GO TELL THE [WEST]…

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?

The Last Stand at Thermopylae; a pencil drawing I did as an eleven-year-old. It depicts the Persian’s pouring down from the goat track (revealed to them by the traitor Ephialtes) and cutting off the Greek rear. The defenders in this picture are not the Spartans themselves, but the equally brave 700 Thespians, whom Leonidas had sent to cover the retreat of the remaining Greek contingents. The Thespians too, were wiped out.

MEET MY WATERLOO…

plus several other famous historical battles through the eyes of a battle movie crazy youth…

The Stand of the Phocians (Thermopylae) – pencil drawing – 1974 Drawn when I was thirteen, it is intended to show the Phocian’s vainly attempting to defend Leonidas’ rear from the Persian Immortals.

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 Charge of the Companions (Battle of Guagamela) – pencil sketch – 1975 – based on The Charge of Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr (see below). I was fourteen when I did this, and even copied Woodville’s incorrect depiction of the horses legs (English-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge had yet to show how horses actually ran).

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.

Waterloo – felt tip on paper – 1974 – This was all my own concept, and executed during an hour-long maths lesson when I was thirteen. Mrs Evans, my teacher liked the picture so much she merely shrugged her shoulders on seeing what I was doing and let me get on with it, muttering, “at least the boy is good at something…” as she walked back to front of the class.

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.

A pencil sketch of Macedonian phalanx troops in a defensive position – not sure which battle, although the drawing dates from 1975. The poses are based on those of the British soldiers in Waterloo depiction by Félix Henri Emmanuel Philippoteaux (see below).

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.

Red Coats at Waterloo – pencil sketch – 1973. Based on Black Watch poses as depicted in The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb (see below).

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.

The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Cuirassiers (at Waterloo) by Félix Henri Emmanuel Philippoteaux – 1874 – oil on canvas
The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr – 1874 – oil on canvas
The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb -1881 – oil on canvas

*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.

Guilt – The Lone Survivor of Thermopylae – watercolour on paper – 1972 This is me taking huge dramatic license with the story of Othryades, the soldier sent home to Sparta, and who then committed suicide at a later battle.

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!!

This was another piece done illicitly during a school class – around 1971 – this time a French lesson. Mrs Sable, lacking Mrs Evan’s broadmindedness made me stop the moment she saw what I was doing. Hence the incomplete chart…

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…

Napoleon’s Last Victory (the Guard advancing at Quatre Bras) – watercolour on paper – Circa 1974 Quatra Bras was battle that immediately preceded Waterloo, as the allies attempted to halt the advance of the French northward to Brussels – I based these “Old Grumblers” on the actors from the 1970 movie.

GILBOA, WHERE THE MIGHTY FELL – and a nation rose…

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.

Artist & Illustrator
This is a detail from my painting “The Pausanias Wedge at Platea”  – I used it on my business card during my years as a commercial illustrator.

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)…

Battleground
 “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
    How the mighty have fallen!.. 

Gilboa Massif from the Jezreel Plain
“Mountains of Gilboa,
    may you have neither dew nor rain,
    may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised,
    the shield of Saul—no longer anointed with oil…

Gilboa summit
“From the blood of the slain,
    from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
    the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
Saul and Jonathan—
    in life they were loved and admired,
    and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
    they were stronger than lions…

Gilboa trees
“Daughters of Israel,
    weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
    who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold…

On Gilboa
“…How the mighty have fallen!
    The weapons of war have perished!”