Best Films Never Made #11: Michael Mann’s Gates of Fire

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“TONIGHT WE DINE IN [DEVELOPMENT] HELL!”

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.

GoT

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.

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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 hit-man in Collateral to De Niro’s cold and detached criminal in Heat. Whether Mann would have covered the Spartans’ possible bi-sexuality 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’s 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.

Bruce Willis and Michael Mann

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 re-imagining 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 co-exist without either losing their appeal.

To quote Pressfield: “Ridley Scott, are you listening?”

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Which version of the Thermopylae story would you rather see? Excited for 300: Rise of an Empire? Let us know below…

Sources: Nisbet, Gideon. Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture: 2nd ed. Exeter; Bristol Phoenix Press, 2008/Steven Pressfield Interview/Ain’t It Cool News/Chud List

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20 responses to “Best Films Never Made #11: Michael Mann’s Gates of Fire

  1. Thermopylae. Literally…Hot Gates. So named because of the hot springs located in the pass (sulfurous, at 28-41°C, with an adjacent spa), not far from the Spartans’ burial mound. There’s a bronze statue of Leonidas, cast and set up in 1955. And of course the famous statement…”Go tell the Spartans that here, obedient to their laws, we lie”.

    I was in Greece not long after the release of 300. The film was a huge box office hit, one of the highest grossing films in the history of Greek movie exhibition. Lots of 300-related merchandise was still for sale, especially T-shirts. Some merchandise was official and licensed, and some was bootleg.

    PS: chrisdavies24, I read somewhere on this web site that you’re writing a PhD dissertation of the portrayal of the ancient world in movies. I hope that one of your primary reference books is…The Ancient World in the Cinema. By Jon Solomon, Professor of Classics at the University of Arizona. Published by Yale University Press. 2001.

    The first photo in the book is of Alexander The Great. Richard Burton’s Alexander, from writer/director Robert Rossen’s 1955 film, Alexander The Great. An Alexander film that was made!

    • Hi David, thanks for the comment – I’ve dreamed of going to Thermopylae myself and seeing the statue, and maybe picking up a 300 t-shirt while I’m out there… I admire Rossen’s Alexander, especially the time devoted to Alexander’s youth and the conflict in Greece prior to the invasion of Persia. That said, I remain a huge fan of Stone’s film and think it’s extremely underrated and misunderstood.

      I have indeed read Jon Solomon’s book; very insightful and I love the humour in his writing. The same goes for David Nisbet’s book, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture, and Maria Wyke’s Projecting the Past – they are vital to my PhD research and all excellent texts – well worth reading if you’re interested in the ancient world in cinema!

      • I too am a big admirer of Oliver Stones’ movie. And of the three versions: theatrical, the so-called Director’s Cut, and Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, it’s no contest, the latter is the best version…hands down! Stone (and when I would encounter him at parties in Venice, CA, way back when, that was usually the state he was in), does an excellent job of charting Alexander’s rise and fall, his love-hate Oedipal feelings toward his mother…and his father; his debilitating alcoholism; his bi-sexuality. With some excellent performances! Colin Farrell in the title role, Val Kilmer, who had worked with Oliver Stone before (I was at UCLA Film School with Jim Morrison, back in the 1960’s) as Philip of Macedonia. Angelina Jolie as Olympias, Alexander’s mother (the Serpent Goddess lives!); giving another excellent femme fatale performance (though not quite as deadly as her performance as Grendel’s mother in Bob Zemeckis’ Beowulf), Rosario Dawson as the Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson in that wedding night scene…Whew!!! Be still my loins!). And Jared Leto, playing Hephaestion, Alexander’s lover (gay, but definitely more manly man than Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club).

        I think I’ll fix some dinner, and watch Alexander: The Final Cut again. Now if I only had a bottle of Greek wine…

        PS: Chris Davies. Thanks for the heads up on David Nisbet’s book! I’ll check it out on Amazon.

