In a way, it’s unfair to criticize a movie for what it isn’t. Obviously, it isn’t a lot of things. It’s also unfair to criticize it for missed opportunities. If that were the sole criterion, every film would be found substantially wanting. But in this case, I can’t help it. I found myself thinking about what could have been, and wasn’t. All that casting and filming, all that great CGI 3-D technology to throw around in pursuit of the worthy goal of depicting a decisive moment in history, and they content themselves way too much with slo-mo blood-splattering. Hulky muscular bodies wielding swords in battle, seemingly invincible, scything through well-armed and well-trained enemy troops like … well, boys play-acting their action heroes. Sigh. Really, guys? And the only woman is a wicked witch warrior princess who still manages to fight bare-breasted? How old are you men, anyway?
Historically, the character of Themistokles (are they disputing the traditional spelling, or just determined to tell the story their own way?) is pretty fascinating. An Athenian general on the cusp of Athen’s ascendancy as a city-state, Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) manages to convince the city leaders to shore up their naval defenses, just in time to meet the genuine Persian threat, first from Darius, then his son, Xerxes. Themistokles is here depicted as a brilliant tactician, and they do manage to show the viewer an example: though the Persian ships were strong in the front, for ramming, they were vulnerable in the middle, where they were unprotected. So Themistokles simply had the Greek ships turn, letting the charging Persian ships between them, then ramming them from the side. Well, it seems a simple stratagem, but it seems to have worked magnificently, as the hapless Persian invaders sink in the sea with their armor. (But here we’re having difficulty seeing how they were smart enough to establish the empire which toppled the mighty Babylonians).
We’ve already done the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartan soldiers heroically hold off the entire Persian army in a narrow pass until they are betrayed by a local shepherd who shows the enemy where the secret footpath is around the pass, and the 300 brave defenders are summarily slaughtered. It was their Alamo. This loss is somehow depicted here as making the Spartans unwilling to send any more soldiers out to fight, but that doesn’t make sense, either, given their warrior culture. The real reason probably resided more in the political rivalry of the city-states, the centrifugal force which prevented the Greek city-states from uniting for so long, anyway, at least before Alexander the Great, who hasn’t yet exploded onto the scene. (Now that would make a good story, if they could decide to tell it right.)
Anyway, in this movie, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) makes some hocus-pocus deal with the evil spirits that turns him into a sort of invincible god (actually the transformation makes him look more like Yul Brynner in drag). Why he then sends out the turncoat Artemisia (Eva Green) — born Greek but fighting for the Persians — to command his navy remains somewhat of a mystery, especially since Xerxes is then shown looking over the naval battle from a perch on a precipice, helplessly standing by while Artemisia seems content to delegate the tactics to lesser minds, a strategy itself doomed to failure. She seems to be more interested in doing some kind of violent/sexual/hormonal/battle with Themistokles, literally with hands on each other throats while furiously copulating in mutual antipathy. This is entertainment?
Well, maybe not. Themistocles, historically, does indeed defeat the Persians, but they left off the more interesting part: later in his life, he somehow managed to get on the outs with the Greek powers and wound up turn-coating to the Persians as well. What, the makers of this movie didn’t want to deal with that kind of real-life, fascinating complexity, but instead content themselves with macho-men testosterone-laced heroes and the she-devil women who throw themselves at them? Sigh.
Yes, it’s a missed opportunity at many levels. C’mon guys, you can do better. If you can just emerge from the comic-book stage of stunted adolescence here glorified in IMAX … .
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.