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I gave a four-star rating to " Sin City ," the 2005 film based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller . Now, as I deserve, I get "300," based on another work by Miller. Of the earlier film, I wrote prophetically: "This isn't an adaptation of a comic book, it's like a comic book brought to life and pumped with steroids." They must have been buying steroids wholesale for "300." Every single male character, including the hunchback, has the muscles of a finalist for Mr. Universe.

Both films are faithful to Miller's plots and drawings. "300," I learn, reflects the book almost panel-by-panel. They lean so heavily on CGI that many shots are entirely computer-created. Why did I like the first, and dislike the second? Perhaps because of the subject matter, always a good place to start. "Sin City," directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller, is film noir, my favorite genre, taken to the extreme. "300," directed by Zack Snyder , is ancient carnage, my least favorite genre, taken beyond the extreme. "Sin City" has vividly- conceived characters and stylized dialogue. "300" has one-dimensional caricatures who talk like professional wrestlers plugging their next feud.

The movie involves a legendary last stand by 300 death-obsessed Spartans against a teeming horde of Persians. So brave and strong are the Spartans that they skewer, eviscerate, behead and otherwise inconvenience tens of thousands of Persians before finally falling to the weight of overwhelming numbers. The lesson is that the Spartans are free, and the Persians are slaves, although the Spartan idea of freedom is not appetizing (children are beaten to toughen them).

But to return to those muscles. Although real actors play the characters and their faces are convincing, I believe their bodies are almost entirely digital creations. They have Schwarzeneggerian biceps, and every last one of them, even the greybeards, wear well-defined six- packs on their abs. I can almost believe the star, Gerard Butler , may have been working out at Gold's Gym ever since he starred as the undernourished Phantom of the Opera, but not 300, 200 or even 100 extras. As a result, every single time I regarded the Spartans in a group, I realized I was seeing artistic renderings, not human beings.

Well, maybe that was the idea.

The movie presents other scenes of impossibility. Look at the long- shots of the massed Persians. There are so many they would have presented a logistical nightmare: How to feed and water them? Consider the slave-borne chariot that Xerxes pulls up in. It is larger that the imperial throne in the Forbidden City, with a wide staircase leading up to Xerxes. Impressive, but how could such a monstrosity be lugged all the way from Persia to Greece? I am not expected to apply such logic, I know, but the movie flaunts its preposterous effects.

And what about Xerxes ( Rodrigo Santoro ) himself? He stands around eight feet tall, I guess, which is good for 500 B.C. (Santoro's height in life: 6 feet, 2.75 inches). He towers over Leonidas (Butler), so we know his body isn't really there. But what of his face? I am just about prepared to believe that the ancient Persians went in for the piercing of ears, cheeks, eyebrows, noses, lips and chins. But his eyebrow have been plucked and re-drawn into black arches that would make Joan Crawford envious. And what about the mascara and the cute little white lines on the eyelids? When the Spartans describe the Athenians as "philosophers and boy-lovers," I wish they had gone right ahead to discuss the Persians.

The Spartans travel light. They come bare-chested, dressed in sandals, bikini briefs and capes. They carry swords and shields. At the right time, they produce helmets which must have been concealed in their loincloths. Also apples. And from the looks of them, protein shakes. They are very athletic, able to construct a towering wall of thousands of dead Persians in hours, even after going to all the trouble of butchering them. When they go into battle, their pep talks sound like the screams of drunken sports fans swarming onto the field.

They talk, as I suggested, like pro wrestlers, touting the big showdown between Edge and The Undertaker. "Be afraid!" they rumble, stopping just short of adding, "Be very afraid." They talk about going on the "warpath," unaware that the phrase had not yet been coined by American Indians. Their women, like Gorgo ( Lena Headey ), queen of Leonidas, are as bloodthirsty as their men, just like wrestler's wives.

