An epic battle is pumped up

Special to The Times

IN telling the tale of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae -- an epic confrontation in 480 B.C. in which King Leonidas leads an army of just 300 Spartans against the massive Persian hordes of self-proclaimed god-king Xerxes -- director Zack Snyder went big, operatic big.

Rather than taking on the pitch of a dusty tutorial, "300" is a fevered hissy-fit of a movie that operates somewhere between outrageous and demented. Snyder, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, says he had no intention of making a History Channel version of the battle.

"I feel a certain responsibility toward the heroic message of the story, but that doesn't mean that the fun of the movie should be lost," Snyder says. "That's just what I'm drawn to aesthetically. I like the relentlessness and over-the-top nature of the graphic novel. So the pace and design, that hysterical weirdness, come from that."

Like the Robert Rodriguez version of Miller's "Sin City," the distinctive look of "300," which opens March 9, uses actors on spare sets altered digitally in post-production. Only one shot in the entire movie -- horses traveling across the countryside -- was actually filmed outside, and even then the dirt flying from the horses' hoofs was digitally enhanced.

Gerard Butler, who plays Leonidas, and the other actors playing the Spartan army trained rigorously to appear in fantastic shape. The Spartan uniform, true to Miller if not history, consists of little more than sandals, a cape and a small pair of leather briefs. Viewed from a certain perspective, and if one overlooks the Mel Gibson-like slaughter and severed heads, "300" is quite the beefcake movie.

"Frank was so specific about rendering this concept of the Spartans, if it was up to him they would have been completely naked with their cape and sword and shield. Clearly, that's not practical, even I know that's not practical."

But he doesn't think the costumes, or lack of them, will be a distraction. "I think halfway through the movie you forget they are in these bikinis because that's just their outfit," Snyder says. "Their outfit is they're naked. At the end, when Leonidas faces off with Xerxes, it's basically two guys in bikinis, but at that point, hopefully, you've given yourself over to the movie."

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