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300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War

10 August 2014

Summary:  Today we have a guest post by film critic Locke Peterseim, a review of 300: Rise of an Empire. The film provides a mirror in which we can see the dark aspects of ourselves and our culture. 300 and its sequel show how the big screen illuminates the darkness in minds.  Setting half-historical “facts” against beautiful vistas, this “fantasy war film” about the Battle of Salamis makes the horror of war not just noble, but almost sensual as it suggests that killing is fun as long as you have a righteous reason for it.

300: Rise of an Empire

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300: Rise of an Empire:
The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War

By Locke Peterseim

Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly
25 March 2014

Reposted here with his generous permission

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The moment you point out the howling historical inaccuracies and possibly harmful over-the-top fantasy violence in a piece of super-stylized hard-core war porn like 300: Rise of an Empire (or in its equally offensive predecessor 300), some pundit or punter with one hand in a bucket of bloody popcorn is going to whine, “You don’t go see a 300 movie expecting subtlety, intelligence, restraint, or historical accuracy!” Which is like saying you don’t eat bacon-onion-ring-cheeseburgers expecting a healthy life free of coronary issues.

The problem is that a steady diet of either poison — popular junk-foods full of heart-stopping grease, fat, cheese, sodium and red meat; or popular junk-food movies like Rise of an Empire that slate only our basest, most blood-thirsty instincts — will slowly, eventually, insidiously kill you — either your body or your soul.

There’s an unspoken code among many film critics (let’s say, primarily under 50 and publishing on the Internet) to not be a moral scold about movies. Some of us grew up in the ‘80s, the era of Tipper Gore and the PMRC, roll our eyes at the “demons are everywhere!” anti-pop-culture ravings of the Pat Robertsons of the world, and are still treated to Bill O’Reilly’s attention-desperate pulpit pounding about the evils of rap music. Most of us critics want to grow up to be Roger (Ebert) not Rex (Reed). So the general rule is to review the film, not the film’s ideas.

300: Rise of an Empire

Zack Snyder’s original 300, based on Frank “the Fascist” Miller’s graphic novel, visually bulldozed its way into almost seeming like a great “movie”: It was (too) easy to get so caught up in the stark and striking (and often shocking) imagery that you ignored the repellant, racist, pile of laughable crap that passed for the film’s “message.”

That, of course, is what makes 300 — which remains a powerful visual “treat”—so utterly repugnant: It uses the cloak of “historical legend” plus wowsa chiaroscuro CGI battlefield tableaus and male musculature (including a sexily vicious Michael Fassbender in a loin cloth—and he’s the least of 300’s homoerotic manqués) to not just sell but fully fetishize The Glory of War (against barbaric, mystical, almost inhuman Persian [Iranian] hordes) to testosterone-jacked young men in Ed Hardy T-shirts. It’s fascist, pro-war propaganda packaged as delightfully over-the-top, fist-pumping Cineplex entertainment.

To no one’s surprise, 300’s sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, is more of the same. Except now, with Snyder serving only as writer and producer and without the admittedly gripping and narratively compact legend of the fall of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, the film itself feels more of a creatively unfocused mess.

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300: Rise of an Empire

(And yes, it’s a “sequel.” The nit-picking hand-wringers will point out that the historical events in Rise of an Empire takes place concurrently to those in 300, not after, so really it’s neither “sequel” nor “prequel,” but more of an “equal,” but really, who cares? It’s a big, dumb movie made solely to cash in on the success of its predecessor. It’s born of no greater artistic ambition than the bilking of lemmings for the sake of greed. It’s a sequel.)

In Rise of an Empire, new director Noam Murro does a laudable job of gracelessly mimicking Snyder’s on-screen aesthetic with enthusiastic mediocrity as he and screenwriters Snyder and Kurt Johnstad try to tell the story of how at the 480 BC Battle of Salamis the Athenian navy, led by the heroically muscled Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton, once terrific in Australia’s Animal Kingdom) fought back, through tactics and trickery, the much larger invading Persian navy, led by villainous Goth Fatale Artemisia (Eva Green) on behalf of giant, bald, guyliner-ed Persian god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro).

