MOVIE REVIEW- Macho man: Conan the Spartan's epic history lesson

"Graphic" used to describe the level of sex and violence in a movie; now it refers to the source material. The latest graphic novel to reach the screen, 300, was written/drawn by Frank Miller, author of Sin City, with Lynn Varley.

Though some of Miller's trademarks are present, this isn't another contemporary story, but an epic history lesson. There's the usual disclaimer stating that the incidents and characters portrayed are fictitious, but history books report there was a Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, where 300 Spartans put up a brave fight against thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of invading Persians and their allies.

The movie must be wordier than the book, especially the narration in the early portion, or there wouldn't have been room for drawings. Although you may not make the connection, the narrator is Dilios (David Wenham), one of the Spartan captains.

While Sin City didn't take itself too seriously, 300 does, with a self-importance that makes The Passion of the Christ look like Life of Brian. But how seriously can you take a movie in which the men of 2500 years ago go to war in leather Speedos, harnesses, capes, and boots?

A prologue shows how important fighting is to Sparta, distinguishing them from the "philosophers and boy-lovers" of Athens. Male children are killed at birth if they don't appear fit; others are subjected to rigorous martial arts training and removed from their families at the age of seven for really rough stuff.

The boy used as an example grows up to be King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), married to Gorgo (Lena Headey), who takes a more active role than women, even First Ladies, were supposed to. Her role has been beefed up from the book.

Speaking of beef, the Spartan army has more muscles than an Arnold Schwarzenegger Film Festival, and when they're not fighting, they're posing. If this is your idea of eye candy, you'll get your fill. The highest of the men's voices is a basso profundo, and they go down from there.

Persian "God-King" Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who wears a lot of gold bling and fake fingernails, sends a messenger demanding the Spartans kneel to him and give him a token of their submission. Leonidas doesn't do submission. He also doesn't do retreat or surrender. Instead, he recruits 300 men to fight with him as "we face the most massive army ever assembled." His wife gives him a pep talk: "Come back with your shield– or on it."

For a king, Leonidas isn't a bad strategist, forcing the invaders into a narrow mountain pass where their numbers will do them no good. To intimidate the enemy, he has his troops build a wall with the bodies of dead Persians.

The battle rages for three days, interspersed with scenes of Gorgo trying to rally the politicians to support the war. She does what she has to do with the duplicitous Theron (Dominic West) to save the day for her husband.

Parallels to another hopeless battle, the Alamo, are inescapable, but controversy has been stirred up by people seeking parallels to the current war in Iraq. Some see Bush as Leonidas, others as Xerxes. In its celebration of heroism, 300 certainly appears pro-war, but that might be debated by those who think an accurate portrayal of the cost of war in human lives is automatically anti-war.

It's not in black and white like Sin City, but 300 makes considerable use of desaturated color, so some scenes look almost black and white. With backgrounds created in computers, the movie comes up with some stunning visuals, including giant elephants and a huge armored rhinoceros. The look is more fantasy than history.

The battle scenes are as rough as you'd expect, with plenty of decapitations and de-everything-elsitations.  Unlike some leaders, Leonidas is right there in the thick of it.

The target audience of geeks who have never seen a real woman should be pleased with all the breasts on display and some lesbian action at a Persian orgy. The credits say there are three transsexuals, two Asian and one Arabian, so there's definitely something for everyone.

Director Zack Snyder debuted with the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead while waiting for this project to come together. He's still a ways from the A-list in terms of quality, but this silly talkfest should make enough money to advance his career.