I first saw the film, The 300 Spartans when I was seven-years-old, and (as I’ve mentioned before on this site) it determined the future course of my life, both as an artist, and an amateur scholar of ancient history. So fascinated by the story of Leonidas, one of the first books I bought was the Penguin Classics edition of Herodotus’ Histories , which in turn opened up to me the historical context of not only of the Battle of Thermopylae itself, but the whole concept of the sadly eternal battle between freedom and tyranny.
This is written with the presumption that all of those reading it are aware of the basic story of the battle (even as depicted in the more recent and bizarre movie, 300) and the fact that although Leonidas and his tiny army were overwhelmed, their heroism inspired Greece onward to eventual victory over the invading Persian empire. With the passing of time, the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae became a metaphor for freedom defying tyranny, so poignantly exemplified in the stark words of Simonides’ epitaph to the fallen Spartans; “O stranger, go tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words…”
Bearing in mind numerous powerful caveats; including that a) most of our free “western societies” today are hardly comparable with ancient Sparta (or any of the other Greek states), and that b) Xerxes had no nuclear option to fall back when his invasion plans went awry, the lesson of Thermopylae has rarely seemed more instructive.
The big question remains however, if Kiev is a modern-day Thermopylae is the West prepared for a Salamis and a Platea?
plus several other famous historical battles through the eyes of a battle movie crazy youth…
In addition to the remarkable Mary Poppins (1964) the other two films that first set my spirits soaring – though in a markedly different way to Mr Banks’ joyous kite – were The 300 Spartans (1962) and Zulu (1964)*. Like most little boys growing up in the 60’s (and some little girls too in my experience of the time), I was thrilled by epic cinematic depictions of battle. But, whereas movies like Ben Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963) and even the extraordinary Spartacus (1960) did that Wagnerian thing of interspersing the brilliant battle and action scenes with boring half-hours of tedious “drama” (or so I thought as a child), The 300 Spartans and Zulu were vehicles for the (beautifully staged) battles themselves – Thermopylae and Rorke’s Drift respectively – with the drama, merely the filler. In other words, perfect films for little Adams everywhere.
The most ambitious film ever made about a single battle was Sergei Bondarchuk’s enormous Waterloo (1970), which I first saw as a ten-year-old on its UK release. But even then, as much I was awestruck by the superlative battle scenes, I was irritated by the stodgy script (actually, just an endless seam of historical quotes) and the awkward caricaturesque acting, which lurched wildly between the histrionic French and the aloof British.
With more modest budgets and far smaller casts, by canny use of camera angles, stunning photography, beautifully paced editing, and (certainly in Zulu’s case) thrilling musical scores, directors Rudolf Maté with his Spartans, and Cy Enfield with his handful of red coats, made films that felt far larger and much grander than they actually were.
But perhaps the greatest testimony to the enduring appeal of all of the above is how well they stand up against their modern CGI equivalents. For example, Frank Miller’s 1998 Thermopylae film, 300 – allegedly inspired by Maté’s 1962 version – despite its having a virtual cast of millions and “authentic Spartans and genuine battle violence” is – apart from one or two scenes – utterly forgettable. Most interestingly of all is how “small” and claustrophobic the later, studio created film feels by comparison with its location-shot forerunner. And similarly, for all the earlier film’s wooden acting and heavily tableau’d dramatic interludes there is a dignity and humanity totally lacking in Miller’s animated comic book treatment.
The pictures presented above date from about 1970 – 75, and reflect the obsession I had as a 10-14 year-old boy for attempting to recreate the battles that had thrilled me so much on the cinema screen. Sometimes, I would base my pictures on famous historical battle paintings, using the figures in the original artwork as templates for my own infantry and cavalry, often for battles of different eras. Those wonderful “templates” – all of which influenced my childhood self almost as much as the movies above, are included below.