All true enough. But my deepest objection to the movie is that it is so blood-soaked. When dialogue arrives to interrupt the carnage, it's like the seventh-inning stretch. In slow motion, blood and body parts spraying through the air, the movie shows dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands, of horrible deaths. This can get depressing.

In old movies, ancient Greeks were usually sort of noble. Now they have become lager louts. They celebrate a fascist ideal. They assume a bloodthirsty audience, or one suffering from attention deficit (how many disembowelings do you have to see to get the idea?). They have no grace and wisdom in their speech. Nor dignity in their bearing: They strut with arrogant pride. They are a nasty bunch. As Joe Mantegna says in " House of Games ," "You're a bad pony, and I'm not gonna bet on you." That's right before he dies, of course.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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Stamped from the Beginning

Film credits.

300 movie poster

Rated R violence, nudity, sexuality

117 minutes

Gerard Butler as Leonidas

Lena Headey as Gorgo

Dominic West as Theron

David Wenham as Dilios

Vincent Regan as Captain

Michael Fassbender as Stelios

Tom Wisdom as Astinos

Andrew Pleavin as Daxos

Andrew Tiernan as Ephialtes

Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes

Peter Mensah as Messenger

Stephen McHattie as Loyalist

Screenplay by

  • Michael B. Gordon
  • Kurt Johnstad

Directed by

  • Zack Snyder

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300 Reviews

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Forget realism, this is Greek history as a macho fantasy that privileges brute force over intellect and turns war in an epic gladiator battle.

Full Review | Aug 19, 2023

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Stylized violence at its finest.

Full Review | Original Score: 8/10 | Nov 24, 2020

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If you're looking to see the rich, deep imagery of 300 play out in the most beautiful, bone-crunching way possible, this 4K offering is absolutely a must-have.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Oct 19, 2020

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Butler encompasses the demeanor of a mighty and powerful king/warrior whom men would follow into battle.

Full Review | Original Score: 4.5/5 | Oct 8, 2020

Very violent, but rich in atmosphere and amazing visuals.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Aug 4, 2020

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300 isn't up to the same level as Sin City, but it is still quite entertaining. Fans of blood, gore, and comic book violence won't be disappointed.

Full Review | Original Score: B | Nov 21, 2019

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By no means great art, but it most certainly is fantastic trash.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/4 | Jun 6, 2019

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A highly stylised fantasy, its colour palette both lush and gloomy. Leonidas is inspiring and practical and as usual when Butler's playing someone who isn't from Scotland, 50% Scottish. Headey is terrific, put her in charge of the Ancient World right now.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Nov 19, 2018

What's really striking about the film is that it doesn't even have the aesthetics of a comic book, to say nothing of a graphic novel-the best examples of which, at least, show considerable concern for subtle narrative rhythms.

Full Review | Aug 23, 2018

If you're in the mood for dumb, rousing, visceral excitement, you're not going to find anything on the big screen right now to rival it.

Full Review | Original Score: 2.5/4 | Feb 6, 2018

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There is an intelligent movie to be made about Spartan warrior culture, but 300 is not it. It is a fun ride, though, as long as you don't see it on a full stomach.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/4 | Mar 22, 2016

Our instinctual desire to sneer at the implausibility of the story is stalled by a sense of ambition that seems unmatched even by the standards of the Hollywood assembly line.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/4 | Sep 13, 2013

So manly it makes Troy look like a Mary-Kate and Ashley adventure.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Nov 3, 2012

Wallowing in the same adolescent nihilism as his Sin City, this adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel suffers from a similar lack of momentum.

Full Review | Original Score: 2/5 | Jul 9, 2012

Despite a cracking central premise and outstanding visuals, 300 ultimately leaves you feeling more gutted than some of the disemboweled soldiers on display throughout the movie.

Full Review | Jul 6, 2010

As the first blockbuster of the year, 300 sets the bar high enough, and is enjoyably silly.

Full Review | Original Score: 7/10 | Jul 6, 2010

If 300 represents an evolution in 'virtual' cinema, then at the same time it tells a story that transports us back to the violent roots of western civilisation.

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Full Review | Original Score: A+ | Jul 6, 2010

Visually thrilling and viscerally satisfying.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Jul 6, 2010


Full Review | Aug 27, 2009

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T he political and media classes of Iran are reportedly up in arms about this fantastically silly retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC, co-produced by Frank Miller, author of the pulpy shocker Sin City, and also the graphic novel on which this movie is based. With the kind of tremulous fervour that only prepubescent boys can work up on the subject of war, it recounts how the barbarous invading hordes of Persia were heroically held back by just 300 oiled and muscly Spartan warriors long enough for the Greek armies to regroup and for Athenian democracy - and by implication, all our inherited western values - to be saved for ever more. Iranian commentators, sudden and quick in quarrel, have found the slight intolerable. These people will presumably now redouble their commitment to historical sensitivity with another Holocaust Denial Conference.

And anyway, please. The Persians aren't made to look that bad. If they were, they'd be played by Brits. As it is, their leader, King Xerxes, is semi-nude (like everyone else) with loads of ethnic-looking body jewellery and he is played by pert Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, last seen almost getting off with Laura Linney in Love, Actually and almost getting off with Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's multimillion dollar Chanel ad.

It's the Spartan King, Leonidas, who is played by a Brit: the grizzled, masculine, shouty figure of Gerard Butler, like a poor man's Russell Crowe. He's even shown in a rippling cornfield with his lady wife, like the great Gladiator of old. Like the other 299 warriors, he models an unattractive pair of trunks, looking like no one so much as the legendary 1970s English wrestler Mick McManus, although Mick never had those twin slabs of pecs and the kind of ripped abs that come from 1,000 crunches a day - or at any rate a fair bit of digital tweaking in post-production.

The biggest laugh comes when Leonidas, while striding purposefully around in his dun-coloured pants, gruffly denounces the culture of Athens as "poets and boy-lovers!" Oh Leonidas! Do you really want to go there, your Majesty? Do you really want to poke the lid of that worm-filled can with your great big Spartan spear? I had a feeling that, whatever the historical reality of the Spartans' sexual conventions, the Spartan armourer here should have been working overtime running up the 300 handbags necessary for the kind of martial contest for which this vast platoon of gym-bunnies is most obviously fitted. The Spartans were historically joined by Thespians, and frankly they are all Thespians in spirit. I don't think I have ever seen a more unintimidating bunch. Were they up against Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger and Hyacinth Bucket we would see 300 arses - that is to say 600 tastefully smudged, semi-revealed Spartan buttocks - getting well and truly kicked. The silliest-sounding one is the Australian actor David Wenham, who has a strangulated English accent, as if he is auditioning to be a commentator on Test Match Special.

Xerxes commands a vast force and moreover has at his disposal a number of gigantic beasts, real and legendary, along with weird claw-handed giants whose job is to decapitate underperforming generals pour encourager les autres. He arrogantly sends word to Sparta, demanding of Leonidas some token form of submission: a tribute of earth and water. Leonidas refuses, kicks the Persians' emissary into a well, and slaughters the rest of the messenger's entourage too, apparently reckoning that, in the richness and fullness of time, their non-reappearance back in the Persian camp will tell Xerxes all he needs to know. Yet a corrupt cadre of Spartan priests, given to slobbering loathsomely over beautiful dancing girls, tries to tell Leonidas that the time is not propitious for Sparta to go to war. These hideous misshapen old men - and I have never seen a film go in quite so enthusiastically for the ugly-equals-wicked equation - are in the pocket of Sparta's most duplicitous and corrupt politician Theron, played by Dominic West.

Theron's most abysmal act of wickedness, while the King is away, is to force himself upon Leonidas's queen, played in full spirited-filly mode by Lena Headey . "This will not be over quickly," he hisses malevolently into her ear. "You will not enjoy this." I checked my watch at this stage, and found that on this issue, Theron had a point.

