Alexander Revisited: Olympias’ Bed Chamber to the Caves at Pella

In my previous post on Alexander Revisited I commented on the fact that in his deathbed scene Alexander seemed to be offering his ring to the Persian god, Ahura Mazda. A commenter on my Facebook Alexander page (here) has suggested that he is actually offering it to the eagle that appears throughout the film.
This eagle is either Zeus himself or, perhaps, the Aetos Dios (Eagle of Zeus) which functions in Greek mythology as both a symbol of the king of the gods and as his servant. Whichever interpretation we go with, the eagle’s presence in the film is meant as a sign of Zeus’ approval of and support for Alexander’s mission. It’s no wonder, then, that as they approach the seemingly impassable Hindu Kush, Alexander asks Ptolemy in concern, ‘where has our eagle gone?’. Has Zeus deserted him?
I like the idea of Alexander offering the ring to the eagle. The only problem with the idea, though, is that the bird does not appear in the deathbed scene. Does it appear at the end of the film? I’m not going to fast forward to find out. Feel free to tell me; otherwise, I’ll find out at the end of the picture. Certainly, it would make perfect sense for Alexander to offer back to his divine father the power that he felt his father had given him. Now that I think about it, that sounds rather Christian, doesn’t it? I’ll come back to this thought, later.
Scenes Covered

  1. Olympias’ Bed Chamber
  2. In the Palestra
  3. Mieza
  4. The Taming of Bucephalas
  5. In the Caves at Pella

Olympias’ Bed Chamber
Following the brief scene in the infirmary we are transported back to Pella ’20 Years Earlier’ – 351 BC. To the surprise of no one who knows anything about the historical Olympias, it begins with her playing with her pet snakes. The scene takes a surprising turn, however, when Olympias plays a brief but very tender game of hide-and-seek with her son (38:25 ff) as she walks round the bed curtain. If you had asked me why Olympias wants the best for Alexander before I had watched this scene I would have said simply because she is ambitious and she hates Philip. Her love for Alexander, however, is expressed so clearly and absolutely in this moment that I would now say that while yes, she is ambitious and hates Philip, I think she genuinely wants the best for Alexander. A mother who didn’t would not have thought or cared to to play that simple yet highly meaningful game.
Speaking of Philip the mood turns sour when he breaks into the bed chamber. I complained in the last post about how Olive Stone had treated Parmenion. Well, I have to say, he does a real hatchet job on Philip, too. He insults, and tries to force himself on her. Only Alexander’s and the snakes’ presence cause him to step back – briefly. I am not an expert on Philip but I do not recognise this version of him. If Stone was capable of giving us a more nuanced Olympias, I really don’t know why he could not have done the same with Philip.
In the Palestra
As the scene cuts to the young Alexander, now twelve years old, wrestling in a Palestra; the elder Ptolemy tells us in voice over that he believes it was ‘in friendship that Alexander found his sanity’. It is no accident, I think, that as he says this, the camera closes in on Alexander wrestling Hephaestion. Alexander had other friends, of course, but whether or not we regard them as being lovers, he had no friend like Hephaestion.
Brian Blessed leads the wrestling class and we see him walk around giving advice to the boys. At the beginning of the next scene, the elder Ptolemy reminds us (in voice over) of the famous saying that Alexander was only ever beaten once – by Hephaestion’s thighs. I rather like Blessed’s comment to the young Ptolemy, however, when he reminds him that in order to fight well he doesn’t ‘need to eat every day or until [he is] full’. I can’t help but feel that this is a nod to the fact that the later Ptolemys (from Ptolemy II Philadelphus onwards) were often overweight.

