Alexander Revisited: Introduction to the Battle of Gaugamela

I did not have an interest in Alexander the Great when Oliver Stone’s biopic opened in 2004 although from what I have read since I know that it was not a success. Three versions of the film now exist – the cinematic, a Director’s Cut, and Final Cut (“Alexander Revisited“). Of these, I have only seen the Final Cut, and it is this version that this and the succeeding posts will be based on. Wikipedia tells me that a fourth version of the film was shown at a film festival at the beginning of July this year. We wait to see if it will make it to DVD and will improve the film.
Scenes Covered

  1. Opening sequence
  2. Alexander’s Death in Babylon
  3. The elder Ptolemy’s Framing Narrative
  4. Looking over the battlefield at Gaugamela
  5. Alexander’s Council of War
  6. Alexander’s walk through the camp
  7. Sacrifice of the bull / marching soldiers
  8. Alexander encourages his men
  9. The Battle of Gaugamela
  10. In the infirmary after the battle

Opening Sequence
The opening sequence of the film for me encapsulates what Alexander was really about – the creation of a new order; the fusion of Greek and Barbarian. I am intrigued to know, though, whose face it is that appears first. I would like it to be Cyrus the Great as Alexander had a deep respect for him. Interestingly, we see Ahura Mazda rather than Zeus – a nod, perhaps, to the view that Alexander ‘went native’ during his travels, although as far as I recall he never worshipped the Persian god.
Alexander’s Death in Babylon
The first scene takes place in 323 BC as Alexander lies on his deathbed, surrounded by his generals. Nearchus begs him to name his successor. Alexander doesn’t reply as he holds his ring up, seemingly as much to the image of Ahura Mazda on the fan above him as to one of his officers. Seconds later, Alexander dies; his ring falls to the floor and smashes. It is a neat way of indicating that no one ever did succeed him.
In having Alexander unable to speak, Oliver Stone is following Arrian who says that Alexander could not speak for the last hours of his life. Arrian, however, doesn’t mention any ring. Diodorus and Curtius do, though, saying that Alexander handed it to Perdiccas. They also say that when asked to whom he would give his empire, Alexander said ‘the best/strongest’.
Going back to Stone, it is ambiguous as to whether Alexander cannot or is simply unwilling to speak as his final act seems to be to offer his ring to Ahura Mazda, whose image is on the fan above him. To be sure, I don’t know if he is trying to offer the ring to the Persian god. It makes no sense for him to do so as – to the best of my knowledge – Alexander had no devotion towards him. The other thing that is very notable in this scene is the presence of the Bagoas as he tries to cool Alexander’s brow with a flannel. Alexander liked the eunuch, perhaps loved him, but I can’t help but feel that the generals would never have allowed Bagoas near the king at the end.
The elder Ptolemy’s Framing Narrative
At Alexander’s death, the film jumps forward by forty years to 285 BC where we find an aged Ptolemy in his Alexandria palace dictating his memoirs. His narration in the film is very useful as there is a terrific amount of time and action that the film must cover.
Hollywood loves any opportunity to include an anachronism so naturally we see the completed Pharos lighthouse in the port (its construction was not finished until the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus [283-246 BC]). There is also a straight-out historical mistake: Ptolemy says he is the ‘last [Successor] left alive’, which wasn’t true. Both Lysimachus and Seleucus outlived him. By-the-bye, as I recall, neither of these two appear in the film.
My favourite moment in this flash-forward is when Ptolemy refers to Alexander being worshipped as a god by the Egyptians; Anthony Hopkins delivers the line with a wry laugh as if to suggest that this was a silly proposition. It was a laugh that only come from a close friend.
Looking over the battlefield at Gaugamela
As the camera pans over the Arbela battlefield, a caption appears on the screen to inform us that we have gone back forty-five years in time to 331. Before I continue, I wonder if you noticed the date discrepancy above? The film correctly places Alexander’s death(bed scene) in 323. The caption that appears as the Alexandria scene begins explicitly states that it takes place forty years later in 285 BC. But 40 years after 323 should, of course, be 283 (the year of Ptolemy’s death). In this latest scene, the film correctly states that the Battle of Gaugamela is taking place in 331 ’45 years’ before the scene with the elder Ptolemy. But 45 years from 285 takes us to 330. Obviously if we count from 283 the discrepancy is worse.
Alexander’s Council of War
I really enjoyed the informality of this scene, and the way in which Alexander refers to ‘my brave Parmenion’ and ‘unbreakable Antigonus’. Whether or not he would have spoken like that in real life, his doing so here fits perfectly with what we know of his love of Homer. Speaking of which, there is a discrepancy between the dialogue and subtitles when Cassander refers to how Alexander sleeps with Homer’s tales of Troy under his pillow. By ‘tales’ he certainly means Homer’s Iliad. But let’s look at how the subtitles render Cassander’s dialogue,

Alexander I didn’t cross Asia to steal this victory, Cassander.
Cassander No, you are too honorable [sic] for that. No doubt influenced from sleeping with Tales of Troy under your pillow.

