Gates of Fire
Steven Pressfield
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Buy *Gates of Fire* online
Gates of Fire
Steven Pressfield
400 pages
September 2005
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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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.

© 1999 by Sharon Schulz-Elsing for

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