And yet it has to be said that there is a level of cheerfully self-aware ridiculousness, which means that 300 is not entirely without entertainment value. Pundits might be pretty quick to invoke Leni Riefenstahl in connection with this movie, and certainly Nazi Germany did indeed have a belligerent-sentimental soft spot for the Spartans at Thermopylae. But no one could possibly take it seriously, and surely no one in their right mind in the US could find in Frank Miller's homoerotic battle fantasy of Thermopylae an incitement to war against Iran. Apart from anything else, the idea of America having the Spartans' underdog status is not plausible.

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Bloody, fanboyish retelling of an ancient battle.

300 Poster Image

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this movie.

Themes of underdog heroism and not bowing to corru

Even in the face of sure defeat, brave soldiers st

Over-the-top battle-scene violence, including grap

Extended love scene between Leonidas and the queen

Colorfully worded insults like: "motherless dogs,"

Parents need to know that this is no Masterpiece Theater rendition of ancient history. Like Sin City , 300 is an ultraviolent tale based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller. There's blood galore as the Spartans -- trained war machines -- defend their land against Xerxes' massive Persian army…

Positive Messages

Themes of underdog heroism and not bowing to corruption get a little lost in the blood and gore.

Positive Role Models

Even in the face of sure defeat, brave soldiers stand firm against tyrannous threats to freedom. A corrupt Spartan councilman is exposed as a traitor and brought to justice. But also some stereotyping based on Asian culture, as well as one character's physical disability.

Violence & Scariness

Over-the-top battle-scene violence, including graphic decapitations, severed limbs, mutilated bodies piled high, arrow-filled torsos, etc. Young Spartan boys are forced to furiously fight each other. The Spartan mottos are "No retreat, no surrender" and "No prisoners, no mercy."

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.

Sex, Romance & Nudity

Extended love scene between Leonidas and the queen; viewers can see her nude breasts and his butt. The adolescent Oracle writhes and sways while wearing a sheer cloth that reveals her breasts. A character unwillingly has sex to procure a politician's favor. Although no nudity is shown in that scene, the aggressor whispers menacingly: "This will not be fast. You will not enjoy this." Xerxes' lair is depicted like an orgy, with various half-dressed Persian women kissing, moaning, and having sex.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Sex, Romance & Nudity in your kid's entertainment guide.

Colorfully worded insults like: "motherless dogs," "philosophers and boy-lovers," etc.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Language in your kid's entertainment guide.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this is no Masterpiece Theater rendition of ancient history. Like Sin City , 300 is an ultraviolent tale based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller. There's blood galore as the Spartans -- trained war machines -- defend their land against Xerxes' massive Persian army. Battlefield valor and violence is glorified by the Spartans, who take no prisoners and show no mercy. Heads literally roll, blood splatters, exotic animals are sliced and speared. Many, many soldiers on either side die gruesomely. If on-screen death and war -- even one so stylized and cartoonish at times -- is too disturbing a subject matter for your kids (or you!), this bloodfest isn't a safe bet. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails .

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  • Parents say (34)
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Based on 34 parent reviews

It's soooooo heavy handed

What's the story.

Adapting Frank Miller's graphic novel 300, Snyder takes a hyperstylized visual approach to depicting the famed Battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas ( Gerard Butler ) and his 300 elite personal guards defied their Oracle and the odds to wage war against Xerxes' huge, unrelenting Persian army. Faced with the choice of submitting to Xerxes (Brazilian Lost regular Rodrigo Santoro, rendered nearly unrecognizable in earrings and eye makeup) or waging war, Leonidas makes the only choice a warrior-king can: fight. Leonidas and his personal detachment, led by his captain (fine character actor Vincent Regan) and Dilios (David Wenham), discover that although they're grossly outnumbered, they can funnel the enemy into the Hot Gates (the literal translation of "Thermopylae"), a narrow pass where the Spartans' special-forces skills will crush wave after wave of the Persians. And, oh, how they crush. It's impressive and disarming to see the 300 delight in the "glory" of warfare. The Spartans, so drunk on warlust that they dismember, skewer, decapitate, and spear the enemy -- whether it's human, animal, or something in between -- are brave, but also a bit mad. What the Spartans want (unlike the Arcadians, a group of fellow Greeks that joins them) is not to survive but to "die a beautiful death" in battle.