Ptolemy II and his sister-wife, Arsinoë II

Ptolemy II and his sister-wife, Arsinoë II

In a way, this scene – where we see Alexander and his friends being taught by Aristotle – is a difficult one to respect as it is less about the individuals present and more about Aristotle’s thought and examples of Greek prejudice in the middle of the fourth century BC. Thus, we hear a lot about the importance of reason ruling over passion, and effeminate Persians.
To be fair, Stone does use this scene to set up Alexander’s decline later in the film. For example, the philosopher tells Alexander and his friends that the Persians’ ‘slavish devotion to their senses’ causes them to ‘castrate young boys such as yourselves for their sexual pleasure.’ These words are met with dismissive laughter. Clearly, when Alexander gets into bed with the eunuch Bagoas later on, we are meant to see this as an example of his Medising, going native. Curiously, although in the context of the film this is a bad thing, leaving aside the fact that Bagoas is a eunuch, many people will today think that a expression of same-sex love is a good thing. It is good that we are challenged to see Alexander’s actions as his contemporaries saw them and not as we (might) do.
I think there is also in this scene a subtle acknowledgement of the nature of Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion. When Hephaestion asks Aristotle if a man can love a woman equally he dismisses the possibility out of hand on the grounds that women (unlike men) are slaves to their passion. It is not hard to imagine Hephaestion taking this thought away and allowing it to inform his later romantic choices.
Before Hephaestion’s question, Stone has Cassander ask the awkward questions about Achilles’ excessive behaviour and the possibility of his love for Patroclus being ‘a corrupting one’, which makes Alexander look askance at him. As I said in the previous post, if Stone had implied at the end of the film that Cassander was responsible for poisoning Alexander this would have been another step along establishing him as Alexander’s nemesis but he doesn’t, so the potential conflict goes nowhere.
The Taming of Bucephalas
This lovely scene is faithful to what really happened (as I remember it, that is) in respect of how Alexander managed to tame Bucephalas, the horse who was afraid of his shadow. The scene does manage to be a little anachronistic in that Stone places Philip’s future wife, Cleopatra Euridike in it. No date is given for the taming of Bucephalas* but as Alexander is still a young boy we can assume it is before 346 when he would be ten. From the look of him, I think 347/8 would be about right. Anyway, Philip didn’t marry Cleopatra (who took the name Euridike after marrying him) until 338/7. Yet, here she is, with her uncle Attalus in tow, already his wife several years earlier. The reason for Euridike’s and Attalus’ appearance is to introduce the divisive figure whom Alexander will confront at the party a few years later. This is the kind of change that one can allow because it helps the narrative. It’s a shame Stone didn’t limit himself thus (I’m still sore over his treatment of Philip, and about to get sorer…).
In the Caves at Pella
After Philip and Olympias’ confrontation in the bed chamber there won’t be many people who will be cheering for the king by the time he takes Alexander to see the cave art. And after his misogynistic screed in this scene (“It’s never easy to escape our mothers, Alexander. All your life, beware of women. They’re far more dangerous than men… [Olympias] makes you weak.” and so on) even fewer will be supporting him. A big shame. Neither Philip nor Olympias were perfect. If anything, Olympias committed the worst crimes.
I mentioned at the start of this post the curiously Christian nature of Alexander offering Zeus his ring. As Philip leads the young Alexander out of the cave, having depressed himself it seems more than the boy with his crash course in how Men hate the gods but are condemned to be dealt ever harshly by the immortals, he tells his son that, “[o]ne day, things will change. Men will change. But first, the gods must change.” Truly, Philip is a prophet. I’m all for foreshadowings of the future but it would be good if they were rooted in the present moment (of the character’s life). Casting Philip as a kind of prophet doesn’t really sit well for me. What he says would more appropriately (for me, anyway) come from Alexander who, as I have said before, did help the spread of Christianity by his spread of hellenism.
* Plutarch places it in 344. I know that Alexander was never very tall but I can’t believe he is as old as 12 in this scene
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Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Alexander Revisited: Olympias’ Bed Chamber to the Caves at Pella

  1. Sheri

    It’s fascinating to read your thoughts on this film 🙂 I’ve watched it so many times I could recite the entire thing in my sleep.

    Now that you mention it, Olympias’ little game of hide and seek with the curtain is a really important moment to her character. Before that she’s handing her child a snake and telling him not to be afraid-which fits in well with a woman trying to use her son as a means to get power and to get even with her husband. I do really like Angelina Jolie’s depiction of Olympias; some were turned off by the accent but I adored it. I think Stone was actually pretty clever in his use of accents-Macedonians using a rough Irish accent and Greeks using a more refined British accent (can you imagine how the Brits would feel if Ireland suddenly became a superpower, then conquered them and then went and then went on a huge conquest? I think I could understand how the Athenians felt!) Olympias’ accent is a reminder of her estrangement to the Macedonians. Even if you take away the snakes, there is something strange and unreachable and foreign in her very voice.

