Before ‘300’ There Was ‘The Warriors’

Posted on March 26th, 2008 by

From the New York Times:

As reflected on this Sunday’s letters page, readers took us to task after Colson Whitehead — in his March 2 back-page essay, “I Write in Brooklyn. Get Over It” — called Walter Hill’s 1979 youth-gang cult film “The Warriors” “a glorious B-movie version of “The Odyssey.”

Whitehead, of course, is free to compare whatever film to whatever book he wants. But readers pointed out that “The Warriors,” about a Coney Island gang on the run far from its home turf, was based on Sol Yurick’s novel of the same title, which in turn was explicitly inspired not by the “Odyssey” but by Xenophon’s “Anabasis.” It’s the eye-witness high-adventure story of 10,000 or so real Greek mercenary warriors who, at the end of the fifth century B.C., found themselves trapped in the heart of the mighty Persian empire (not far from Baghdad, as it happens) and had to fight their way back home, through Armenia and along the shore of the Black Sea. (Thalatta! Thalatta! “The sea! The sea!”)

It’s amazing how apt the gang motif is for Xenophon’s work, both in terms of the diverse, exotic, often fierce inhabitants of the Persian empire (freely translated on film into Baseball Furies, High Hats, Electric Eliminators and so forth) and of the Greeks themselves. “The Ten Thousand were a gang of roughs,” George Cawkwell writes in his introduction to the book’s Penguin edition, and Occidentalist loyalty wavers a mite when our Hellenic heroes are plundering villages, grabbing people to sell in the slave market or manhandling the natives they intend to use as guides. (I don’t want to meet the Warriors on the F train.) But you can say this for Xenophon the Athenian — he got most of his crew out alive, something not true of the vaunted Odysseus (check it out: Odysseus’s men, survival rate zero!).

It puzzles me why filmmakers so often fail in trying to play the classics straight but sometimes oddly succeed in capturing some real essence of an ancient work in an exaggerated or outrageous guise. (Zack Snyder’s 2007 film “300,” about the Battle of Thermopylae but based primarily on a graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, is another example of the same.) Xenophon is relatively easy Greek, and a lot of students start out reading it. But the classicist Robin Lane Fox concedes that “The Warriors” is “now the Ten Thousand’s best-known legacy.”

 

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