Oliver Stone's Alexander
"It was pretty good, but it doesn't need a sequel."That was the solemn pronouncement of a twenty-something college student exiting the theater after viewing Oliver Stone's Alexander. I laughed, at the time. But when struggling to find a place to begin this review, I settled on that remark because it underscores the huge divide between the types of viewers who will go to see this movie.
I had laughed (if kindly) at the fellow's expectations because I knew enough about the subject that such an idea would not even have crossed my mind. In fact, some would say I know too much to properly assess how the average film-goer will react to Alexander . . . and that is why I began with the average film-goer -- a young white man of the 18-24 age bracket . . . THE demographic at whom many film-makers aim movies these days (rightly or wrongly).Spider-Man hit that demographic square on, to great success -- and make no mistake, I loved Spider-Man -- but that demographic is not the target audience for this film. Too often today, when we think 'epic,' and 'block-buster,' it entails certain assumptions and expectations. So shall we scratch off some of those right now?
This isn't Troy. It isn't Gladiator. Nor is it a popcorn summer feature, chick-flick, date movie, gay film, or action blockbuster. It's not about the war(s) in Iraq. It's not a moral fable about George Bush (either of them). And if there are several myths referenced (including that of Alexander himself), it isn't mythic in the way of Star Wars. The parallels I've seen many reviewers draw to modern events say more about them than about the movie.This is the story (part Plutarch, part Curtius, part Arrian) of Alexander of Macedon -- a biopic, or novel on the screen where every plot event serves characterization; characters don't exist purely to move along the plot, as in an adventure story. And therein lies one of the problems with this film for the average film-goer. When it comes to multi-million-dollar blockbuster epics, we've come to expect adventure stories of one type or another. Some film reviews have tried to compare it to Stone's Vietnam movies, or to Moulin Rogue, or even to Fellini's Satyricon. Those are off the mark. Rather, I would compare it to Lawrence of Arabia, in terms of sheer scope, pacing, and its unrelenting focus on a single individual in order to map out the tragedy of his life. In many ways, this is a movie for Greek and Alexander 'geeks.' The more one knows, the more one will recognize -- the historical accuracy of sets is better than I've seen in some documentaries. The more one knows, the less likely one will be to draw outside parallels, too, I think. The biggest parallel in the film is to the novels of Mary Renault; there are multiple tributes to the late, great author of Greek historical fiction. I won't say that everyone familiar with Alexander's history will like this movie -- many won't and don't -- but it is better than I expected, as long as one recalls that it is historical fiction, not a documentary or docudrama. I've read or viewed plenty of bad, and very bad, historical books and films on Alexander, and this movie is not among those sad examples.
Given the many and varied pans of this film in newspapers, blogs, and message groups, it may come as a shock that I am willing to say that I liked it. Yet if I compared this movie to Lawrence of Arabia, it isn't Lawrence of Arabia, and Colin Farrell isn't Peter O'Toole. He's not in O'Toole's class. Of course, most actors aren't, yet that caliber of actor was what this film required. It is SO strongly focused on one person that the lead actor must have sufficient magnetism and breadth to carry the film alone. Colin Farrell does not, quite -- particularly in grand scenes that call for 'speechifying.' Farrell is better in scenes of smaller scope and high emotion; I never believed that he believed his exhortations, or dreamy flights into ideological fantasy. At those points, I found myself thinking, 'This is an actor reciting lines, not Alexander.'Farrell is supported by a good cast, and one actor who made me sit up to take notice was Gary Stretch as Kleitos (Cleitus). Other good performances came (unsurprisingly) from Val Kilmer (Philip) and yes, Angelina Jolie (Olympias). The historical Macedonians were a melodramatic bunch. My 'Olympias issues' had less to do with her performance than with interpretations of her character by the director/script. Jared Leto as Hephaistion tried his best in a mostly thankless role, but did not stand out for me (despite my personal interest in the historical man), and I fear he did not have enough to work with. I found the most disappointing performance from Anthony Hopkins, although again, it was less Hopkins' fault than the narrative role he was assignd to fill. Voice-over work in films is like pepper -- best employed sparingly. There was too much of it in Alexander.
Nonetheless, and in the language of reviewers everywhere, I would give it three stars out of five. It may not succeed in everything, but I think it succeeds more than it fails.Before I go into the details, let me say that one must allow this movie to be what it is, not the story of Alexander as we would tell it. That may be the most difficult struggle for Alexander enthusiasts. Years ago, E. N. Borza said in his introduction to Ulrich Wilcken's biography, "It is enough to say that there are many Alexanders, perhaps as many as there are those who profess a serious interest in him.." We each have our own version, positive or negative, and our own idea of what his story should be. I have heard too many complaints of, 'He didn't show this, he didn't show that . . . ," but when reviewing Oliver Stone's Alexander, it becomes important not to condemn Stone for failing to make our movie instead of making his. I do think it valid to note differences in vision and opinion (and there are plenty such expressed below) -- as long as it remains clear that is what we are doing, and we can separate ourselves enough to evaluate whether Stone's film succeeded in doing what he set out to do, rather than failing because it did not do what we wished it had done.