Is It Any Good?

At times engrossing and at times laughably over-the-top, 300 is entertaining as an extended war sequence. However, the film falls short of reaching the revolutionary Matrix -like status that the film's creators claim. The whole segment in Xerxes' lair, with its hedonistic sensuality, smacks of stereotypical Orientalism, not to mention some of the grossly depicted Persian soldiers and the disfigured hunchback who plays a central role.

Talk to Your Kids About ...

Families can talk about the Spartans' upbringing and values. Why are 7-year-olds forced to fight each other -- and adults?

Xerxes offers Leonidas what sounds like a sweet deal; why does the king, facing certain death, turn it down?

Movie Details

  • In theaters : March 8, 2007
  • On DVD or streaming : July 31, 2007
  • Cast : David Wenham , Gerard Butler , Lena Headey
  • Director : Zack Snyder
  • Inclusion Information : Female actors
  • Studio : Warner Bros.
  • Genre : Action/Adventure
  • Run time : 117 minutes
  • MPAA rating : R
  • MPAA explanation : graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity.
  • Last updated : August 9, 2023

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Review: The '300': Ah, the fine-looking fighters of freedom-loving Sparta

By A.O. Scott

  • March 8, 2007

300 Directed by Zack Snyder

The film "300" is about as violent as "Apocalypto" and twice as stupid. Adapted from a graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, it offers up a bombastic spectacle of honor and betrayal, rendered in images that might have been airbrushed onto a customized van sometime in the late 1970s. The basic story is a good deal older. It's all about the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, which unfolded at a narrow pass on the coast of Greece whose name translates as Hot Gates.

Hot Gates, indeed! Devotees of the pectoral, deltoid and other fine muscle groups will find much to savor as King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads 300 prime Spartan porterhouses into battle against Persian forces commanded by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), a decadent self-proclaimed deity who wants, as all good movie villains do, to rule the world.

The Persians, pioneers in the art of facial piercing, have vastly greater numbers — including ninjas, dervishes, elephants, a charging rhino and an angry bald giant — but the Spartans clearly have superior health clubs and electrolysis facilities. They also hew to a warrior ethic of valor and freedom that makes them, despite their gleeful appetite for killing, the good guys in this tale. (It may be worth pointing out that unlike their mostly black and brown foes, the Spartans and their fellow Greeks are white.)

But not all the Spartans back in Sparta support their king on his mission. A gaggle of sickly, corrupt priests, bought off by the Persians, consult an oracular exotic dancer whose topless gyrations lead to a warning against going to war. And the local council is full of appeasers and traitors, chief among them a sardonic, shifty-eyed smoothy named Theron (Dominic West).

Too cowardly to challenge Leonidas man to man, he fixes his attention on Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), a loyal wife and Spartan patriot who fights the good fight on the home front. Gorgo understands her husband's noble purpose. "Come home with your shield or on it," she tells him as he heads off into battle after a night of somber marital whoopee. Later she observes that "freedom is not free."

Another movie — Matt Stone and Trey Parker's "Team America," whose wooden puppets were more compelling actors than most of the cast of "300" — calculated the cost at $1.05. I would happily pay a nickel less, in quarters or arcade tokens, for a vigorous 10-minute session with the video game that "300" aspires to become. Its digitally tricked-up color scheme, while impressive at times, is hard to tolerate for nearly two hours, and the hectic battle scenes would be much more exciting in the first person. I want to chop up some Persians too!

