Sunday, March 16, 2014

Guest Post: The Man From Singapore Reviews "300: Rise of an Empire"

Long ago, I posted some awesome short-short fiction written by a member of my alternate-history forum from Singapore who I met in person when I studied abroad in Britain in 2006. Well, he wrote an awesome review of 300: Rise of an Empire on Facebook today and he's given me permission to post it here.

So take it away Sanjay...

300: Rise of a Missed Opportunity (A Movie Review and a History Lesson)

I'm going to say this first- all in all, I liked 300: Rise of an Empire. Action scenes were actiony (though not as actiony as in 300), the non action bits were well done (unlike the boring meanwhile-in-Sparta subplot in 300) and Eva Green is awesome. Where did I think this film went wrong? In totally dumping the actual historical storyline, unlike 300.

"Now, wait just a cotton picking minute," a lot of you are going to say- "300 played fast and loose with history. It had weird orc-barbarian Persians, hoplites running around in leather underwear instead of massive bronze armour and a WAR RHINO." Metal as fuck, yes, but not exactly historical.

That's not what I mean when I talk about the historical storyline.

Lets look at the actual historical events leading up to Thermopylae:

Xerxes, King of Kings of Persia invades Greece, the Greek city states collectively go into conniptions. A number of them submit to the King of Kings. The two most notable among the holdouts are Athens and Sparta. Leonidas I of Sparta is elected to lead the Greek war effort. For various reasons, including the fact that it was the time of the Olympic Games (when Greek cities were technically not supposed to fight) and the Spartan festival of the Carneia the bulk of the Spartan forces could not be committed to direct action. They also consulted the Oracle at Delphi which prophesied that Sparta would either be destroyed or would sacrifice a king.

Modern scholars also indicate that there might also have been internal dissension in Sparta but that's besides the point. Leonidas leads a personal bodyguard of 300 Spartiates (a Spartiate was a Spartan male citizen who had passed the Spartan training programme) plus their attendants and auxiliary troops north, linking up with contingents from other Greek cities. He decides to make a stand at the Hot Gates. The allied Greek force holds off the Persians for four days before being outflanked. Leonidas orders most of the army to fall back and with the 300 Spartiates (plus their attendants and auxiliaries and a bunch of Thespians) makes a heroic last stand to buy time for the retreating army. Everyone dies gloriously.

Now 300 actually follows that story pretty much to a tee. It leaves out the fact that there weren't just 300 Spartiates holding the Hot Gates on the last day but frankly so do most sources. The 300 Spartans make for a much better story if they're holding back the might of the King of Kings all by themselves. And as for the portrayal of the Persians as snarling Orc-men with strange magic and elephants and a rhino (!) that the brave Spartans kick the collective asses of? Look at the framing narrative. We're being told this story on the eve of Plataea by Dilios (the one eyed guy who Leonidas ordered to tell their sotry). Leonidas specifically chooses Dilios because he has the gift of the gab. Dilios is essentially telling a massive tall story, stretching the details of what happened as a morale booster. He's also left out the consulting of the Oracle at Delphi but we can see from how he describes the Ephors that he doesn't much like religious figures- he probably couldn't be bothered to talk about a non-Spartan oracle. The flow of events pretty much conforms to the historical narrative- it's the details that are fudged and they're done so because Dilios wants to tell an awesome story. He's an unreliable narrator and we're subject to his prejudices.

What about 300: Rise of an Empire?

Note, first of all- no framing narrative from Dilios. Gorgo provides the framing narrative and she's a helluva lot more blunt. But as a side effect, we see the Persians as they actually are - normal human beings not strange grotesque monsters. Also, note we lose a lot of the stylised effects of 300 which makes sense since Gorgo isn't embellishing as much as Dilios would.

But let's look at the actual historical narrative leading up to Salamis.

While Leonidas is leading the Greek land forces to Thermopylae, Themistocles is in charge of the naval side of things. The allied Greek fleet is said to have consisted of 3-400 ships, over half of which were Athenian. Why did Athens have so many ships? In the decade after the Battle of Marathon (where the first Persian invasion of Greece under Darius, King of Kings had been defeated) a new seam of silver had been struck by Athenian miners. It was initially proposed that the silver be distributed equally among the citizens but Themistocles debated the matter and managed to secure the citizens vote to instead use it to finance the construction of over 100 warships. They initially voted to build a smaller number but when news arrived that Xerxes, King of Kings was planning a new invasion of Greece the Athenians consulted the Oracle at Delphi.