Meta History and Other Matters
There are actually three levels to historical authenticity in any film (or book). First are the details of set design and costuming -- the 'what did it look like' aspect. In general, Stone's film handled these exceptionally well. There were problems, but I was impressed overall, and there are a large number of small accuracies and tributes. Whatever else one thinks of the film, it was lush with particular attention to detail (even if things occasionally showed up in unexpected places).Second comes the 'what really happened?' aspect. The flow of events. Here, far more liberties were taken, but frankly, it is impossible to cram all of Alexander's career into a single feature-length film and choices will have to be made, conflations occur. This is an area where it can be the most difficult to separate 'our' story from the one we are watching. Alexander enthusiasts have griped that there were not enough battles, or Alexander's trek to Siwah was left out, or they should have done more with Alexander's (male) love interests -- or done less. Etcetera. Yet when it came to the choices of what events to show, what events to combine, and what events to rearrange the order of, I could follow Stone's choices in almost every case, even if his choices might not have been ones I would have made. That suggests Stone did his homework and thought long and hard about decisions, and I must respect him for that.
One cardinal rule of novel writing or film making is never to let a scene do only one thing when it might do two or three. This is called creative conflation, and what it means is that one not only cannot, but should not expect an historical movie or novel to reflect the exact order of historical events in the time frame they occurred. In fact, Stone's film may have suffered from too much historical accuracy -- although I think it not half so bad as some film critics have complained. There were points, however, where it became plodding, and other points where small details were tossed in without explanation. One only recognized them if one already knew the story.
Yet the events Stone chose to show, those he cut, and those he combined mostly made sense for the goal I believe he was after. A different goal would, naturally, have yielded a different set of choices. One does not begin an historical novel or movie by deciding, "I want to show this, and this, and this . . ." It would be a mishmash of events with no guiding theme. One begins with the theme one is trying to illustrate, then selects the events and encounters (and characters) that will allow one to tell that story. This is something that Stone (mostly) understood, and although some have complained that Stone's film did not have a theme, actually, I believe that it did. It simply was not the theme that we expected -- like Prometheus, Stone tricked us, as I will attempt to show.Finally, the third -- and most important -- level of historical accuracy concerns the themes and worldview. These are matters both more fundamental and more esoteric. Does the film reflect how people living in that era understood life, the universe, and everything? And does the film convey this in such a way that the viewing audience can follow?
As a corollary to this comes a tougher question and perhaps the one place where it is hardest to separate our own views from that of the creator. Do we think the story being told, in the way it's told, deserves to be told? Or put in simpler terms, this is the, "Why should I care?" question. It goes beyond set accuracy, costume accuracy, event accuracy, or the artistic elements of good writing or good filming. It involves why anyone not already interested in the topic should become interested. Unfortunately, this is the level at which Stone's Alexander fell flattest, in my own estimation. I find much of the criticism leveled against it to be overly strident; it is not nearly as bad a movie as some would make it sound, but the reasons for the spiteful hostility are not easy to isolate because they range from critics' (perhaps American) fondness for hyperbole, to preconceived notions of what an epic (especially an epic about a world conqueror) should be, to homophobia, to problems in length and repetitive dialogue, to simple dislike for Oliver Stone. Thus, a flawed film stumbled over multiple pre-existing cracks in the pavement. The result was an embarrassing sprawl.Yet the basic problem remains. Why should modern audiences care about Stone's Alexander? His thematic question is simple enough -- what, psychologically, drove Alexander to do what he did? Historians have been asking that since antiquity. Yet from a modern historian's point of view, it represents an impossible question, and I think we have finally realized as much. One cannot psychoanalyze ancient people, and these days, historians try to ask questions that have a hope of being answered.
