Friday, November 23, 2007

Gates of Fire: What 300 should have been

Do you want to know why ancient Sparta had the most feared warriors of their (and possibly any) era? Look no further than Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. It’s the semi-historic account of the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans and their allies sacrificed their lives in a narrow defile ("The Hot Gates") between the cliffs and sea to stall the 2-million man army of Persia. All were wiped out, but not before slaughtering thousands of Persians, holding the pass for three days, and inspiring the rest of Greece through their example to unite and defeat the invaders.

Far more than just the tale of a single battle, Gates of Fire examines the mindset of this society of proud warriors. It demonstrates their brutal methods of training and how they governed themselves, in the process painting a vivid picture of day-to-day life in bronze-age Greece.

Soldiers' fear in battle is greatly underrated by the mass of writers and historians, and plays a significant part in the outcome of a battle. Most battles are not won by wiping out the other side or inflicting huge numbers of casualities, but rather by breaking the other side's morale and causing rout or retreat. Historian John Keegan explains this oft-overlooked truth in his wonderful examination of combat, The Face of Battle.

Pressfield in Gates of Fire offers a very convincing explanation of how the Spartans managed to control their fear in battle. The Spartans were raised from birth with a rigorous--borderline torturous--training regimen, that honed not only their combat skills to a fine edge, but also allowed men to accomplish great acts of sacrifice and valor.

Pressfield also creates a cast of memorable characters. These include:
  • Xeones, the narrator, a non-Spartan who starts his life as a slave but gradually becomes a respected squire, fighting alongside the Spartans and acquitting himself with great glory in the heart of battle;
  • Dienekes, the platoon leader, a scarred veteran and natural leader, a salt-of-the earth soldier yet also wise and fearless;

  • Alexandros, a young Spartan who loves not battle but the strains of music, a singer and poet who fights not for glory but out of duty and pride;

  • Leonidas, the Spartans' king, 60 years old but still a fearless figher, a man who sleeps beneath the stars and enters combat in the front lines, scorning any advantage of his station; and

  • Polynikes, a physical specimen and greatest of Sparta's warriors, haughty and merciless, demanding to the point of sadism, who undergoes a transformation and eventually embraces the humanity and valor of Alexandros and Xeones with tears in his eyes.

Pressfield writes so well, at times you feel like you’re in the shield wall, amid the hot, straining press of men ready to clash with spear and sword, tooth and nail, against the enemy. The ending is quite poignant, as Pressfield leaves the reader with a simple, utilitarian (i.e., Spartan) line carved on a plain monument that marks the battlefield at Thermopylae:

Tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie

Gates of Fire was what I hoped to see adapted to the silver screen instead of Frank Miller's 300. It tells a much better story than Miller's graphic novel, and also paints a much more realistic picture of what the events of the battle must have been like. I wish 300 had cut out a lot of the extraneous nonsense that in some places reduced it to the level of silliness (War rhinos? An ogre? Please).

And yes, I've heard all the justification for 300's over-the-top elements ("it was told from the perspective of an old soldier who embellished the tale, yada-yada"), but it still didn't make it any less ridiculous in my eyes. The story of Thermopylae should not need any fantastic elements to make it more "exciting" or to put butts in movie seats. Its bare facts: 300 men who knowingly commit themselves to death in defense of their country--are more than enough.

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