For Sparta... and beyond

Depicting history in the most entertainingly visceral fashion possible

by Chris McEneany Mar 15, 2014 at 12:16 AM

  • Movies Article


    For Sparta... and beyond
    On land and at sea, we celebrate the historical live-action comic-book zeal of 300 and, especially, its splendid follow-up, 300: Rise of an Empire.
    We are not going to examine the proximity to historical accuracy that these gore-slathered films offer, though. That, my friends, is another story. And since Frank Miller, writer of the original comic-book and (at the time of my writing) the still uncompleted follow-up, Xerxes, upon which the second film is based, is from the John Ford school of printing the legend if it is better than the truth, it is only fair and fitting that we cling to the bloodied robes of such dynamic myth-making, and eschew the academic facts that inspired it.

    First there was Gladiator which, in turn, owed a lot to the uncompromising historical brutality of Mad Mel Gibbo’s sissy Sassenach-bashing Braveheart, and then came a blood-spewing stew of ancient, dark age and medieval action extravaganzas the like of which audiences hadn’t seen since the Silver Age of Cinema with Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston, Victor Mature and Steve Reeves regularly donning sandals and sackcloth.

    But once Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott reopened the blood-gates and reinvigorated the genre we have fought over the riches of Troy, savoured the dark depravity of the Beowulf-influenced The 13th Warrior as well as Robert Zemeckis’ macho-melancholic animated version of the classic Olde English saga, largely ignored a gritty reimagining of King Arthur, scoffed at the poor attempts to wrestle Perseus into modern CG-Clashes and Oliver Stone’s bloated, misbegotten Alexander, and then lapped-up the excesses of TV’s epic Rome, Spartacus and Games of Thrones. And with the current crop spearheaded by 300: Rise of an Empire including the likes of a gladiatorial spin on Pompeii and The Legend of Hercules, it is clear that waggling swords, gleaming man-flesh and defying the gods is a vogue that is here to stay.

    But it is Zack Snyder’s highly stylised and deliciously visceral adaptation of Frank Miller’s excellent graphic novel, 300, a telling of the gloriously doomed and profoundly heroic and influential last stand that Spartan King Leonidas and three-hundred of his bravest and most devoted soldiers made at the strategic coastal pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. to hold back the hordes of Persian invaders under the gluttonous and cruel rule of god-king Xerxes and, thus, buy time for the sparring Greek city-states to unite and form a cohesive defence, that climbs above the bloated mountain of cinema’s most viciously decimated dead to stand unbowed, head and shoulders above our continual appreciation of all things suffused with violent antiquity.

    300: Rise of an Empire

    Although filmed once before, with Richard Egan taking on the lead role of Leonidas in director Rudolph Mate’s lavish and colourful 1962 take on the legendary battle, The 300 Spartans, the Synder/Miller version is the one that brought history slicing ‘n’ dicing into the hearts and imagination of a modern audience whose parlance with all things of a hack ‘n’ slashery nature had been massively invigorated with Peter Jackson’s eminently rip-roaring triple-whammy adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, so that a redolent fantastical quality was also de rigour for maximum escapism to bygone and heroic times.

    “Spartan … come back with your shield. Or on it.”
    “Yes, my lady.”

    Thus, Snyder’s film found us craning our necks upward at the imposing size of the Persian god-king Xerxes, and shrinking back from Robert (Sherlock Holmes) Maillet’s grotesque Uber-Immortal as the spitting, snarling man-beast was unleashed by his ghastly, silver-masked masters to seek out Leonidas for his evening meal. Elephants and a rampaging rhino were so bedecked for warfare that they resembled denizens of Skull Island and the tusk-armed executioner who “disciplines” Xerxes’ failed generals was surely the stuff of nightmares. In contrast, Rise, 300’s maritime counterpart, is much less overtly fantastical, although we have a brief image of leviathan sea-serpents dining on drowning mariners and Xerxes’ hellishly huge pet war-hounds glowering from their perches either side of his golden throne.

    Appearing in both films is the splendidly ugly and tragically traitorous hunchback Ephialtes, played on both occasions with passionate but misguided dignity by Andrew Tiernan. In the second film, his prosthetics are much better, and although one eye now appears to bulge much larger than it did previously he can now speak far more clearly around those huge and misshapen dentures! A true life character in this vicious power-play, Ephialtes is the tortured soul of the conflict, almost the Quasimodo metaphor for a fine-intentioned though gravely misunderstood character. He is labelled a “monster” in the first film, yet he is clearly a stout-hearted and devoted individual who has been forced overcome the adversities of fate and the cruel doctrine of Spartan society.
    Elephants and a rampaging rhino were so bedecked for warfare that they resembled denizens of Skull Island
    More welcome returns are made from Lena Headey’s exquisitely sensual Queen Gorgo, who now gets to let off a little more steam after lamenting the death of her husband, as she leads a vengeful squadron of Spartan shock troops in an audience-energising finale and cuts a dash with her fallen King’s sword, and David Wenham’s verbose and loyal lieutenant Dilios, who we see pre-Thermopylae (with both eyes) and post (with one gouged out – “The gods saw fit to bless me with another.”) And, of course, there is Rodrigo Santoro, who so totally eclipsed his earlier performance in Love Actually as the mad god-king Xerxes that I am surprised he never went on to greater things, cinematically speaking.