      • It’s so good to meet someone who shares my feelings on the film! I couldn’t agree more! I adore the Final Cut of Alexander; the re-edit and extra material add so much to the film and Stone’s passion for the subject is evident in every frame. I love the structure of mirroring his later life with his childhood, especially his relationship with his parents, and how all the myths his father shows him in the cave play some part in his story; essentially raising Alexander’s own life up to mythic status. I very briefly encountered Colin Farrell at the London Film Festival last year (where he signed my press pass ‘Not Colin Farrell’) but I was too star struck to tell him how much I admire his performance in the film!

        I really enjoy Nisbet’s book; its simply written and easily accessible, but still gives a good overview of ancient Greece in cinema and how it differs from portrayals of Rome. The 2nd edition (2008) includes a final chapter on 300, although he has also written an essay on the film entitled “This Is Cake-Town: 300 and the Death of Allegory” in “Sparta in Modern Thought” (Hodkinson and Macgregor Morris [eds], 2012).

        It sounds like you have some amazing stories to tell; Stone is somewhat of a hero of mine so I’m very jealous that you’ve met him, whatever state he was it! Would love to hear more if you would like to get in touch. Enjoy re-watching The Final Cut and thanks again for your interest!

      • As a result of my search on Amazon, are you familiar with…

        Then It Was Destroyed By a Volcano: The Ancient World in Film and Televison. Arthur J. Pomeroy. Bristol Classical Press. 2008.

        Classics on Screen: Ancient Greece and Rome on Film.
        Alastair Blanchard. Bristol Classical Press. 2011

        And…the numerous books on the classical world in film by Martin M. Winkler. I’ve heard Winkler speak at a film screening at the National Gallery of Art, on the National Mall in Washington DC. But not on Greece, Rome and the movies. Rather, on John Ford’s masterpiece, The Searchers, which he’s also written about. The film being screen was, obviously, The Searchers.

        Do you have any personal book reviews on the above texts and authors?

      • PPS: I’m looking at the photo accompanying your username, and I’m wondering…if that in fact is you, were you and Benedict Cumberbatch, as the saying goes, separated at birth?

      • Haha! I’m afraid that is indeed me. It’s not a great picture but I got it from a screen grab of an online show I produce/write/present for our student TV station at Exeter University (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boFD0xSBUU4).

        Winkler’s books are excellent collections of essays on the various films; he doesn’t shy away from including very critical essays alongside standard analysis and more favourable views on putting ancient history on screen (his book on Gladiator includes the infamous essay Kathleen Coleman wrote in retaliation at her historical advice being ignored by Ridley Scott).

        I have got, but have not yet read, the Classics on Screen book, so can’t comment at the moment, and although Then It Was Destroyed By The Volcano has some interesting information I didn’t find it massively helpful or as interesting as other books.

        The collection of essays in The Epic Film in World Cinema are very good, and if you are interested more generally in historical films (not just ancient historical films) the works of Robert Burgoyne, Robert Toplin and Robert Rosenstone are all very good. I particularly like The Historical Epic and Contemporary Hollywood by James Russell, which charts the growth of the historical epic film during the 1990s and into the 2000s, including a chapter on Gladiator. Hope that helps!

      • While the DVD player is warming up…

        It would seem that Ridley Scott not only ignored Katherine Coleman’s historical advice concerning Gladiator, but also any historical advice he may have been offered concerning Kingdom of Heaven (while his screenwriters “borrowed” heavily from The Fall of The Roman Empire). Kingdom of Heaven is a very well made film, that I like very much, but…75% of the film is pure fiction! And it’s interesting to watch Ridley Scott and screenwriter William Monahan attempt to justify their alterations of history, or blame them on 20th Century Fox…in the Special Features on the 4-Disc Director’s Cut.

        I remember reading that Colin Farrell said he didn’t like doing the gay love scenes. But then…as I also recall, Stone and Farrell were doing a lot of drinking and smoking herb, while on location. So…maybe that helped him get through the filming of those scenes.

        More recently, I think Colin Farrell should have gotten an Oscar® Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance in Saving Mr. Banks.

