"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
So says a stone epitaph in Thermopylae, Greece, commemorating 300 Spartan warriors who sacrificed their lives in an epic battle against the invading forces of the Persian king Xerxes in 480 B.C. Based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller (Sin City), 300 mythologizes and immortalizes these soldiers' absolute commitment to secure their homeland from tyranny.
The story begins amid political discord. On the eve of Xerxes' invasion, a Spartan oracle has foretold doom if the city's king, Leonidas, sallies forth into combat during an important religious festival. But the ferocious Leonidas—the epitome of Sparta's fiercely disciplined martial culture—puts little stock in the gods' supposed warning. Defying the oracle and the city's governing council, Leonidas takes leave of his wife, Queen Gorgo (a lioness in her own right), and marches with 300 men from his personal guard to meet the enemy.
Leonidas' plan to defeat Xerxes' 100-nation force—which numbers in the hundreds of thousands—requires defending a narrow mountain pass near the sea known as the Hot Gates—Thermopylae in Greek. Joined by 700 volunteer fighters from Thespiae, Leonidas and his professional soldiers prepare to take their stand. Defeat is likely, but they believe their sacrifice will buy time for the city-states of Greece to rally a larger army (a cause Gorgo pursues in her husband's absence).
The Spartans' fabled military prowess handily repels the first waves of Xerxes' army. Neither Xerxes' elite "Immortal" troops, cavalry, a rhinoceros nor even elephants can dislodge Leonidas and his men from the pass. Enter: treachery and betrayal. History (and this movie) tells the rest.
Leonidas and Gorgo repeatedly make impassioned speeches about the values Sparta holds dear. These include glory, reason, justice, respect, family and freedom. Bravery is hardly a strong enough word to describe these warriors' fearlessness. Dying on Sparta's behalf is the highest possible honor, which yields statements such as Gorgo's words to her husband as he departs: "Come back with your shield or on it."
Spartan war tactics depend on interdependence. Leonidas says, "A Spartan's strength is the warrior next to him." The king's willingness to sacrifice himself for his men contrasts with Xerxes' megalomania; the Persian ruler willingly sends hundreds to their death with no concern for their welfare. The only men Leonidas invites to join his war party are those with sons, lest any family's line be wiped out.
Leonidas and Gorgo enjoy a strong marriage as equals (in a culture that's known for generally treating women as second-class citizens). Leonidas also displays affection for his 6-year-old son. And he teaches him, "Fear is constant. Accepting it makes you stronger."
A soldier known as Captain regrets never telling his son, who's perished in battle, how he truly felt. "I don't regret that he died. I regret that I never told him I loved him the most. He stood by me with honor. He [represented] all that was best in me." A mortally wounded Spartan says to his king, "It is an honor to die by your side." Leonidas replies, "It's an honor to have lived at yours." The only words Leonidas wants delivered to his people are simply, "Remember us."
Spiritual content in 300 revolves around two axes: the Greek belief in a pantheon of gods and oracles who communicate with them; and Xerxes' insistence that he is a god to be worshiped.
Leonidas visits an oracle, an entranced young woman who's "tended to" (more on that below) by horribly disfigured men called Ephors. While there, Leonidas is told, "Trust the gods. Your blasphemies have cost us enough already." The king dismisses the Ephors as "diseased old mystics." In passing, Leonidas tells his troops to "pray to the gods." A storm that sinks many Persian ships is attributed to Zeus' wrath.
Xerxes is frequently described (by himself and his underlings) in divine terms, such as "god of gods," and he mimics scriptural language when he says things about himself such as, "The lord of hosts is prepared to forgive all." He speaks of his divine power and promises (almost like Satan's temptation of Jesus) to make Leonidas the warlord of all Greece if he submits. His Immortals are described as "Persian ghosts, hunters of men's souls."
The oracle is barely clothed in a gauzy sheet that reveals her breast. It's implied that the Ephors use her sexually at will, and one licks the oracle's neck as she delivers her prophecy. A graphic sex scene between Leonidas and his wife includes movement, his uncovered rear and several shots of her breasts. Xerxes invites Ephialtes into his harem and uses promises of sexual pleasure to get him to betray the Spartans. Several women are topless and kiss one another in this sensual, orgy-like scene; others are nearly naked.
Queen Gorgo's chief opponent on the council is a devious man named Theron; in exchange for his help, she allows him to have his way with her. It's implied (as he violently grabs her) that he's virtually raping her. (We briefly glimpse her robe fall to the ground.)
