So it turns out that Leonidas and his fellow Spartans' sacrifice at Thermopylae wasn't the only inspirational act by a Hellenic commander against the Persians. Real history is just full of surprises, no? Turns out that Frank Miller's "boy loving Athenians" have a little more fight in them than he would have had all of pop culturedom believing. Themistocles, a powerful Athenian politician and naval commander, ended up helping inspire the Greeks to unite to defeat the invading Persians as well with his heroic deeds and words. No doubt, by Themistocles own admission, Leonidas' sacrifice at the Hot Gates would serve as the spark that would unite the Greeks, but a dead leader can only do so much for the very much alive, although very near apocalyptic extinction, Greeks facing a naval assault by the world's then reigning superpower. While 300: Rise of an Empire in no way should take the place of a well thought out and planned lesson (or academic work) on Ancient Greek History, it does go a long way to bringing more flash an pizzazz to a few millennina old Greeks with hard to pronounce names than ever thought possible, while delivering a few hours of male-gaze eye candy at the cinema.
300: Rise of an Empire tells a pretty smart linear story that intertwines with the events and ultimately continuing the story of the Greek/Persian conflict during and after the events of Thermopylae. This is sure to confuse the heck out of the kids who will sneak in to see this beautifully filmed gore fest, but provide some interesting watching for the audience members who will follow the smart unfolding of the plot, even if the plot is a little flat. I mean do you seriously think that the Spartan navy is NOT going to show up to assist Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) defeat Artemisia's (Eva Green) navy? Leonidas' sacrifice might serve as the necessary hero story to unite the Greeks, but it is Themistocles' honoring of Leonidas' sacrifice that convinces Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) to avenge her King's death. Those wily independent-minded, and right wing philosophy expounding Spartans end up being god sends in Themistocles' battle against the Greeks, even if their main motivation is vengeance.
Here is where 300: Rise of an Empire tells a more balanced (if not exactly historically accurate) story about the men, women, and societies that dominated the cradle of Western Civilization. According to 300, the Spartans (who were glorified in Miller's original work-it was conveniently left out that the entire of Spartan society was built upon slave labor and that every Spartan at Thermopylae had a helot slave fighting by their side as well) were the only redeeming and worthy (of hero worship) Ancient Greeks that existed. The rest were weak, foppish poetry, book, and "boy" lovers (i.e. pedophiles?) who were just fine letting the Persians burn and pillage their city-states. Themistocles' men are, by his and their own admission, farmers, sculptors, and merchants who have united to defend their way of life. They may not have the militaristic prowess the Spartan lifestyle bestows (with slaves to do all the work the Spartans can play at war games all day), but they fight with just as much, and possibly more, heart than the Spartans. Their heart and citizen-soldier mentality is strikingly, honestly, and accurately portrayed through their actions and emotions. Themistocles sheds tears over the death of his best friend: a humanity that you'd never see Leonidas engage in. The Spartan haughtiness is on display, and even gently poked fun at, several times in the film. Queen Gorgo's line to Themistocles as he stands observing Spartans at their war games says it all, "Did you come to stroke your cock while watching real men fight?"
It's in the unintentionally funny lines like Queen Gorgo's, that unravel what could have been as powerful (albeit a somewhat masochistic) masterpiece of a film like 300 was. Artemisia, who tempts Themistocles to joining her with the pleasures of both her flesh and her power (well, more than tempts actually) yet goes unrequited remarks to Themistocles during their obligatory showdown that he "fights better than he fucks." The line is delivered with such straightforwardness and seriousness that it can't help but be uproariously hilarious. It's a shame that Eva Green had to deliver that line. Until that point her portrayal of Artemisia was by and far the runaway star performance of the film.
300 and 300: Rise of an Empire's true star is the cinematography and special effects though. Gallons of blood splatter around artistically and sublimely while dust motes and flame embers drift through the scenery. The naval battles are breathtaking as well, even if they are just a tad unrealistic, and the fight choreography is top notch. Zack Snyder didn't direct this time out, but his influence as producer, and his directorial work on 300, is highly evident on Noam Murro's direction.
It's always a dangerous thing when history is re-written for the big screen with big screen profits in mind, but 300: Rise of an Empire is worth the viewing for the visual spectacle that it is and it's (slight) righting of the historical wrongs of its predecessor.