There’s a long history in Hollywood of shelved projects, abandoned franchise dreams, stalled careers, and entire genres that lost favor or profitability. 9 times out 10 these problems and failures are the result of a myriad of complex issues and contributing factors. Sometimes though… Sometimes you can pretty much pin everything on one film that fucked it up for everyone. Whether it’s a movie that killed a rival project, destroyed a filmmaker’s career, squashed some brilliant idea, or took the shine off of an entire genre, this CHUD List will catalog the films that were just total, unapologetic Cockblocks.
Day 9 (Gates of Fire Cockblocked!)
THE COCK: Michael Mann’s Gates of Fire
In 1998, Steven Pressfield tackled a legendary but relatively dusty subject (pop culturally speaking): the Battle of Thermopylae. According to Pressfield, no one was even interested in publishing the book until his “movie-biz manager” namedropped his screenwriting credentials in the right publication. A publisher from Doubleday caught the blurb, and Gates of Fire was published to great acclaim and sales. Universal immediately optioned it, and put screenwriter David Self to adapting it.
The film languished for a bit, but there was a script by 2000 that was deemed pretty solid. Michael Mann became attached to direct, and planned for it to be his follow up to Ali. George Clooney, enamored of Gladiator, desired to make his own sword-and-sandal epic, and he was set to produce. It’s unclear if Clooney ever intended to star, but it seems he was eying some kind of role. Most reports give the lead to Bruce Willis. IGN indicates he was playing Dienekes, the Spartan who is tirelessly served by the helot (and main character / narrator) Xeones. However, it’s possible that he hoped to play the long-suffering Xeones. We only know he wanted “to star” in the film. My gut says Clooney may have taken the smaller “background” role of King Leonidas. He certainly would have been ideal.
We don’t know what other actors may have been approached. A lot of young names were bandied about (Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Ryan Philippe were all in “the age range” being looked at) but no one ever became attached beyond Willis and Clooney. But boy, were they enthusiastic. “Gates of Fire is an amazing story,” said Clooney. “Gladiator was my favorite film of the year, but I think Gates of Fire is a better story. Bruce Willis calls me about every two months, asking what’s going on. He’s dying, dying to do it.”
Did you hear that? Better than Gladiator! But alas. It was not to be.
THE BLOCK: Zack Snyder’s 300
Unbeknown to Mr. Pressfield, another writer was hard at work on his vision of the brave 300. That man was Frank Miller and his graphic novel version, 300, was published the same year as Gates of Fire. Both men should have a private chat with their Muse and find out who else she was sleeping with.
Producer Gianni Nunnari hankered to make a movie about Thermopylae. Apparently, he and Michael Mann also shared a cheating Muse. Nunnari “was in love” with Gates of Fire and wanted to adapt it, but discovered he’d been too slow to option it.
“I was in love with this epic piece of history. I wanted to find something different. ‘Is there any way we can do this piece of history in a more reduced-role, hard R way,'” the director mused. By sheer luck, he found a copy of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, loved it as much as Pressfield’s novel, and optioned it. He put Michael B. Gordon to work on the script.
Was he deliberately trying to cockblock Mann with his own fictional version? Probably.
How it Went Down: A young upstart by the name of Zack Snyder also had his eye on the book. He had loved it, and in 2002, he begged Warner Bros to let him direct it. But they had Troy in preproduction, and were uninterested in green-lighting another Bronze Age epic. Snyder did Dawn of the Dead instead, and the studio was impressed enough to let him have a crack at 300. By 2005, a troop of handsome, well-oiled beefcakes were eating hearty, and by 2007 they would be dining in hell.
300 was a massive success, and became instantly iconic. So large was its shadow and so imposing were its codpieces that Universal balked at making Gates of Fire. It died on the vine.
To be fair, almost a decade had passed from Universal optioning Gates of Fire to 300 forming ranks against it. It was optioned in 1998; a script was ready by 2000. It had big names attached. It had a head start. It could have taken advantage of that ancient post-Gladiator fervor and been out the same year as Troy and Alexander. Pressfield hints at “creative differences” slowing the project down and killing it long before 300 (schedule conflicts also seem to have played their part), but Snyder’s film was certainly the final spear in the project’s ribcage.