    Part of the joy of Rise is in witnessing his black magic aided transformation from weak-willed and grieving Persian son to manipulated nine-foot tall, golden bling-king. The menagerie may not be as imaginative this time around, but the film expands upon the “mysticism and tyranny” ominously warned of previously. Looking like Eric Bana in his human form, Xerxes rises from a pool of arcane potions like the most ornate Academy Award ever created, his eyes burning with rainbow fires of impossible and insatiable power, his bejewelled form singeing the very air he strides through.

    Calmer and more in-control in the first film, yet reluctantly coming to admire Spartan courage the more they stop him in his tracks, he is darker and angrier and scarier second time around. A nice touch is the row of Frankenstein-ish stitches that now seal up the gash in the cheek that Leonidas’ spear sliced open. And Andrew Pleavin once again essays the angsty Arcadian warlord, Daxos (a “brawler” who “does his part”), who smartly gets to inform the ship-bound Athenians that the Hot Gates have fallen, and then, finding some inner glory and resolve, even climbs aboard a stout, but bruised Greek boat to continue the fight in the wake of the 300’s arrow-studded sacrifice.

    Gerard Butler also returns. Or, at least, part of him does. We get some flashback imagery of him leading his chosen three-hundred off to war, but we are undoubtedly horrified to see Xerxes brandish the heroic King’s severed head to a subjugated and burning Athens and then callously drop it down the marble steps. It is an ignoble epilogue to a valiant final stand, and one that justifiably makes the blood boil.

    300: Rise of an Empire

    Homer or Homo????

    Charges of both films being camp cannot be easily disputed when copious Carry On-style remarks and retorts are liberally bandied-about, with most directed at the manhood of various combatants. But homoerotic be damned! This is full-on testosteronal overdrive. If you can’t take envious pride in the image of history’s most physically superior fighting men then you, my friend, are a liar. What red-blooded bloke doesn’t want to look like that and have the ultimate confidence to actually walk around looking like that too? It’s okay to marvel at Stallone’s Rocky in his prime or, by Crom, Arnie splitting skulls as Conan, but a phalanx of blood-hungry, almost nude warriors from yesteryear, depicted, in actual fact, with more modesty than many historical references and carvings accurately bestow them with (in reality they often trained and fought with their dangly bits on show), is somehow camp in the extreme.

    Sadly, juggling a (lately more than) full-time job and a family doesn’t allow me – and, I suspect, many other civilised and domesticated wannabe heroes – the time to sculpt such physical perfection and colossal fighting skills. So what is wrong with some extreme wish-fulfilment and derring-do by proxy? Nothing. Having a go at this double-act – 600, if you will – is tantamount to sneering at beauty queens for being gorgeous. The zest and zeal of prime athleticism is precisely the point, people. The characters, like the accounts, themselves, necessarily overblown and exaggerated into the realm of grandiose myth.
    The characters, like the accounts, themselves, necessarily overblown and exaggerated into the realm of grandiose myth
    Totally ignoring the harsh growl of his thick Scottish brogue, Gerard Butler built his body into the super-structure strongly defined on ancient architecture and statuary, sculpting himself into the warrior King who would gladly give his life for any one of his fellow Spartans. As our new hero, Themistokles, Aussie Sullivan Stapleton (Strike Back) would make some attempt to conceal his Down Under accent, but it would still be clear that he had hauled his shield and spear and sword from some Outback enclave that Mother Greece wasn’t yet aware of.

    Yet where Butler absolutely personified royal rage and lava-ignited anger even when stripped of his ornate, horse-hair plumed helmet – his eyes intense enough to melt Xerxes back into a golden puddle – there is an inescapable gasp of disappointment when Stapleton removes his Athenian helmet, after a blistering introduction of no-holds-barred Persian slaughter in his defence of the beaches of Marathon, to reveal a rather mundane and dare I say it, chinless wonder of a visage, with Starz-style close-cropped hair. However, he certainly comes into his own when laying waste to zillions of Persian foes – although, in all honesty, it could be anybody swinging that sword once the helmet is back on.