There are a few combat sequences that achieve a grim, brutal grandeur, notably an early engagement in which the Spartans, hunkered behind their shields, push back against a Persian line, forcing enemy soldiers off a cliff into the water. The big idea, spelled out over and over in voice-over and dialogue in case the action is too subtle, is that the free, manly men of Sparta fight harder and more valiantly than the enslaved masses under Xerxes' command. Allegory hunters will find some gristly morsels of topicality, but you can find many of the same themes, conveyed with more nuance and irony, in a Pokémon cartoon.

Zack Snyder's first film, a remake of George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," showed wit as well as technical dexterity. While some of that filmmaking acumen is evident here, the script for "300," which he wrote with Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon, is weighed down by the lumbering portentousness of the original book.

In time, "300" may find its cultural niche as an object of camp derision, like the sword-and-sandals epics of an earlier, pre-computer-generated-imagery age. At present, though, its muscle-bound, grunting self-seriousness is more tiresome than entertaining. Go tell the Spartans, whoever they are, to stay home and watch wrestling.

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"Jingoistic Martial Values"

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What You Need To Know:

(HH, PaPa, B, P, RH, HoHo, L, VVV, SS, NN, A, MM) Materialistic, militaristic humanist worldview with lots of references to pagan deities who are dismissed and despised although the culture looks to them for guidance and where death is extolled, plus some revisionist history; and depicted homosexuality; one "h" word; ultra extreme violence progressing from babies thrown off a cliff to children being toughened by being beaten, whipped, and slugged, wolf attacks young man, woman slapped, extreme battle violence with blood spurting and bodies cut, tremendous amount of body parts, nightmarish violence, grotesque creatures; extreme sex in orgy scene like out of a pornographic magazine, with homosexual, transgender and lesbian content, plus implied and depicted fornication; lots of upper female nudity, rear male nudity, upper male nudity; drinking; and, treachery, treason, bribery, cruelty.

More Detail:

Based on a graphic novel, 300 is billed as “a ferocious re-telling of the ancient battle of Thermopylae in which King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fought to the death against Xerxes and his massive Persian army.”

The movie opens with Leonidas as a little baby being inspected at the edge of a cliff to see whether he should be thrown away or allowed to remain and grow up a Spartan. The camera lingers over the skulls and bones of babies who had been thrown over the cliff. The narrator, whom the audience meets as one of the soldiers later in the movie, describes how little Leonidas is taught to be a true Spartan. Leonidas engages in battles with a powerful adult Spartan at a very young age. Leonidas is bloodied and whipped until he no longer responds to pain. Hauled off from his mother as a young child, Leonidas is raised in a militaristic environment and eventually sent out as a teenager to face the wolves. He survives by forcing the wolf to pursue him down a narrow passage, where the wolf gets caught, so Leonidas can kill him.

Leonidas grows up to be the King of Sparta. When King Xerxes of Persia’s ambassadors come to ask Leonidas to submit to Xerxes, Leonidas tells the ambassadors that Spartans are free and then he kills the ambassadors. The Spartan men and women are a good-looking, well-endowed people, whereas Xerxes and his ambassadors are asexual, transsexual, perverse, grotesque, and repulsive.

It is revealed that one of the leaders of the Spartan Council has been paid off by Xerxes to turn the council against Leonidas. Furthermore, the ruling ephors, a debauched bunch of old men who delight in ravishing the most beautiful women in Sparta, tell Leonidas not to fight the Persians. Since Leonidas must obey the ruling ephors, he cannot take the Spartan army to war. As a clever alternative, he recruits the 300 top Spartan warriors and heads off to Thermopylae, where he plans to confront Xerxes’ million-man army and fight them in a narrow pass that gives the Spartans advantage.

On the battlefield, the Spartans are superb military strategists and decimate many Persians, including the king’s famed immortals. Xerxes eventually tempts an outcast Spartan hunchback with an orgy that features lesbian sex so that the hunchback will reveal a secret passageway through the mountains so Xerxes can surround the Spartans. The Spartans believe that the greatest thing that can happen to you is to die in battle, so their death is a victory. The history of this battle is well known.

