Queens of the War: Gorgo and Artemisia

The most important line in both 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire, is one they share. In 300, it’s an iconic moment, roared by Gerard Butler as King Leonidas shortly before he commits the murder that makes war inevitable. The image of McLeonidas, as I like to call him, screaming ‘THIS! IS! SPARTA!’ and front kicking the Persian ambassador into the pit the Spartans keep around for just this sort of occasion is iconic.

It’s also the least important part of that scene. I watched a double bill of the two movies in IMAX late last week and the moment that they both hinge on comes a few seconds before. The Persian ambassador has laid out their terms, and the threat implicit in them. Leonidas scowls, which it being Gerard Butler, is a lot of scowl and then does something so subtle, so unusual, it passed me by the first time.

He looks at Gorgo, his Queen. They stare at each other for a good few seconds and there’s an entire conversation implicit in their silence. Leonidas is furious, worried, acutely aware of what he has no choice in doing now. But he’s also checking with Gorgo, making sure they both know what’s about to happen, seeing if she has any alternatives and, crucially, seeking permission.

Gorgo nods, imperceptibly, and it’s only then Leonidas acts.

That tiny scene fascinates me because it’s such a stark demonstration of exactly where the power in the relationship lies. Leonidas is self-aware, and endearingly pragmatic about his own certain death but he’s not the person with control of the situation. That’s Gorgo, and that control is both something she accepts and she knows she’ll have to fight to keep. Leonidas is as much a weapon as he is a soldier and in this instance he’s wielded by Sparta, which is in turn embodied by Gorgo.

That’s really emphasized in Rise of An Empire. It’s an odd, cleverly structured movie that manages to be a prequel, sequel and happen simultaneously to 300. Gorgo is present throughout and if anything, her power is emphasized even more in Rise of an Empire in three separate ways all in turn tied to the past, present and future.

The first is the line the two movies share. In Rise of an Empire, Themistocles, the Athenian general, visits Sparta to try and persuade them to add their navy to his fleet. Crucially, he makes absolutely no attempt to talk to Leonidas, instead heading straight for Gorgo. She is clearly in control and that’s clearly no secret.

It’s her delivery of the line that’s really fascinating though. It’s subdued, resigned. The war cry of the first movie’s king, en route to the beautiful death he’s dreamed of, is the snarl of the second movie’s queen, seeing nothing but what she’s about to lose. Power cut tempered by consequence, control cut with loss.

In the third act, Themistocles again comes to her to beg for help, only to discover that the 300 have fallen and Leonidas is dead. Gorgo, at this point, has been thwarted at every turn, losing Leonidas to the war, suffering rape in return for military assistance she didn’t get and betrayed by every aspect of the culture she stands at the head of. She may embody Sparta, but Sparta does not embody her, a lone, vertical point of rage, horror and grief glaring into a funeral pyre that should never have had to be built. She turns Themistocles away again, sending him back to fight and die with the scattered remnants of his fleet. Until, of course, the Spartans arrive anyway and turn the tide of the battle.

On the one hand, this is standard action movie logic but on the other it’s a demonstration of Gorgo’s staggering strength of will. She’s suffered losses that, for almost anyone else, would be crippling. Instead, she pounds them into a foundation that her country can build on and a means of extracting vengeance for herself and her family. She also ensures that her country will be both stronger and safer when they win. Which they will. After all, this is Sparta.

This is also a story and stories are where the power to build and control the future lies. 300 openly explores the idea of its own story being verbal propaganda and Rise of an Empire elevates that to a structural level. Gorgo narrates the entire movie, prequel, side story and sequel, in one monologue that’s equal parts St Swithin’s Day and polemic. She’s not just in the story, she’s in control of it, at least the version the supporting characters get to hear. In other words, Gorgo steers three different stories at once; her own personal narrative, that of Sparta and that of the future. As the first movie opens, she’s forced to send her husband off to war. As the second movie closes, she wields her entire nation as a weapon. Power is finally matched with control and the result is not the tidal wave of heroe’s blood Gorgo speaks about as the movie opens, but a tidal wave of red Spartan cloaks.

Artemisia is as close as these movies get to a miracle. Her entire back story is a laundry list of the sort of off the peg motivation for female characters that’s been run into the ground for years now. Her family were raped and killed by a troop of Greeks, It’s implied she was kept as a sex slave and was finally left to die on a dockside before being rescued by the Persian ambassador from the first movie.