    Strangely enough, Stapleton has remarked that he has far more dialogue than Butler had, and even apologised for the amount of waffling that he does to the largely Bulgarian horde of extras. This strikes me as quite odd. Having watched both films – Rise three times over as many days and the original 300 in-between for an entire weekend of pure Spartan nirvana – this is not the case at all. Butler’s Leonidas has far more to say for himself. But then he is a King … and most of what he says is bloody magnificent, whereas poor Themistokles’ incessant beseeching tends to grate rather than inspire.

    This isn’t helped when his character is constantly challenged and subsequently put-down by everyone around him. When he goes to Sparta to seek their allegiance, he is met with hostility by an embittered Gorgo, even his masculinity belittled by the Spartan Queen, although far more excruciatingly by his nemesis, the Persian naval commander Artemisia (the ever stunning Eva Green), during their final face-off. Unfortunately, Themistokles comes across as a bit of a whiner despite his undisputed heroism and tactical prowess.

    But then it would too predictable to have another Leonidas-like leader, and this rabble-rouser brings with him a sense of vulnerability and self-doubting – which works altogether better with this more kinetic and wider-ranging plotline. He has more than just defence on his mind. Unlike Leonidas he is thinking way past the conflict, and seeing it as a means to unite the city-states into one nation and one people with a solidified interest. He is not intending, from the get-go, to simply lay down his life for the greater good. He would like to live to enjoy the greater good, himself!

    300: Rise of an Empire

    “His eyes had the stink of destiny about them.”

    If the comic-book flair and ultra-violence of 300 bled into Sam Raimi’s offal-spilling, flesh-revealing Spartacus, then it is the success of Spartacus, itself, that has bestowed Rise of an Empire its purpose, impetus and blood-drenched template. For whilst Noam Murro’s film follows the visual coda of Snyder’s – even down to the hellish, industrial smog of elemental war that turns a usually more typically beatific locale of the Aegean into a turgid, overcast quagmire of mud, blood and oil-slick – and its wanton clamouring for every detail of interpersonal mayhem, he allows things to go way, way more over-the-top than before.

    Limbs are hewn with even more devastating aplomb. A severed head is snogged, it’s still living eyes widening at the prospect of a disembodied clinch with Eva Green’s delectably despicable seafaring villainess, Artemisia, before she hurls the spurned noggin at us ... in rhapsodised 3D slow-mo, no less. Torrents of gore fountain from cleaved throats and hacked stumps, bodies regularly cut down into iddy-biddy pieces. The violence tips the already anticipated scale of eye-popping into never-before-seen realms for a UK cert 15 release. And the sexual element, whilst managing to avoid any full-frontal assault, reaches a more aggressive and bodice-ripping vantage point from which to leer down at any moral guardians.

    When Green’s gorgeous aggressor opts to outwit and out-manoeuvre our Athenian hero, Themistokles, with some more intimately coercive tactics, there is a moment that is instantly iconic and the absolute zeitgeist of girl-power and strong-willed femininity. After a passionate melee that bounces from cabin wall to cabin wall (somewhat reminiscent of a very similar sequence in Tim Burton’s enjoyably hamstrung Dark Shadows though far more trouser twitching) she hefts our (very lucky) boy over a table and then stands, those full and unapologetically magnificent breasts bared, with a sword to his throat and a look of incalculable might and dominance burning in her eyes.

    Two Immortal sentinels outside the cabin turn and look at one another, their implacable dragon masks not hiding their own boiling jealousy. Interestingly, the marine Immortals are conceived as being “proto-Samurai” this time around, and remain unmasked. They are still intimidating, although, like Lucas’ Stormtroopers, their celebrity status has drooped since their wowing introduction. Green left the new Bond speechless with a pout and a decisively modern sexual put-down in Casino Royale, and this scene, building splendidly upon her infamous forest essence seduction in the deservedly ill-fated TV show Camelot, is its undoubted evolution.
    “In her, Darius had the warrior-protégé that his son, Xerxes, would never be.”
    With several months of fight training and body conditioning under her belt, she wields two swords with the deadly dexterity of a ninja. In a cool touch, we see her getting schooled in the art of combat by none other than Peter Mensa, who played the gladiator trainer in TV’s Spartacus. (Incidentally, this is the same character that Leonidas kicks down into the well at the start of 300.) But beyond the raw physicality of the role, it is those devastating eyes that hint at a soul sold to the dark lords of the underworld, her desire to see Greece burn and to dance upon the bodies of dead Greeks burns with the blackest of flames. And, importantly, we understand exactly why she is like this. Like all the best ever and most unforgettable villains, we find, to our horror that we care about her at the same time as dreading her merciless wrath.

    I await her performance in the forthcoming Penny Dreadful with baited breath!

    Stapleton's character is immaculately and resolutely upstaged by Green. But then, so is everybody else in this film. Up against this calibre of passionate rage and cunning, even the great British vixen and usually unbeaten screen uber-bitch that is Lena Headey cannot compete. When the tide finally turns and Artemisia’s fate is sealed, we cannot help but pity her.

    Like all the great antagonists, we actually sympathise with her plight and totally understand her motivations to the degree were we are almost cheering her on. The moral curve is indeed tricksy and full of false trails. In many ways, she is not wrong in her own campaign. Her thirst for revenge is, to be honest, perfectly understandable … even if it is a touch wholesale and indiscriminate. But Artemisia is no mere henchwoman and in the guile and skill of an actress as potent, provocative and powerful as Eva Green, she becomes an indelible and fascinating character that could, in some alternate universe, have been seen as the ultimate heroine of this saga.

    300: Rise of an Empire

    The films, like the events in real life, run parallel courses.

    The Spartans are hugely outnumbered, yet manage to repel attack after attack, belittling the vast Persian army and humiliating the world-devouring machinations of Xerxes who, once again, surveys his succession of failures from a high, though impotent vantage point. Their profound and peerless battle skills are matched only by their fiendishly clever planning and sphincter-tingling levels of violent blasphemy.

    Look at that row of Persian scouts impaled on stakes and the human mortar used to cement their defensive wall. As honourable as they are, the Spartans are a nasty bunch, with their victories relying upon them to be bigger and badder than any opponent they face. But they have brains as well, each warrior encouraged to use his wit and improvisational talents to survive. And so it is with Themistokles and his tiny armada. Only inspired stratagem, knowledge of the landscape, the wild Greek weather and the nefarious ironies of the sea, and devil-may-care bravery continually save the day. Both battles – Thermopylae and Artemisium - run concurrently, the films, when put together, painting a brilliantly conjoined assemblage of the Persian standoff that made a David and Goliath-style mockery of mighty Xerxes and his forces.

    Then we are treated to the final confrontation in the Bay of Salamis, in which Themistokles unleashes a desperate secret weapon – a death-defying horse (a war-seahorse, if you will) – that brings the hopes and dreams of land-toilers to the rolling waves as he rides it through flames and shattered hulls and even through the sea, itself, in a heraldic attempt to reach his beautiful arch-enemy. Like Leonidas performing the unthinkable and standing to make one last gallant gesture of defiance instead taking off when he had the chance, this is deadly performance art, an entertainment designed and executed in order to shatter enemy pride and reveal the individual nature of a champion as opposed to the mindless, faceless masses of a slave army.

    Both films also show how the Persians come to acknowledge such unflagging heroism. Xerxes summons Leonidas to counsel and offers him wealth and power if he but lay down his arms and kneel to him. Artemisia also makes Themistokles an offer that should be difficult to refuse – to stand beside her as her equal. But both men turn their enemies down. And both return to their troops and warn them that the coming night will bring “hell” to them.
    “I would rather die as a free man, than live as a slave. Even if the chain was attached to you.”
    The films both essay father/son rites of passage in terms of Greek honour and combat. Vincent Regan’s roaring Captain in 300 is replaced with Callam Mulvey’s sleeker, leaner commando-spy, Scyllias, in Rise. The roles are swapped though. Whereas the Captain has to watch as his son, Astinos, is felled, artfully beheaded, it is the son who must observe his father’s dying breath in Rise. Playing this orphaned Greek warrior, Calisto, is Jack O’ Connell, who has been singled-out for some ridicule in various quarters. Whilst I, myself, initially thought him to be a groan-inducing addition of nothing more than limp-wristed formula, I found that he actually grows in stature and character as the film goes on – which is obviously the focal point that this story wants to get across.

    Themistokles is not commanding an army of men born and bred to be soldiers like Leonidas’ Spartans. He has gathered together an assemblage of farmers, sculptors and poets, the very people that Leonidas found a source of derision, but who must learn to overcome their fears and fight like champions. This shows both that his vision of a united Greece has sown a seed in the minds of the common man – something that the arrogant Spartans could never fully accept – and that this leads to a common cause – again, something that Leonidas and his people would find rather unpalatable.

    We all love the Spartans, but both films refuse to shy away from the unimpeachable volatility of this race of super warriors. Yes, we admire them … but few of us would actually want to live in that brutal, war-craving society. Thus, the valour of the Athenians and the Arcadians and the other Greek allies becomes much more of an earnest struggle against tyranny, rather than macho posturing masquerading as a rallying cry to freedom. It just isn’t as cool, that’s all.

