Do not — repeat do not make the mistake of cribbing for ancient-history class by skipping Herodotus in favor of this larger-than-legend version of the Battle of Thermopylae, which pitted a coalition of Greek forces led by a mere 300 Spartan warriors against a Persian army so vast the earth shook when it marched. Zach Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's ultraviolent graphic novel is pure brawny spectacle, teaming with beasts, blood, brains (splattered), battle axes and rock-ribbed warriors dressed in swirling scarlet capes and tiny, fetishistic, leather man-panties.
480 BC: Warned by an emissary from the Persian god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, a sexually ambiguous vision in gold, and not much else) that his master is determined to enslave the entire known world, Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) gathers an elite cadre of warriors to defend the free citizens of Greece. The men set out for Thermopylae, a narrow pass near the coast where the martial expertise of the Spartans (supplemented by thousands of raw but enthusiastic volunteers from other Greek city states) may stand a chance against the sheer numbers under Xerxes' command. And were it not for the hunchbacked traitor Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), they might have won and Leonidas' plan might have succeeded. Much of the film's visceral (in both senses) impact comes from seeing the Spartans and their allies repelling wave after wave of everything Xerxes can throw at them: Thousands of archers, armored elephants and rhinoceroses, Xerxes' 10,000 "Immortals" (whom Miller conceives as ninjas in silver kabuki masks) and much, much more, run aground on the sheer, sinewy strength of men raised from birth to fight to their last breath. Meanwhile, in Sparta, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) defends the home front against an opportunistic alliance of scrofulous mystic priests with rotted visages (the resemblance to STAR WARS' Emperor Palpatine is uncanny), and a group of rule-bound councilmen and weasels, like duplicitous politician Theron (Dominic West).
Inspired by seeing the stodgy Hollywood epic THE 300 SPARTANS (1962) as a child, Miller reimagined the Battle of Thermopylae in operatically mythic terms well served by full-out CGI: The actors and handheld props are real, but everything else is computer generated, free from the constraints of sets, locations (Thermopylae is now the site of a highway), weather and physical reality. The result is an alternate reality of metallic skies, desaturated landscapes and literally bestial foes, peopled with flesh-and-blood men so pumped and stripped of body fat that they look as heroically unreal as the digital demons. It may not be by-the-book history — a relative term in any event, when discussing the ancients whose worldview embraced men, gods and monsters — but what a spectacle! leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh