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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.94117). 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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.6769, 101103), 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.
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.
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.
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?