Yet psychological questions are wonderful for fiction. In fact, THE novelist's question is, Why does X character behave in the way that s/he does? Novel writing is about character exploration as opposed to 'what happened' (plot). So it is not for asking "Why did Alexander do what he did?" that I fault Stone. No, I question some of Stone's answers. They were, in my opinion, the most ahistorical aspects of the movie. If Stone does not quite cross the line to present us with a twentieth-century man in Macedonian clothing, he does dance at the edge.Two of the apparent overarching themes struck me as either outdated or anachronistic (more below), but there were themes that echoed ancient concerns, and some sentiments voiced could have been uttered by long-dead lips. At the film's end, Ptolemy says, "I never believed in his dream. None of us did. That's the truth of his life. Dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they blasted kill us." And at the film's beginning, he observes, "We idolize him, make him better than he was. All men reach and fall, reach and fall." Those both paraphrase historical sentiments about Alexander. Along with Stone's other themes was the matter of Alexander's hubris, or over-reaching -- and if I had to pick the chief vice for which Alexander was critiqued in his own day, hubris would top the list. Upon hearing of Alexander's death in Babylon, the Athenian orator Demades retorted, "Alexander? Dead? Impossible! The whole world would stink of his corpse." Yet hubris is more than over-reaching. Film-Philp tells his son, "A king isn't just born, Alexander, he's made, by steel and by suffering . . . No man or woman can be too powerful, or too beautiful." Hubris was believed to offend the gods -- and could bring down their wrath -- so it was an especially heinous offense.
Thus, exploring Alexander's hubris is an historically accurate theme, but not presented in a way that resonated well with modern audiences. We prefer the underdog, the common-man hero, the one without pretensions . . . not the man who thinks himself the son of a god. So it is no surprise if Gladiator's Maximus made us cheer, or Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. We admire reluctant heroes who just want to live a quiet life, but rise to the occasion when called upon.By contrast, ancient sensibilities were less modest, boasting not only permitted, but expected, and Alexander was worse than average. Even his own soldiers tired of him. Hubristic Alexander is annoying, not sympathetic, and Stone's Alexander felt entirely too much like the whiney poor, little rich kid. We do not, generally, like such characters, and thus, audiences were not prepared to care about him or his trammeled dreams. We were far more inclined to sympathize with his frustrated troops who had had enough.
"Dreamers exhaust us." Yes, they do. And that makes Alexander a hard sell.I do not think most audiences liked Alexander -- yet I am also not convinced that Stone wanted us to like him, so much as to pity him. Unfortunately, viewers lacked enough sense of commonality to pity him. It was too complex an expectation. I spoke with one young lady in her middle-twenties who remarked, "The movie was just sad." Yet it was not 'sad' in a way that permitted emotional catharsis, nor was it bittersweet. There was no victory at the end, however dearly bought. Thus, I fear that instead of pity, too many moviegoers felt only contempt. Another young man in his twenties put it bluntly: "He was pretty pathetic for a conqueror." And a film critic from Columbus, Ohio summed up the character as "a mama's boy with a bad dye job."
Can one make Alexander's story pertinent to modern audiences? Is it even possible? Or have we become too content with mythic heros -- the Luke Skywalkers and Captain Kirks and Supermans -- so that we no longer accept anything else? Some would point to the success of The Incredibles against Alexander and say that North Americans want fantasy, not reality. There may be some truth to that, though perhaps not so negatively phrased. The same young lady quoted above who called the movie "just sad," went on to add, "I get enough of that in real life. I don't go to the movies for it." We want a hero, and Stone's Alexander was not.Therein lay the great stumbling block for Alexander as marketed to the average audience. Stories touch the capacity of the heart, or should, and I am convinced that the average movie-goer (or book reader) will put up with all manner of flaws in a creative work IF that work evokes passion or compassion. The collapse of Alexander's dreams failed to evoke much besides a sense of his just deserts, or even outright contempt.
The love story between Alexander and Hephaistion might have offered the emotionally evocative aspect necessary, if viewers had been less uncomfortable with it, or less unprepared to accept it as either valid or admirable. Yet to be fair, I believe homophobia applied to only some cases of audience indifference. I did not find the relationship especially compelling, either, though it is one I have studied in depth and written about in detail (“An atypical affair? Alexander the Great, Hephaistion Amyntoros and the nature of their relationship,” The Ancient History Bulletin, 13.3 (1999) 81-96). I was hardly unprepared to accept it. In fact, a compelling love story can challenge cultural assumptions, but in Alexander, there was both too much emphasis on it, and not enough. Hephaistion never crystalized as a character outside his attachment to Alexander. That they loved each other was clear -- less clear was why. And the 'why' must be answered before preconceptions can be overturned. Audiences have to care about both characters, and Stone never let us get that close to Hephaistion.Perhaps Stone meant to make Alexander more accessible by giving him a dysfunctional family and presenting him as an early proponent of one-world values. Unfortunately, neither gelled for many modern viewers, who, I think, found the oedipal complex too trite, and recognized the one-world politics as the anachronism that it is, even if they could not articulate why.
