300: Rise of an Empire

300: Rise of an Empire; © Warner Bros entertainment inc. All rights reserved.
300: Rise of an Empire
© Warner Bros. Entertainment inc. All rights reserved.

I recently went to see 300: Rise of an Empire with some of our grads at the one St Andrews cinema, The New Picture House (NPH). The latter is a very fine institution which shows all the latest films on release, but often just for a week, so a failure to grasp the opportunity decisively will result in either travelling up to a multiplex in Dundee or waiting for the DVD release. I am frequently the oldest punter in the room, and the level of student audience-participation is brilliant, especially during ‘historical’ or ‘archaeological’ movies (e.g. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2008).

I approached the film with some trepidation entirely because of the trailer. Short of incorporating gladiators (now a ‘must’ for the post-Gladiator sword-and-sandals genre!), this promised some truly daft elements, notably somebody galloping a horse from ship to ship during a trireme action, and ‘creative’ nonsense re the presentation of hoplites in battle! I am most definitely a train-spotter when it comes to historic costume, arms and armour (it’s what I do for a living, amongst other things), but I am not looking for archaeological reconstruction as an end result of modern film-making.

I should straightaway declare that I thoroughly enjoyed the prequel, 300. Before viewing I had spotted the graphic novel. A generous undergrad lent me a copy after a lecture I had delivered to the First Year on hoplite warfare. Naturally I did some serious scanning and use images from it in all subsequent presentations (“Come and get it!!!”). Thus, I viewed 300 as a film-adaptation of the novel, not as an attempt to directly dramatise the events surrounding the Battle of Thermopylae. Unfortunately, taking the latter line, a senior faculty colleague stormed incandescently out of the cinema in the first ten minutes!

So 300 became interesting when the film departed from the novel’s narrative and artwork. Of course the rampant leather jock-strap homoerotica of the Spartiates was hilarious, but there was a semblance of referencing reality in the use of Corinthian helmets and the correct carriage and size of hoplite shields. I just loved the war-rhinoceros! However, inexplicably, the Persian immortals, reasonably recognisably rendered in the novel, appeared as ninja in steel No masks.

Overall, in 300: RE there is some good soundtrack, but all the predictable elements were present in spades. Daft female attire; rides through waving corn; ludicrously inflated architecture (seemingly the Pantheon, or at least the Jefferson Memorial, was present in classical Athens!); impossibly long-distance and accurate shots with arrow/spear/thrown sword (who ever threw swords around a battlefield in any historical period?); endless ‘unleashing of hell’ with chemical weapons. Indeed, the quantities of petroleum products available on the Persian ships reveal a previously unsuspected, large-scale refining industry! We can blame Gladiator (again!) for this, but the real, lineal culprits were the napalm-strikes in Apocalypse Now (1979), and even the flaming logs in the Kirk Douglas Spartacus (1960).

The swordplay is predictably silly, and at times undoubtedly ithyphallic (so quite at home with Roman humour!). The film industry has been saturated since the Bruce Lee films of the early 1970s (e.g. Enter the Dragon, 1973) with a culture of ‘oriental’ martial arts, although usually without the later and gracefully batty flying-wires.  This has given rise to some seriously barmy stylisation. First-off is a habit of film combatants of spinning around while facing a perfectly competent and attentive opponent. In reality, after a split-second’s incredulity at the mindless stupidity of the spinner, a sword-thrust would be deftly administered deep into the kidney region! Modern actors and extras are never properly trained in the ancient world use of their weapons.

Hoplites were primarily spearmen, and some attempt was made to reflect this in 300, but in 300 RE spears are more likely to be thrown than thrust. The tendency to articulate a battle narrative by following individuals in a confused melée would have appealed to the audiences served by classical Greek sculptors and vase-painters, but ordered ranks and concerted action were much more the dominant feature of actual ancient armies.

Ship-to-ship action in 300 RE seriously misses many cool tricks of CGI effect (I will pass over the sea-battles taking place during raging storms and heaving seas!). It would have been nice to see more of the realities of ramming in the film (a reality which also involved very few hoplites on each Greek ship). Greek naval warfare involved controlled ramming, then backing, so that the attacked could extricate and leave a large hole, and the victim would wallow (ancient wooden warships without cargo did not really ‘sink’). More spectacularly, trained rowing crews could use a ram to shave the oars off an enemy ship, leaving it rather like a beetle with its legs pulled off on just one side! A ramming ship could never physically cut an opponent of like size in half and keep on going, as in the film, without losing its own oars on both of its sides!

Then there is ‘the’ sex scene…

A certain amount of topless female nudity is present in the film, used to show how beastly the Persians are when sacking Athens, so not entirely ‘gratuitous’ in the sense of Halle Berry in Swordfish (2001), for example. However, the main ‘encounter’ between Themistokles and Artemisia is a hoot, followed as it is by a topless sword-fight (no symbolism of any kind intended there, natch!).