        PS: About 300…I hated that movie! I’ll take The 300 Spartans any day! But then, I’m a classicist…

      • Ha! Well, despite my degree in Ancient History, I’m (to a certain extent) a defender of a filmmaker’s right to take dramatic licence. Gladiator is my favourite film and Scott my favourite director, and despite the many historical inaccuracies of his films I wouldn’t have them any other way (I love the Extended Cuts of Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood). I found Coleman’s essay infuriating to read, and supported Scott’s choices. How a filmmaker adapts/changes history and presents it in a film is an artistic expression, a reflection of the times in which the film was made, and a conversation with other works, especially within the given genre and its traditions. Furthermore, Robert Rosenstone in “History on Film/Film on History” puts forward a very good argument for the extreme difficulties in purely practical terms of portraying something ‘accurately’.

        300 is an interesting case though. It is based on a comic, which was based on a film, and so bears the marks of comic book iconography that uses heightened visual representations to show characterisation (ugly=bad etc).
        Where the film differs from the comic – and does so brilliantly, in my opinion – is its use of the ‘unreliable narrator’: everything we see – including the monstrous Persians and hyper-heroic Spartans – is being related to us by Dilios on the eve of Plataea. The aim of his story is to fire up his audience, dehumanising the Persians and creating exemplars out of Leonidas and the 300 in order to prepare his men for the coming battle. His story is an early form of wartime propaganda, and reflects the later Spartan Mirage and even Herodotus’ description of the battle as a form of moral victory that contributed to the greater, final victory.
        It also makes us question our sources: Dilios, like the filmmaker, may tell us something is accurate, but we must question their motivations and whether what we hear is the truth or only one version of it. It also draws attention to the oral traditions that existed and informed historiographical accounts.
        Alexander shares some of these themes in the elder Ptolemy’s biography; he recounts some events he did not witness, rewrites sections (Alexander’s death), and while discussing the man he also turns Alexander into a myth.

        Although very different in their approach to a historical topic, both films encourage the viewer not to take something as fact, and question the motivations of any record or tale: advice as relevant in mainstream news media today as it is when studying history! Gladiator’s recreation of the Battle of Carthage is a microcosm of this: when Maximus wins and Commodus comments “I rather enjoy surprises” the film is acknowledging its digressions from history in order to entertain the audience with thrills and the unexpected… I best stop rambling, otherwise I may end up writing my entire thesis here…

      • Ridley Scott is a very fine film director, with an impressive lists of credits…to say the least! Alien; Blade Runner; Black Hawk Down (Only the dead have seen the end of war. Plato); Kingdom of Heaven’; Gladiator (though not my favorite film, or my favorite Ridley Scott film); to name just some. I hope he gets to make his planned sequel to Prometheus (even though The Counselor tanked), and ties together Blade Runner to Prometheus (via Peter Weyland’s backstory of working for the Tyrell Corporation) and Prometheus to Alien. The death of his brother Frank, in 1981, led him to leave the Dune project and accept the Dangerous Days project, which morphed into Blade Runner. And now more family tragedy, with the suicide of his brother, Tony.

        Oh yeah, concerning Nick Cave’s script for Gladiator II. Some years ago in an interview, Cave summarized the story as being about Maximus being resurrected over and over again, to fight in the great wars of History. Kind of a Universal Soldier. Like his vision at the end of the draft posted online. No mention of saving Christians in the early 3rd century AD (Lucius was never Emperor, there was no ongoing persecution of the Christians at the beginning of the 3rd century AD. I can hear Katherine Coleman firing up her word processing program!). When Cave mentioned to Russell Crowe that his character had died at the end of Gladiator, Cave said, in this interview, that Crowe replied…”Don’t worry, Ridley says he can make it work.”

