If Leonidas (Gerard Butler) the King of Sparta had been in any way weak or deformed when he was born, he would have been cast away and rejected. But he was not, and spent his childhood training for combat, sent to a camp at the age of seven where he was encouraged to fend for himself, rely on his wits and most importantly win his battles. Later, when a young teenager, he had been left to the wilds of the countryside where he faced and slaughtered a fierce wolf, an incident that brought him great respect when he returned. And now, as King, he must face death once more, for the Persian army is heading towards Sparta...
...and a-conquering they will go. But not before they hit the snag that is the three hundred men of the title, all buff and anxious for their swords to taste blood. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, it was adapted by director Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, pumped up with subplots to make it feature length and unleashed upon a world of action-hungry movie fans. However, it quickly sailed into controversy when Iranians began objecting to the portrayal of the Persians who were, after all, their ancestors.
The chief problem seemed to be that Sparta was meant to represent the Americans while the Persians were the uncouth and degenerate, according to their rendering here at any rate, Middle East. Not the kind of message you want to have your movie conveying amid the world tensions of the early twenty-first century. The film's champions excused it by pointing out that it was a tale told from the Spartan point of view, so of course the Persians would come across as nasty bad guys, and besides, it was a real battle, but watching 300 many felt its detractors had a point.
Once we get to the confrontation at the centre of the story and Leonidas (Butler spends all his time posing and barking orders and pep talks) has assembled his army of three hundred willing men to go up against the Persian hordes, thousands of them, naturally, the enemy look as if they were presented as if in a propaganda piece. Their ornately decorated King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is camp as all get out, and his men are largely interchangeable save for the odd monstrous mutant. Xerxes even welcomes a hunchbacked traitor suggesting that when compared to the muscular and perfectly put together Spartans there is a mighty strain of body fascism going on here, never mind the sabre-rattling.
But what was not so often admitted by the critics of 300 was how incredibly, bombastically boring it was. The Spartans are a smug, self-satisfied lot, with a "Who's better than us?" mentality that leaves many viewers simply wishing for them to receive their comeuppance. Tiresomely militaristic, the film emphasises the theme of dying in battle being the most noble of ways a man can bow out of this world, when in reality it will be more like a tearstained and ignominious farewell. Nowadays it would be nice to think the armed forces are supposed to prevent wars rather than instigating them, but 300 takes the opposite view, it's like listening to a baying mob chanting "FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!" And it doesn't half go on, with Lena Headey's Queen apparently only present to illustrate that despite all appearances Leonidas is not gay. For manlove does make one of the most vivid themes, consciously or no, what with all those oiled pecs and biceps in every shot we can guess what they get up to when the lights go out. It may be the most overt paean to the male body since Derek Jarman's Sebastiane, but otherwise, it's crashingly tedious. Music by Tyler Bates.