Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus: Wonder of the World

There were actually two queens of Halicarnassus called Artemisia. In the 4th century BC, one built a mausoleum to her husband, that was so beautiful that it became acknowledged as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but she was the later, and at least for our purposes, the secondary holder of the name. Her predecessor’s time in the spotlight came during the Battle of Salamis, in the year 480 BC – the story of how she arrived there, leading a squadron of ships, would occupy the bulk of the movie, with the battle as the climax. Artemisia had married the King of Halicarnassus about twenty years earlier and when he died a few years later, took the throne for herself.

There is more speculation involved than historical fact, but since very little – not even the King’s name! – is known for sure, and nobody suggested making a documentary, we can be forgiven some dramatic license in the next couple of paragraphs. I think portraying him as an older man, who takes Artemisia as a young trophy wife, would be a credible assumption. I see him being sick for a time before death, so she runs the state in his name and makes a really good job of it. After he passes, Most of the nobles, all the people and even the Persian overloads are keen for her to continue, but nothing is ever that easy.

Every film needs a villain, so let’s have some evil characters in the background. Give the old King a son from a previous marriage; a real nasty type, with a beautiful (but even nastier!) wife. They expect to rule when the King dies, but make no attempt to help Artemisia in running the place – indeed, quite the opposite, they cause nothing but trouble. With little home support, the stepson gets some from a nearby enemy city. The two sides battle for control, Artemisia wins, and her rivals for power flee into exile. It is safe to assume that she didn’t get the throne without some kind of a fight, and if we include Persian assistance for our heroine, this would explain why she later supported their cause, in gratitude for their help.

Now back to historical fact. Halicarnassus was one of the Ionian Greek States on the West coast of what is now Turkey. It is known that Artemisia led her ships in action against other Greek city-states long before the main battle. There is nothing unusual in this as the Greek states often fought amongst themselves. She gained enough success to become a military advisor to King Xerxes of Persia, the world superpower of its day.

The Persian Empire was a huge collection of diverse races united only in the tributes they paid to Xerxes. A select group of these subservient allies plus some of his own officials made up his military council. Artemisia was a member of the council and she alone spoke against taking on the Athenians in a naval battle. She advised him that the fleet would be better employed in supporting the army. Athens had already been occupied, and the whole of Greece lay open, but if the Persian fleet were decisively defeated, most of the army would have to withdraw as it could no longer be supplied from the sea. She wasn’t predicting disaster – but she wasn’t ruling it out either and considered it not worth the risk.

This would make a very dramatic scene, and would also be historically accurate. Xerxes liked her and listened to what she had to say, but went ahead and tried to smash the Athenian fleet anyway. Over-confident to the point that he set up his golden throne to watch the battle, Xerxes was to be disappointed. Although heavily outnumbered, the Greeks out-thought, out-manoeuvred and then out-fought their foes, gaining in the process one of the most important and decisive naval victories of all time. The battle itself was of enormous importance and if the Greeks had lost, it is quite possible that their civilization as a separate entity would have been extinguished. In the past it has been impossible to do such battles justice, but in the era of CGI, it can be done.

Artemisia’s part in the battle is well documented, although there does seem to be some minor variations. I have tweaked my favourite version for the purposes of the movie version. She is in the thick of the battle and her ships have been holding their own. Elsewhere things are going badly for the Persians as the allied fleet, starts to disintegrates. Realising that the cause is lost and that it is now time to abandon her rearguard action and look to her own survival, Artemisia plans her escape. With a Greek trireme bearing down on her ship, and her escape route blocked by the confused melee of ships she increases speed and heads straight for them. If a collision was inevitable, it will be on her terms. She lines up the ship of her hated enemy, King Clamasithymus who, while nominally on the Persian side, was the one who aided her stepson and gave him refuge. At full speed she smashes into the King’s vessel, her trireme’s underwater ram punching a hole in it below the waterline. The trireme backs off and as its victim sinks, Artemisia notices with some satisfaction that her stepson is on board. Convinced that the Queen has changed sides, the Greeks let her withdraw her squadron from the battle.

It has been recorded that Xerxes watched from the beach and when Artemisia rammed her rival exclaimed, “The men behaved like women, and the women like heroes.” It has been suggested that Xerxes was unaware of who she rammed, but I don’t buy this. Calling it a Persian fleet is done as a convenience, because describing it as a combined Phoenician, Egyptian, Cypriot, Cilician and Ionian-Greek fleet, is so cumbersome. Persia was a land empire and called on its allies and vassal states to provide ships. These were peoples who were natural rivals most of the time and would need little incentive to start fighting each other, especially as they try and escape the Greek trap. Artemisia only did what everyone else was trying to do – she just did it with style. The recognised facts support this view: after the battle, she remained on good terms with Xerxes while most of the fleet, and Xerxes himself, returned to their home countries

Meanwhile, back at the movies, how should the character of Artemisia be played? I see a beautiful lady who exudes an air of quiet dignity when required for ceremonial purposes, but is firm and decisive when decisions need to be made. In council she would command respect with her delivery of articulate intelligent argument. In battle she would be tough and ruthless, but fair and willing to give credit where it is due. The sort of commander men will follow into the jaws of hell. There may well be others that could do justice to the role, but if it was up to me, I would give it to Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Although it has been suggested, I’d prefer not to include a full-blown relationship between Xerxes and Artemisia. Xerxes was a man who would not have been short of mistresses, but would never dream of bringing one to a war council. It is quite possible that he liked the idea of putting Artemisia to the sword (so to speak!), leading to some unresolved sexual tension, but I much prefer the idea that she was there entirely on her own merits. Someone like John Rhys-Davies, might make a good Xerxes.

