. Here we see the last of the 300 dead on the field, and the corpse of the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerald Butler, hero of the first film) beheaded by Xerxes. We see Athens soon after sacked and burned by the Persians.
The new film intersects at several other places with the original film; and together they make a very nice, internally consistent package.
So, that is the good.
Much like the first film, Rise of Empire takes considerable “artistic license” with history. To the point that its resemblance to history is superficial, at best. Characters are credited with actions their historical selves never took part in. A particularly egregious example is in putting the hero of the film, the Athenian statesman and commander, Themistocles (played by actor Sullivan Stapleton, of Cinemax’s series Strike Back), at the Battle of Marathon; leading the Greeks to victory (the true victor was a leader named Miltiades) and personally slaying the Great King, Darius (who was not even present at Marathon, much less slain there)!
Another prominent example of taking extreme license is in the female antagonist of the film. Here we see in this film the colorful but fairly minor historical character, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, playing the key role as Xerxes chief admiral and something of a King-Maker.
Historically, Artemisia commanded a small naval squadron from her own city (5 ships) within the greater Persian fleet of some 1,200 ships (at the start of the campaign). She was a trusted advisor of King Xerxes, and may have been his mistress. She warned him not to fight the fateful Battle of Salamis; but when it came to the fight her squadron acquitted itself well.
As portrayed by the striking Eva Green, this Artemisia is more than just a political figure. She is a kick-ass Amazon warrior; a trained killing machine out for vengeance against the Greeks. Unlike her historical self, she DEMANDS the Persians fight at the Greek fleet at Salamis, and far from being Xerxes’ mistress she is a contemptuous and bloody-minded power behind his throne. In the final battle, she cuts down Greeks with a sword in either hand, and would seemingly give even a Spartan a run for his money!
Speaking of which, this film gives undue credit to the Spartans for winning the Battle of Salamis (they played a very minor role, with the Athenians providing the bulk of the Greek fleet and its leadership). It also turns that decisive historical battle into a bitch-fight, as Queen Gorgo of Sparta (played here as in the original film by the very capable Lena Headey) arrives at the head of the Spartans with sword swinging (yes, in this film she, too, is a warrior chick)!
The gloomy, monochromatic art-style (which makes this seem as though it were staged in Hades, the Greek underworld!) has, frankly, gotten old. The whole look of this is SO 2006! The dialogue and stunts are all hyperbolic and comic book. But, then, the “Graphic Novel” by Frank Miller is the root of all this. So, if you aren’t looking for realism or are a fan of Miller’s original, you might like this.
This is definitely NOT your father’s (or great-great-great-grandfather’s) Persian Wars! But it is a fun (if often ridiculously over-the-top) historical fantasy, very loosely based upon real events.
I give it two-and-a-half out of five stars!
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300: Rise of an Empire (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet Combo Pack)