The anti-war song “War Pigs” by the heavy metal band Black Sabbath plays over the closing credits to 300: Rise of an Empire. It is also featured in a trailer for the movie.
It is odd to hear this song’s denunciation of the demonic evils of war paired together with the film’s nauseating spectacle of cruel violence, which even includes graphic sexual violence. But the song’s prominent placement reveals a strange form of magical thinking. Apparently audiences want both to take pleasure in the most perverse displays of torture and murder, and yet at the same time to adopt a pose of moral superiority towards it all, as if their delight in the spectacle is not a real delight.
On its opening weekend, the movie earned an estimated 45 million dollars on 3,470 screens in the United States and Canada. Overseas, it earned an additional 87 million dollars in diverse locales: Russia ($9.2 million), France ($7.2 million), Korea ($6.5 million), Brazil ($5.8 million), Mexico ($5.5 million), and India ($3 million).
Even if the film’s opening numbers seem to predict that it will fail to match the box office success of 300, its predecessor from 2007 which earned over $456 million in 18 weeks, nonetheless the new film’s ambitions as a successor are even greater.
The violence is even more explicit this time around. And the outsized story acts both as a prequel (it begins with the battle of Marathon), a companion piece (it depicts the sea battle of Artemisium which happened at the same time as the land battle of Thermopylae depicted in 300), and also a sequel (it concludes with the battle of Salamis, in which the Greeks defeated the invading Persians).
But if its audience is interested in a 5th-century B.C. history lesson, they are coming to the wrong movie. While the earlier film, despite permissible poetic license, hewed at least reasonably close to the historical battle of Thermopylae, the current film distorts actual historical events beyond recognition.
Rise of an Empire tells a tale so purely mythical that in essence it bears no relation to the genre of historical drama. Instead, its cinematic myth sacrifices history in order to seek one overriding purpose: maximum pleasure for a crowd seeking bloody satisfaction. Its practice is similar to other movie narratives of today, which enact violent sacrifice of heroes and villains alike, making all the characters into “war pigs.”
On the one hand, the success of this type of movie, whether in our own public theaters or elsewhere around the globe, points to a disturbing reversion. It is reversion to a crowd-driven indulgence of the appetite for violence widely common in pagan antiquity.
“Christian societies, responding to the anti-sacrificial, anti-violent message of the Gospel, gradually suppressed cruel entertainments, not completely, but largely — until the latter part of the twentieth century,” writes professor Thomas F. Bertonneau of the State University of New York at Oswego in a study of the problem.
“What the people who visit the theater or rent the discs to see such movies are saying is that they like to observe the torture and murder of human beings. And what this propensity tells us is that millions of young people have grown up without internalizing the Gospel condemnation against cruelty,” observes Bertonneau.
On the other hand, there is a widespread lack of concern over this development. Real-life violence is condemned, but artistic depictions are widely assumed to be legitimate and unproblematic entertainments. In this regard, the use of a song like “War Pigs” is a self-conscious and self-justifying signal sent from the filmmakers themselves: we depict the ugliness of war, but do not endorse it; we offer mere entertainment.
But the song highlights something more than just a disingenuous disclaimer. (“No human animals were harmed in the making of the film, although we did our best to make it look like they did.”)
It also reveals something of a post-Christian conscience that is consciously aware of the uncanny power of violent spectacles. But that awareness is then used to self-consciously craft a mythical narrative that is less about history and more about audience appetites. Appetite indulgence is encouraged, in cinematic form, precisely on the basis of the cultural self-awareness that the story is intended as myth and nothing but myth.
Here, the hero of Salamis is not depicted historically (it was Miltiades); instead, Themistocles is depicted as the mythical hero, as if he killed the Persian king Darius in front of his son Xerxes at Marathon — which never happened, as the historian Herodotus informs us (Histories VI.94–117). But even if truth is more interesting than fiction, myth has its own logic. And so Rise of an Empire begins its own myth this way, reducing the motive for the Persian Wars to a quickly comprehensible grudge: seeking vengeance.
But then the mythical logic sets about solving a problem. Why should the audiences cheer on victory for the Greeks instead of the Persians? The Spartan Queen, Gorgo, gives an impassioned speech near the end of the movie inciting the Greeks to further war against the Persians, but it is a confusing and contradictory list of reasons: sacrifice, freedom, justice, revenge. After all, the filmmakers have depicted Artemisia fighting against the Greeks for similar reasons. Interestingly, she desires revenge for the oppressive violence and sexual abuse visited upon her since childhood by warring Greeks.