      • Alexander wanted to live a myth, he wanted to live in a myth…to be a myth. That was his tragic flaw, and what led him unconsciously (it’s always unconscious) into living out the classic formula of Greek Tragedy…Success. Hubris. Reversal. Like the protagonists in Greek Tragedy, his hubris was to identify with a god, with mythic heroes, while trapped in the tension and conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal forces. The scene in the Cave of Myths is brilliant. Descending into the depths of the psyche, into the unconscious, or more accurately, the Collective Unconscious. From which the myths arise, symbolic expressions of the archetypal energies and processes dwelling in the Great Place Below.

        [Sometimes]…”the world hangs by a thin thread, and that thread is the psyche of man.”

        C.G. Jung. 1957.

      • Concerning history vs fiction…while I generally agree with not letting history get in the way of telling a good story, in the case of “Kingdom of Heaven”: Balian of Ibelin had been in the Holy Land for quite a while before the events that led to the Battle of Hattin. He was an older man, and he did not have an affair with Sybilla of Jerusalem. In fact, he was married to Sybilla’s stepmother! The second wife and dowager queen of Amaury I, King of Jerusalem. Sybilla was a wild, impetuous, irresponsible young woman. When her first husband William of Montferrat (the father of her son) died, her father and brother wanted to marry her to another older man who could control her. But Sybilla was madly in love with Guy of Lusignan! So they wed, against the reservations of Amaury and Baldwin. Guy was not an evil, treacherous bad guy, he just wasn’t the brightest bulb in the Crusader string. After the death of Baldwin IV, Sybilla was crowned Queen of Jerusalem. She then removed the crown from her head, and handed it to Guy, who crowned himself. Both Balian and Count Raymond of Tripoli (Tiberias in Ridley Scott’s movie) participated in the Battle of the Horns of Hattin. Guy, Raymond and Balian each led a column of the Crusader army, with the Templars, under the command of Gerard of Ridfort, Master of the Temple, bringing up the rear. Raymond urged setting up a defensive perimeter around the Springs of Cresson, so that the crusaders would have sufficient water for the men and horses, and letting Saladin come to them. Guy agreed, but in the night Gerard of Ridfort, who had a long time grudge against Raymond, convinced Guy to go on the offensive, marching east to meet Saladin and his Saracen army. Big mistake! Raymond and his knights were the only members of the crusader army to escape from Hattin, via a massed charge of his heavily armored and mounted knights. Balian was taken prisoner, but asked Saladin to grant him leave to go to Jerusalem and see to the safety of his wife. As Anna Comnena was royalty, Saladin granted Balian his request. After Balain surrendered Jerusalem to Salidin, he, his wife and his sons went to Cyprus, where his sons became powerful and influential members of the government.

        Now, I personally find all that history a lot more interesting than Ridley Scott’s and William Monahan’s fiction!

        Good abstract, so to speak, about 300. It’s not the pro-war story I disliked, it’s the extreme CGI stylization that I object to. I think it just gets in the way of the story…big time!. But I did enjoy that process in Sin City. So…go figure.

        The “unreliable narrator” is not a new dramatic narrative device. See…Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Or Ptolemy in Alexander Revisited. Or even Walter P. Thatcher’s memoirs, Mr. Bernstein, Jedediah Leland, Susan Alexander Kane and Raymond, the major domo of Xanadu, in telling the story of Charles Foster Kane (NO TRESPASSING). Or Adso of Melk, in The Name of the Rose (speaking of Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendelum is one of my favorite 20th century novels, right up there with John Fowles’ The Magus. But I digress).

        For some reason, I am reminded of a line from Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple. When British General John Burgoyne decides to surrender to the Continental Army, which has his soldiers surrounded, one of his officers says to him…”But General, what will history say?” Burgoyne replies…”History, as usual, will tell lies.”

      • PS: And don’t get me started on that ridiculous “happy ending” to Kingdom of Heaven! Bailian and Sybilla returning to Balian’s home village, where he’s wanted for murder! Why? Just so he can check the new buds on the tree his late wife planted? Then they ride off into the sunset to live “happily ever after”? Give me a break! Monaham and Scott blame that ending on 20th Century Fox (Scott said he wanted to do a “Get thee to a nunnery…” with Sybilla at the end of the movie. Sorta like Guinevere in Le Morte D’Arthur). 20th Century Fox…Uncle Rupert’s film company! Uncle Rupert’s media empire is shrinking, given all the Fleet Street Scandals involving his British Tabloids

        Besides, in both that sequence and the opening sequence of the film (Balian’s departure after killing his brother), the screen directions of Balian and Balian & Sybilla riding through that crossroads with a cross are really screwed up.

