300: Rise of an Empire
Directed by Noam Murro
Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Heady, Hans Matheson
Let’s get something straight. In a film which costs millions of dollars to make and years to produce nothing is an accident. Every decision is a conscious decision; every choice is an expression of a vision. Some choices are materially conditioned, like Copola’s rewriting the end of Apocalypse Now because Marlon Brando was too fat to film the drafted fight scene. Most choices, however, are the expression of some intentional meaning on the part of the Director and Writer.
To be fair, when I went to see 300: Rise of an Empire, I expected a troubled ride. Based on its predecessor in the series, 300, I expected two hours of homoerotic violence steeped in neo-conservative adoration of ancient Greek virtues. I expected an exaggerated understanding of the extent of Greek democracy, (no mention of the use of slaves by the Greeks, for example), and I expected veiled and not so veiled racist memes meant to remind us of the “Persian” menace that neo-cons still recognize, namely Iran.
Despite all of this I went to see the film because, as a Philosopher by trade, I am drawn to all things Ancient Greek. Like the neocons I criticize, I, also, fetishize ancient Athens, and longed to see the great triumph of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis depicted on film, even if the politics is cringeworthy. From this standpoint, the film does not disappoint. If you want to see an idealized version of the great Greek naval victory, 300: Rise of an Empire delivers.
What I did not expect. What, quite frankly, blew my mind, was the overt misogyny of the film. Now, let me say, some of you who haven’t seen this film might be saying, “But of course, it’s misogynistic. That’s part of the neoconservative package.” Fair enough. But really, you don’t understand.
The counterpart to the Greek hero Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) who decides on the battle strategy against the Persians and leads the Greek fleet to victory, is not the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) depicted in the original film. In this film the writers (presumably Frank Miller) choose the historical figure of a female naval commander, Artemisia (Eva Green), as the proxy for Xerxes in this epic battle.
Now the problem arises with the fabricated backstory they give Artemisia, who in real life was the Queen of a Greek City State in her own right who sided with Xerxes for political expediency. The backstory Miller gives Artemisia is that of a young girl (8 according to the credits), whose parents are murdered for reasons unknown by Greek soldiers. She, as a child, is cast into sexual slavery into the bowels of a Greek sailing vessel, only to be left for dead once the Greeks decide she is of no more use. She is then taken in by a Persian warrior, who trains her in warfare, and she pledges to “Watch Greece Burn” because of the atrocities she has faced at the hands of the Greeks.
Again, she’s the villain. Let me make that more simple: The bad guy is a victim of child rape who wants revenge. I kept expecting a moment of redemption, some moment where, despite her squaring off with Themistocles, we see her as a hero in her own right. But no, she’s no hero because she just can’t get over that damned “raped for several years as a Child” thing in order to see how good the Greeks (presumably men in general) really are.
Instead we are treated to a scene of her engaged in violent sex with her adversary, attempting to dominate him via her own body, refusing what we know she really wants, to be dominated by the stunningly heroic Themistocles. And when the final battle is over, the Greeks triumphant, Themistocles offers her his hand, but instead she makes one last play for revenge, at which point he plunges his sword deep into her abdomen, resulting in an embrace between the two and the consummation that she deserved/desired.
Now, those of us trained in critical social theory are often criticized for “over thinking” pop culture. “Relax,” say some, “it’s just a movie.” I admit, sometimes we try too hard. We see one piece of a movie that fits into a narrow critique and then we run about jamming square pegs into round holes in order to make the criticism fit the film as a whole. Fair enough.
Of course, such a critique of film criticism misses the broader point about what film criticism does. Criticism is at its best when it inspires the reader to ask questions that may not have otherwise occurred to a casual viewer. For the reviewer the film itself inspires the questions by interjecting moments that catch the attention and force the viewer to pay close attention. Like the jagged piece of a hangnail, or a sore on the tongue, some decisions by writers, actors, and especially directors can’t be left alone.
So in 300: Rise of an Empire, I asked myself, what’s the point of making the primary adversary of the Greeks a woman when in reality she was one of many advisers to Xerxes? What’s the point in making her appear to be a traitor to the Greeks? What’s the point of giving her a back story that marks her as a rape victim? Why, when the historical record says she is the only one to advise Xerxes against sailing into battle at Salamis, why does the film insist she is the one who goads him into it? Why does 300: Rise of An Empire want us to blame/hate a Rape Victim?
This question is only exacerbated when Artemisia is compared to the only other woman in the film, Queen Gorgo (Lena Heady), the wife of the slain King Leonidas of Sparta. Gorgo, initially reluctant to commit Sparta to an Athenian alliance (not at all true by the way) is persuaded by Themistocles asking her to revenge her dead husband. The career woman/man hating/rape victim Artemisia on the one hand versus the good wife/loyal/sexually proper woman Queen Gorgo on the other.
So, let’s clarify this message. An independent woman, who chose a career that puts her in competition with men is a villain and is most likely inspired by some unfortunate early sexual experience that convinced her to forsake marriage and family for independence. The true tragedy is that she doesn’t understand that civilization only advances when a woman takes her rightful place as her husband’s helpmate and such aberrant women as Artemisia are defeated.
This interpretation isn’t even that hard to come up with. It would be harder not to see it. So to those who still think, “Relax, it’s just a movie,” I would only ask, why doesn’t it bother you that you are rooting against a child rape victim? Maybe, instead of saying that I’m trying too hard, you need to try a little harder, not to be a decent film critic, but to be a decent human being.