300 | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
click to enlarge The battle -- and Leonidas (Gerard Butler) -- rages on.
The battle -- and Leonidas (Gerard Butler) -- rages on.

Before you notice anything else about 300 -- which is based upon Frank Miller's graphic novels, and directed by Zach Snyder -- you'll notice the sound of it. From start to finish it rumbles with stereo majesty: lightning and thunder, roaring voices, clashing metal and what must be three full symphony orchestras all playing at once. Trust me when I tell you that if you want to see this movie at all, you do not want to see it on a television set.

Then, when you begin to look at 300, it overwhelms you with CGI effects of impossible perfection. It's a marriage of one of the cinema's oldest genres and one of its newest, so advanced in its technology that you can't even be sure whether the warriors' washboard abs are real or Memorex, to borrow a decidedly antiquated metaphor.

It's photographed in color, but just barely: Flesh tones -- from white to black (many of the Persians, oddly enough), and all points in between -- dominate the palette, with only red battle robes and golden fields of wheat offering splashes of conventional beauty. You certainly wouldn't want to make a diet of such stunning artificiality, but every once in a while, you just can't help going wild at the dessert table.

The true history of 300's fantabulous narrative took place in 480 B.C., at Thermopylae, where the valiant King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), in violation of Spartan law, took an elite fighting force of 300 men and for two days held off the massive Persian army of Xerxes, who was fighting a war left to him by his father, the great King Darius. ("Go tell the Spartans," wrote Simonides of these legendary encounters.)

Leonidas leaves behind an angry city council and a duplicitous politician (Dominic West) who forces Leonidas' adoring queen (Lena Headey) to have sex with him in exchange for his support for more troops, which she entreats the government to authorize. Meanwhile, in the field, Leonidas and his 300, aided by several thousand ill-trained allies, kill more Persians than hardly seems possible.

Of course, it isn't possible, and who cares: This is "history" with a very small "h" (for example, they all mispronounce the hero's name). If the spectacle of a son trying to finish his father's war sounds familiar, then so is the outcome thus far: Xerxes loses in the bitter end, although it's the Greek battle cry -- like our current son-of-a-president's -- that speaks almost religiously of honor, glory and duty to the next generations.

Politics aside, 300 is one bloody good time at the movies. Finally, special effects allow us to see arms and legs severed in mid-air. Leonidas is big, but Xerxes, through the magic of perspective, is bigger, and some of his arsenal -- a gargantuan warrior, mounted rhinos and elephants -- are even bigger yet. Size matters in 300, even if the eponymous Spartans seem to wear almost embarrassingly small leather codpieces. Although to be fair, most swords do look bigger when someone points one at you.

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