  2. I’m guessing that the Nick Cave interview I paraphrased from is older than the NME interview. That interview is most likely somewhere on Google, but I’m not inclined to search for it. My jury’s definitely out on Gladiator II script, but I really admire Nick Cave’s script for The Proposition! I first saw that film in a theater and have subsequently watched it on DVD numerous times. Excellent performances by…well…everyone. Guy Pearce; Ray Winstone; Emily Watson; David Wenham (Faramir! Back on a horse!); John Hurt (when his character was stabbed in the chest, I half expected to see a baby alien pop out!); and Danny Houston! Who does a very good imitation of his father in one of the Special Features. Thumbs up for Nick Cave’s music score as well.

    NME! When I was in London in the late 1960’s and again in the early 70’s (on my way back to the USA from my first trip to Greece), I faithfully read New Musical Express every week. As well as Melody Maker, which I believe has ceased publication. Last year I purchased “The Rolling Stones: THe Ultimate Music Guide”, a special edition magazine produced by the publishers of UNCUT. Containing Stones-related articles, interviews and record reviews originally published in NME, MM and UNCUT from 1964 to 2008. Talk about, as Neil Young’s sings, a Journey Through The Past!

    • Dear John; thank you very much for your kind words, I really enjoyed your Q&A session. Thanks for your support and all the best with your site.

  3. On the subject of Ancient Greece…or Hellas…Two literary works:

    Latro in the Mist, by Gene Wolfe. A combination, in one volume, of his novels, Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete. Wolfe uses the framing device of the author’s contact with some papyrus scrolls, thought at first to be Egyptian, but then discovered to have been written in archaic Latin. The framing device is similar to the one used by Umberto Eco, with The Name of the Rose.

    The scrolls were allegedly written by a Roman mercenary named Latro, who fought in the Battle of Paltaiaí, on the side of the Persians, in 479 BC. Wolfe re-imagines the history of Greece, the landscape and place names of Greece, and Greek myth (there’s a chapter on Leonidas and Thermopylae), in telling Latro’s story. Sort of Ancient Greek magical realism. Highly recommended!

    And…

    The Troy Trilogy of David Gemmell: Lord of the Silver Bow, Shield of Thunder and Fall of Kings (finished by his wife Stella, after David Gemmell’s death). A magnificent re-imagining of The Trojan War, the prologue to the war, the war, and the epilogue: Some of The Returns, the disaster of Thera, and the founding of Rome (the main character is Aeneas). Gemmell re-imagines Greek myth and it’s human characters, (both Mycenaeans and Trojans), the Greek Gods, and the War itself. Very highly recommended! Four stars! Two thumbs up!

  4. New photo, huh Chris. Impressive. The line of the set jaw. The eyes heroically looking out toward the horizon. Like T.E. Lawrence looking upon the objective of Aquaba…after crossing the Nefud, and the Sun’s Anvil!

    Just finished watching a DVD triple bill of Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down and Blade Runner. Still like Kingdom of Heaven very much, despite the pseudo-historical hooey. Black Hawk Down…one of the best films ever about men in combat! And Blade Runner…well! One of the most revolutionary science fiction films…ever!

    David, in Prometheus, is obviously a Replicant, a Nexus 6 or later model. But he can’t be referred to as a Replicant, for the prosaic reason that Prometheus is a 20th Century Fox film, and Blade Runner is a Warner Brothers film. and the term Replicant is copyright Warner Brothers, The Blade Runner Group, and the estate of Philip K. Dick.

    Black Hawk Down, Blade Runner, and Alien. My personal three favorite films of Ridley Scott.

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