The central story takes place at the battle of Thermopylae, where the titular 300 Spartans face the massive army of Persia headed by self-proclaimed god, Xerxes (played with great vigor and costume by Rodrigo Santoro). The king of Sparta, Leonidas, becomes our focus with an introductory tale of his childhood path to warrior and king, and of course, eventually to become Gerard Butler, last seen as a terrific Beowulf in a very silly film. While it's a bit distracting to have a Scottish Spartan, it becomes less odd when he's joined by Welsh and Australian Spartans, notably the effective Vincent Regan, as his fiercely proud Captain, and the lovely David Wenham as guttural narrator, Blinky, er, Dilios. Lena Heady gets more of a part in the film than the comic as the tough but lovely Queen Gorgo (no, not that Gorgo).
Yes, we have nipples a-plenty with the few female figures (so to speak) in the film; but most of the film is a paen to the male figure -- oh, and the glory of combat fueled by honor. In a nutshell, fighting for freedom good, slavery bad. But that's just one aim -- what the film achieves is a romanticizing of the battle for freedom against all odds. While in our current climate, this would seem to be a thinly veneered commentary on existing wars (particularly given the racial politics as mostly Caucasian Spartans face an enemy of color and often, apparent disabilities), it really seems to be the artist's cri de couer against those who would subvert his vision, particularly in the case of slimy sell-outs like the oozingly slippery Theron, played by Dominic "Spice World" West.
While Miller clearly wants to glorify the clarity of purpose of the Spartans, there is more to it than that. It's easy to make these kinds of arguments about the past, when all the troubling detail has been stripped away by time. I recall the seemingly endless line of films about World War II and the conquest of the West that played on television while I was a child, all the time the very real Vietnam war ran on the news. I suspect that people were longing for a clarity of purpose missing from the real war at the time, but I also see a clear message of "war is hell" that came across in those films, the terrible loss that they all conveyed -- especially by odd films like Hornet's Nest. There's a romantic notion about the manner of one's death being as important as the manner of one's life, that our craven current culture might be less sanguine about embracing, but 300 really comes across as the declaration of the artist under fire who sees his life as bearing arms against an endless sea of troubles.
All of which may seem a bit heavy handed for a film that's really about shiny beefcake (sorry, Cheryl, nary a hairy chest to be seen), but I felt a sympathy for this film that doesn't jibe with my inherent pacifism (there's cartoonish violence a plenty, too, which I take with equanimity). While the real star is Butler's well-honed six pack abs (I have to note, though, that I think some of the other actors' abs looked digitally enhanced, especially Wenham's at the end), the struggle of vision and personal truth against the edict to bow down and kneel to the prevailing powers (whether markets or gods) does appeal to me (that and the drum heavy soundtrack).
And then, of course, there's the beefcake! Steve Reeves, eat your heart out.