In all likelihood, Spartan warriors didn't actually do battle in nothing but clingy leather underwear and red capes. They wore body armor and loose drawers like kilts. But here on the Montreal set of 300 a retelling of the Alamo-style last stand that a Spartan army elite took against a Persian army 250,000 strong history is not the guiding force. It's what looks cool.
''That's the way Frank drew it,'' says director Zack Snyder. He's referring to Frank Miller, a cult-star comic-book creator best known for Sin City and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder, a buff, energetic 40-year-old who got his start in commercials and scored with 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake, debated tinkering with Miller's concept of Spartan attire, circa 480 B.C., but went with the nearly naked look. And therein lay a problem. It wasn't long before the iron-pumping cast, headed by Scottish-born Gerard Butler (Phantom of the Opera) as Sparta's bombastic king Leonidas, began to develop some peekaboo wardrobe malfunctions. ''I never thought I'd get sick of dealing with men's codpieces,'' says costume designer Michael Wilkinson. ''But I've kind of officially reached that point.''
The public's appetite for them these days is anyone's guess. In 2000's Gladiator, Russell Crowe famously bellowed, ''Are you not entertained?'' Back then, audiences certainly seemed to be. The bloody, R-rated saga grossed $458 million worldwide and won five Oscars. But a funny thing happened on the way back to the Forum. Even as studios rushed more historical epics into production, audiences at least American ones turned indifferent. Troy, starring Brad Pitt, grossed only $133 million domestically. Oliver Stone's lambasted Alexander, starring Colin Farrell's crazy blond hairdo, followed with just $34.3 million. And after opening in May 2005, Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven limped to $47.4 million.
By June 2005, Hollywood was nursing a nasty Gladiator-clone hangover. In the midst of all this, Snyder was taking meetings at Warner Bros., the very home of underperformers Troy and Alexander, to seal a deal on...another historical epic. ''In some ways, I was able to spin that whole bad-box-office thing,'' Snyder says. A little-known fact certainly helped: Troy, Kingdom, and Alexander each grossed about three times as much overseas as domestically. (Troy's worldwide gross reached nearly half a billion dollars.) With a story set mainly on the Grecian battlefield at Thermopylae and a largely non-American cast, 300 seemed well positioned to appeal to foreign audiences. And Snyder was promising not just a lot of blood, but new blood: ''I said, 'Listen. The genre is ripe for reinventing, because you have this glut of sword-and-sandal pics. So let's reinvent it.'''
Snyder's plan was to make a kickass, hard-R-rated action movie that felt like anything but a period piece. It would be shot almost entirely on bluescreen soundstages with computer-generated backgrounds added later. CG would also be used to create geysers of spurting blood worthy of Jackson Pollock, the better to control the precise level of the gore if the MPAA's ratings board found it all too much. The battle scenes would be filled not with conventional swordfights but with post-Matrix slow-to-fast-motion mayhem, heavy on impalements and decapitations. In short, it would be what Snyder's wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder, describes as ''a ballet of death.''
The hardcore tone concerned Warner execs. They pushed Snyder to consider aiming for a PG-13. But as Deborah Snyder recalls, ''Zack put his foot down. Either they were going to do it as an R, or we were going to walk away and try to do it somewhere else.'' Says Warner president Jeff Robinov, ''As you looked at the storyboards on how he was going to shoot the movie, there was no real way around an R.'' The director won his fight. The catch was that he had to hack the budget to below $65 million about one-third of what Troy reportedly cost. A tight 60-day live-action shoot began in fall 2005, and Warner got busy positioning 300 to the obvious fanboy-heavy, Sin City-loving audience. The studio organized a Q&A panel with Snyder and Miller last July at San Diego's Comic-Con International, where they showed preview footage so gory and spiked with nudity it couldn't be posted on the Internet, thanks to MPAA rules about trailer content.
According to Snyder, Warner had given up on trying to appeal to a female audience. Then a pair of test screenings changed all that. ''We got, like, a 100 percent recommend from women under 25,'' says the director. ''They don't even get that kind of score on a romantic comedy.'' Why did women respond? In Miller's original graphic novel, Leonidas' wife, Queen Gorgo, appears only in passing. In the movie, Queen Gorgo (Brit Lena Headey) is a front-and-center partner to Leonidas, calming his nerves in bed (while both are very, very naked) and getting her own new subplot about political corruption as Leonidas marches off to war.
''At first I very much disagreed with it,'' Miller says. ''My main comment was 'This is a boys' movie. Let it be that.''' But the Snyders felt strongly that Leonidas needed something specific to fight for, and that female ticket buyers needed someone to identify with. The preview scores vindicated them. ''Those numbers came back, and Warner said, Wow, we need to rethink this a bit,'' says Snyder. Instead of spending big on one 30-second Super Bowl TV spot, Warner sprinkled previews into more female-friendly TV shows, including Grey's Anatomy, Heroes, Lost, and American Idol.
Marketing the movie overseas may turn out to be more vexing. The studio had banked on how well sword-and-sandal movies play abroad, but when 300 was unveiled at the Berlin Film Festival in February, the filmmakers got some hostile reactions from journalists. ''I was getting bombarded with political questions,'' says Snyder. Some Europeans saw Leonidas' lone-wolf march against the Persians as an allegorical defense of President Bush's incursion into Iraq. ''When someone in a movie says, 'We're going to fight for freedom,' that's now a dirty word,'' says Snyder. ''Europeans totally feel that way. If you mention democracy or freedom, you're an imperialist or a fascist. That's crazy to me.''
But movies become what their audiences make of them, whatever a director might intend. Which brings us to one more wild card in the 300 launch: the gay factor. While Queen Gorgo's topless interlude will get the hormones of adolescent males firing, it's hard to predict what they'll make of Xerxes, the eight-foot-tall Persian conqueror who looks like a glam-rock refugee. He's played as a fey, sexually ambiguous figure by Brazilian-born actor Rodrigo Santoro (currently an ill-received new character on Lost). ''He's this giant,'' says Santoro of Xerxes, ''who believes he's a god. He's very manly, but at the same time has a feminine side.'' And why is that? ''Because, being a god, he's allowed to have every quality.'' The scenes of a bejeweled, long-fingernailed Xerxes offering King Leonidas peace in exchange for ''submission'' have a decidedly sexual undertone. Snyder says that's not accidental, that it's intended to make young straight males in the audience uncomfortable: ''What's more scary to a 20-year-old boy than a giant god-king who wants to have his way with you?''
The movie, true to Miller's vision, is also loaded with sweaty hunks running around in those tight leather Speedos and capes. None of this is played for gay appeal, but could induce snickering among some teens. Snyder shrugs it off. ''Some people have said to me, 'Your movie is homoerotic,' and some have said, 'Your movie's homophobic.' In my mind, the movie is neither. But I don't have a problem with people interpreting it the way they'd like to.'' As long as they buy tickets first.