    We love last stands. That is something else that endlessly fascinates. It is one thing to examine how men face death when it was the least of their concerns only a matter of hours before – to wit, the foolish Custer and his 7th US Cavalry at the debacle of the Little Bighorn, and the glorious British 24th Regiment massacred by Zulus on the slopes of Isandlwana – but when fighting men know exactly that they are marching off to their deaths, and do so with a song in their hearts, a smile on their face and an overriding eagerness to get straight into the thick of it, it is the mythical DNA of legend.

    The Spartans want to die for their country, their code and their comrades. The irony is that nowadays, the Western world that they helped fashion, fights against an enemy that uses precisely the same ideal as a weapon. Noble sacrifice for a greater cause. Even Leonidas would recognise this strangely twinned ethic, although he would surely scoff at the sort of extremist cowardice that would halt such an aggressor from actually fighting his enemy, face to face, hand to hand, like a real man.

    I like the fact that Rise is almost bookended by the swift, sure trajectory of a fate-fuelled arrow. Themistocles inadvertently brings ceaseless war to the shores of Greece when his lucky shot fells the Persian King Darius during the battle of Marathon, ten years prior to Xerxes’ vengeance-buoyed invasion. In retaliation for such murderous accuracy, Artemisia proves her own exemplary marksmanship when she lets loose arrows into the valiant Scyllias, robbing another devoted son of a loving father, and then ignites the oil-filled sack on the back of one of her own suicide bombers and fills the sky and the sea with flaming Greek bodies … before coldly, calmly turning her back on the inferno and walking away. Job done.

    There is also the horse and ship combination. During the impressive defence of Marathon, Themistocles encounters a wildly rearing Persian horse in the melee of mud and blood, having just disembarked from its vessel. Its plunging hoofs and terrified whinny are poetically recalled when he makes his nautical steeplechase across the burning, splintering decks to attack Artemisia and demoralise the Persian fleet.

    300: Rise of an Empire

    In 300, the battles are told almost entirely from the Spartan point-of-view, but Rise spends much more time in the company of the Persians. Snipers who didn’t like the one-sided stance of the conflict beforehand can now drop at least some of those accusations. Visually and thematically the enemy gets broader space in which to breathe, although this doesn’t alter the fact this is still very much a revenge story rather than a de facto representation of the ongoing campaign of a much larger invasion.

    Speeches, odes, laments and a couple of the best retorts in the history of armed conflict …

    It is pretty difficult to argue that both of these entries in this gore-soaked lesson in Western Democracy’s corpse-strewn birth are not propelled by some truly woeful dire-logue. Yet this often seems to be the entire purpose of the script, and it is a dumbly redundant act to denounce it. Against such a larger than life canvas of valour, betrayal, honour and sacrifice, the words of desperate shock tactics, the sermons to rouse hearts and minds and the stark verbal threats and counter-threats have a tendency to be abject and operatic. And why shouldn’t they be?

    This isn’t about the psychology of ancient societies clashing over religion, political doctrine and human values. It is about the storm that a culture collision kicks up in terms of down ‘n’ dirty physicality. Thus, this elaborately rendered, rigour mortis-hued world has no room for conversation, no place for anything other than barbed exchanges bathed in arrogance and dipped in venom. It is telling that the most emotional moments in both films occur largely sans dialogue. Leonidas departing Sparta and leaving his Queen to watch him fade into the sepia-tainted horizon.

    Themistokles listening to the final words of a dying comrade as witnessed by his son who, like us, cannot hear them himself. We have no need of any revisionist exchanges in a Wagnerian opera of blood and death. Spout your heroics and then cleave somebody else. That is all that is required. The vigour of the action, the visual energy and the sheer enormity of the savage spectacle will take care of the rest.
    Spout your heroics and then cleave somebody else. That is all that is required.
    However, where Rise of an Empire inevitably fails to impress is in its almost relentless succession of spoken exposition which, to be honest, put me in mind of the worst diatribe from a Uwe Boll movie. Likewise, Themistocles’ heroic speeches completely lack the spit and vigour of Butler’s. His line about rather dying on his feet than living on his knees, though, is a good one. But the big buff Butler is the master of the verbal troop gathering, irresistible in his command of the boosting of morale. “This is where we hold them. This is where we fight. This is where THEY die!!!” is an absolute favourite of mine.

    His playful taunting of the supremely deified Xerxes is equally enjoyable, if a little bit more sublime. And there is the tree-toppling roar of “THIS IS SPARTA!!!” to lay waste to any craving for mellifluousness. There is no room for banter in this world … unless you count Dominic West’s devious, backstabbing statesman, Theron. His vicious putdown of his own Queen’s “inglorious and shabby self,” is a misogynist classic.