As the song “War Pigs” suggests, what is depicted here is an endless cycle of revenge that can only end in an apocalypse for all — and the movie ends precisely with an unresolved escalation of hostilities. Still, what does the myth have in mind when the villains seem to be more compelling than the heroes?
The mythical narrative underpinning the film is actually quite coherent when seen from the perspective of the Gospels, which take the side of victims, unlike the myths of antiquity, which accuse them. The brilliant Catholic thinker, René Girard, professor emeritus at Stanford University, has explained how the hidden logic of myth involves collective violence against a scapegoat, as well as divine power being paradoxically attributed to that scapegoat. Girard has discovered this recurrent pattern everywhere, in all the myths of the world, with one exception. The Gospels alone vindicate the scapegoat, who in the person of Jesus is uniquely portrayed by the Gospel narrative as both innocent and divine.
In an inversion of mythical stereotypes, says Girard, the Gospels reveal “collective victimization” as the mechanism by which human society tries to control the human appetite for violence. In other words, the sacrifice of scapegoats is how Satan casts out Satan. Girard sees this as a fundamental cultural phenomenon that may be found in the mythical storytelling that always retains some memory of this victimization.
In Rise of an Empire, under the influence of a post-Christian conscience that wants to both condemn real violence and real cruelty, and yet enjoy them for pleasure as entertainments, we have a classic mythical scapegoat: Artemisia.
The mythical function of Artemisia is to be the villain who is violently scapegoated to feed the audience’s dark appetites. Not only is sexual violence visited upon her, which in the movie’s myth becomes the vengeful motive for the battle of Salamis, in the movie’s conclusion she is violently sacrificed for the audience’s satisfaction.
I think that it is entirely appropriate for me, in a Christian publication, to spoil this ending for you. As Girard points out, the Gospels have illuminated the perverted logic of myth, thus spoiling its power to cast out Satan with collective victimization courtesy of the crowd-pleaser Satan.
By comparing the historical account of the real Artemisia in Herodotus (Histories VIII.67–69, 101–103), we can see a mythical inversion at work. In reality, Artemisia survived the battle of Salamis, and was highly prized by Xerxes as his advisor, because of her remarkable intelligence and outstanding strategic counsel. She lived on, and she prospered.
But in the mythical narrative of Rise of an Empire, right after she rejects Xerxes’ advice to her not to enter the battle of Salamis, she is gruesomely murdered by Themistocles at Salamis. The cinematic myth inverts the historical record.
The film then concludes with the unification of the Greeks, precisely on the basis of Themistocles’ violent sacrifice of Artemisia. This mythical unity never happened at Salamis (moreover, the Athenians and the Spartans ended up fighting each other for the rest of the century), but this is exactly what Girard points out is the purpose of mythical thought in scapegoating one person as the prime villain: namely, collective unity.
Throughout the film, this problem of the unity of the Greeks is suggested, and the theme of sacrifice recurs, again and again, as being what is necessary to achieve collective unity. Will that unifying sacrifice be the death of the 300 Spartan warriors at Thermopylae, seen in 300? No. In Rise of an Empire, it is revealed instead to be the violent defeat of Artemsia, who functions as the scapegoat in the new movie’s greater myth, which enfolds the previous movie’s smaller narrative.
A mysterious line — “only the Athenians exist” — is repeated in voiceover both at the beginning and near the end of the film when we see Athens being sacked by the Persians. What we learn at the end of the film is that Greek unity — unity so that no one Greek city exists strategically isolated and alone, at the mercy of the Persians — is achieved by the violent scapegoating of the myth’s designated villain, Artemisia.
Indubitable confirmation of this interpretation is given by the unexplained magic power that Artemisia has whereby she makes Xerxes into a god-king and controls him. Like the scapegoats of myth that Girard has studied in his scholarly work, the scapegoated villain Artemsia has divine powers that demarcate the line between being a mortal and being a god.
In the film’s centrally significant scene, Artemesia offers to make Themistocles a god-like Xerxes. He refuses. Therefore, the film’s mythical logic proceeds to portray her as the demonic woman scorned. The temptation she offered was for Themistocles to have a godlike “freedom without consequence or responsibility.”
After Christianity’s revelation, it is hard not to be aware of the power of violent cruelty. Rise of an Empire shows this awareness, not only in its condemnation of the cycle of revenge among history’s “war pigs,” but also in its deliberate manipulation of bloodthirsty audiences who want violent spectacle. Its strange narrative is thus both mythical in its deliberately scapegoating aims and yet oddly informed by inescapable echoes of the Gospel condemnation of violent cruelty.
Yet, in light of the Gospels, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that both making and viewing such movies is to indulge in a mythical, all-too mythical, “freedom without consequence or responsibility.” Do we really want to be like those gods?