First, let's consider the family relationships. Stone gives Alexander's love-hate relationship with his mother and emulation and resentment of his father a distinctively oedipal twist. The opening scene after Ptolemy's introduction involves Olympias playing games with her son and talking about her pet snakes, only to be interrupted by a drunken and violent Philip who practically rapes then tries to kill her in front of the (hiding) child. Anyone familiar with Mary Renault's novels will immediately recognize a homage to the opening scene from Fire From Heaven. This is not an event recorded in our histories and points, I thought, to just how deep a debt Stone owed to Ms. Renault in shaping his own views of the conqueror. Although Stone's movie is in no way a copy of Renault's novels even when it echoes them (as here), nonetheless, Stone's Alexander is Renault's Alexander in some very fundamental perceptions . . . family dynamics not least.Fortunately, Stone's Olympias is not quite as (frankly) bitchy as Renault's, which owed too much to Plutarch's misogynistic rendition. (For a more balanced treatment of Olympias, see the work of Elizabeth D. Carney, "Olympias," Ancient Society 18 (1987) 35-62, and "Olympias and the Image of the Virago," Phoenix 47 (1993) 29-55, or her recent book, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia.) Nonetheless, Stone's Olympias is a snake in her own right, and the Oedipal complex is clear. Emotional strains in parent-child relationships are a staple of Stone movies. Very early in the film, Stone offered several myths that would prove central in understanding what he is about. Philip takes his son Alexander down into a cave for a chat -- not to mention a quick mythology lesson for a viewing audience mostly unfamiliar with the symbolism. (Unfortunately, artistic representations here were horrible, and I can think of better ways to have accomplished this same summary, including the use of Greek pottery art.) In any case, two of these mythic motifs are a 'must' for Alexander: the story of Achilles and of Herakles. The historical Alexander considered himself a descendent of both -- Achilles on his mother's side and Herakles on his father's -- and he emulated them throughout his life. Yet even here, Stone tells the audience what he wants them to know about these figures, neither of whom is presented as fortunate.
Three other myths are named in this same scene. One, predictably, is Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother without knowing it. A second is Medea, who murdered her own children in order to revenge herself on her husband Jason when he replaced her with a younger queen. Obviously, both reference Alexander's relationship with his parents, and movie-Philip says, "All your life, beware of women. They are far more dangerous than men." It is typical Greek misogyny, an attitude we find throughout the movie, and which is never much challenged. That should be disturbing. Stone is not a feminist, at least not in this film. In any case, the fifth myth touched on is that of Prometheus -- who, we should remember, was named also by Ptolemy at the film's opening. Philip says that Prometheus tried to help men, but suffered for it, and this motif recurs throughout. It is clear that Stone's Alexander is Prometheus, and if Stone never goes into it, Alexander's name -- Alex-andros -- meant 'protector of men.' Yet I will suggest that, in the end, the assimilation of Alexander to Prometheus has two edges, and only one is positive.Returning to Oedipus, and despite its Greco-mythic title, the 'Oedipus complex' is modern Freudian -- not ancient Greek -- and it certainly didn't apply to a Macedonian court that practiced royal polygamy. We must remember that Philip had seven wives, albeit not all at once. One ancient wit said that he took a new wife for each new war, but Philip knew the value of marriage as a political tool. In Stone's film, only two of Philip wives are ever named, and the polygamous nature of the court is passed over -- no doubt to avoid confusing his viewing audience. In fact, Philip's marriage to Eurydike is presented as a middle-aged man's interest in a younger woman, a midlife crisis of sorts (not entirely unsupported by the evidence), but Olympias' concern is thus reduced to the vengeful wife who vents her anger on her son. This is a terribly modern reading that does not reflect an ancient mindset.
One might argue that such a presentation is necessary, as trying to explain the complexities of Macedonian marriage practices -- not to mention five other wives (and siblings and half-siblings) -- would have been too much to ask of a non-specialist audience in a two hour and forty-five minute film. Certainly true, and I had no arguments with weeding down the field to Philip's two most significant wives. Yet sexual jealousy was not really a motivator in polygamous situations. Instead, quarrels erupted over status -- and the power that went with it. This status depended on the successful production of viable male heirs to the throne, and this is why Olympias (in reality, wife #4) was regarded as Philip's chief wife. She was herself royal by birth (a princess of Epiros), and of Philip's five children -- two boys and three daughters (not counting the last child, whose gender is uncertain) -- Olympias gave him two (Alexander and Kleopatra). So she ruled the roost. Why, then, be threatened by Eurydike? Because Eurydike's uncle had power in Pieria, the old heartland of the Macedonian kingdom. Olympias was not considered quite the 'barbarian' that the film presented, but she was -- compared to Eurydike -- foreign. And if Eurydike could produce a healthy male child, she might displace Olympias as chief wife. In polygamous situations, the status of a wife depended on the status of her son, and the only way to be certain of one's place was to become queen mother.So it was all about power and influence, not sex or desirability, except insofar as sex could be a tool to establish power and influence. We do get some of this in Stone's film, but with too much overlay of voluptuous oedipal tension used to explain the emulation and resentment that existed between Alexander and Philip. Poor Alexander really was a rag pulled between two (very ruthless) dogs -- but the prize was the throne, not the marriage bed. Philip was certainly more powerful and competent than the film made him out to be, and Stone quite deliberately presented Olympias as a Medea character, wrapped about with snakes and Egyptian-style eyeliner, plotting like a spider in her boudoir. I think the historical woman more akin to Eleanor of Aquitaine than Euripides' Medea, and would have been more terrifying if played with the iron will Katharine Hepburn showed in The Lion in Winter than Angelina Jolie's manipulative edginess (accent or no accent). I understand this was a writer and directorial decision, not Ms. Jolie's, but Olympias once faced down Alexander's own veteran soldiers and walked away alive. I have a difficult time picturing Jolie's Olympias carrying off that confrontation.