The Oracle said that: "Now your statues are standing and pouring sweat. They shiver with dread. The black blood drips from the highest rooftops. They have seen the necessity of evil. Get out, get out of my sanctum and drown your spirits in woe...a wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children...Await not in quiet the coming of the horses, the marching feet, the armed host upon the land. Slip away. Turn your back. You will meet in battle anyway. O holy Salamis, you will be the death of many a woman's son between the seedtime and the harvest of the grain."

Themistocles successfully argued that "wooden walls" referred to ships, so even more ships were built. Thus, he led by far the largest naval contingent at Greece to Artemisium. Artemisium happened in parallel to Thermopylae and was an inconclusive stalemate (not the crushing defeat it's portrayed as in the film). Once news arrived that Leonidas was dead, the Hot Gates had been breached and the Allied army was falling back there was no point in carrying on the fight at Artemisium. Themistocles and his navy fell back towards Athens.

There was nothing between the army of the King of Kings and Athens so it was at this point that the Athenians put their cunning plan into action. They evacuated the city on Themistocles ships and were landed on the island of Salamis. Athens was burned but whereas the film portrays this as an unfortunate defeat it was in reality a hard strategic decision. The Persian navy, much larger than the Greeks, stormed into the straits of Salamis and were defeated in detail by the Greek ships. Queen Artemisia (who was a real historical character, in command of one naval contingent, not the entire Persian navy) did not die at Salamis but had the good tactical sense to fight clear of the battle and withdraw most of her force intact where other Persian naval commanders failed.

With his navy bloodied, Xerxes didn't have the logistical train to supply such a large force. He and much of his army went back to Asia Minor and the force he left behind was defeated the next year at Plataea.

OK. History lesson over. What's the narrative lesson? 300: Rise of an Empire twisted history, unlike 300, and ended up with a much weaker story.

Think about it- they had the opportunity to draw clear parallels and contrasts between Athens and Sparta. The Spartans seek a "beautiful death", they deride the other cities for fielding armies of "potters, sculptors, farmers" and Themistocles deliberately references this early on in the film. However, nothing ever comes of it. Artemisium sees the Athenian fleet overwhelmed by brute force, fleeing to Salamis while Athens is sacked, not as part of a cunning strategic plan but simply because. There's no evacuation, no sense of a brilliant strategic plan and Themistocles final plan is to charge the entire Persian fleet with five ships before the "Spartan navy" (historically, about 16 ships to Athens 180) comes charging in to save the day (again at the head of a bunch of other Greeks who are briefly glimpsed).

It throws away everything that could have been done with the Athenians. Think about the parallels- the Spartans in 300 go to see the Ephors and find themselves bound by corrupt pronouncements. The Athenians consult the Oracle of Delphi and cleverly Themistocles managed to turn the message of doom into the basis for a positive strategy. We don't get to see that in the film.

Artemisium had a bit of the cat and mouse games we should have seen more of (Themistocles luring the Persians into the fog etc) but that was the only part of the film where that wiliness, that cleverness we should expect from a romanticised portrayal of the Athenians really showed through. In the end the story we got really did show that the Athenians were amateurs- plucky, but amateurs, who needed the REAL BADASS SPARTANS to come and save the day for them.

When I watched the original 300 in a theatre here in Singapore, during the scene where the Arcadians reply- to Spartan derision- that they are "potters...sculptors...farmers". Someone in the theatre quipped "Reservists" and everyone around him laughed because that's something every Singaporean man can identify with.

This was the movie where we could have seen the reservists kick ass using cunning and wit and stubbornness. The historical narrative was perfect for it.

But instead we got a decent action flick with a mediocre plot. Go see it- I liked it but it could have been so much better. 300: Rise of a Missed  Opportunity.

1 comment:

  1. Just to explain the Reservist reference- Singapore has a national conscription system where all able bodied male citizens serve 2 (formerly 2.5) years in the Armed Forces, Police or Civil Defence. This full time National Service is followed by a ten year Reservist cycle where you're assigned to a reserve unit and do 2-4 weeks of training a year. Reservist duty is a major headache for a lot of Singaporean men and there is much rueful talk of what we do in the real world. I'm a combat medic sergeant, someone else is a rifleman, a third guy is a platoon commander but what are we really? "I'm a teacher, he does IT, that guy's a marketing exec". I'm personally opposed to forced conscription but that's the reality in Singapore and this is why that quip about that scene in the original 300 resonated with the Singaporean audience I was sitting in.

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