Bullet Dodged, or Greatness Robbed:
I love 300. I think it’s a glorious and bombastic film, and the visual equivalent of reading Homer. (I’m not comparing it to Homer. I’m saying that it’s the visual equivalent to all the sex, stabbing, and chest beating you find in Greek epics.)
But I also enjoyed Gates of Fire. In its own way its as unrealistic as 300 (Xeones’ entire story and camaraderie with the Spartans is incredibly unlikely) but it describes Thermopylae as it probably really happened. The Spartans are fighting with shattered swords and spears. They’re down to the nubs of weapons by the end, and can barely hold them in their bruised and sweaty fingers. They start dragging in any able body they’ve got left, be they slave or helot, to bolster up the ranks. Men piss themselves as armies collide. They slip in intestines and viscera, and they fight on with torn tendons, gaping wounds, dead muscle, and broken bones. It’s the best description of a battle you’ll find anywhere.
The actors would have probably been a little more average and age-appropriate. There wouldn’t have been as much flesh on display because they would have had armor. Clooney’s performance would have probably been quieter and more nuanced than Butler. (No slam on Butler — I think he does very well with the material.) Willis probably would have been the low point, but this may have brought out the best of his squints and sighs, as Dienekes fights to his last breath.
It would have been less controversial. I don’t think Gates delves into Spartan eugenics for one, and it certainly lacks the “West is Best, Democracy is Wow!” angle of Miller. The Persians are quite sympathetically portrayed. Women also get a fairer shake. There’s one rape scene, but it’s more appropriate to the story, and it doesn’t involve the Spartan queen. Instead, the Spartan women are all tall, beautiful, and quiet pillars of strength. (So is Lena Headey, barring one lousy scene.) Queen Gorgo even gets an entire chapter where she and Leonidas explain how they chose the final 300. It wouldn’t have just one plummy role for an actress, it would have had several.
Gates would have been a unique and more historically appropriate take — in theory, anyway. As Troy and Alexander proved, even a “serious” and “historic” take can be riddled with camp. But with Michael Mann directing, I don’t think this would have been silly. I envision this to be visually arresting, and something akin to The Last of the Mohicans only bigger, grander, nastier, and far less romantic. At worst, it might have been overlong and talky (the script review seems to indicate Xeones spends a lot of time naval gazing, dreaming of romance, and trying to be a man — not at all what he did in the book), making everyone squirm until blood finally spilled at Thermopylae.
Verdict: Greatness Robbed.
The Alternate Universe: We get both films! 2006/2007 has a Tombstone / Wyatt Earp scenario going on, only both films make out just fine.
Gates of Fire makes it out first. Mann strips it of the weaker boy-becomes-man angle indicated in script reviews. Instead, Xeo is the man without a country, always at odds, just like many of Mann’s characters. The film appeals to an older and more mature demographic, and history professors are willing to use it in class. It gets nominated for visual and technical Oscars, but falls short of Best Picture, though Clooney scores a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
300 comes out a year or two later. It appeals to the young demographic who was just a little too young and impatient to sit through Gates of Fire. Half of the audiences that queue up for it don’t even realize it’s the same story that was getting buzzed about two years prior. (I see a sort of Pirates / Master and Commander split happening with audiences. One attracts the mainstream, the other attracts critical and almost cultish acclaim.) Its inky blood, rippled flesh, and roaring Gerard Butler still combine for a powerful box office potion, though cinephiles disdain it. Instead of “Gates of Fire would have been a better movie” you have “Gates of Fire was a better movie”, and those who enjoy both for what they were are considered indecisive and ignorant.
Remains: The only thing Gates of Fire left behind is its script. I was only able to find reviews of it, but I’m sure there are copies available to those determined enough to seek it out. Gates never seems to have left the nebulous pre-production stage — no one was ever firmly cast — so I don’t think there are any costume or set designs. If anything ever got that far, it will undoubtedly be recycled into whatever ancient epic catches Universal’s fancy.
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