Yet if one removed that oedipal tension, one would kick out a key prop from Stone's movie. I may have personally wished he had done without the long shadow of Freud, but he would hardly be the first Alexander enthusiast to read the Philip-Olympias-Alexander triangle in that fashion. It does work for the use to which he put it. The real question is simply whether he should have used it at all. My own opinion is that he should not. It was historically out of place.The second anachronistic theme arose from the long shadow of W. W. Tarn, not of Freud. Tarn is perhaps the best known Alexander historian from the first half of the Twentieth Century, and his two-volume set on Alexander's career became the foundation for a plethora of subsequent biographies and high-school history textbooks.
Among Tarn's legacies to Alexander Studies was the notion that Alexander's conquests were a civilizing mission to bring Greek (European) culture to the benighted barbarians of Asia, and that he wanted to establish a 'Brotherhood of Mankind' between the two ruling classes, Macedonians and Persians. Note that this was not a 'one-world' idea of ethnic equality; only Macedonians and Persians were involved, not Egyptians, Greeks, or anyone else. Stone took Tarn's idea (mediated via Mary Renault) and tuned it for a modern audience, but the result is even less reflective of historical reality. At least Tarn could point to Alexander's speech at Opis, even if historians since have shown that speech to be pure propaganda, not reflecting actual appointments. But there is no evidence at all that Alexander believed in anything we would recognize as 'one world' politics. In truth, he was not much of a political theorist period. He was a conqueror, an explorer with an army, and in Alexander studies, Tarn's Brotherhood of Mankind has been on the way out since Ernst Badian's article "The Eunuch Bagoas" appeared in Classical Quarterly in 1956 (the article was actually about source criticism, not Bagoas). One will find few Alexander specialists today who still buy into it.Nonetheless, the Brotherhood of Mankind is certainly romantic, and might have provided a reason for modern audiences to care about Alexander. If Alexander's hubris turns us off, the idea of a united world appeals to us. It becomes so seductive, in fact, that many Alexander 'fanboys' and 'fangirls' actively resist -- and resent -- having their romantic notion challenged. It would be nice to think the world's greatest conqueror was really just interested in uniting everyone in an equal society. But that is fiction, not reality. The ancient world was ethnocentric, elitist, and hierarchical, and if Alexander may have been more a bit more broad-minded than most, he was still a product of his society. We should not try to make him a civil rights visionary.
There is good reason to think, however, that Stone himself questioned this romantic Alexander.If one considers carefully the dialogue and construction of scenes wherein Alexander elucidates his 'dream' of a united world, one gets the definite impression that Stone intends us to doubt it all. One must not just accept what Alexander is saying, but should pay attention to the framing of these speeches. Then one comes away with a sense that Alexander's one-world dream was just a cover for an endless campaign that had more to do with Alexander's own demons and desire for glory, than the 'freedom' of his subjects. Perhaps the clearest presentation of this comes during the balcony scene between Alexander and Hephaistion in Babylon. Alexander pontificates at length on his theories of world unification and how Aristotle was wrong, etcetera. But at the end, Hephaistion tells Alexander that he is really just running from his mother, and asks him what he is afraid of. Hephaistion knows the truth.1 Alexander sidesteps the question by a profession of love. Unfortunately, this goes on so long that it took the punch out of Hephaistion's observation. That scene should have concluded with the question, and exemplifies dramatic overloading.