    And it is 300 that carries those immortal words that history informs us were truly spoken at that beleaguered pass known as the Hot Gates. If not translated precisely word for word then the legendary phraseology more than compensates. When the Persian advance commander demands that the Spartans lay down their weapons, Leonidas mockingly replies, “Persians, come and get them!” This, of course, has echoed down the ages. Where would the long-established jeer, “Come and ‘ave a go if ya think yer hard enough!” be if not for Leonidas and the brave three-hundred adrenalized jeering?

    When Xerxes’ emissary swears that the host’s arrows will blot out the sun, the alarmingly gaunt-faced Michael Fassbender’s awesome Stelios swiftly responds with the classic, “Then we’ll fight in the shade!” The incredibly versatile Fassbender, due now to take on the heroic killer’s reincarnations of hit game Assassin’s Creed in its big movie spin-off, could make a wonderful Peter Cushing should a theatrical biography ever come to pass.

    Rise of an Empire sadly does not have any such memorable quotes, at least not from the goodies at any rate. Once again, it falls to Eva Green and her nautical avenger to haul the best lines from the depths of her fathomless fury. When she says to her first officer that “He has them right where he wants them,” the hapless idiot declares that the latest Persian hero to test his mettle against Themistokles, during the fog battle, is a great commander, she replies with blasé acceptance that she was talking about Themistokles, who has lured his attackers into a rock-walled death trap.

    As Xerxes bellows out his campaign tactics to millions of his followers, we see that it is Artemisia who is putting the words of war, quite literally, into his mouth. Her weeding-out of the Athenian spy in the camp, the glaringly defiant Scyllias, is another grand moment of feminine wiles draped with cold-hearted ruthlessness that recalls Robert Shaw’s barnacled shark-hunter Quint assessing Richard Dreyfuss’s college-boy hands in Jaws.

    300: Rise of an Empire

    In all fairness to both films, the essential thing to remember about these vast reams of exposition is that they are genuinely supposed to provide a sense of epic “storytelling”, in the tradition of embellished campfire tales – the very hand-me-down substance from which almost all our understanding of the ancient world comes, the facts glorified with imaginative alchemy.

    “Leonidas and his pride were no match for the will of a god.”

    People denounced the grubby mire that festooned the imagery of Snyder’s movie. The burnished veneer was stippled with post-production grain to give a muddy, squalid and sweat-stained appearance. The few sunny moments – Elysium-like fields wavering under a honey-dripping sky – were hazily beautiful, though, and there were moments during the siege that offered up celestial respite from the burning dread. In Rise, the sunny moments are even fewer, the bruised amber landscape previously sluiced-through with Scarlet ribbons of Spartan defiance becoming the roiling broth of an incendiary sea utterly starved of sunlight.

    Snyder’s imagery spoke of ochre-tinted dreams, yet as squeezed of vitality as they were, they remained startlingly three-dimensional. Spear-points poked from all angles of the frame, the raw immediacy of the skirmishes intimate enough to have you ducking and diving and weaving with each perilous cut and thrust. The classical assault of Leonidas as he strides forward during the first assault; the spinning, unbroken camerawork as two Spartans cut a swathe through the Persian troops. For Israeli director Murro, this is taken to the next level with the addition of a 3D process that really accentuates the imagery, and the movie at large, with some truly dynamic compositions that push this curiously lit world chaotically into our faces.

    Even when bodies, or parts of them, aren’t hurtling our way, or sleek warships scything fierce waves right at us, the frame is populated with dancing embers or dust sprites lit by the sun or the moon that seem to hover and float all around us. Whilst just as picturesque as the first film, Murro’s draws us deeper in and hurls us around like ragdolls tossed into the maelstrom, deliberately going for longer and more fluid takes than previously.

    The soundstages used to depict the precarious battlefield of Thermopylae often betray their limitations, though this hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, and only adds to the hyper-stylised rendering of the conflict. By contrast, the sea-setting of Rise suits such an approach as it allows for rolling seas to bring flotillas of spear-bristling triremes surging across the screen like the armoured hide of a squadron of crocodiles amassed for a feeding frenzy. The veritable tsunami they ride enabling the Persian fleet to look like a teeming swarm of ants sweeping down towards the stricken tangle of punitive Greek boats, utterly dwarfed by both the elements and the enemy.

    The visual depiction of Themistocles and his ragtag armada formed up in a circle as the seaborne host descends from the black heights of towering waves is a beautifully dark metaphor for the last struggle of the trapped Spartans on the third and final day of their delaying tactic. Or, if you prefer, a watery, dreamlike variation upon the wagon train as the Red Indians war-whoop their way down from the surrounding hills. That not one single drop of water is actually real is of no consequence. Murro sticks rigidly to the green-screen world creation and visual embellishment that made Snyder’s film so immediately entrancing, yet audience-dividing. Frank Miller’s prose and Lynn Varley’s decorative artwork was majestically lifted from the panels and splashed across the screen with often scintillating faithfulness.