So there are land battles and sea battles and land battles that end up in the sea and sea battles that make their way to land; and there are solemn voice-overs about “freedom” and “democracy” and whatnot, and the obligatory “battle rally” speeches (pale and spindly bastard descendants of Agincourt and Braveheart). But most of all there’s blood, sweat, and CGI pecs, abs, and cleavage as heads and limbs go flying and crimson gore gushes forth in epic zero-G fountains.

300: Rise of an Empire - Rodrigo & Santoro

Supa-R-rated, slo-mo, 3D hyper-violence aside, all of the above historical names and events are true: Themistocles and Artemisia were real, as was the Battle of Salamis. Of course, names and the broad, main events are about the only thing “true” or “real” about Rise of an Empire.

Once it loosely markets itself as “historical action” and plops down it’s “real events” bonafides, the film is free to run rampant with all manner of ridiculous make-em-ups. No, Persia’s King Darius wasn’t mortally wounded at Marathon, or even present at the battle. No, his son Xerxes didn’t enter a giant, boiling pool of mystical Nair and self-tanner in order to emerge a bald, golden god-king.

And while Artemisia was a Greek-born Persian naval commander, she wasn’t some wild-eyed witchy king-maker with a jones for decapitation who defected to Persia after being brutally raped as a child. Nor did she use her magic 3D décolletage to seduce Themistocles into a diplomatic parlay turned epic hate boinking.

(In fact, the real Themistocles, Athenian statesman and victor at Salamis, and the film’s gloriously taut-muscled hero, himself defected to Persia years later. Oops. We can assume that tidbit won’t be in the inevitable three-quel.)

300: Rise of an Empire - Artemisia

Oh, and no, the day was not saved at Salamis by the deux-ex-cliché arrival of the Spartan navy (?!?), led by Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) who leaps brilliantly into battle sans armor. Given that the Spartans, better known for their land warriors than sailing skills, only contributed 16 ships to the Greek effort, the film could have just as accurately ended with Warrior Space Unicorns saving the day by sliding down Battle Rainbows.

Which brings us back to the initial defense of such mendacity in the name of a “good story”: “Who cares? It’s just a really violent sword and sandals flick. I go to be entertained for a couple hours, not learn history.”

The problem is that, as with Leonidas and the 300 at Thermopylae, anyone who finds their loins well and truly girded, not to mention painfully over stimulated by all the righteous (if slightly less aesthetically deft) on-screen limb-hacking in the name of A Good Cause (“freedom,” “democracy,” “a united Greece,” “general hatred and distrust of other cultures, especially brutal weirdo Eastern foreigners”) can, on some emotional, subconscious level, justify his or her blood boner: “Well, it’s history. It really happened. Therefore, it’s all true. And it’s good to know — knowledge is a virtue. And this deep, barely-understood desire I now have to cut a Persian in half with a sword is… justified and right.”

300 and 300: Rise of an Empire not only give war and killing a visually rich hand job, they also give us superhuman heroes of slaughter passing as “normal” human warriors, set against stunning battlefield vistas. Human warriors who carry out impossible physical feats of bloody warfare. Whose horses leap a dozen feet out of deep water onto the decks of ships. Who strike bold, near-erotic poses on the battlefield between dispatching of their near-inhuman adversaries (who often wear monstrous helmet-masks or appear as grotesques and ghouls).

300: Rise of an Empire - Sullivan & Stapleton

These are fantasy films about fantasy heroes and villains who have deeply personal — and wholly invented — backstories and vengeful motivations, as required by Hollywood Scriptwriting. This is as much fantasy myth-making and storytelling as Lord of the Rings and Clash of the Titans, and that might be okay (if the films were better), except for that crass veneer of “historical truth” slopped over these 300 films. No one watches the escapist superheroes of The Avengers and thinks, on any level, that they and their actions have much bearing on real life.

