The Battle of Thermopylae is one of history's most celebrated last stands and has been the subject of three movies, one of which included this year's rather lackluster affair, Meet the Spartans. Savaged by critics and viewers alike, this spoof seemed to focus more on today's glitterati and other topical events than the conflict between the city-states of Greece and the might of the Persian empire. The comedy's plot centered around lampooning the subject matter of 2007's controversial Warner Bros.' movie '300', while apparently trying to capitalize on its $400 million worldwide success.
Essentially an adaptation of the comic book series written and illustrated by Frank Miller, 300 was highly provocative due to its portrayal of Xerxes the Great, the Persian and Greek warriors and events of 480 B.C.E. Interestingly enough, Miller was inspired to write the comics after viewing the first cinematic and most historically accurate version of the battle, 1962’s 20th Century Fox movie, The 300 Spartans. However, what has unfortunately been overlooked due to the controversy surrounding the revisionism of '300' is the best-selling novel by Steven Pressfield entitled Gates of Fire. Published in 1998, it was considered to be favored over 300 as the next movie about Thermopylae to be released for the big screen. Before several of the merits of Gates of Fire are outlined, the series of events which led to the production of 300 should be mentioned in order to gain an understanding of why the superior novel wasn't chosen by Hollywood.
Retracing these steps must begin with the worldwide success of Gladiator which won several Oscars and for one brief and glorious moment seemed to revive the 'sword and sandals' genre. In an interview in 2000, George Clooney professed his admiration of Pressfield's novel by stating that "Gates of Fire is an amazing story. Gladiator was my favorite film of the year, but I think Gates of Fire is a better story." Clooney's approval of Gates was confirmed as his production company Maysville Pictures purchased the rights to the enormously popular novel, which at last count had sold over 600,000 copies and was in its 10th printing.
Shortly thereafter, the Hellenocentric movies Troy and Alexander followed in 2004, to less than stellar results. With budgets of approximately $175 million and $155 million, respectively, their ticket sales weren't what was expected. Gates as it was estimated, would have cost between $170-$200 million, therefore, it may have been too much of a gamble, especially in light of the uninspiring box office receipts of the aforementioned movies.
In comparison, the budget for 300 was relatively smaller at $60-$70 million as a result of its liberal use of computer generated imagery. This allowed the entire movie (with the exception of one scene) to be shot in the studios, while a small cast of actors and extras were reproduced exponentially using CGI techniques. Employing sets that were recycled throughout production, the 300 budget was a fraction of the cost, therefore, less burdensome financially. Even more ominous was director Michael Mann's departure, which allowed Warner Bros. to catapult ahead with their version of the Battle of Thermopylae.
However, these reasons should not detract from Pressfield’s tour-de-force which became an instant classic in the category of military novels, in addition to recommended reading by many colleges and universities across the world. Extensively researched, Pressfield's sources included the works of authors whom he graciously acknowledged such as Paul Cartledge, Victor Davis Hanson, Donald Kagan, John Keegan, J.F. Lazenby, etc. These academics who had written about Sparta, Persia, ancient warfare, weapons and armor, etc. were without parallel and it was the inclusion of their materials, which translated by Pressfield, provided an extra element lacking in Miller's graphic novel 300.
What made Gates of Fire more compelling than 300 was its description of the fighting which made the reader feel like a participant rather than an observer of the battle. While it did glamorize war to an extent, it also described its brutality, fear, anxiety and a myriad of other emotions which must have been felt by warriors from both the Greek & Persian armies as they faced off against each other in the narrow pass of Thermopylae, which approximately 2,500 years ago was only 50 feet wide.
Multidimensional characters added depth to Pressfield's novel and while the focus was on the Spartan warriors, the army of Persia was portrayed much more differently than in 300. One passage in particular illuminated the vast difference between Gates of Fire and 300. This was the initial meeting between the Spartan envoys and a group of Egyptian marines from Xerxes' navy on the island of Rhodes, months before they clashed at Thermopylae. The repartee between these warriors blended a mixture of respect and admiration, which eventually yielded to the grim knowledge that war would be inevitable and under other circumstances, these future combatants may have been friends. The camaraderie and gestures of goodwill that were extended resurfaced several months later when the Egyptian captain Ptammitechus, nicknamed affectionately by the Spartans as 'Tommie', tried to intercede before the battle. It was by his own request in a last ditch effort to prevent hostilities from beginning, that he acted as an ambassador to the Spartans whom he had befriended earlier.
Miller's 300 brought attention to the Battle of Thermopylae, albeit for several of the wrong reasons as it was renounced by the Persian and Greek communities, in addition to scholars of the battle. While its success and highly stylized look have not gone unnoticed, it has been viewed as quite inflammatory due to its neglect of the other Greek contingents that heroically fought with the Spartans, as well as the courage of the Persian army. It is for these reasons that Gates should be applauded, as it offered a much more balanced and objective view. Steven Pressfield's book showed that this epic three-day battle where bravery was glorified, didn't need embellishments such as ogres, a hunchback, an androgynous king, etc. Perhaps one day Gates of Fire can share the marquee with the other movies about Thermopylae and help remedy some of the injustices which have recently been perpetrated on screen.
John Trikeriotis is a lecturer of ancient Greek warfare and maintains the website 300spartanwarriors.com. As a member of the Leonidas Expeditions, which is comprised of academics, authors and scholars, he will be traveling to the battlefield of Thermopylae to locate several areas pivotal to the battle. You can follow him on Google+ and Twitter.
This article was contributed by JOHN TRIKERIOTIS, Special Contributor for PersianMirror.