    Now, with Simon Duggan’s lush photography, taking the bloody baton from Larry Fong, it gains added scope and blood-spraying spatiality with the 3D that we all knew would be ladled onto the follow-up, but had no right to expect would be so effective.
    But such imagery, both beautiful and breath-taking, is matched by stark visions of perverse evil
    The fire battle is the nautical showpiece confrontation. The Persian oil-barge, an imposing dreadnought of stygian black, powerhouses through the churning sea, an ironclad monster hell-bent on carnage. Nobody will fail to shudder at the classical format for extremist suicide squads as Olympian swimmers plough through the storm-tossed waves, strapped-up with the ancient equivalent of high explosive. There was the torch-bearing Berserker in The Two Towers whose self-annihilation tore apart the Deeping Wall of Helm’s Deep, and this briny-spitting brigade strike just as much fear as they plunge towards oblivion.

    Plus there is the incredible sight of an oil-coated Persian ogre, skewered through with a Greek spear and then tumbling, ablaze, through a thick black geyser of spouting oil and igniting a slow-motion arc of hell-fire between two ships.

    But such imagery, both beautiful and breath-taking, is matched by stark visions of perverse evil. Another failed commander getting clapped into heavy iron manacles and then tossed over the side of a ship. The silhouetted forms of young Artemisia’s parents slain, her mother raped and murdered by renegade hoplites before her very eyes, and then later, when she has grown up, adopted and trained into an assassin by the Persians, delivering enemy heads, gripped by fistfuls of bloody hair, to her doting master Darius. A vanquished enemy captain treated to the famed Leonidas kick, and then cut adrift from an arm and then a leg, before the coup de grace falls upon his stricken, grovelling form.

    Queen Gorgo, having arrived with her fleet in time to save the day, cutting through Persians with all the ferocity of her husband, and then pausing to regard Themistocles with a curious expression of bitterness and cold respect – there is such shuddering darkness in her eyes that it is conceivable that she views him as just as much an enemy for having dragged her people, once again, into a war that has already cost her dearly.

    300: Rise of an Empire

    Muscle-clad music

    Tyler Bates ripped his score as resplendently as cast trainer Mark Twight and some, ahem, CG embellishment striated the torsos of the cast for Butler’s Last Stand. His grungy, rock-based, metal-edged musical broadside a blistering salvo of all-out aggression, post-punk industrial swagger and choral-backed defiance. He summed-up the Spartan bravado with a savage, cocksure strut and fearsome arrogance, fashioning a series of indomitable set-pieces with bloody spear-tipped antagonism and implacably focussed fury. His senses-galvanising track, For Victory, the opening cue on the soundtrack album and the musical accompaniment to the two-man blitzkrieg of Stelios and Astinos, is the action standout.

    Searing high ends singe the ballistic ranks of thundering bass, as sampled voices wail and screech in tandem with the physical chaos being wrought on-screen. But perhaps his most lasting and memorable contribution was in fine-tuning the emotional weight of grand sacrifice and heartfelt devotion to a heroic cause. The glory and pain of Leonidas’ last gasp and Queen Gorgo’s heartbroken acceptance of the news of his fate cut through all the bicep-straining excesses to deliver an ethereal counterbalance to the pounding muscularity.

    At first listen, Dutch synth-god Junkie XL’s score for Rise of an Empire just seems even louder and more aggressive, but this is deceptive as, in actual fact, he creates a musical tableau that is possibly even more exciting and exhilarating, yet still emblazoned with high emotion, dark, glowering obsession, angst-driven bloodlust and downright infectious themes. This last element is the most decisive victory in what proves to be a pulverising tour de force that, to my mind, may even surpass the bruising brilliance of Bates’ original, which I have adored as prime workout material for years.

    By far the greatest component that propels this dreadnought of a score through that ever-catchy “tidal wave of heroes’ blood” is the pounding, rhythmic and demonically hostile theme for the vengeful and bitter Artemisia which features as the film’s most prevailing thunderclap of emotional resonance. Although relentlessly dark and primal, infused with ethnic side-lines and exotic lilts of Eastern mystery, there is a haunting quality to it that epitomises the cruel beauty of Artemisia’s tragic past, making this the musical core of a score that takes relatively few time-outs to document the spiritual impact of this epochal culture clash.