But by making up both motivations and near-magical abilities for their “real life” protagonists and antagonists, the 300 filmmakers veer into the realm of propaganda where supposedly “historical” war stories and legends serve a sole purpose: to use fantasies about the glory (and, yes, joy) of brutal warfare to indoctrinate later generations of impressionable, emotional youth so they’ll at least support, if not actually fight future wars.

(I guarantee, as silly as these films may seem to some of us, there are many others who come away completely pumped up by them, believing in them, repeating their blood-soaked credos and poster slogans as they pound Bud Light on the way to the shooting range.)

By blurring half-historical “facts” with utter fantasy fictions, by setting them against brilliantly artsy fantasy vistas based on “real places,” these films push the message that killing is fun as long as you have a good, glorious, righteous reason for it. (And don’t worry, someone will always provide a good, glorious, righteous reason for it.)

But the true moral crime of these films is that, knowingly or not, they take the abject horror and destructive, inhumane violence of war and make them not just noble, but beautiful, almost sensual. Not by white-washing the physical cost, but rather by glorifying over the emotional and psychological destruction. They make war and killing seductive. Appealing, not appalling. Take away the cartoonish stylization, and it’s not that far a trip from movies like 300 and Rise of an Empire to modern-day paeans to SEAL Team warriors in rah-rah films like Lone Survivor and Act of Valor.

300: Rise of an Empire

No one is accusing Snyder, Murro, or Johnstad of deliberately creating militaristic propaganda — I honestly don’t think they give that much thought to what the images they produce actually mean. (Frank Miller I’m not so sure about) Just like their audiences, they dismiss their movies as fun, harmless entertainment.

We critics often want to play along with that delusion — review the film, not its ideas; avoid speculation on the cultural impact or effect on viewers for fear of seeming like cranky, judgmental scolds. After all, we have degrees in film, not psychology. But the entire point of both art and entertainment is to have an effect on the viewer. When we praise the art (or dismantle it with vicious snark) without thinking about who likes it and why, we conveniently dismiss the very power that drew us to an art form in the first place.

300: Rise of an Empire is a mediocre, unimportant movie — one that many people won’t ever bother to see and will likely forget existed until a few months from now when a momentary craving for ludicrous, brainless cartoon violence overrules the better angels of their cable or video tastes. And if that happens, they might get a kick out of it, especially the truly epic sea-battle vistas.

But just like all those bacon-onion-ring cheeseburgers, we need to keep an eye on what we pump into our brains in our pursuit for cheap thrills. No one wants to ban anything — but just be aware of the long-term price we and our culture might pay if we make a habit of consuming it.

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(2)  About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves–and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe
  2. The Hunger Games: How a Real Film Emerged from the Deadly Arena of Young-Adult Movie Franchises
  3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – You Say You Want a Revolution?
  4. Transformers 4 is the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America
  5. 300: Rise of an Empire: The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War
  6. The Wolf of Wall Street: What’s So Funny About Greed, Ludes, and Unchecked Capitalism?

(3)  For More Information

(a)  See all posts about:

  1. Book and film reviews
  2. Art, myth, and literature

(b)  Posts about films:

  1. Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”? , 27 January 2010
  2. About the movie “Fight Club”, 28 March 2010
  3. Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011
  4. We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America., 11 January 2013
  5. Loki helps us to see our true selves, 15 May 2013
  6. My movie recommendation for 2010: Vitual JFK (the book is also great), 30 June 2013
  7. Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for, 30 June 2013
  8. Rollerball shows us one aspect of America, and a possible future, 13 August 2013
  9. In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting., 19 October 2013
  10. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?, 28 October 2013
  11. “Ender’s Game” is a horror movie, showing us our dark side. No worries; we’ll forget faster than we eat the popcorn., 2 November 2013
  12. We love “Transformers: Age of Extinction” because it shows us what we don’t want to see (Spoilers!), 5 July 2014
  13. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution, 27 July 2014

(4)  The trailer

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Thomas More permalink
    11 August 2014 2:50 am

    American cinema enters Leni Riefenstahl territory. It now remains only to find the heroic Supreme Leader worthy of such blandishments…

    Like

    • 11 August 2014 4:18 am

      Thomas,

      I don’t believe we are anywhere near “Triumph of the Will” territory, nor are we anywhere close to becoming like the Third Reich.

