It is 490 BC and it is raining. Themistocles, the Athenian general, is at Marathon, preparing to shoot an arrow at the great Persian King Darius I. Xerxes, Darius’ son, is there to witness the barb as it flies and strikes a blow that will be fatal and, presumably, deeply humiliating. The Persians prided themselves on their superiority at archery.
The opening scenes of 300: Rise of an Empire are the most strained, and bizarre, in the whole film. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro – you’ll never swoon at Karl in Love Actually again) reappears at his father’s bedside as the dying man advises him to leave the Greeks to their own ways (‘an Athenian experiment called Democracy’, apparently), and Artemisia I of Caria (Eva Green), a Greek queen now allied with the Persians, plucks the arrow from the wound as though it were a stray hair from her brow, and he dies.
All smouldering guile and obstinate poutiness, she proceeds to convince Xerxes that his father meant his words as a challenge. He is to rise up and take vengeance on the Greeks. The ensuing sea battles, of Artemisium and Salamis, are where the action of the film takes place. Seven years have elapsed since the release of 300 (on the Battle of Thermopylae), but ten years must pass between Marathon and the big battles of this film, historically fought in the same year as Thermopylae. Confusing, no?
One could drone on about how inaccurate it all is relative to the historical account in the Histories by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), written at close proximity to the events. Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), for one, never really killed Darius at Marathon. Artemisia, who in the film is a blood-crazed, man-hating dominatrix who thinks nothing of decapitating a man and snogging his lifeless lips, was probably more mumsy than muscular. By the time she joined battle (supplying 5 ships, not a whole fleet!), she was married with a teenage son.
But the writers have obviously done their research. It’s just that, more often than not, they’ve decided that what they found was worth improving on. And it is unfortunate that whenever this happens we’re left guessing what the hell is going on.
Xerxes, for instance, fades most perceptibly into the background of the film. Is he taking a pit stop from dragging his weight in body piercings around with him? Or is his insignificance a subtle nod to Herodotus’ account, which says that in the wake of his father’s death, he was initially reluctant to attack Greece? Ditto Artemisia’s prominence. Historically, she wasn’t the one who persuaded Xerxes to invade, but Herodotus did single her out among the commanders at Salamis for her good tactics and persuasive advice. Like him, she hailed from Halicarnassus, and she was a rare thing – a woman who had an active role in the war against Greece. Is that why she hogs the screen time? I suspect not.
There are worse crimes than treating history as myth. However. Harder to defend is what is happening while fireballs are being tossed across the waves and blood is spattered over the ship decks and screen in almost equal measure: a love story is brewing. Artemisia invites Themistocles over to her side, and like some Homeric seductress, gives him a taste of the gusset-ripping sex he could enjoy if he agreed to defect. To get round the gross improbability of this ever having happened, Themistocles naturally has his cake and eats it.
There is a sixth-century BC pot in the British Museum that shows Achilles, the warrior of Greek myth, at the very moment he met the mighty Amazonian queen Penthesilea in combat and promptly fell in love with her. Their bodies are entangled, and they gaze into each other’s eyes. In the film, Themistocles duels with Artemisia aboard her ship. They are evenly matched, ‘you fight harder than you fuck’, she admits, and with her sword cuts a slither from his knee. Minutes later, they are at a stalemate, each with a blade at their throat, each with their eyes fixed in ardent stare.
Such a duel never historically took place, but that didn’t stop me from becoming lost in the mythological imagery. I was only sorry that it was a flash of Artemisia’s fishnet tights that woke me from the dream.