Gates of Fire is an historical
novel about the immortal military stand of an elite group of Spartan
warriors at Thermopylae against the invading Persian millions. Movie rights
for this novel have been acquired by Universal Studios for George Clooney
and Robert Lawrence's Maysville Pictures. Dubious readers might suppose that
Pressfield, whose The Legend of Bagger Vance also made the transition to the big screen, is writing novels with the specific goal of having them translated
to film. They need not worry. This is no hack novel missing only stage
directions to make it a screenplay. Gates of Fire is an impressive
retelling of historical events with an epic scope that, like Braveheart,
will simply make the transition to silver screen with ease.
Knowing that the Persian king intended to conquer the cradle of Western
democracy, in 480 B.C. the Spartan king Leonidas led a force of three hundred elite
warriors from the army of Lakedaemon to make a suicide stand. At the narrow
mountain pass in eastern Greece known as Thermopylae, "the Hot Gates," this
finely honed and fiercely honorable group would hold back the invaders long
enough to give the other armies of Greece a few vital days to rally a larger
defense against the Asian hordes. Aided
initially by troops from several other Greek districts, the Spartan king
ordered them to retreat from the final stand, intending to sacrifice the lives of his
warriors and himself so that greater Greece might successfully repel the
invasion. His tactic worked. Greece remained independent; the three hundred
Spartans died to the last man at Thermopylae.
With such a bittersweet ending a given at the outset, it might seem that
telling this tale with any sort of dramatic tension would be nearly impossible.
Pressfield succeeds by clever device: the story of Thermopylae and the
men who gave their all there is being recorded by a secretary of the Persian
king after the fact. Relating the narrative to the scrivener is a gravely
wounded Spartan squire convinced that his patron god, Apollo, allowed him to
survive just so he might give the world the story of the courage and camaraderie
that the Spartans brought to their deaths at the blood-soaked Hot Gates.
What unfolds is a tale of fierce loyalty and love, pride and humility among
men who rely unflinchingly on each other in the face of death met time and again.
Steven Pressfield is obviously impressed with the Spartan attitudes toward
life and death, and the reader cannot help but feel the same. Courageous and
patriotic, these Spartans are ultimately human, full of doubts and longings, but
heroic in their ability to overcome their weaknesses, even to convert them to
strengths. The scenes of carnage and horror that accompany the clash of
battle are matter-of-factly described, and are made all the more horrifying
for it -- think of the opening battle sequence of Saving Private Ryan.
War, as Pressfield's narrator tells it, for certain isn't pretty. But in
the blood-and-piss stench of battle, men are capable of incredible acts of valor
and surprisingly touching significance. Gates of Fire is a powerful
reminder of the ultimate humanity of the warrior.