300: Rise of an Empire came out on DVD and blu-ray a few days ago, so of course I had to watch it. It’s just as stylized as the first movie, and it’s true I didn’t like it as much—there’s only so much Eva Green and Lena Heady can do to save a movie for me. But it made me nostalgic for the first 300. Because I loved the first movie.
So, let me tell you why 300 is a great movie.
I can already hear your skepticism, but let me explain. 300, of course, is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, as told by Frank Miller’s comic series of the same name. I’m a self-proclaimed Ancient History lover, I have read Herodotus’ account of the events depicted and studied enough Ancient Greek to be thrilled when even the English translation of μολὼν λαβέ is uttered, and I’m a woman who isn’t about to complain about attractive men running around in almost no clothing. None of these are what makes this movie an utter joy for me to watch.
Think back to the movie. What do you remember? Probably the aforementioned scantily-clothed men, the sex scenes, or maybe the slow-motion blood spatter effects. Maybe the battles themselves. But people seem to miss the framing, and it’s the framing of the movie that actually sets the whole thing up.
“When the boy was born, like all Spartans, he was inspected. If he had been small or puny, or sickly or misshapen, he would have been discarded. From the time he could stand, he was baptized in the fire of combat. Taught never to retreat, never to surrender, taught that death on the battlefield in service to Sparta was the greatest glory he could achieve in his life.”
This is how the movie begins. Not with Persia’s memorably rejected offer to Sparta—”This is madness!” “Madness? This! Is! SPARTA!”—but with Dilios telling us how Leonidas became King, much the same way Batman Begins builds Bruce Wayne’s own origin story. There is a brief glimpse of Dilios, surrounded by the warriors of Sparta, that stages the rest of the movie.
“You have another talent, unlike any other Spartan,” Leonidas tells Dilios. “You will deliver my final orders to the council, with force and verve. Tell them our story. Make every Greek know what happened here. You’ll have a grand tale to tell. A tale of victory.”
People seem to forget that the whole of 300 is a story told by Dilios, the only member of the eponymous 300 to have survived the massacre. It’s his job to rally the rest of the Spartan army, to give them the strength to avenge their slaughtered king.
The highly stylized art, the inhuman—almost supernatural—nature of Xerxes’ army only helps him to do this. As viewers we know that the Persians are only as human as the Greeks, but through Dilios’ words, the Spartans—and we as viewers—see them as literal monsters. Strategically, this makes them easier to kill. But from a narrative standpoint, they become the equivalent of the dragon: a beast come to take the freedom of those the protagonist(s) love(s).
For me, this is where 300: Rise of an Empire fails. Though it is framed the same way—as the story of Themistokles and his defeat of the Persian army—the second movie is more about the battles, about the history (however accurately it’s portrayed) and about the characters themselves than the first movie was. 300 is only peripherally the story of a historical event. It’s a story about how legends are born from the half-truths that come from whole-truths. But most of all, it’s a story about storytelling, about stories themselves.