7 Reasons Why 300 Is a Huge Hit

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Warner Bros.

Leonidas, played by Gerald Butler, fights his way through the first wave of Persian infantry in the film 300.

Like a bunch of super-butch Greeks storming Thermopylae, but with fewer casualties and a different ending, the no-star antique war drama 300 triumphed at the box office last weekend. Director Zack Snyder's adaptation of the graphic novel by Frank Miller (Sin City) pulled in $70.9 million, the highest domestic gross for a movie released in March, and third best for an R-rated film. Since sword-and-sandal epics tend to do much bigger business abroad (Gladiator 59% of its theatrical take, Troy 73%), the upside for 300 is enormous.

That's not bad for a picture made on a frugal $65 million budget and shot on a bare Montreal soundstage, with the backgrounds digitally green-screened in later, in the manner of Robert Rodriguez's version of the Miller Sin City. It's also not bad for a movie that's not good. For all its battle-scene gore, 300 is at heart a talky civics lesson. It's dead-serious, stentorian and, when it's not hacking muscular fighters to bits, pretty stodgy.

But, hey, the kids love 300, and we're bound to figure out why. Here are seven guesses as to why the movie was such a Spartanian smash.

1. The marketing.

While still in production, a movie about the heroic defense against a horde off seemingly indestructible invaders is adopted by the fanboys of the Internet. The film becomes a sensation even before it's released and... sorry, that was Snakes on a Plane.

But 300 did benefit from its exposure at last year's Comic-Con convention, and from Warner Bros.' posting of 300 stills from the movie on MySpace. The $70 million opening means that we will see another spate of stories on the power of the Web to launch movies — stories we've been reading since 1999, when The Blair Witch Project became a surprise smash, but whose predictions of seismic changes in movie marketing have been realized only fitfully.

Also: I didn't want to waste one of my seven reasons on this, but the weather was a factor in the picture's success. Last weekend, for a spring change, it was nice out. People wanted to go to the movies, and 300 was waiting for them.

2. The history.

By which I mean movie history.

According to legend, Leonidas, King of the Spartans and the hero of Thermopylae, was a direct descendant of Heracles. For sure, 300 is a direct descendant of Le Fatiche di Ercole, the 1958 Italian sword-and-sandal epic directed by Pietro Francisci and starring California muscleman Steve Reeves. Entrepreneur Joe Levine bought the U.S. distribution rights to the movie (for $120,000), shortened the title to Hercules and booked it in more than 600 theaters — possibly the largest booking of that time, when films typically opened in a few big-city theaters, then slowly spread out to neighborhood bijous. Hercules was a hit, and Levine — who famously said, "You can fool all the people all the time, if the... [advertising] budget is big enough" — had established the viability of the wide movie release.

Hercules spawned perhaps a hundred peplum epics, so called for the short skirts the guys wore. All were inspired by Greek and Roman mythology; Reeves, a former Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe whose previous claim to fame had been a costarring role in Ed Wood's Jail Bait, went on to star in a Hercules sequel, then as Aeneas and Romulus. After him came other musclemen: Reg Park in Hercules Conquers Atlantis, Ed Fury in Ursus, Son of Hercules, Mark Forest in Mole Men vs. the Son of Hercules. Well-tended flesh was as important to these movies as to 300, as were the decorous women and extravagant battle scenes.

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