Above all, there is a woefully tiresome droning on about ‘Freedom’ throughout the film. This is enunciated not quite with a Mel Gibson ‘Australican’ twang, but comes quite close on occasion. As a concept in contemporary US film this is so flimsy that it does not even reach the two-dimensional. Perhaps all of this can be ascribed to the insecurities of the post 9/11 American world-view, but in such shallow, neo-con delivery, aimed at a cartoonically evil Persian empire, hints of xenophobia and racism are always close by.

Speaking of which, the masked Persian ninja put in another appearance, but war rhinoceri take back-stage to hyper-inflated war-elephants. I felt sorry for these falling over cliffs (non-existent at the real Thermopylae) in their first, 300, outing. Unfortunately, because there is little or no evidence of the Achaemenid Persians ever using such animals in war, this is just senseless cruelty (“No pachydermic CGI was harmed in the making of this film”). I blame the oliphaunts or mumakil in Lord of the Rings, most prominent at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (no ‘Fields’!) during the betrayal-of-the-book/-author/-everything The Return of the King (2003).

© Warner Bros. Entertainment inc. All rights reserved.
© Warner Bros. Entertainment inc. All rights reserved.

The Persian kings are brooding sado-masochists, heavily into multiple-piercings and un-Persian outfits. There is a bizarre sequence when Xerxes I descends into a pool and emerges dripping gold (Angelina Jolie/Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf (2007), or Smaug in Hobbit II (2013) come to mind), and along the way the cutting is so confusing that I became thoroughly mixed up between three(?) kings. What appear to be flash-backs in the young bondage-fetishist’s life really did not help, and nobody appears to age over time.

The Greeks are mainly Athenians, with the Spartans sulking back in their Peloponnesian cloud of homoerotica. They are depicted as stripped to the waist (natch!), with blue cloaks – how helpful of the Greek cities to colour-code themselves to aid modern audiences – and wearing what can only be described as elven-crested, LotR helmets. Their shields are round, but not noticeably dished, and now sport a central boss, both unnecessary departures from reality. Why no embossed alpha for Athens in the manner of the lamda for Sparta? Perhaps somebody thought this might be too reminiscent of frat-house Greek Life?

Then there are the kilts…

Athenians wear pleated kilts. I won’t go there on the ‘what do Athenians wear under their kilts?’ question, but there may be a nasty shock for the Persians when Athenians jump off cliffs to land scores of feet below on ships’ decks! Inevitably, the landing itself is in the effortless kneeling position, balletically held for a few seconds, so beloved of flying Marvel super-heroes making a vertical touch-down.

Next there is the secret weapon: gallop a horse up from ‘tweendecks and jump from ship to ship. This truly is a well-trained steed which ignores slippery and heaving decks, adjacent drops into the sea, and endless flaming napalm, to deliver our hero into the midst of the Persian hordes.

Lastly (every rant has to come to an end, eventually!), there are the ‘floating things’. Throughout the film out-of-focus bits of fluff by day, or embers by night, float randomly across the screen. These were also seen in 300. Why?

There is a vintage comedy sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, set in an art gallery, as they discuss nudes and the fluffy stuff floating around in the past which inevitably landed on ‘the naughty bits’. They speculate that there must be rooms full of paintings, closed to the public, where the fluff did not land in the ‘right’ places. However, I doubt this was the origin of the classical Greek ‘artefacts’ in the 300s. Is the ancient past thought to be somehow more ‘dirty’ then the present?

Things I liked apart from the music?

Principally the slo-mo, copious exsanguination (that term I put down to too much CSI!) during sword-play. Sam Peckinpah famously led the way in on-screen violent blood-splatter (Cross of Iron (1977) etc., and Monty Python’s ‘Anyone for tennis?’ tribute!), and there were hints of things to come in the zero-G violence of some Star Trek movies, but it achieved the status of an artform in the splendid Judge Dredd reboot (Dredd, 2012).

Overall, 300: RE is a very (unintentionally?) funny film of extreme predictability. The effortless departure from any semblance of historical reality often actually results in a hopelessly confused and confusing narrative arc, with frankly puzzling results. Why on earth did Themistokles kill Artemisia at the end, when the reality of her crashing through and sinking her own ships to escape to fight in a sequel would have been far more dramatic? Above all, the unwritten rule is broken that heroes do not kill female villains, however evil. The latter must be killed by the initially spurned and/or bested romantic female lead (True Lies, Total Recall, all Bond films etc.), or die ‘accidentally’-yet-deservedly!

Final verdict?

If you watch 300: RE treating it as a fantasy movie (there are some sea monsters in a ‘dream’ sequence!) set in a parallel universe where there is just some coincidence with historical Greek personal names, then it is fine (apart from some poor writing and overblown acting). Just don’t expect to learn anything about Greek history!  On the authenticity rating it receives a one half-star out of five (they spelt Themistokles with a ‘k’!).

Of course I will undoubtedly go to see 300: RE again on the big screen, and there will be even more pointing and loud guffawing to disturb fellow viewers than the first time!

Authenticity rating:  0.5 stars

 – Jon Coulston, lecturer, University of St. Andrews

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