Zack Snyder’s 300, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, defied audience and studio expectations when it stormed the box office with Spartan-like ferocity back in 2007. Its mix of ancient history, comic-book iconography and sound-bite dialogue immediately found its way into the verbal and visual lexicon of contemporary pop culture; but things could have been very different. A rival project based on a different literary source was also in the running to bring the Battle of Thermopylae – where a tiny Greek force held out for three days against an immense Persian invasion in 480BC – to the big screen; the film that could have been Michael Mann’s Gates of Fire.
Released the same year as Miller’s graphic novel, Steven Pressfield’s more conventional historical novel, Gates of Fire, took its name from the eponymous battlefield, Thermopylae (referred to in 300 as ‘the hot gates’). Pressfield had worked as a screenwriter creating disposable action-movie scripts for the likes of Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren in the late 1980s and early 1990s before writing his first novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, which was adapted into the Will Smith film of the same name. First published in 1998, Gates of Fire was a great success, and shortly afterwards George Clooney’s production company, Maysville Pictures, secured the rights, bringing on David Self (Thirteen Days, Road to Perdition) to adapt it.
As with Snyder’s 300, the narrative of Gates of Fire is delivered as flashbacks by a survivor of Thermopylae: Xeones, a Greek youth who becomes a squire/slave after his city is overrun, learns about Spartan culture from the veteran warrior Dienekes before accompanying him and the other Spartans, including King Leonidas, to Thermopylae. Clooney was clearly enamoured by his proposed epic, stating: “Gladiator was my favourite film of the year, but I think Gates of Fire is a better story.”
Gates of Fire certainly offers a cornucopia of cinematic qualities: Spartan culture remains one of the most fascinating of the various Greek city-states with its mixed constitution, two kings, professional army and brutal training regime, as well as a population simultaneously ‘free’ (of working the land) while also relying on a workforce of slaves. Unlike 300, Gates of Fire would offer a more sympathetic portrayal of the Persians and, in its pursuit of (some form of) historical verisimilitude, a more believable depiction of Spartan tactics, the Greek allies who fought at Thermopylae, and the savage carnage that three days of combat would wreak on the human body.
Such chaos seems a perfect fit for the director of choice: Michael Mann. Perhaps most famous for his thrillers, Mann also displayed an accomplished flair at depicting historical warfare in his adaptation/remake of The Last of the Mohicans. His films thrive on driven and dangerous personifications of hyper-masculinity, from Tom Cruise’s hitman in Collateral to De Niro’s cold and detached criminal in Heat. Whether Mann would have covered the Spartans’ possible bisexuality during their training is questionable, but considering Gates of Fire would have followed his brilliant boxing biopic Ali he would have produced some exceptional training sequences as the Spartans perfected their physical and martial prowess.
But in the years before Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender were making waves, who could embody that Spartan physique? Clooney may have been eyeing up a role for himself – perhaps even Leonidas – while his friend Bruce Willis was also pushing for a part (Clooney: “Willis calls me about every two months, asking what’s going on. He’s dying, dying to do it”), rumoured to be that of veteran warrior Dienekes. While Clooney conjures up inspiring charm, it’s debatable as to whether he could pull off Leonidas’ strength and leadership, although Willis’s clear passion for the project begs the question as to whether he would have committed to the role more than his recent half-hearted performances suggest. Either way, it is highly likely that – as in 1962’s The 300 Spartans – the Spartans would be speaking in American accents and giving allegory hunters a field day.
Ultimately, the project simply wasn’t to be. While promising, early drafts of the screenplay still needed work and delayed the project, losing the momentum garnered by Gladiator’s success. After the lukewarm reception of Troy, Alexander and King Arthur in 2004 the delays increased, with Mann departing the project citing “creative differences”. Indeed, audiences seemed to have lost interest in more serious, traditional historical epics, which in turn inspired Warner Bros. to take a chance with Snyder’s radical reimagining of the genre. 300 dealt Gates of Fire a final, fatal blow, but Pressfield took it all in good form, wishing the victor well. Nevertheless, in an interview he stated that he still has hope that maybe an influential figure – what he terms the “decisive element” – will pick up the project and carry it through to fruition. After all, 300’s CGI visuals and camp quality means a more realistic, violent rendition of the story could coexist without either losing their appeal.
To quote Pressfield: “Ridley Scott, are you listening?”
Which version of the Thermopylae story would you rather see? Excited for 300: Rise of an Empire? Let us know below…