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15 - The Great Escape: Reading Artemisia in Herodotus’ Histories and 300: Rise of an Empire

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2020

Allison Surtees
Affiliation:
University of Winnipeg, Canada
Jennifer Dyer
Affiliation:
Memorial University of Newfoundland
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Summary

INTRODUCTION

In 2007, Zack Snyder's epic film 300, recounting the ancient Spartans’ heroic stand at Thermopylae in 480 BC, became a worldwide phenomenon, earning approximately 456 million dollars globally. Based on the popular graphic novel by Frank Miller, the figenerated lively and often heated discussion (e.g. Cyrino 2011, Burton 2016), reportedly sparking considerable outrage in Iran (Moaveni 2007). Many critics of the film called attention, in particular, to 300‘s racially charged depictions of Persian ‘difference’ (Lauwers et al. 2012). As Tom Holland notes, the film version ‘duly outdoes even Frank Miller in its portrayal of Persians as grotesques’, with the Persian king Xerxes himself looking like ‘a towering bondage queen’ – ‘“divine” only in the John Waters sense of the word‘ (Holland 2007: 180; for discussion of Xerxes’ varied representations over time, see Bridges 2014).

A sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, was subsequently released in 2014 (dir. Noam Murro), but struggled from the outset to find its voice. The film tellingly underwent a title change during production – it was originally cast and shot as 300: Battle of Artemisia (Patten 2012) – and even beat to completion the graphic novel it was ostensibly based on (Perry 2013). Although it would eventually gross nearly 340 million dollars worldwide, Rise of an Empire's more muddled ideology and convoluted narrative structure (it portrays events not only after, but also before and during the previous film) clearly dulled critical and popular reception – despite the fact that the filmmakers might be said to have started with an advantage over the original since the film's action culminates at Salamis, an actual Greek victory over the Persians, unlike Thermopylae. While 300: Rise of an Empire shifts to the series of naval battles led by the city-state of Athens during the second Persian invasion, the Athenians’ valiant undertaking – not to mention the sequel's primary themes of Greek unity and freedom – are nonetheless persistently undercut by the franchise's continuing reverence for the jingoistic and nihilistic militarism of the Spartan men in the first film.

For all its flaws, 300: Rise of an Empire introduces a provocative vision of female subjectivity, for Rise of an Empire places at its dramatic core Artemisia, a Greek woman who serves as Xerxes’ adviser and fleet commander.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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