Spoiler Alert: I discuss events from season 2 and the season 5 finale of Game of Thrones.
In this post, I examine the ways in which 300: Rise of Empire (Noam Murro, 2014) — a film about the Greco-Persian War of 480 BCE borrows from two moments in the HBO GoT storyline: the Battle of Black Water in season 2 and the Battle of Winterfell in the season 5 finale. The makers of 300: Rise look to HBO series for its opening flashback to the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) and for the third Persian assault in its version of the Battle of Artemisium.
In the season 5 finale, the Bolton forces, led by the repugnant Ramsay Bolton, carry out a preemptive assault on Stannis Baratheon’s newly arrived forces, ending his hopes of securing the Iron Throne. The scene recalls the Athenian assault on the newly landed Persians at Marathon, as depicted in 300: Rise with the Boltons paralleling the Athenians and Baratheon’s army the Persians.
Stannis arrives at Winterfell at dawn, following a night march. He halts his forces and directs them to establish a camp and prepare for an extended siege. The Boltons, who occupy Winterfell, take him by surprise when they launch an immediate attack on his forces, which are weary and in disarray [View the scene here].
300: Rise begins with the Spartan Queen Gorgo (portrayed by Lena Headey, GoT’s Cersei Lannister), widow of Leonidas, narrating in voice over the background to the Persian King Xerxes’ invasion of Greece. She describes the defeat of Xerxes’ father Darius and his numerically superior forces at Marathon by Athenian hoplites under the command of Themistokles: “So, at dawn the hopeless Athenians do the unthinkable. They attack. They attack the weary Persians, as they disembark their ships on shaky legs after a month at sea. They attack before they can set up their war camp and supply their soldiers.” [View the scene here. The relevant voice over information occurs in the first 50 seconds or so. Violence starts at 0:56]. Stannis is in the very act of setting up his war camp, when the Bolton forces are sighted.
There are superficial differences between the situations. Stannis’ force does not outnumber the Boltons. Much of his army had already deserted. He arrives by land, not by sea, etc., but the basic scenario is the same: a preemptive strike surprises and eliminates a newly arrived invader. Coincidentally, both film and episode depart from their respective master texts insofar as Darius’ death is ahistorical and Stannis’ is a divergence from, or at least an imposition upon, George R. R. Martin’s book.
300: Rise shows further borrowing from GoT’s Stannis narrative in its depiction of the last of three engagements at Artemisium between the Greek fleet commanded by Themistokles and Artemisia’s Persian fleet. After Themistokles leads his naval forces to two victories over subordinate commanders, Artemisia takes personal command of the third assault. This consists of a barge that pipes pitch into the sea. Atop the barge, a massive, more or less humanoid creature hammer throws fiery projectiles into the waters around the Greek ships, setting them alight. Finally, Artemisia sends in a squad of her personal guard as suicide bombers. They swim from the Persian ships to the Greek ships with explosives strapped to their backs. When one manages to board Themistokles’ ship, Artemisia shoots a fire arrow into his explosive pack, causing it to explode.
The rest of the Greek fleet is disposed of in similar fashion. The following day Themistokles rallies the survivors to continue the fight.
This sequence is quite similar to the Battle of the Black Water in Season 2. There Tyrion, architect of the Lannister defense of King’s Landing, sends a single ship drifting through the harbor waters into the first wave of Stannis’ attack fleet. This ship is packed with containers of wildfire (a napalm-like explosive substance), an abundance of which it is also leaking into the bay. His bodyguard Bron then fires a flaming arrow into the waters, causing a massive explosion that destroys half of Stannis’ fleet (view the scene here).
Stannis nevertheless leads the other half personally in a second wave attack. Themistokles’ renewed attack on the Persians, following his defeat at Artemisium, is not immediate, as is Stannis’ against King’s Landing. Also, Themistokles is finally successful, where Stannis is not. Yet, here too there is an overriding similarity. When Stannis is close to victory, having breached the wall, his attack is foiled at the last moment by a relief force from the House Tyrell (view here at 00.48). In 300: Rise, Themistokles succeeds in killing Artemisia, but his tiny flotilla remains vulnerable and sure to be overwhelmed. The arrival of Spartan forces at the last moment reverses this all but certain outcome, destroying the Persians’ chances of at least eliminating the Greek force that took the life of their commander (view here).
The choreography of the transition is similar, as well. In GoT, Cersei waits with her son in the throne room preparing to give him poison, while telling him a story to comfort him. 300: Rise even seems to contain a nod to its source, insofar as the same actress narrates in 300: Rise , this time as Gorgo the Spartan queen. Now, rather than immobilized with a palace, she leads the Spartan relief forces. In GoT, as the wounded Tyrion, losing consciousness, gazes off into the distance, the Tyrell army sweeps in to drive off Stannis’ forces. In 300: Rise, as the wounded Artemisia looks off into the distance, moments before her death, she sees the Spartan ships heading toward her fleet, ready to crush it.