If scenes should never do only one thing if they can do three, scenes can also become too busy -- and that problem plagued this film. Too many scenes go on too long or try to accomplish too much, resulting in confused points and diffused tension. If I think few scenes could have been done without entirely, Stone's script needed a ruthless editor. In my first viewing, while struggling to scribble down quotes, I frequently found myself writing a line, only to have the same sentiment repeated a sentence or two later in different words. Such unnecessary repetition signifies a need for editing. If the dialogue had been weeded at the outset, there would been more time for some of the scenes that Stone had to cut from his longer (3+ hour!) version -- which in turn might have resulted in less overall jerkiness.Both movie battles were framed so as to underscore the human cost of Alexander's ambition, the second more obviously than the first. Yet even with Gaugamela, although a Macedonian victory, Stone chose not to dwell on the astonishing defeat of an army that had outnumbered Alexander four to one (some estimates say seven to one). Instead, he took us into the hospital tent and focused on the particular -- one young soldier so gravely wounded that the kindest act his king can offer is to put him out of his misery. Victory over thousands is thus reduced to the tragedy of one man. Audiences go into Gaugamela with rousing speeches about freedom and glory, but emerge from Gaugamela overwhelmed by the blood and misery and sea of bodies. We should not be cheering, but weeping, just as Alexander did. It is not the victorious conclusion for movie battles to which we are accustomed. This is anti-heroic theater. And the "Battle of the Hydaspes" repeats this same point far more strongly.
But first, let us consider events between the two battles. It is in this part of the film that we find the greatest number of serious alterations to actual historical events, but all of them were changed to suit Stone's thematic point. Alexander's last years mark an increasing divide between the king and his Macedonians, and it is this conflict on which Stone wanted to focus. To my own mind, it is the most interesting era -- but also the most complicated and very hard to portray without sufficient foundation. Stone tried to utilize Alexander's early years in order to give viewers enough background to understand his latter years, and thus, focused on the beginning of Alexander's life, and the end -- but not the 'successful' middle because Alexander's success was not, ultimately, his interest. Audiences expecting "Alexander the Great" did not get him. They got "Alexander the Haunted," perhaps even "Alexander the Deluded." The problem with that picture is that audiences could not understand why this man had managed to convince his army to follow him so far in the first place.How might one solve that dilemma? I fear it would be impossible without making a much longer film (or series of them). In the end, one must pick one of two ways to view Alexander -- as a success story (a 'comedy' in the old meaning of the term), or as a tragedy. Stone chose the tragic route, which I do think the more historically honest, but it is also the more inherently difficult to portray -- especially in such limited time.
In an attempt to simplify Alexander's final four years, Stone conflated two conspiracies against Alexander into one, two mutinies into one, shifted about such events as the murder of Kleitos, and made Alexander's marriage to Roxane an oedipally driven love affair (following Plutarch, perhaps), rather than the political tool scholars such as Frank Holt consider it to have been. Alexander spent two years in Baktria and Sogdiana, unsuccessfully trying to quell rebellion. Then he married Roxane, the daughter of an important local chieftain, and was able to depart the area within months. Like his father before him, Alexander had recognized that marriage could be a political tool. I do realize Stone wished to make the marriage part of his oedipal subplot -- to the point of casting Rosario Dawson as Roxane because she resembled Angelina Jolie -- but as noted, I question that theme in the first place.From the marriage forward, Stone attempts to show how Alexander is drifting away from his Macedonians. This clash between Alexander and his men is well-documented in the sources, and he was repeatedly accused of going native. In fact, he may have had political (rather than ideological) reasons for his changes to court procedure, but whatever the reason, it was a point of sharp disagreement. Stone left out the proskynesis affair -- perhaps wisely; it would have been too complicated to explain to modern audiences in such limited time -- and instead focused on Philotas' conspiracy and Kleitos' murder to show Macedonian dissatisfaction. The proskynesis was alluded to in the shouting match between Alexander and Kleitos, but in such a way that it did not confuse things if one were unfamiliar with it.
Matters came to a head at a banquet in India, which ended with Kleitos dead. If displaced in time somewhat (Kleitos was murdered before India), the switch still worked and the scene was cast to show how "oriental" Alexander had become, surrounded by exotic Indians, lounging in Persian robes, and watching a eunuch dance. In sharp contrast is Kleitos, dressed in Macedonian black wool and sitting upright in his chair, arms crossed. It is clear that he is growing increasingly sullen and irritated, and finally, he speaks out, mocking Alexander and challenging his arrogance, and thus beginning the fateful verbal battle between them.Yet in the film, that sparring match did not have the same impetus that it did historically . . . which was too bad. Historically, the reason for Kleitos' anger was a staged farce during a banquet that made fun of Macedonian commanders recently massacred in a battle -- a massacre that had resulted from Alexander's failure to clarify the chain of command. The farce had chalked their deaths up to their own stupidity, not Alexander's error, and Kleitos was having none of it, incensed at the disrespect. It seemed that Alexander was only willing to accept the buck on his desk when it was a victorious one. Blame for failures was quickly shifted elsewhere.