Since Artemisia was fighting on what is historically regarded as “the wrong side,” some time will have to be spent on her motivation. I think it reasonable that she believes that the Greeks and Persians should be united – she was after all a Greek living under Persian rule. At the end of the film, a narrator could mention that it was 150 years later that this happened, but not in the way that Artemisia expected. Oliver Stone notwithstanding, it took the genius of Alexander the Great to conquer both Persia and Greece, bringing them together at last.

Further reading: Herodotus on Artemisia

Action Heroines of History

The year 2004 will not go down as a great vintage for historical movies, thanks to Troy, Alexander, King Arthur, etc. In contrast, films that feature original ideas, even if they are sequels, have done well, but there are so many interesting stories contained in history that I see no need to stick with the familiar. To illustrate this point I have compiled a selection of pieces on successful women from history, whose stories would all make good movies.

As well as factual details, the pieces include suggestions of how the films could be constructed to marry historical fact and cinematic drama. These are a pair of influences which tend to be uneasy bedfellows, but too often accuracy ends up sacrificed wholesale, for reasons which tend to be questionable at best. This isn’t necessary; as these cases show, there is potential for an interesting film that still remains credible.

The heroines come from widely different eras, and while they vary in their importance as far as making a difference, I find them all fascinating, and feel strongly that they deserve to be better known. Part of the reason they are not is, I believe, down to historians, who seem far more interested in women who meet with a tragic end. For example: Cleopatra (suicide), Boudicca (suicide), Joan of Arc (burned at the stake), or Mary Queen of Scots (beheaded). I’m sure that many people would appreciate a film featuring women who come out a winner, and these articles will hopefully generate some interest in such historical figures.

Making history: historical heroines to Hollywood

See also

 

Cutie Honey

starstarstarstar

“She giggles! She plays with her cat! She kicks ass!”

The picture on the right probably does a better job of explaining what Cutey Honey is about than I ever could; part-girl, part nano-technology, rebuilt post-car crash with superpowers and some interesting costumes, which require fuelling through junk food. After her uncle is kidnapped by the evil Sister Jill (Sakai) and his/her/its minions – Jill is part tree, and has also been kidnapping women en masse, in order to drain their lifeforce – only Cutie (Sato) can save the day, assisted by a no-nonsense policewoman (Ichikawa) and a journalist who, basically, acts as “Exposition-San” (Murakami).

Director Anno is best known for the (over-rated) anime series, Evangelion, so who better to convert a manga/anime heroine to the big screen? Certainly, the first ten minutes are utterly fabulous, capturing the comic-book essence perfectly, thanks in part to magnificent design work. The sets, costumes and even hair (particularly of the villains) are first-class, even in a movie that is clearly tongue-in-cheek; the clues include villains who break into song, and really big explosions which cause no damage at all.

While the film doesn’t quite live up to its opening and, frankly, occasionally drags in the middle, it’s largely entertaining, especially in the action sequences. Sato does a good job in both “uber-perky” and “intense” modes, while Ichikawa benefits from little touches like her glasses, which turn out to be total affectation. Much as in Evangelion, the end is some kind of deep, philosophical mess, rather than the knockdown battle we all want to see; however, it annoyed me much less here, arguably fitting the heroine’s sunny disposition. Hollywood, with a lot to learn about making comic to cinema adaptations, could do much worse than taking Cutie 1.0.1.

Dir: Hideaki Anno
Star: Eriko Sato, Mikako Ichikawa, Jun Murakami, Eisuke Sakai

Kunoichi: Lady Ninja

starstar

“What?”

A combination of the seventh and eighth in the series, it’s the first, and I believe first entry (don’t think there’s any connection to Lady Ninja: Reflections of Darkness) to get Western distribution so far, and boy, it shows. I can only presume it makes sense if you’ve seen the preceding six, because it sure as hell doesn’t on its own. A group of seven nuns decide to take revenge for an attack on their convent by becoming ninjas, and acquiring skills like “Nipple Shock Wave”. Which is exactly what it sounds like, even if most of the actual arterial violence is carried out by their ally, a one-eyed swordsman called Yagyu Jubei (Ozawa).

It fails to make sense on a whole variety of levels. Individual scenes are barely coherent; neighbouring ones don’t connect with each other; and the overall result could be imitated by channel-surfing a series of ninja-based TV stations. Mind you, Friday the 13th Part VII would make no sense if it was your first exposure to the series, and if you’re prepared to waive your constitutional right to know what the hell is going on, there’s still moderate fun to be had here – as long as your definition of “fun” encompasses large amounts of spurty dismemberment.

The problem with the heroines is mostly their poorly-defined characters; it’s hard to tell any member of our magnificent seven apart. They look similar, dress the same, and possess few distinguishing features. Overall, I can’t say how much blame lies with the film-makers, and how much with distributors Media Blasters for skipping the first six parts; either way, this isn’t recommended any more than halfheartedly.

Dir: Hitoshi Ozawa
Star: Yuko Moriyama, Hitoshi Ozawa, Non, Momoka Saeki
a.k.a. Kunoichi ninpô chô Yagyû gaiden: Edobana jigoku-hen