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The 300, the Battle of Thermopylae, and Gates of Fire:

Glenn Reynolds/Instapundit has an interesting post collecting links about The 300, the new movie about the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartan warriors held off a massive Persian army for several days, and helped save Western civilization from destruction in its infancy.

I'm far from certain that The 300 will actually prove to be a good movie, and many of the critics are panning it, as Glenn notes. But, like Glenn, I hope that the movie convinces more people to read Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield's novel about Thermopylae. Gates of Fire is, quite simply, the best historical novel I have ever read, and I've read quite a lot of them. It illuminates the tragic paradox that the city state of Sparta which played a key role in preserving the Western tradition of liberty during the Persian Wars, was itself founded on slavery to an even greater extent than other ancient societies. And if you read Gates of Fire, you will also find out what the opposite of fear is; I won't reveal it here for fear of "spoiling" the book's impact.

UPDATE: As at least one commenter pointed out, the title of the movie is apparently just 300, without a "the." Personally, I like it better with a "the," but I am correcting my mistake anyway.

bornyesterday (mail) (www):
I've not read Gates of Fire, but I would like to. I just got back from seeing the movie. And it definitely doesn't compare to other recent similar movies like Sin City or V for Vendetta. As with those movies, I hadn't read the comic prior to seeing the movie, so I may have been biased toward a more historical movie -- which 300 is not. It was good, but it won't be joining my movie collection.
3.10.2007 9:32pm
Xanthippas (mail) (www):
It is an excellent book. I was a little put off by how he chose to tell the story, but it is a fascinating portrait of Spartan life in general and the battle in particular.
3.10.2007 9:47pm
Humble Law Student (mail):
ITS LOVE!!!

mawhahaha
3.10.2007 10:34pm
Lev:
According to the Roper Ebert review show last night, the movie the 300 is based on an adult comic book about Thermopylae rather than the historic event itself, and the movie was described as an excellent adaptation of the comic book.
3.10.2007 10:40pm
Humble Law Student (mail):
What I don't understand is all the griping by critics of the violence. Did ANY of them see Saving Private Ryan? I don't recall seeing a poor soldier holding his guts outside of his body in 300. Plus, the violence is highly stylized in 300 -- greatly diminishing the "gross" factor.

What is so great about the movie is the overdramatization. For each point is tries to make, it goes overboard, but in a compelling way. Talk about the movie after the fact, and sure some of the stuff is absurd. But that same absurdity greatly enhances the impact of the film in the theatre, in my humble opinion.
3.10.2007 10:44pm
jvarisco (www):
Gates of Fire is a superb book. I especially liked the style. Most histories ignore the non-Spartans; I guess it's not quite as romantic to have several thousand defenders from across Greece rather than 300.
3.10.2007 10:48pm
JB:
Yes, Gates of Fire was so good that I'm not seeing The 300.

I would like to see a Gates of Fire movie. With all the cursing--we're overdue for another movie that gets an X rating entirely on foul language.
3.10.2007 11:09pm
Humble Law Student (mail):
I agree. A Gates of Fire movie would be great! Or at least it would have the potential to be great based on the material.
3.10.2007 11:27pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
I enjoyed the movie, despite much of the corny dialogue. Well worth the $10.00.
3.11.2007 4:30am
hey (mail):
JB: Given that Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs didn't get the X (even when someone's ear gets cut off and many other instances of graphic violence), I don't think that there is any language sufficiently vulgar to get an X. Maybe The Aristocrats, but it was a documentary and they just released unrated so who knows. There's a recut of Glengarry, Glenross that makes a good argument for it getting an X for obscenity, but maybe inventiveness is required, rather than pure repetition.
3.11.2007 5:03am
Armen (mail) (www):
1. They use NC 17 now not X.

2. Read Herodotus Book VII. I refuse to read Gates of Hell, and other historical novels because, well, I'd like to imagine my own story lines.

3. As much as I love the story of Thermopylae, I don't think I can watch this movie. "Troy" and "Alexander" really killed any desire in me to see movies about ancient history. I yearn for the days of "A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum."
3.11.2007 7:16am
Porkchop (mail):
First, Ilya, there is no "The" in the title -- not to be picky or anything.

