The opening scenes recount the childhood of Leonidas and in his story we see the culture of Sparta is geared to producing the most perfect warriors.
We then jump forward almost thirty years and we see visitors from the East riding hard to reach Sparta. They are emissaries from King Xerxes of Persia. The ambassador reigns in his horse as the Scythian bowmen also reign in their horses. He proceeds to pull from a bag a string of skulls with gold crowns. Scene cuts to Leonidas teaching his young son how to fight when he is summoned to meet the emissary. The Persian ambassador asks Leonidas to submit to Xerxes. When Queen Gorgo objects he asks Leonidas what kind of woman is this? Gorgo slaps him down by saying she is a Spartan woman, one who bears the finest warriors. The Persian keeps asking Leonidas to submit and Leonidas refuses in a most forceful way, the Spartans kick the Persians into an abyss. So now Sparta is at war with the Persian Empire.
After a frightful journey up a mountain to consult the Ephors and their oracle, Leonidas is told not to take the Spartan army to meet the Persians. Little does Leonidas know that the Ephors have been bribed by Xerxes. Next morning Leonidas has gathered up 300 Spartans who have sons. When the Spartan Council says he can not take the army, Leonidas says he is not. The council then asks what does he plan to do. Leonidas says he plans to take a walk with his personal bodyguard. Gorgo gives Leonidas his shield with the admonishment of returning with it or on it. Gorgo also gives back to him a fang from the wolf Leonidas killed during his rite of passage.
On the march north various things happen. They note someone is following them. When Leonidas meets up with the Acheans, the Acheans express dismay at so few Spartan warriors. So Leonidas asks one Achean what he does, he admits to being a potter. And another is asked, he is a sculptor. Leonidas turns to his Spartans, "Spartans!" "Ooohaaah!" He turns back to the Acheans, "I still have more soldiers than you do." They also stumble across a village that has been ransacked by the Persians with all the villagers murdered.
Finally they reach Thermopylae and start to dig in. The Spartans kill off some Persian scouts and use their bodies as part of the wall they build to funnel Xerxes into the pass. Once again an emissary of Xerxes demands they surrender. And again the Spartans refuse. When the emissary promises their arrows will blot out the sun, the Spartan who had cut off his arm replies "Then we will fight in the shade." The mysterious person following them is revealed to be Ephilleus, a disfigured man who's parents had fled Sparta because he was born deformed. Ephilleus also knows the secret pass that leads to the Spartan rear. He begs Leonidas to let him fight. He shows Leonidas how he handles a spear but when Leonidas asks him to lift his shield, Ephilleus can not lift it. With compassion in his voice Leonidas tells Ephilleus that he can not use him because Spartans depend upon their shield mates to protect them from enemy blows.
Now we, the audience, are treated to the first full scale battle. The Spartans are formed up in the pass with shields up and spears out. Again the Spartans are called upon to drop their weapons. The Spartans respond with "Come and get them!" Followed by a spear from out of the sky knocking the emissary from his horse. Next comes the torrent of arrows blocking out the sun. The Spartans drop to the ground with their shields up. As the arrows are impacting shields and piercing cloaks, the Spartans start to laugh because they are truly in the shade. Once the arrows are done, the Spartans rise up and knock the arrows off their shields, all ready for a fight. And here come the waves of screaming Persians with their wicker shields.
Finally the first battle is over after the Spartans have pushed the few survivors off a cliff to their death. Leonidas is standing amidst the carnage as some Spartans search through the deep pile Persians for any live ones. When they find any alive, they are promptly killed. He seems unfazed at this part of a battle, he non-chalantly eats an apple. One of the younger Spartans runs up all excited to report a new force of Persians is approaching, a force too small to attack. Leonidas finishes up his apple and declares he will go meet these Persians. The Spartan Captain objects and does not think this is wise. Leonidas says "We can be civilized." Then a Spartan finds another live Persian in the foreground and kills him. This scene produced a laugh from the audience. There is calculation in why Leonidas is willing to meet the Persians, he knows it would be folly for the Persians to kill him; then the Spartan army would rise up.
So Leonidas goes out to meet the Persians. It turns out to be Xerxes himself sitting on a throne that rests on the backs of many slaves. He is in all his kohl-rimmed pierced glory as he strides to meet Leonidas. Again he tries to bribe Leonidas to make him surrender. This time Xerxes offers to make Leonidas warlord of all of Greece if he would merely kneel and submit. After suffering the touch of Xerxes, Leonidas looks him in the eye and says he can not kneel for he has this terrible cramp. So the war continues.
I will stop recounting the movie and now veer into aspects of production. When compared to the natural scenery of Greece used in the production of the 1962 movie The 300 Spartans, yes it is noticeable that the scenery at Thermopylae is not quite right. It seems flatter and less vibrant because a brown tone overlays everything, even the sky seems flatter. But when you are immersed in the Spartans fighting there, it seems to make things more gritty and real than the vibrant greens did in the 1962 movie.
Integration of CGI beasts and monsters into the movie. When the phalanx of Spartans with spears bristling shove the elephants off the cliff, it is comparable to what was seen in the LotR movies in integration. There are no easily spied edges. In fact throughout the movie I never noticed any glaring errors that detracted from watching the movie. Nor the sometimes stilted action, as one sees in Jason and the Argonauts when Jason battles the skeletons, was seen.
The battle scenes. These were exquisitely choreographed ballets of mayhem. The motion shifts between slow-motion, stop-motion, and regular speed all in the swing of a sword or the thrust of a spear. The blood turns into droplets that seem to float there before speeding up again. Every now and then one sees a limb get separated. Or the odd decapitation. When Leonidas gets knocked to the ground by the giant, the action starts to slow as the sword starts to bite into Leonidas' helm, the line it cleaves starts to glow, before Leonidas manages to kill the giant.
Warriors and arms. The Greek hoplite during the Persian wars tended to wear a linen cuirass with metal scales along with pteruges to protect his body. His spear could be as long as 10-ft and he also had a 2-ft long short sword. The Spartan shield was a typical hoplon made of wood covered by a thin sheet of bronze with the Lamba letter emblazoned on it. In some respects the movie got it right; spear length, helmet, and Lambda on the shield spring to mind. They took artistic license but only a true nit-picker would decry being deprived of all that Grecian power. What about the Persians. Did the Immortals look like they had mud-packs on in reality? No, artistic license again. But Persia did not consider their infantry shock troops so their armor was lighter, hence the wicker shields that were of no protection against a hoplite's spear or sword.
Even with the very wordy ending as the Spartans get fired up before the Battle of Platae, I did thoroughly enjoy this movie. When compared to movies like the very violent Kill Bill movies, I do not see how any reviewer can honestly decry the violence in 300 while praising the violence in Kill Bill or Natural Born Killers. In 300, it is part of the story; for the other two it substitutes for a story. The only truly jarring thing in the movie was how they processed Xerxes' voice, I kept expecting his eyes to glow and Jaffa to show up to serve their Goa'uld master Xerxes.
Still give it a 4 out of 5 stars. $70 million in revenue the first weekend can't be wrong can it? :)