Europe: Ancient and Medieval

Alexander. Directed by Oliver Stone; produced by Moritz Borman, Jon Kilik, Thomas Schuhly, Iain Smith, and Oliver Stone; written by Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis. United States. 2004; color; 176 minutes. Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures (Intermedia Films).
Alexander III of Macedonia was king for thirteen years (336–323 B.C.) and established an empire that stretched from Greece to what the Greeks called India (modern Pakistan). He opened up a world that was much larger than Greece or even the entire Mediterranean, and he introduced to the Greeks a sense of belonging to that larger world. Alexander became king at twenty years of age and died shortly before his thirty-third birthday. His military genius and spectacular military successes earned him the epithet “great” in antiquity, but as the centuries went by other aspects of his reign and of his personality and ideals became part of his “greatness.” The historical Alexander thus faded into one of legend.

Making a movie that tries to explain who Alexander was, what he did, and especially why, is a Herculean task. It is something that Oliver Stone, an admirer of Alexander since his boyhood, wanted to do for over fifteen years. His Alexander, at a price tag of $150 million, is one of the most expensive movies ever made, and also the biggest movie of Stone’s career in terms of its scope.

The movie presents selections from Alexander’s life; to cover everything that the king did would require a trilogy. Stone’s Alexander (played by Colin Farrell) is a young man influenced by his mother Olympias, unafraid of showing his emotions but to the extent that he comes across as a wimp, and fixated on his own glory. He is a great general with a ruthless streak, and at the same time he is a man who dreams of bringing together all his people in a brotherhood of mankind. This is nonsense, for he intended no such thing, and I seriously doubt the extent of his mother’s influence.

The movie is, in effect, another addition to the legend of Alexander. Almost nothing is made of Alexander’s belief in his own divinity, which is the key to understanding what he did and why. Stone uses a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid (“Fortune favors the bold”) in the opening of the movie and has Alexander later say this to justify his actions. Far better would have been the ominous question, from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, that Alexander asked of Indian philosophers: “How can a man become a god?” Their answer: “By doing something a man cannot do.”

We do not have any in-depth character study of the king, and we should have in a movie like this. Was he really the great general, the philosophical idealist, the bringer of Greek civilization to Aristotle’s “barbarians”? Or was he a cynical, paranoid drunkard, who thought he was a god, was guilty of murder and mass slaughter, and who ended up destroying the Macedonian Empire? These are serious questions asked of Alexander today, but Stone attempts to exculpate Alexander by either not considering these questions or glossing over them. In the process, so much of what made Alexander tick is lost. It is also disappointing that we are given the Western image of Alexander as “great.” The damage that he did to local peoples is never presented, damage that is still remembered today and explains why the Zoroastrians in Iran, for example, call him Alexander the Accursed.

As well as giving us the nonhistorical Alexander, the movie is often marred by historical inaccuracies. While these are not likely to be spotted by the vast majority of people, there is no excuse for them. To mention only a few: in the film version of the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander is saved by Cleitus, who slices off the arm of a Persian about to kill the king. That incident happened at the Battle of Granicus three years earlier. When Alexander enters Babylon he meets the Persian royal princesses and the eunuch Bagoas in the royal harem. Actually, he captured the former after the Battle of Issus about three years earlier, and Bagoas was given to him later in Zadracarta. Philotas is implicated in the Pages’ Conspiracy, in which the royal pages tried to poison the king. In fact, Philotas had nothing to do with that conspiracy, and the pages were to stab Alexander as he slept. Alexander murders Cleitus in India: no, he was killed at Maracanda two years earlier. Alexander is severely wounded at the Battle of Hydaspes, which is fought against elephants in what appears to be a forest. No, Alexander’s wound was received at the siege of Malli, a year later; Hydaspes was fought on a sandy plain, and the elephant corps was only part of the Indian army.

Much is made of Alexander’s drinking and especially his bisexuality, something that has caused uproar among the Greeks. However, Alexander came from a culture that enjoyed same-sex relationships. His men would have thought nothing of him spending nights with men or women. Indeed, Alexander’s bisexuality and his drinking are probably the most accurate elements of the movie.

What of the actors? Farrell, with dreadful blond hair (although accurate), is simply not credible as Alexander. He is a highly talented actor, but here he lacks the sort of presence and power that Alexander must have had in order to lead an army (at times complaining and twice mutinying on him) where he did, to kill as he did, and to keep a vast empire together solely by his own sheer will. Angelina Jolie, eyes flashing and snakes coiling around her body, plays Alexander’s mother Olympias. More could be made of her scheming nature, and a real distraction was that she is made to speak in an accent that makes her sound like Count Dracula. Val Kilmer plays Alexander’s father Philip II and does so with gusto. He is really the only believable character in the whole movie, for the actors who play Alexander’s generals lack any sort of conviction and just spout their lines.

It is inevitable that parallels will be made between Alexander in Persia and coalition forces in Iraq today. The film is not used as a vehicle to criticize American foreign policy, but Stone probably wants us to remember President Bush’s remarks to Osama Bin Laden when he has his Alexander yell after the fleeing Great King Darius that he will never run far enough to escape him. The big question is, will Stone and Farrell be able to run far enough to escape the disappointment that is Alexander?

Ian Worthington
University of Missouri,