Second, perhaps I am showing my age, but somehow I find this bizarre. 300 is a movie based on a comic book (er, "graphic novel") inspired by a movie that Frank Miller saw as a child (as by the way, did I). In that sense, it is not even really a remake of The 300 Spartans , but, rather, a video-game fantasy representation of a childhood memory of an afternoon at the movies.

I seriously doubt that it will inspire anyone to read Gates of Fire (or Herodotus, for that matter), but, when she wakes up, I will ask my teenage daughter (who went to see 300 last night) if she would like to borrow my old Penguin Press Histories. Stay tuned.
3.11.2007 9:47am
Amber (www):
It's my understanding that Gates of Fire was optioned and at one point George Clooney was attached as Leonidas. Alas, the success of Sin City and the flop of The Legend of Bagger Vance (another Pressfield adaptation) killed the chances of that movie making it to theaters. It would have done a much better job of making clear that, as one Metafilter poster put it,
The Spartans, while oozing with valor and badassness, were at their very core complete f---ing ---holes and their society doomed as a result of that.
3.11.2007 11:10am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
The Spartans, while oozing with valor and badassness, were at their very core complete f---ing ---holes and their society doomed as a result of that.

Reminds me of some other cultures based on slavery and ethnosupremacy.
3.11.2007 4:58pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
First, I will be buying the book. Volokh book recommendations haven't steered me wrong yet, and introduced me to John Scalzi, whom I now count among my favorite authors (of escapist fiction).

Second, I saw the movie last night. It was enjoyable, in spite of the cliche epic movie dialogue in which all of the characters spoke. It was nice to see a film that did not apologize for Western civilization, but held it out for what it is - superior, warts and all.
3.11.2007 5:56pm
Antonio Manetti (mail):
The Persian Version

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer's expedition
Not as a mere reconnaissance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece--they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined mangificently together.

~by Robert Graves
3.11.2007 7:58pm
Enoch:
at one point George Clooney was attached as Leonidas.

Ugh, thank God that movie didn't get made.
3.11.2007 8:21pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
Clooney's flabby man boobs would have stood out, defintely.
3.11.2007 8:47pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Pressfield makes his Spartans too much like philosopher-kings with a few personal quirks. Victor Hanson, in his "Soul of Battle" describes them more as similar to Nazis, which, given the broad structure of their history, is probably accurate.
As vile as the Nazis were, they managed to put together a pretty good military effort.

BTW, the frontiers of Europe were held against the Turks in Southeast Europe by various warlords, of whom Vlad The Impaler was one. So, for our existence, we own Dracula a bit of credit.

Plenty of room for cognitive dissonance, here.
3.11.2007 9:13pm
Latinist:
I haven't read Gates of Fire (and I haven't seen 300, though I read the comic book), but I'm glad to hear that it worries about the helots. That sounds like it could be a lot more interesting than 300. Unless the movie is vastly different from its source, 300 is decidedly NOT (sorry, Mike BUSL07) a "warts and all" story: more like a "Warts? What's a warts?" story.

I agree with American Psikushka; I always thought Spartan society was interestingly similar to the antebellum South. A culture marked by a love freedom, whose elite had a kind of virtue that other cultures still can't help being fascinated by (and a bit jealous of), on a foundation of slavery. Weird. I think Adam Ferguson makes a point about that somewhere; at least, I'm sure he mentions the Spartans, but I don't think he makes the American comparison.
3.11.2007 10:50pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Latinist: Hanson makes the same connection between Sparta and the ante-bellum south.
Both ended badly, the Spartans with their harsh training of warriors turning into a tourist curiosity and the brave cavaliers of the South hiding from Sherman's troops.
3.11.2007 11:03pm
Stevethepatentguy (mail) (www):
I have read "Gates of Fire" and I just got back from seeing "300." I agree with Ilya, Gates of Fire is the best hostorical fiction I have ever read. 300 may not be a great movie but it was definitely worth seeing. The "digital backlot" graphics alone are worth the price of admission.