Instead, in the film, the trigger event was the eunuch's dance (also displaced from its original Carmanian context). This was no doubt easier to show, but I felt it trivialized the conflict. Still, the kernal of the fight remains as Alexander is unfavorably compared to his father and accused of taking all the glory for victories that his men bought with their blood. Much of what Kleitos and Alexander bellow does paraphrase the histories, but in the film, Alexander hallucinates his father standing in Kleitos's place for a moment, and warns Kleitos to shut up. When Kleitos barrels on anyway, Alexander's oedipal resentment reaches a boiling point and he runs Kleitos-Philip through with a spear, then collapses in horrified mourning that continues for three days.Unfortunately, Stone then made a choice that disrupted his buildup by flashing back to the murder of Philip. This was jarring. I do understand his Freudian point, but it was jarring anyway. The original, much longer, version of the film was less linear, with several scenes connected thematically rather than progressing chronologically, but this final cut retained only a few such cases, and I believe this half-way choice merely confused, interrupting the broader thematic flow to underscore an oedipal connection that could still have been understood without setting the scenes back-to-back. In short, the movie should have been either thematically linked or linearly told, not a lot of one and a little of the other.
I believe Stone meant to show that Alexander's fundamental reason for pressing onward was connected to his oedipal need to kill Philip's fame, if not to kill him literally. Yet if the need to surpass his father (and Achilles, Herakles, and Dionysos, too) may indeed have been part of his 'pothos' -- his unquenchable yearning to see beyond the next hill -- another part owed to his own culture's expectations about what a Macedonian king should be. And this is something I am not sure Stone understood, and which then led him to look in anachronistic places for an answer to his question, "Why did Alexander do what he did?"A warrior people, the Macedonians wanted a warrior king, and honored those who won battles and provided loot. A Macedonian king was to be the great conqueror, the generous monarch, the brave warrior who exposed himself equally with his men. His success was Macedon's success, and thereby the success of its people; his courage was their courage. It was not the loss of the self to the greater good, but the equation of one's own goals with those of the people ruled. Especially in his early years, Alexander fit this well. After Gaugamela, however, his goals began increasingly to differ from those of his people, and this is the story that Stone wants to tell us. If Stone does have a basic grasp of the principles of Macedonian kingship, he seems to have missed the larger corollary by focusing overly on Oedipal complexes.
Alexander was a product of Macedonia's gift-exchange culture, not only followed by his army, but made by them. He became the king they wanted and needed and idolized. And thus, in India on the banks of the Hyphasis, they found themselves facing a monster of their own creation. They had wanted power, wealth, and victory -- the expected rewards in a gift-exchange society -- and Alexander had given it to them beyond their wildest dreams. Alexander's theatrical outrage and purported sense of betrayal at their 'mutiny' is, thus, not without justification. The problem wasn't that Alexander had failed to live up to the mythos of a Macedonian king, but that he didn't know when to stop. He gave them more than they had ever hoped for and, in the end, more than they wanted. This is something that Stone does not seem quite to grasp, and so some of Alexander's real motivations eluded his narrative, forcing him to substitute motivations that fit less well, and felt too modern.In any case, and following the murder of Kleitos (and Philip's assassination), we finally reach the 'mutiny' alluded to above. This is a necessary conflation of two mutinies, one in India and the other at Opis. It begins with a respectful tone but ends violently with Alexander leaping down into the midst of angry troops to personally finger the ring leaders and order them executed. This happened at Opis, not in India. Yet for the purposes of the film, it works. The highlight of the mutiny, however, was Koenos' famous speech, modified a bit and put in the mouth of Krateros (a necessary character reduction). First he flatters Alexander for giving them such victories, then tells him what the king ought to know already: that too many men have died, and those left would like to survive to enjoy their spoils.
They want to go home, but Alexander is clearly not listening, and the movie mutiny does not end like the first historical one, wherein Alexander was forced by his troops to turn back. Instead, Alexander drives them into yet another battle, the second of the movie. Ostensibly, this is the Battle of the Hydaspes where Alexander defeated Porus and his elephants. But the Hydaspes came before the Indian mutiny, and was arguably among Alexander's more strategically elegant battles, not the messy near-defeat with which we are presented on the screen. (And Porus' famous after-battle reply to Alexander's 'How would you like to be treated?' -- 'As a king,' was given in the film to Statiera instead because, of course, it could not be used here.)The other 'half' of this battle is, in fact, the Malian siege during which Alexander was severely wounded after an impulsive leap down into the city where he faced -- almost alone -- angry natives armed with powerful bows. Earlier, his men had been reluctant to storm the walls, and frustrated, the king had taken one of the scaling ladders to climb it himself, urging his men on. So many were shamed into following that the wooden ladders broke, leaving Alexander and three others isolated atop the wall within bowshot. Instead of leaping backwards, Alexander leapt forward. He was counting on his men to get over the wall before the Indians realized he was at their mercy. His gamble failed, as more ladders broke, delaying rescue, and he was shot before his soldiers could make it in. The surviving two of the three men who had been with him tried to protect his body until the Macedonians finally arrived. Then, seeing that their king had fallen, the army viciously slaughtered the entire town's population in a frightened rage.