*Other films which are worth looking out for as noble – if imperfect – examples of pre-CGI historical battle movies are: Clive Donner’s 1969 Alfred The Great – a turgid film, but with decent battles; Tony Richardson’s 1968 Charge of Light Brigade – marred by Richardson’s anachronistic, relativist, anti-war message, laid on with a trowel, but largely successfully staged, and a genuinely epic charge; Cy Enfield’s return to Natal for his 1979 (“prequel” to Zulu), “grittier and more historically accurate” Zulu Dawn – compares poorly to the near-perfect Zulu, only proving yet again, that grit and accuracy (and vast numbers of extras) alone do not guarantee a great picture. Worth seeing though, just for the British scouts first sighting of the massed Zulu impis (11,000 warrior extras) – an astonishing cinematic moment.
Plus, two more CGI fiascos to avoid at all costs: Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander the Great – should be retitled, Alexander the Petulant, and as for the cartoon-filled battles!; Also, the woeful 2004 – Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy – which has to be the leading candidate for worst adaptation of a great and immortal work of literature ever executed. Brad Pitt’s appallingly miscast, pouting, kung-Fu-fighting super hero, isn’t even the worst characterisation in the film!!
Finally, one exception to prove the rule, although CGI is mercifully absent from the superb opening battle scene, is Ridley Scott’s exceptional 2000 film, Gladiator (actually, a close reworking of Anthony Mann’s terribly dull, 1964 Fall of the Roman Empire) – which introduced the historical battle movie genre to a whole new generation of little Adams…
When I first saw the movie The 300 Spartans I was only seven-years-old but it made an impression on me that has endured for the following fifty years. The story of King Leonidas and his heroic stand at the Pass of Thermopylae lit a touch paper in my young spirit that shaped the course of all my future careers, and even perhaps the way my life has panned out.
Most peoples and nations on Earth have their own such iconic tales of heroic defeat, which seem to lend themselves to idealistic notions of ultimate sacrifice for the sake of freedom. For instance, the (European) Americans have their Little Bighorn, the British, their Charge of the Light Brigade and the French, the last stand of the Old Guard at Waterloo.
The thing however, that distinguishes the action of the 300 at the Hot Gates back in 480 BC from all of the above, and gives it such universal and lasting allure to most peoples of the Earth (with the possible exception of Xerxes’ modern heirs) was its almost total contextual non-ambiguity.
The actions of Yankee Blue Coats against the Plains Indians, Cardigan’s “Cherry-Bums” in the valleys of the Crimea, and Napoleon’s “grognards” (grumblers) in a Belgian wheat field; for all their undoubted courage were primarily in the interests of conquest — the very thing that Leonidas was attempting to halt. Custer, Raglan and Napoleon — their widely varying military abilities notwithstanding — were all closer to Xerxes than to Leonidas in the context of their respective battle objectives. Thus, in many ways, the Spartan King offers us an historical rarity; a genuinely noble defeat in the purest of causes — defense of the homeland; more of a Wounded Knee than a Little Bighorn.
About two years after my young imagination had been fired by the story of Leonidas and the 300, I became familiar with an account of a similar military engagement in the even more ancient annals of my own people’s narrative. And so enthralled was I by the story of King Saul and his son Jonathan’s defeat at the hands of the Philistines on the slopes of Mount Gilboa I actually wrote a book about it some forty years later. (That book, among other things, led me to setting up this blog and so it’s probably high time I posted an article along these lines.)
And just as Leonidas’ death was a powerful inspiration for the following Golden Age of Greece, the defeat of Saul and Jonathan actually secured both the concept and the durability of Israelite, and then Jewish nationhood.
However, while Leonidas is lauded by the modern Greeks as their consummate national hero, for reasons too complex to go into here, the only monuments to Saul’s act of ultimate sacrifice at Gilboa are the exquisite seasonal wildflowers which annually defy the curse of David upon the mountain’s slopes (2 Samuel 1:21). My book was a vain attempt to rectify the situation; to raise the status of Saul within the national consciousness of modern Israel and Jewish people everywhere, so that instead of heading straight from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem and the other “holy sites” ; they would instead make for Gilboa, where a nation was forged in the blood of its first, and most noble king. So noble in fact, his own usurper felt obliged to concede as much in his timeless lament (abridged here)…