Magazine | April 7, 2014, Issue

Once More Unto the Breach

Sullivan Stapleton in 300: Rise of an Empire (Warner Bros.)
A review of 300: Rise of an Empire

There were three main criticisms of Zack Snyder’s 300 when it surprised everyone by becoming a massive hit seven years ago. The first was that it was lousy; the second was that it was neoconservative propaganda; the third was that it was politically confused.

The first critique was understandable enough: Snyder’s take on the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans died to the man trying to slow the Persian invasion of Greece, was a historical epic purged of every note except bombast, with computer-generated visuals that were sometimes arresting but often felt like an assault, and so much slow motion that the occasional full-speed moments felt overcaffeinated. And its commercial success had unfortunate consequences in Hollywood, giving Snyder undeserved directing opportunities (including the most recent Superman movie, Man of Steel), inspiring a rash of terrible Greco-CGI extravaganzas (Clash of the Titans and so on), and forcing us all to pretend that Gerard Butler, who bellowed his way through the part of King Leonidas, is actually a movie star.

The second, politicized critique was often hysterical — a by-product of Bush-era liberal derangement, which read Snyder’s epic through the lens of modern Middle Eastern politics and accused him of making a movie that either implicitly justified the Iraq invasion or promised to justify a future strike on Iran. I’m confident that nothing so specific was on the filmmakers’ minds, but the hysterics did have some evidence behind them: In its broad- and blood-spattered-brush way, 300 was clearly trying to be a kind of pro-Western propaganda film — pitting free men against slave soldiers, reason against superstition, the birthplace of European civilization against a cruel Oriental despotism.

But this points us to the third critique lodged against the film: that the Spartans who died at Thermopylae, however heroic their sacrifice, are extremely odd antecedents for a democratic civilization to celebrate, given that their own society was as despotic in its way as the Persia of Xerxes. National Review’s own James Robbins made this point well in an essay on the movie, noting that Spartan society had more in common with the totalitarianisms of the 20th century than with the liberal-democratic West. Even if Sparta played the kind of essential part in Western history that Stalin’s Russia played in World War II, that still doesn’t justify painting the last stand at Thermopylae as a world-historical clash between freedom and authoritarianism — not when both sides of that battle were authoritarian to their core.

#page#I’m prompted to these reflections by the release of a sequel-cum-companion piece to Snyder’s mega-hit. The new film, 300: Rise of an Empire, overlaps with the events of the first movie, showing us the back story in Persia (if you ever wanted to know how to go from being a mere king of kings to a god-emperor, this movie has you covered) and then depicting the same Persian invasion as 300, but this time through Athenian eyes.

So we get naval battles this time, as the Athenian fleet and its commander, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), try to hold off a Persian armada commanded by Artemisia, the god-king Xerxes’ right-hand woman. A real historical figure — she ruled a Greek-speaking city in Asia Minor and really did command a Persian fleet — Artemisia has been transformed by the requirements of the genre into a raven-haired man-eater played by Eva Green, who decapitates, declaims, and seduces with equal vigor, all the while complaining that she can’t find a man to equal her.

Themistocles is ostensibly that man, but actually he’s a total snooze, a zero-as-hero (in the writing and in Stapleton’s performance alike) who leaves the audience nostalgic for the hackish scenery-chewing of Butler. But more important, the tedium of the entire storyline (Artemisia’s scenes excepted) leaves you nostalgic for the Spartans as a people. They appear here mostly in cameos and digressions (Lena Headey, who played Leonidas’s queen in the last movie, is back in a supporting role), leaving the noble, democratic, proto-modern Athenians alone at center stage.

And those proto-modern qualities, it turns out, rob this story of the one thing that the original 300 actually had going for it: a zonked-out strangeness, a touch of true madness, a sense of the deep exoticism of the far-off past. It was thematically incongruous, in that movie, to have two totalitarianisms duke it out and ask us to see one of them as a “democracy in the making.” But the incongruity, in hindsight, gave the movie an interesting frisson. Precisely because Snyder’s Spartans clearly weren’t actually proto-democrats, but rather war-loving statist lunatics, the original movie did something more interesting than its speeches about freedom would suggest: It induced audiences to relate to the truly foreign, the truly alien, in a way that few movies about ancient history ever do.

This realization, which made me like the original mega-hit at least a little more, came to me as I was sitting unhappily through the tedium of the sequel. I’m offering it to you so you don’t have to do the same. Consider yourself . . . favored by the gods.

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