As you can see Tales of Troy has become a proper title. What is wrong with calling The Iliad by its name? Unless the subtitlers have misunderstood what the script said I fear Oliver Stone dumbed down for the audience here. On another point – you will have noticed the American English spelling of ‘honourable’. It may be compared to the Virgilian tag line at the start of the film, which is given to us as ‘Fortune favours the bold’. This switching between British and American English is echoed in the elder Ptolemy’s map which contains names in both Latin (Ægyptus), and Greek (Heliopolis).
I referred above to anachronisms and mistakes in the film. I suspect the former are allowed so as to help the viewer place scenes (“There’s Pharos – we must be in Alexandria”) while the latter are either genuine errors or deliberate ones that are allowed for the sake of the narrative. For example, neither the aforementioned Cassander, nor Antigonus and Nearchus were present at the Battle of Gaugamela yet here they are. Why? I think there must be something in their characters that made Stone prefer them to, say, Lysimachus and Seleucus who were present but who, as mentioned above, don’t appear in the picture. For my part, I don’t think the three add anything to the story. If Stone had decided to go with the theory that Cassander helped poison Alexander his presence would be understandable but as he doesn’t it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.
During the course of the council, we see Polyperchon. He really like that he has no lines, simply nodding or shaking his head instead of speaking. Given what a lonely, and rather unloved by all and sundry, figure he turned out to be during the Wars of the Successors I really liked this interpretation of him as being present but in a sense cut off from the unfolding action.
Alexander’s walk through the camp
There really was an eclipse on the night before the battle at Gaugamela so seeing it here was a lovely touch; as was – on a more frivolous level – Alexander’s conversation with Craterus, and his gobby subordinates. Having said that, given that Craterus was a senior officer in 331 (he had commanded the infantry on the left wing at Issus) he should have been in the Royal Tent. There is a rather confusing moment when, as one of Craterus’s men makes a joke about his tightfistedness, Alexander replies, “Who needs gloves when you come from grace?”. What exactly does he mean here? It appears to be a quasi-Christian statement (much like the one Arwen is made to say in Fellowship of the Ring) but that is impossible. Unless, of course, it is another anachronism. Leaving that aside, the subtitles call Parmenion’s Number two ‘Crateros’. It really should make its mind up which language it prefers!
Alexander’s brief walk – an early acknowledgement of how close he was to his men in the early years of his campaign – gives us his first extended scene with Hephaestion. Stone uses it to introduce the idea that Alexander saw himself as Achilles and Hephaestion as Patroclus. The image of Hephaestion that we are given in this scene is the one that I think most of us retain after watching the picture – loyal, detached, a bit soft, perhaps even drippy. I shall come back to why this is not the full picture, though, shortly.
Sacrifice of the bull / marching soldiers
Religion was very important to Alexander so its good to see his seer, who  I presume is Aristander, here. Even better is the ambiguity of the scene. As Aristander checks the bull’s innards to see what they say, he looks up in a very concerned manner – as if he has discovered something unsettling. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he says nothing to the soldiers crowded round him.
Alexander encourages his men
Alexander rallies his men with stirring words regarding their past heroic deeds while Darius remains silent amidst his. When Bessus and Pharnakes do speak it is only to agree with what the Great King says; such a contrast to the argumentative Macedonians!
I particularly like how we only see the end of Alexander’s speech to his men rather than hear it. He was never an orator, but rather, a man of action. In the seconds before we see him ride into battle it is appropriate that his words give way to his person, which is what the Macedonians were really fighting for. .
I could not help but notice Alexander’s movements on Bucephalas versus Darius’ stillness as he stood in his chariot. As with their speech/silence, their movement/stillness act as good metaphors for the different styles of kingship that they both exercised.
The Battle of Gaugamela
Does Darius’ silence and stillness contrast badly with Alexander’s words and action? In a way, yes, but it also gives him a terrific dignity. Dignity, of course, was what the Great King was all about – albeit dignity to the point of ossification.
Anyway, on with this extended sequence of the film. I have watched Alexander Revisited several time, and watching this battle never gets easier. The chariot scythes in particular are a terrible sight. One thing that I would love to know, however, is what did the Macedonians do if more than one man ran into their sarissa? Were their bodies easy to remove from it without breaking the weapon?
The battle’s realism is emphasised by the shaky camera work that Stone adopts. Something that I think works against the film’s realism is its insistence on making Parmenion, Alexander’s antithesis. It seems to be that every time he appears he speaks only to say something contrary to what Alexander wants. In the Royal Tent it was he was the main opposition to Alexander’s proposed battle strategy; and when he sends Philotas to get Alexander’s help, he also tells him to avenge his death if Alexander doesn’t come. 2300 years later, it would be nice if Parmenion was rehabilitated. He would never have become Philip’s and Alexander’s most senior officer if all he did was argue for the opposite of what they wanted.
Two final points – about Cleitus and Hephaestion. In the course of the battle, we see Cleitus save Alexander by cutting off his assailant’s arm with his sword. This actually happened three years earlier at the battle at the Granicus River. And anyone who thinks that Jared Leto’s Hephaestion is soft (see above) has to contend with the brief but still very powerful scene at 32:21 in the film where he screams madly as he stabs a Persian to death. It is a very short (seven or so second) reminder of what kind of man Hephaestion really was – a warrior, a very tough one at that.
In the infirmary after the battle
This is a very short scene that emphasises again Alexander’s connection to his men. In real life, he walked among them, asking their names and encouraging to boast about their deeds. Due to time constraints, no doubt, we don’t see this here, rather, it is a few encouraging words to the dying soldier who is then killed (i.e. ‘euthanised’) with the ancient Greek version of a misericorde.
As you can see this has been a long post. Much longer than I intended, but we have covered over half an hour of the film. In the next post, I’ll be looking at the flash-backwards (if that is a word) of Alexander’s youth, and his singularly aw(e)ful parents, Philip II and Olympias.
Read the index of posts in this series here

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3 thoughts on “Alexander Revisited: Introduction to the Battle of Gaugamela

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