Alexander Revisited: Aristotle’s Letter and the Battle at the Hydaspes River

Read the other posts in this series here

In our last post we saw Alexander’s army rebel against their king for the first time. Despite none other than Craterus speaking out against him, the king won the day – just. The leaders of the ‘revolt’ were executed and the army moved on. But, as the elder Ptolemy tells us in the voice over, the king ‘was no longer loved by all’.

Scenes Covered

  • Aristotle’s Letter
  • The Battle of the Hydaspes River

Aristotle’s Letter
In real life, the Macedonian army’s rebellion took place on the Hyphasis River. Oliver Stone places it much further west. We know this because they haven’t reached Porus on the Hydaspes River yet. Despite that, the elder Ptolemy tells us that the army were marching south to the ocean.
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After an evocative scene of the Macedonians, sarissas upturned, marching against a pale sky, we join them in an Indian forest during the Monsoon season. Rain, rain, and yet more bloody rain.
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The scene proper begins with Aristotle dictating a letter to Alexander in which he warns him about taking on ‘eastern ways’. I liked the juxtaposition of Aristotle in his cloak set against a cold, austere sky and Alexander, topless and looking a little debauched in his tent.
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Aristotle expresses his hope that Alexander will remain the (inquisitive) boy that the philosopher once taught. By the king’s expression, though, that boy died a long time ago. It’s a very sad moment. Appropriately enough, perhaps, the screen turns black.
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The Battle of the Hydaspes River
The darkness does not last for long. A small circle appears in the centre of the screen and draws towards us. We are still in the forest but days? Weeks? later as the Macedonians await the arrival of Porus’ army. Wood creaks and breaks. The captains bid the men to remain calm. There is shouting in the distance. The camera shakes as something big approaches. No wonder the men look nervous! I’m sure this is elementary film making but I like the way Stone builds the suspense here. It enables us to be as awed as the Macedonians are when their nemeses – Porus’ army of elephants – is finally revealed.
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Alexander fought the Battle of the banks of the Hydaspes River using his phalanx. The film keeps the phalanx but has the battle take place in the forest. I am no tactician but surely the phalanx model would have been useless there? This is a scene that definitely only works in the heat of the moment. When you watch it with a cooler eye, the sight of the Macedonians forming up amidst the trees looks a bit silly.
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From the phalanx we move on to Alexander as he prepares to charge at the oncoming Indians. His cavalrymen are close by but this doesn’t stop the king from yelling at them to hurry. “Why do you hang back?!”. As they have not met the enemy and their elephants yet I assume that the cavalry’s reticence has been caused by the snipers in the trees. Ironically, speeding up would make them more difficult targets to hit. I have to say, I appreciated the presence of this line as, for me, it also references the way Alexander got so impatient during the siege of the Mallian fort (325 BC), he grabbed a ladder, climbed the walls of the fort and jumped inside to take on the Mallian army by himself.
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Of the battle itself, the stand-out moments for me are these -

  • The way the elephants tear the phalanx up
  • Alexander’s determination to help Craterus (despite their earlier confrontation)
  • Hephaestion’s arrival. Admittedly, I am writing these words in a cold room but I did get goosebumps when the camera cut to Alexander leading Hephaestion’s cavalrymen towards the battle. With the heroic music in the background it felt a big ‘heroes riding to the rescue’ moment

On Hephaestion, I would like to take this opportunity to say that I don’t think for a minute that he was an inferior soldier. I read someone say he was the other day; the insinuation seemed to be that if he had been a good one, Alexander would have given command of the entire Companion Cavalry to him rather than just half. My impression, though, is that after the Philotas Affair Alexander feared anyone – even, perhaps, Hephaestion – having too much power. This is a matter I need to look into more but I thought I would mention it here.

  • Alexander’s and Bucephalas’ solo attack on the Indian army. The eagle of Zeus is absent and everyone – even Hephaestion – holds back. It is a breathless moment. I envy anyone watching it who doesn’t know Alexander’s story. They would surely think that this was his last stand.
  • Bucephalas and Porus’ elephant rearing up. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to watch this properly as my damaged disc skipped the scene but I remember it well. It is a mighty – if wholly unrealistic – moment
  • Alexander lying on the ground having been shot with an arrow. The screen turns to red. He is dying but does not look at all upset by this. Why would he, though? This is the man who has just said, “Isn’t it a lovely thing to live with great courage and to die leaving an everlasting fame? Come, Macedonians. Why do you retreat? Do you want to live forever?”
  • Bucephalas ‘defending’ Alexander. Again, unrealistic and real emotional manipulation but great cinema

On the whole, the battle at the Hydaspes is well filmed and very enjoyable to watch. Enjoyable, that is, in the sense of being very exciting, sad and nerve wracking. It suffers from one profound problem, though. When Alexander rode forward by himself, the Macedonians were in retreat. When he fell, Hephaestion led the men forward. The battle, as the elder Ptolemy says, was Alexander’s bloodiest, ‘pure butchery’, are we to expect that the Macedonians could really have pulled it round so comprehensively on the strength of Alexander’s fall? I’m not so sure.