On paper, that particular origin is an unlovable combination of lazy and coy. There are precisely two beats these movies are remotely bashful about, one a piece. In 300 it’s the sketched in attraction between MAGNETO and YOUNG VINCENT REGAN. Here it’s the possibility that Artemisia grew up as a sex slave. From an academic point of view, it’s interesting that the first movie is coy about something positive but the second is coy about something horrific. It’s also, from any point of view, tempting to write Artemisia off as a trope with dialogue from the moment we first see her.

And yet, she transcends all this to become a fascinating, often horrifying, lynchpin for the entire story. She’s Gorgo’s mirror image in many ways, unbound where Gorgo is restricted, driven where Gorgo is considered.

Just how unbound she is becomes clear in the opening scenes of the movie. Artemisia is essentially a free agent, a general whose martial prowess and intellect have put her closer to the dying king than his own son. She is a woman not only free to do whatever she wants but with functionally limitless forces at her command. Gorgo’s intellectual and strategic prowess combined with Leonidas’ thirst, and skill, for violence. She’s a monarch without a country, a woman with no equal who has reached the top of her chosen profession.  What do you do when you realize that you have no peer?

You make one.

Specifically, you make a God and you make sure everything he does, he does because you tell him to. She’s not just an artefact of the brave new world, she’s the architect of it

Artemisia’s the embodiment of the social change that’s buried way back in Xerxes’ armies, presumably somewhere behind the rhinos and just before the obligatory and very confused Hollywood Celts. Xerxes as an idea wouldn’t exist without her and that puts her in a critical space that no one else, aside from Gorgo, even approaches. The Persian general is the literal tip of the sword, the catalyst and focus for every single element of the movies. Eva Green makes that clear from the moment she strides into view, a constant, glowering, mobile force of nature that lifts every scene she’s in. Green’s been doing good work for years (I’d recommend Franklyn in particular, both for her performance and the fact not enough people have seen it) but here she’s extraordinary. Artemisia continually walks the razor line between plot artefact and actual character and Green never once puts a foot wrong or safe. She uses everything from deadpan comedy to cold-eyed rage to explore every aspect of Artemisia and the end result is a performance that doesn’t just hold the movie together, it defines it.

The one downside to the top of the food chain is you tend to be up there alone. Artemisia has no peer in the movies and as a result goes looking for one. Her first attempt is Xerxes, but the very fact she can bend him so completely to her will means he’s ultimately not the person she was looking for. He’s a constructed God, and the control she has over him is also an imperfection.

Themistocles is a much better candidate. Both are soldiers defined by their victories but where Themistocles is locked onto his path by his actions at Marathon, Artemisia is a willing volunteer. She doesn’t just want war, she revels in it and her approach is far more honest than Themistocles’. He is more concerned with the consequences of the war for Athens. She’s more concerned with the idea of finally having an equal, a sparring partner and a lover all wrapped up in one. The sex scene between the two, instigated entirely by Artemisia, is a perfect example of this. She has an absolutely pure sense of purpose and direction, instigating and controlling sex with the one man she’s met who can genuinely match her. When he stops, literally getting control of himself, that’s an immensely significant moment. Firstly because Artemisia is clearly used to getting her own way and secondly because, ironically, that’s exactly what she’s looking for. Themistocles is defined by the system he’s part of but that definition is muscular rather than restrictive. It doesn’t free him to act but it frees him to think. That’s exactly what she wants, and it’s the last thing she wants, and the end result is the war escalating to an even higher level of brutality and an even tighter focus, on the two generals. Their final scene is equal parts brutal, flirtatious and heated as they alternate between debating and beating the living Hell out of each. They’re perfectly evenly matched, one the product of his system, the other a survivor of it and an architect of her own.  The only difference is that Artemisia is fighting for the world she’ll build, whilst Themistocles is fighting for the world he has. The tangible nature of that, ultimately, makes the difference.

The 300 movies have a deserved reputation for being blood-soaked and male centric. That’s deserved, and there’ll be a second piece looking at how Leonidas and Themistocles complement and contrast each other. But the women are the most important characters, even if the first movie in particular never actively acknowledges that. They fight for control not of Greece, but of the narrative of history. Their war is for the future and there’s no greater prize than that.

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