Based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, the creator of SIN CITY, 300 is very dramatic, emotional and spectacular. A few people in the audience left early because of the carnage. The people who stayed cheered at the end. This is a very ultra-violent movie. The few dramatic scenes of spurting blood in earlier movies like the WILD BUNCH become a torrent of blood and guts, decapitations and mutilations in 300.

The story is actually very militaristically right wing. The Spartans are good-looking people. The enemy is a bunch of perverse-looking Persians. The message is clear, it’s better to fight them than have them come and destroy us. If it weren’t for the excessive blood and sex, 300 could be used as a recruiting movie for Iraq and possible Iran, modern Persia. The messages are not obtuse. They are clear and consistent.

That said, there are few Judeo-Christian virtues in 300. The Spartans see the world as a humanist, materialistic place, and divine judgment seems far from their minds. The vivid, licentious sex scenes alone could fill a couple issues of contemporary pornographic magazines. And, did I mention the blood, which flows all the way to the credits and splatters up against the screen?

It should be noted that 300 is based on the vain imaginings of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, not on history. One could spend a long time looking at the real Sparta of history. In Sparta, men and women did not live together like they do in the movie. Men lived in barracks, and marriage was purely a means to propagate. The family unit in the movie did not exist in Sparta. Ancient was communalistic in the extreme and very “spartan.” Men ate simple food. The Spartans did not like book learning. They looked down on the Athenians. They had two kings, not one as in the movie. They had two deliberative councils. They had slaves, who were consistently oppressed and reviled. And, so forth and so on. Their society was so rigid that it atrophied over time. Sparta would make Stalin’s Soviet Union look like a free society.

That said, the Battle of Thermopylae is one of the great turning points in history. The Greeks came into their own after the battle, and Western history, culture, and religion developed. The Persians won but were ultimately defeated. There are elements of the first great Greek historian Herodotus’ perspective in the movie. He saw the Persians as decadent and the Spartans as free, but beyond that, 300 is revisionist history, more of a comic book than anything else. However, children will think that it’s history and that’s always distressing. Americans know so little history that we are infected by these false visions of the past.

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23 Mar 2007

NaN minutes

The word ‘Spartan’ nestles in the English lexicon as a synonym for words like ‘austere’ and ‘disciplined’. But while the Spartans of ancient Greece were all those things and more, none of these locutions captures the essence of this unique people. A better modern-day equivalent to ‘Spartan’ might be ‘belligerent nutcase’, and anyone in doubt need look no further than 300, which stands as an opulent, brutal and bloody declaration of that fact. An adaptation of Sin City creator Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300 recounts the country’s finest hour: Sparta kicked plenty of ass over the ages, but it was at Thermopylae, in 480 BC, that she earned eternal renown. What those warriors achieved in life (and lots of death) still echoes through eternity.

Trumpeted by its makers as “Gladiator meets Sin City”, the cinematic rendition of 300 is fiercely loyal to its bronze-and-crimson-coloured graphic progenitor and, as such, is as far removed from reality as the last batch of Celebrity Big Brother housemates. Thermopylae was a real battle, the opening salvo of the Second Persian War no less. The Spartan king Leonidas, played here by Gerard Butler, did defend the ‘Hot Gates’ in Northern Greece with 300 hoplites, against an invading Persian army that Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, numbered at one million strong. While modern scholars insist that the Persian horde, vast as it was, totalled no more than 200,000 men, Miller and Snyder prefer Herodotus’ estimate. They also lift from his dialogue (“Then we’ll fight in the shade” is a line from the great historian, for example), although both happily depart from his source material when counting colossal elephants among the Persian forces.

Still, much like a football match between England and Brazil, 300 vs. 200,000 is hardly a fair contest, Leonidas and co. facing laughably overwhelming odds. Unlike the English football team, however, they offered a remarkable display of mettle — and indeed metal — against an army hundreds of times their size. Their story is the stuff of legend, and that thought was paramount in Miller’s mind when consigning his vision to the page. For Miller’s intention was that 300 should be historically _in_accurate — this was his bid to mythologize an actual event, lending to it the power and grace (and a healthy amount of exaggeration) normally associated with classical epic. If the battle at Thermopylae had occurred a millennium earlier, it would no doubt have formed the basis of a legend every bit as fantastic and entertaining as the works of Homer (much more lively than the pallid cinematic offering that was Troy, based on Homer’s The Iliad).

It’s somewhat ironic that whereas Troy, retelling a story rooted in myth, sought to present a world devoid of the unusual, 300, while recounting a story drawn from fact, is as fanciful as any Homeric yarn (cue fat freak with sharpened tusks for arms and a bard with a goat’s head). Snyder is entirely faithful to Miller’s intent, however, and he has cooked up an astonishing visual feast, spinning a tale that at times mimics the graphic novel frame-by-frame, the raucous content just what you’d expect to hear from some ancient, toothless sage telling hero tales around a campfire. In fact, the film is framed as a saga related by the storyteller Dilios (David Wenham, neither ancient nor toothless). It is this mythic conviction that underpins the film’s failings and informs its successes.

Chief among the latter stand the Spartans themselves, Butler and co. sporting as much muscle as a bouncers’ convention and offering a convincing portrayal of a Spartan crack troop. Fighting in nothing more than big pants, helmet and shield, there are more six-packs on show than at an Aussie off-licence, but they largely manage to convey hard-assedness rather than homoeroticism. The Spartan battle formations and fighting styles are entirely accurate, and some of the battle choreography ranks among the finest committed to film. Snyder makes us believe that these Spartans really could dispatch 100 inferior men apiece, and still have the energy to run a marathon afterwards. Crucially, Butler convinces as a leader of men, bellowing orders, wisecracking or bolstering confidence as the occasion demands, leading from the front and laying out several battalions’ worth of the enemy. Leonidas — noble, stubborn and deadly when roused — may be not be complex, but Butler has the conviction and charisma needed to carry it off.

Sadly, he’s hamstrung by the film’s structure and, ultimately, by its direction. The film shoots for epic from minute one, demanding our awe before it’s been earned and painting with strokes so broad that it’s hard to make out such niceties as character, motivation or period detail. Snyder came to the fore with 2004’s Dawn Of The Dead remake, after learning his trade in the world of commercials, and 300, at times, looks a little like a heavy metal video. At one point, when the Spartans trudge forward to engage their enemy, it sounds like one too, a raging torrent of testosterone that is as merciless in its stabbing delivery as the Spartans themselves. In truth, the music is more than a little overcooked throughout, especially in the Gladiator-lite scenes amid the waving barley. And Snyder loves that slo-mo button, ramping the speed of the action up and down during the fight scenes, the better to move smoothly from kill to kill — a technique which, used sparingly, works beautifully, but is indulged too much during the otherwise storming middle act.

That said, Snyder does bid to temper the testosterone levels by injecting a little oestrogen, courtesy of Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). The Spartan queen is glimpsed in Miller’s work, but Snyder pushes her further to the fore. Her heartfelt speech to the Spartan assembly, while a little public school debating society, is at least couched in believable language, spilling from the tongue of a character who has some claim on our affection. Something which cannot be said of Leonidas and his Spartans.

Nothing is more epic than the tradition of the defiant David standing up to a mammoth and all-powerful Goliath — Homer knew it; Leonidas knew it; Frank Miller knew it; and after watching 300, you will know it too. But you’re unlikely to care, for such is the nature of myth and epic that characterisation and language exist only to serve the story. For all their bravery and bluster, Spartan deaths or injuries pluck no heartstrings — we neither know these men nor care about their fate. For all Butler’s verbal anguish and warrior dexterity, he and his 300 are cartoon characters, simple archetypes of ancient epic, spitting vitriol and wielding weapons but ill-equipped to connect to those watching them on screen. The result is that the conclusion of this, one of the greatest stories ever told, is sadly fumbled.

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