In Stone's combined battle, Alexander's infantry are being trounced, making them reluctant to face the walking "walls" of the elephants, not to mention that the calvary horses are balking. In desperation, Alexander charges forward on Bucephalas, meeting the king's elephant head-on, and echoing his direct attack on Darius at Gaugamela. Except this time, his opposition is not cowed. Porus simply raises his spear and skewers Alexander's faithful mount while Alexander himself is shot in the chest by an arrow, just as happened at Malli.Yet in the movie, this was a stunningly stupid move -- and Alexander rarely made stupid tactical decisions in battle. In trying to recreate Malli without Malli, Stone wound up making Alexander look brave but idiotic. At Malli, Alexander's decision to leap into the city was predicated on a "snafu," and he had to think fast. Did he leap backwards and risk breaking a leg, or leap forward (to what was probably higher ground inside the walls) and gamble on the element of surprise and the maxim that 'when cornered, attack'? It was a brave move, a high-risk move, but not a completely foolish one.
Attacking an elephant on horseback armed only with a sword when your opponent has a long-spear goes beyond foolish into downright moronic. And this is one place in the movie where I thought Stone's choice to conflate things not only didn't work, but made Alexander look anything but the military genius he was. At Malli, Alexander's initial choice to climb the ladder may have been fueled by anger, but when things went wrong, he was still thinking. At Stone's "Malli," Alexander did not seem to have any plan besides desperation. It was not a heroic act, and so when he was shot, it seemed earned. My sympathies were with the horse!Yet I wonder if that was not the reaction Stone wished to foster? Alexander is not meant to look heroic here, or particularly sympathetic. He has driven his unhappy men into a battle against forces too alien, and when they falter, he rushes forward to face, alone, impossible odds. As a result, he sacrifices the horse who has trusted him utterly since he was twelve years old -- which is symbolic of his entire army, I think. His ambitions are killing them. If his near-fatal wound spurred on his men to win the battle anyway, it is a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. At the end, Alexander lies in his own blood watching his men die fighting for him, his horse die trying to protect him, and his best friend wounded severely after following his insane charge.
This is not a great leader. This is a foolish, selfish man. And to make sure that we understand this is an epiphany moment for Alexander, Stone washes the film in (blood) red, turns up the music to overwhelm the sounds of battle, and slows down the speed. Alexander is carried off the field on a shield (presumably the shield of Achilles, but one would have to know the history to make that connection). In any case, and just as at the battle of Gaugamela, we are left weeping, not cheering.It is on the heels of this battle that a recovering Alexander emerges from his tent to tell his surviving troops that they are going home. He has learned his lesson, and from a nearby hill, the shade of Philip nods. Finally Alexander has earned his father's approval. At this point, one must ask whether Stone believes in a 'romantic Alexander' at all. The message of this movie is not positive. Rather, it seems to be about the cost of ambition -- a theme much closer to the historical truth than Tarn's overly optimistic 'Brotherhood of Mankind."
So -- after all this explication, readers may be wondering why I still gave this film three stars out of five, despite all the problems named?It's a matter of proportion. This is a flawed film, no doubt. Nonetheless, it was ambitious, and attempted to tell a portion of Alexander's life that is, intrinsically, very hard to tell. It also stayed closer to history than most Hollywood ventures even attempt, and while there are ahistorical themes present -- including an oedipal complex and hints of Tarn's Brotherhood of Mankind -- in the end, I do think Stone deliberately undercut Tarn's optimistic fiction, giving us something closer to the historical truth, which is neither romantic nor majestic:
Alexander's campaign killed a lot of people to little concrete purpose.The problem then for audiences concerns expectations. Is this man a hero? The simple answer is, "Not really." Oliver Stone has fooled us, and I wonder if some of the angry reception this film has received may not be the reaction of the tricked? Viewers went expecting a hero -- Alexander the Great. "The greatest legend of all was real!" ads trumpeted, and "Fortune favors the bold!" But at the film's end, we are not left with a particularly admirable character -- a 'hero' by modern definitions -- and the story of Alexander's life was a tragedy, not an epic victory.
He was Prometheus, indeed -- but we must remember that while Prometheus brought fire so we could cook our food and warm ourselves, fire unchecked can also burn down our house.And fire unchecked was Stone's Alexander.