Spartan women, especially the queen, wear cleavage-baring robes without undergarments. The Spartan warriors themselves fight shirtless, and the camera often focuses on their physiques. An offhand reference is made to Athenians being "boy lovers."
Let's put it this way: Neither torsos nor appendages fare well in 300. Perhaps thousands of soldiers find themselves on the receiving end of spears, swords and arrows for about an hour and 15 minutes of this two-hour film. A giant is knifed in the eye. Extremities get hacked off (at least three heads, half-a-dozen arms, legs, hands, etc.). After one decapitation, the father of that soldier cradles his son's headless body (the head lies nearby). Spartans repeatedly wander the battlefield skewering unfortunates who've not quite perished yet. ("No mercy" is a Spartan watchword.) Add to such brutality scenes depicting piles of corpses—some skewered on stakes, others "attached" to a tree with arrows and still others used to construct a defensive wall—and you've an epic amount of violent imagery in this film.
Non-battlefield violence includes Leonidas spearing a wolf in the mouth as a youth; 7-year-old Spartans-in-training pummeling and bruising each other; older boys receiving whip lashings to learn how to resist pain; a soldier's wound being cauterized by white-hot metal; and Queen Gorgo stabbing (and killing) a traitorous Spartan. When a herald of Xerxes arrives in Sparta dangling a chain of skulls for emphasis, Leonidas shoves him and several members of his party into a seemingly bottomless pit. Xerxes' executioner is a monstrosity of a man whose arms have been replaced with blades (which he dutifully uses to dislodge heads of failed generals).
Crude or Profane Language
In telling a story about a war hundreds of years before the time of Christ, filmmakers weren't able to logically include abuses of His name. Likewise, they knew it'd be a pretty far stretch to include f-words or s-words. So this R-rated-in-every-other-way movie fades to credits with only one mild profanity ("h---uva) to its name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Leonidas describes the oracle as "a drunken adolescent girl"—and she definitely looks as if she's in an artificially induced stupor. During the orgy sequence in Xerxes' tent, some of the people in the background hold goblets presumably containing wine.
Other Negative Elements
Sparta's devotion to warcraft has a terrible dark side. When baby boys are born, they're evaluated for physical defect. Imperfect newborns are discarded into a pit to die. (We see a pile of skulls indicating this happens regularly.) Spartan law also makes retreat from battle illegal. Not surprisingly, revenge and glory are closely connected. When Captain tells Leonidas, "I fill my heart with hate," the king replies, "Good."
Ephialtes is a disfigured, hunchbacked man whose father was a Spartan but fled the city because he refused to kill his misshapen son. He raised Ephialtes to be a true Spartan warrior. But the man's deformities prevent him from functioning as an equal. Embittered, Ephialtes betrays his people.
The queen is greeted with derision by the Spartan ruling council, which normally would refuse to let any woman, even a queen, speak to them. When Theron betrays her before the council, she spits in his face. Both the Ephors and Theron are secretly taking bribes from Xerxes to keep the Spartans out of battle.
I can't remember the last time I went to a movie so violent and tragic. But that's only the first half of the sentence. Because afterwards, I watched as scores of moviegoers (mostly men) walked to their cars laughing and pounding each other on the back. You'd have thought we'd all just seen Top Gun for the first time. Such is the influence of the latest big-screen Frank Miller adaptation, a hyper-violent, hyper-masculine ode to honor and duty by way of blood, blood and more blood. Did I mention the blood?
Stylistically, 300's melees recall the Wachowski Bros. Matrix trilogy and V for Vendetta. Just as those films raised the visual-effects bar, so 300 could well become a new cinematic benchmark. Combat feels dance-like in its choreography, alternating between real time and slow motion. This results in highly stylized violence—which is all the more emphasized by plumes of blood erupting from combatants' wounds. Regarding the film's look, director Zack Snyder commented, "It's not trying to be reality. The blood is treated like paint, like paint on a canvas. It's not Saving Private Ryan." Snyder also admitted he was more interested in creating visually compelling shots than he was recreating historically accurate fight scenes. "It's bulls---," he said of some combat elements, "but it looks good."
Looking good felt to me like Gladiator on steroids—with several graphic sex scenes tossed in to add titillation. Despite its consistent and at times moving emphases on duty and sacrifice, family and freedom, this blood-bathed epic remains so thoroughly saturated with visceral imagery that those virtues risk getting buried in battle.
Given that, I think I can safely say that the enthusiasm of the crowd I witnessed had much less to do with the film's positive themes than the fact that the filmmakers have managed to make slaughter (and sensuality) look so very cool.