In a nutshell, in 480 BC, Persia invaded Greece with what was at the time, the largest army ever assembled. What we know of the invasion, we get from several sources, but the most detailed account, and the one with the most interesting bits, is by the Greek Historian Herodotus. The great Persian God-King Xerxes made a play to conquer Greece by threat and bribery, and when the two great city-states of Athens and Sparta told him to get bent, he invaded. While Athens navy held off the bulk of the invading ships, Sparta, which was hamstrung by an outdated set of laws that required the King to get approval from their oracle before declaring war, did nothing.
In a desperate ploy, the Spartan King Leonidas hand picks 300 elite soldiers to accompany him to a mountain pass known as The Hot Gates near Thermopylae. The mountain pass acts as a natural funnel where the Greeks can make a stand against an army whose numbers suddenly count for little. The rest is history as 300 Spartans and about seven thousand other Greek soldiers hold off an army of at least 100,000 strong, for three days. On the third day, the Persians are told of an alternate route around The Hot Gates. About to be outflanked, Leonidas orders the remaining soldiers into a retreat. He stays behind with his remaining Spartans and about 1,000 Thespian soldiers to cover the withdrawal.
Later, Leonidas' martyrdom galvanizes Sparta into action, and together with their Athenian counterparts, they hand Xerxes a defeat that begins a downward spiral that will end 150 years later when Alexander the Great ends the Persian empire on a more permanent basis. And you all thought history wasn't fun!
In 1998 the great comics writer and artist Frank Miller created a masterful retelling of this historical account. Setting up the characters with fully fleshed personalities and rendering them in his highly stylized trademark drawing style, resulted in a modern classic of the comics art form.
Enter Zack Snyder, fresh off his success remaking George Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead, Zack dives into the 300 project headfirst.
The result is 117 minutes of fun, and one of the best movies ever made. Because the Grecian topography has changed radically in the 2,500 years since the battle, location shooting would prove impossible. Instead, Zack filmed the entire movie in front of a blue screen. The backgrounds and scenery were filled in later by CGI. While I'm not completely sold on this technique (previously used in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, as well as the Matrix movies,) in this case, as with the previous Miller adaptation Sin City, the CGI allows the cinematographers and the set designers the freedom to adapt the comic panel by panel. It's a perfect fit. Not only do the characters look and act true to Miller's work, but even the scenes that were added to pad the story for motion picture pacing, look and feel like they're right out of Miller's story.
Gerard Butler is absolutely perfect as King Leonidas. He looks the part as do all the actors playing the Spartans. There are more six packs in this movie than at a frat house on pledge night. Butler turns in an Oscar worthy performance that makes Russell Crowe's Gladiator look like a little girl in a pink frilly dress. Leonidas opposite number Xerxes is played to absolute perfection by an almost unrecognizable Rodrigo Santoro. When these two fine actors are on scene together they bring every acting skill they've ever learned to bear, resulting in some of the most intensely brilliant scenes ever filmed. It's like watching a precision practice run from the George C. Scott school of caffeine frenzied scenery chewing. You will believe these two actors are opposing battlefield generals.
The writing is dynamic and fluid, allowing plenty of breathing room for the battlefield action. Scriptwriters Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, with an able assist from the director, should be commended for turning out an outstandingly tight script. It even has the requisite one-liners, several of which are right out of Herodotus. When the Persian field commander yelled, "Spartans, throw down your weapons and surrender." and King Leonidas retorted, "Persians, come and get them." The whole theater cheered. Of course, with source material this good, it's hard to go wrong.
Larry Fong turns out a feast for the eyes, bringing his cinematography skills honed on several seasons of the TV show Lost. The combat is period specific, so there's lots of spraying blood and flying heads, but Fong shoots it all so well, that it hardly matters. Every scene is altered to look like it came right out of the 300 graphic novel, so it has the effect of making the gore more tolerable.
300 is a violent story, so it's not for younger kids. There's a lot of on screen gore, but again, it's stylized so the effect is muted, and I would have no problem taking a teen to see this. Just make sure you're a good parent and you watch this with them in case you have to explain things. This movie earned its R rating so go see it with that in mind and you'll be fine. It's a terrific, grandiose spectacle of a movie, based on one of the most enduring stories ever told. It's destined to become classic fare, and it'll definitely be a must own when it finally comes out on DVD.