      From Wikipedia:

      Helene Bertha Amalie “Leni” Riefenstahl (1902–2003) was a German film director, producer, screenwriter, editor, photographer, actress and dancer widely known for directing the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl’s prominence in the Third Reich, along with her personal association with Adolf Hitler, destroyed her film career following Germany’s defeat in World War II, after which she was arrested but released without any charges.

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      Like

  2. Pastor Ames permalink
    11 August 2014 5:15 pm

    It is interesting to see American movies embracing multiple sequels; movie franchises have become the norm over the last 15 years. Last week a review of the 4th Transformers movie, this week a sequel to 300 – highlight that the films which are most culturally insightful for us are big and over-the-top action movies with a brand name we can all recognize. IMO this shows that we are not interested in content, we are interested in ‘the brand.’

    In the Bromwich article you posted last week, it reminded me that brand names and sequels emerge in politics. The piece of course mostly focused on Obama, but it also gave speculation about 2016. Namely that, in 2016 we should not be surprised to find a Clinton, a Bush, and a Paul in the running. So it is seems more about just pick your favorite flavor… If the Democratic party and the prosperity of the mid to late 1990’s means something for you, then vote for Hillary. If a Republican brand name with bona fide ties to the Reagan glory years means something to you, then vote for Jeb. If you thought Ron Paul’s book Revolution was kinda neat and you want to see if his ideas can help us, then vote for Rand. In the world of political power we do not usually use words like ‘brand’ or ‘franchise’ because when members of the same family repeatedly find them selves holding high positions of power the proper terminology is to call it a ‘dynasty.’ Interestingly the only time I hear the word ‘dynasty’ in the media is when referring to champion sports teams and never about political families.

    I like Peterseim’s analogy about bad food and junk movies. It is scary to think that people who seek the power of elected office already know this about us and will exploit decaying American sensibilities for their own gain.

    Like

  3. derek5 permalink
    12 August 2014 3:03 pm

    To follow up a bit on the Frank Miller angle, according to Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,

    “After I got mugged,” he [Miller] told the magazine Amazing Heroes, “I was really eager to see criminals shot on sight.” (p240)

    This was in 1981, which would make Miller in his early-mid 20s (b 1957) at the time, so maybe he has softened a bit since?

    From Wikipedia’s page about Frank Miller:

    “In November 2011, Miller posted remarks pertaining to the Occupy Wall Street movement in his blog, calling it “nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists” and said of the movement, “Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy. Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.” ”

    The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/06/alan-moore-frank-miller-row) reported comic great Alan Moore’s response to Frank Miller’s controversial statements regarding OWS, which I think is relevant to Peterseim’s review and uncertainty as to Miller’s motivations. Excerpt:

    “Moore described the worldwide anti-capitalism protests as “a completely justified howl of moral outrage” and said they had been “handled in a very intelligent, nonviolent way, which is probably another reason why Frank Miller would be less than pleased with it”.

    Moore predicted that “if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman makeup on their faces, [Miller would] be more in favour of it”.

    Moore said the comments were “about what I’d expect from him”. He added: “Frank Miller is someone whose work I’ve barely looked at for the past 20 years. I thought the Sin City stuff was unreconstructed misogyny; 300 [a 1998 comic book series] appeared to be wildly ahistoric, homophobic and just completely misguided. I think that there has probably been a rather unpleasant sensibility apparent in Frank Miller’s work for quite a long time.””

    For me it’s worth noting that Moore has renounced the Hollywood films based on his creations (and the millions of dollars that could have been his along with them) while films based on Miller’s comics prominently feature his name and input.

    Like

  4. Harald Hansen permalink
    13 August 2014 6:20 am

    Reading Frank Miller’s Batman should erase any doubts about his political views and awareness of same. It’s an earlier work as well, and could inform our reading of 300 (the comic).

    Like

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