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “Alexander Revisited: Aristotle’s Letter and the Battle at the Hydaspes River

  1. Another factual problem is that Beucephalos died before they got there. The horse was too old to fight years before, but Alexander would not have him put down. He died on the stable floor with his head on Alexander’s lap.

  2. Thank you for your lovely post :) I have to admit, you made me go back to my DVD and watch the battle once again, and yes, it was a very good one!

    About Hephaestion, I do not believe that Alexander would have given him any command at all if he was not capable enough; let alone an important one such as half of the Companion Cavalry. There could be a number of reasons why Alexander did not give him the entire command, it could be a trust issue as you said, or maybe he did not want to alienate the most senior of his Macedonian officers, the conservative faction so to speak, by placing someone relatively young in such command. Well, these are my thoughts anyway!

  3. Penina,

    I suspect the film is littered with minor errors like that. From Oliver Stone’s point of view, though, it makes narrative sense for Bucephalas to be retained until his death (just as it does to have a Craterus give Coenus’ speech at the Hyphasis).

    AOS

  4. Hello Ganymede,

    Thank you for your kind comment. It is much appreciated. I’m glad you were inspired to go back to your DVD. I love reading and thinking about Alexander’s life and times and am very happy indeed if I can transmit that love to others.

    Regarding Hephaestion – I think you are entirely right when you say that he would not have been given any command of the Comp. Cav. had he not been regarded as a capable soldier. Alexander was not a sentimentalist. If he was I suspect Ptolemy would have risen up the ranks more quickly. I also think you are right to suggest that political reasons could have been a reason why he didn’t get made sole commander.

    Having said that, I’m trying to remember what happened after Black Cleitus died. Was Hephaestion left in sole charge? I can’t remember. I shall have to look it up!

    AOS

    • You’re most welcome! :D Your posts have always been such a delight to read and quite inspiring.

      I’m quite curious about your comment regarding Ptolemy; why would he be favoured by Alexander more so than Hephaestion or Craterus for example? I’ve never been under the impression that he held a special place in Alexander regard. I mean, yes, he was his friend and one of his close ‘advisors,’ but to me I felt he was the same like say, Leonnatus or Perdiccas.

      Coming back to Hephaestion, I think he was actually left in sole charge of the Com. Cav. but only in name! What I’m about to say now is purely from memory so I might be mistaken; but, I believe Alexander kept dividing the Com. into separate columns (5 cols. once?), with him leading one of them and Hephaestion leading another, with the other three under command of different officers (I don’t remember though if that was before or after the death of Black Cleitus). I also remember that when he died he was holding the post of commander of Com. Cav. alongside that of chilliarch. I’ll have to get back to my books as well to make sure!

  5. Ganymede, you are very kind indeed. Thank you!

    Re: Ptolemy – I am basing my opinion that Alexander was especially close to Ptolemy on Diodorus’ account of how distressed the king was when Ptolemy was gravely injured in 325 BC. The relevant passage is in Vol. VIII. Bk 17. 103 of the Loeb translation. In case you don’t have him to hand, though, I wrote a few words about the incident in another post last August. Here is the link: http://thesecondachilles.com/2013/08/29/the-sources-speak-diodorus-on-ptolemy-pt-1/

    Excluding Hephaestion, I can’t think of any other person treated with such affection by Alexander. That’s why, if he was a sentimentalist, I think he would have promoted Ptolemy earlier than he actually did.

    I’ve been reading a bit recently on the Pothos website about the possibility that Ptolemy was Alexander’s half-brother. This would go some way to explaining Alexander’s affection although I am not yet convinced that they were related. It’s an interesting idea, though, which I hope to write something about in due course.

    On Hephaestion – Do let me know if you find anything out before I do! I’m not sure what you mean by ‘only in name’ Are you saying someone else was the real leader? Re: the columns – I know that on the return west there were one or two occasions when Alexander divided the army into three. I vaguely recall that on one occasion, he took leadership of one column, and put Ptolemy and Leonnatus in charge of the other two. This is definitely something I would need to double check, though!

    Oh, and on the in name only idea – after Hephaestion died, didn’t Alexander name the Comp. Cav. after him? Something like that so his name endured even after his untimely death.

    AOS

  6. Ganymede,

    PS: In case you want to read the Pothos post yourself, it is here: http://www.pothos.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=2747
    I think whatever I write will be a distillation of the arguments that are presented there along with my own thoughts.

    PPS: I should probably have added in my comment that although Diodorus persuades me that Alexander and Ptolemy were close friends I have to admit that I am quite biased towards Ptolemy. He is my favourite general, partly because of how cleverly he conducted himself during the wars of the successors, but mainly because of what he and his family achieved in Egypt. I mean in terms of the Museum, Pharos, and translation of the Septuagint; politically, it all started to go downhill after Ptolemy III until Cleopatra VII.

    AOS

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