Of course the Spartans were idealized, no mention that fear of a Helot (slave) revolt was the reason only 300 were sent, but the Spartans in "300" have their flaws. Ephialtes, in stead of being a sheppard, is a deformed Spartan who's wish was to fight and die with Leonidas. Leonidas spurns him saying that Ephialtes cannot raise his shield to protect the phalanx but it looked like hubris to me.
3.12.2007 12:15am
Randy R. (mail):
Over at Andrew Sullivan.com, he posted a letter from a reader who says it's by far the gayist movie of the year! Apparently, it's all abs, muscles, gorgeous bodies in tight briefs and capes, and that the photography makes the male body look like a work of art.

Can't wait to see it!
3.12.2007 2:18am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Richard Aubrey-

Victor Hanson, in his "Soul of Battle" describes them more as similar to Nazis, which, given the broad structure of their history, is probably accurate.
As vile as the Nazis were, they managed to put together a pretty good military effort.


I don't know that it's accurate to mix the Nazis in with the professional German army. Some of the army realized what a nutjob Hitler was and did make attempts to take him out. Not defending anything the Nazis or anyone that followed their orders did though.
3.12.2007 5:21am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Psi. Nice point, although the Wehrmacht was only "good" (as in "nice")compared to the Waffen SS.

However, my point is that the Nazis put together a pretty good military machine, whether or not the Wehrmacht was Nazi or not. The Nazis had a tool, at the very least. And the ops against Hitler didn't start until the generals saw they were losing. They had no problem with winning with Hitler.
3.12.2007 7:26am
AppSocRes (mail):
Amusing historical side note: The same Boetia who sent 3,000 troops to fight alongside the 300 at Thermopylae, later whipped the hell out of Sparta and freed the helot nations. Someone ought to make a movie about Boetia. My other pet peeve in re movies about Thermopylae is that none portray the battle field accurately: it's ten meters wide with cliffs on one side and a precepice on the other: Seeing that makes it a lot easier to understand why a greek phalanx could hold off a very much larger army for so long.

ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
3.12.2007 9:22am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Richard Aubrey-

Psi. Nice point, although the Wehrmacht was only "good" (as in "nice")compared to the Waffen SS.

However, my point is that the Nazis put together a pretty good military machine, whether or not the Wehrmacht was Nazi or not. The Nazis had a tool, at the very least. And the ops against Hitler didn't start until the generals saw they were losing. They had no problem with winning with Hitler.


I think I phrased it badly. What I meant to say is you had this long tradition of military prowess centered around Germany - vikings and other tribes, huns, professional Hessian mercenaries, the Prussians, etc. - that the Nazis unfortunately commandeered. So I don't think this is something that can be credited to the Nazis.

It's true that the attempts on Hitler's life didn't come until later in the war. The issue of how the Nazis got basically the whole society, including the military, to go along with their ideology is another larger issue. One doesn't expect the military to be a very strong opponent to the political class, since there is usually a culture of nationalism and being removed from politics and simply following the orders of the civilian leadership. And wasn't there a fairly steady process of purging the less than true believers from the military leadership throughout the period?
3.13.2007 6:01am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
I think you'd have to be a pretty good research historian to find anything out about lower level purges in the military. AFAIK, most of the bigtime generals were working pretty hard until they lost something, usually a battle. Hitler never trusted the professionals, but he had to use them.
Some were retired to estates that would shortly be overrun by the Allies, but that was very late, and the guys had failed in something or other, and were, by that time, fairly old.
George Patton said that when a corps started to become ineffective, it was usually because the corps commander was tired. I'm sure "tired" has several meanings, all of which apply. But there would be reason to send the old warhorses out to pasture besides suspicion of lack of zeal.
Toward the end, Hitler needed fanatics who would insist they could and would carry out some cockamamie scheme for which the resources were almost non-existent. Replacing the pros who exhibited some skepticism would not have been a "purge". The result of the plots against Hitler was, of course, a vicious purge.

Still, the timing of the generals' disaffection tells us a good deal. They were on side as long as they were winning and all that other stuff like morality be damned. That would look like loyalty.

The Germans did have a good military tradition. Thomas Sowell, writing of culture, recounts that the Czars imported a bunch of German farmers in the eighteenth century for their superior techniques. By the end of the nineteenth century, two percent of the population of European Russia was descended from these immigrants, as was forty percent of the officer corps.
3.13.2007 8:57am