    Within this bludgeoning and excessive rhythm beats the heart of a victim risen now to hitherto unchallenged heights of frightening glory, yet this enemy’s theme – much like the character herself – climbs above the more appropriately “heroic” motifs and justifiably righteous crusade to illustrate the rhapsody of destruction just as excitingly as the visuals. Her theme courses through every confrontation after she has entered the story, grabbing the film by the bloodied scruff of its neck and hauling it into ever-more deadly waters.

    Naturally, both scores employ the mystical wailing and exotic instrumentation that Hans Zimmer made the de facto sound for the ancient world with his outstanding world music for Gladiator. These elements have, unfortunately, become something of a cliché over the last decade and more … but there is no mistaking how effortlessly their cloud-sifting vocals and jangling, alien percussion and ethnic strings transport you back in time to a place of momentous change and tribe-culling calamity.
    How many gangly students and dreamy, pot-bellied husbands have donned such revealing costumes in the hope of unleashing some inner warrior
    Unleash your hidden Spartan!

    When the first film was released, I went all-out to become as Spartan as possible. With a track record that has taken in the clothes and hairstyles of numerous screen heroes – Martin Riggs, Mad Max, Snake Plissken, Maximus, Wolverine, Rambo and any number of Arnie-based icons – it seemed a cinch to transform myself into a honed and toned Spartan warrior. I have been weight-training since the age of 13 and done numerous martial arts so, to me at least, the mostly nude and unelaborate attire of these sweaty, blood-drunk behemoths posed no problem.

    I even won first prize for my home-made incarnation of one of Leonidas’ finest at a terrific fancy-dress do. (It did boast a genuine replica of the helmet, though.) But when it came to the follow-up, and coming as it has during my huge resurgence of Snake Plissken (even more authentic gear this time around, folks), it would appear that to become your favourite loincloth-clad hero, all you have to do is look on eBay, or venture into your local Smithees, and a perfectly fine, surprisingly accurate and unfeasibly cheap depiction of a Spartan – be he the King, himself, or one of his devoted bodyguard – could be purloined for around forty quid, including weaponry. How many gangly students and dreamy, pot-bellied husbands have donned such revealing costumes in the hope of unleashing some inner warrior and wowing the maidens at a masquerade?

    How many have felt that irrepressible buzz of a valour they could never hope to emulate for real? Funnily enough, the costume for the Athenians, and most notably that of Themistokles himself, went on sale before the film was even out, such was the belief that there would be a similar demand from geeks and nerds with Spartan-tinted goggles to keep up with this dislocated trend for ancient clobber. Which has the better look – the blue robes of the Athenians, or the red of the Spartans?

    Well, this isn’t hard to work out. Whilst the blue definitely ties-in with the nautical stance of the second instalment’s maritime battlefield, it doesn’t hold a candle to the arterial-soaked scarlet of the Spartan colours. And for those who really want to look the part, and have grown the appropriate beardage (which is all the rage at the moment!), you can even get yourself an official 300 wolf-tooth necklace to pure Leonidas specifications. YEAH. You know you want one. Pssst … I got one!

    Get the soundtracks playing, strip down to your leather undies and heft some iron … and you, my son, will be a Spartan! Well, maybe not … but you will feel like one.

    So, which is better? 300 or 300: Rise of an Empire?

    There’s only one way to find out … FIGHT!!!!!!!

    Seriously, though, whilst the two films fit together like a hand in an entrail-smothered glove, there is no real contest. Snyder’s entry had Gerard Butler in a role he will never be able to repeat, or better … and it still feels gloriously epic and brutal and surreal, and builds up to a heroic climax that cannot fail to move or inspire.

    Murro’s offers excellent comic-book entertainment, with expert ship-to-ship combat choreography, and moves like a hurled spear. It also boasts a truly magnificent performance from Eva Green, who totally dominates the screen with sultry bloodlust. But the original feels more complete and enriched with mythical resonance and can stand alone as its own ground-breaking and cataclysmic tale.

    Of course, the story isn’t over yet. Xerxes has not been defeated and he still has millions of warriors and slaves to spew all over Greece. Whilst I wish they had allowed Artemisia to have survived and been able to breaks heads and hearts all over again, I do hope that a third chapter, which is sure to come, gives David Wenham the opportunity to make good on his rallying cry on the fields of Plataea at the chest-beating conclusion of 300, when the final epic battle takes place and the Persian hordes are ultimately defeated and driven out of Greece.

    Viewed alone, Rise of an Empire is mindlessly macho hokum but, viewed together with its illustrious and game-changing predecessor, it continues to create a fabulously primal world of limb-lopping, gut-spilling adrenaline that defies scholarly accuracy and depicts history in the most entertainingly visceral fashion possible, and the two perfectly complement one another.
    I applaud and adore them both.

    For SPARTA … and for EVA!!!!!

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