Algren: There was once a battle at a place called Thermopylae, where three hundred brave Greeks held off a Persian army of a million men... a million, you understand this number?
Katsumoto: I understand this number.- The Last Samurai
300 -- directed by Zack Snyder, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller -- should be out in the theaters right now. Despite the hokey advertising (What kind of a tagline is "PREPARE FOR GLORY!", anyway?) and the overly dramatic preview trailers, the film seems to be getting quite a few good reviews. It's already on the top of my "must-watch" list, which is kind of unexpected for a two-hour epic involving scores of sweaty, half-naked men.
I'm a sucker for underdog stories. You probably know them very well: They're the ones where a tiny group of people must stand (at heavy disadvantage) against a numerically, skillfully, and/or technologically superior opponent. They're the ones where the beleaguered forces realize that their only recourse is to fight and die, simply because they have become desperate men. And if there is any single truth that must be realized in these situations, it is that desperate men have nothing to lose.
Simply put, underdog stories represent some of the most redeeming qualities of the human spirit: The drive to defend one's home or beliefs to the very end, the ability to free oneself from fear and regret, and the resolve to never surrender even against overwhelming odds.
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie- Simonides' epigram, Thermopylae (version by Pressfield)
The Battle of Thermopylae happens to be one of the best in this regard: A force of three hundred Spartans, given allowance to surrender to a massive Persian army, instead elects to make a suicidal "last stand" because the freedom of all Greece hangs in the balance. That Thermopylae ends up buying enough time for the rest of the Greek army to mobilize and finally defeat the Persians only makes the story much more sweeter -- it gives a lot of relevance to the struggle, and lends nobility to the Spartan cause.
I find it interesting, moreover, that the conditions have to be just right in order to produce such heroic moments. Under different circumstances, any story that involves small groups of people going up against massive numbers of enemies could be seen as idiotic and foolhardy, much less heroic and redeemable. When James Brudenell, Lord Cardigan, led over six hundred men into direct artillery fire in the Crimean War (an exploit later recorded as The Charge of the Light Brigade), the result was seen as pure tragedy brought about by battlefield miscommunication. When George Armstrong Custer decided to march two hundred men into a six-hundred-strong force of American Indians at the Battle of Little Big Horn, his move was derided as an act of pure stupidity and self-delusion, and this response stains his reputation even to this very day.
Nowadays, however, wars are fewer and far between... and when they do actually occur, they're a far more precise and organized affair than the ones we hear about in history class. Modern underdog stories are far more personal in nature: They end up focusing on the integrity of individuals rather than groups of people. Assuming that we've become more civilized over the past few centuries, these stories see a lot less in the way of actual killing. Nevertheless, the odds still end up being far from agreeable.
"He didn't do it again, did he? Yes he did."- Tim McCarver, Fox commentator,
after David Ortiz's winning hit on Game 5
of the 2004 American League Championship
What we don't find memorable in sports, however, is the agony of defeat. This is probably where the underdog aspect finds its difference: Lose a basketball championship to a superior foe, and it doesn't matter how valiant you were or how much blood you shed -- you still lost. Lose a battle to overwhelming odds, however, and there still remains the chance to be memorialized and remembered, depending on the significance of your struggle.
On the other hand, I suppose, putting sports and war together doesn't necessarily make for a fair comparison. Even the best athletes get more than a little forgotten, after a good long wait... whereas history tends to be the best marketing firm of them all.
That's where the underdog story becomes very important, I think: It helps spread the tale to generations upon generations of new listeners. It tells people that men can come together and hold their ground against anything that could compromise their home, their beliefs, and their selves. In that sense, it helps ensure that any legacy of noble and effective struggle will always be present no matter how far we go into the future. That should be the same for war as it is for sports and other areas we haven't covered here.
In the end, that says something about humanity. It says that we're perfectly willing to watch and listen to tales of glory and honor, of strength and victory, of death and defeat. And hopefully enough, it says that we're willing to ask ourselves those very same questions when the time comes.
We each will have our own finest hours. We're all bound to assume the role of the underdog at some time. The question lies in just what we plan to do then.
Katsumoto: What happened to the warriors at Thermopylae?
Algren: Dead to the last man.- The Last Samurai