    One thing I would disagree with is your perception of the scene in Mieza. Here Stone is laying the foundations of Alexander’s conflict with the older, more conservative members of the Macedonian nobility on the integration of Persians into his army and government, and I don’t think he approaches Alexander “going native” negatively, although he does show a bit of a downward spiral for the king as the movie progresses. Aristotle is a man of his time and thinks of the Persians as many Greeks and Macedonians do, and perpetrates those very stereotypes. Stones’ Alexander disagrees, and I think we’re supposed to see a glimpse of a more modern mind in terms of his attitude to the Persians. I think later in the movie, Stone gives Parmenion and Clietus point of view credit in showing a more detached Alexander than we see in the beginning-but the movie, in my opinion, always praises Alexander for integrating and respecting the Persians. As with Bagoas, I’m also not sure that Stone meant this as a bad thing in the context of the movie. Mainly because Stone is giving props to Mary Renault whenever Bagoas is present. While Stones’ Bagoas is discovered in Babylon, not brought as a gift by a repentant Nabarzanes after Darius’ death, his back story is strikingly similar; Renault made Bagoas the son of a lord who lives in the hills close to Susa. In “Alexander, Revisited” Stones’ Bagoas says he comes from the hills of Susa. Later in the film Stone appropriates dialogue from “The Persian Boy” in an intimate conversation between Alexander and Bagoas. Seeing as Renault portrayed their relationship in a…let’s say, an extremely positive light, and the movie’s depiction of Bagoas as someone who is devoted to Alexander so much so that he is the only one to stay by Alexander’s side after his death as his generals start fighting each other over the succession, I’m not sure that Stone was trying to make the audience perceive Bagoas as a bad thing, although he does show us that Alexander’s generals aren’t happy about it (Clietus uses Alexander’s kiss with Bagoas as the starting point of “THE drunken argument”). Bagoas’ presence at Alexander’s death is also a nod to Renault. Historically, I think Bagoas might or might not have been there. If there were eunuchs present, then he very well might have been (Renault has other royal eunuchs present around Alexander’s deathbed and I spotted one other eunuch besides Bagoas in Alexander’s deathbed scene at the end of the movie-I guess it’s a question of whether eunuchs, not only Bagoas, were permitted or not).

    Having watched the film so many times (I get bored pretty easily…) I can tell you he does go the poison route and he uses camera angles to implicate Cassander quite implicitly. Going the poisoning route is actually the one thing I seriously dislike about the film-especially because while he implies that Cassander was the main instigator, he also implicates Ptolemy. I think Ptolemy was pretty clever in stealing Alexander’s body but I don’t think he had reason to poison him. Although Stone is trying to cast a bit of doubt on Ptolemy’s reliability and the honesty of the sources here, so I do forgive him a little.

    As for the cave scene-I’m actually fond of Philip’s monologue about man being punished by the immortals. The entire scene is not only supposed to give us a little lesson on Greek mythology, it sets up Alexander’s desire to be like Achilles, to become a Greek hero. Philip counters this with typical bout of the Greek tragic world view. While I doubt historical Philip would be deliver such a speech, it serves the movie well. The audience is shown quite clearly that Greek gods are not benevolent, that heroes like Herakles undergo a great deal of suffering, and the good old Greek pessimistic view of “the higher you rise, the harder you fall.” Alexander is not portrayed in the surviving sources as a tragic hero as Herodotus portrayed Xerxes or as Thucydides portrayed Athens itself. However, through constantly drawing parallels not only between Alexander and Achilles, but Alexander and Oedipus (!), and the constant reminder that all greatness ends in loss (though Alexander refutes this to Hephaistion), that the gods punished all the heroes Alexander revered, Stone, perhaps unintentionally, creates a tragic hero out of Alexander. I think that’s what is really behind the cave scene.

    I actually was pleased, after studying “Oedipus the King” in two of my university courses, to see Philip agree with both profs that one of the central messages of the play is that “knowledge came too late.” That alone made the scene worth it to me-too many people read the play to read about a guy killing his father and marrying his mother, missing the deeper message. I was glad to see that countered in a Hollywood movie, if even in just a line. Stone must have really been listening to Robin Lane Fox here 😀

    …And I wrote a way longer comment than I could have ever imagined. I don’t even know if all that was coherent! I hope you don’t take my disagreements with you here negatively-this movie, as history, as everything, is up to debate and multiple views-and I think in this case, there really is no right or wrong. I do LOVE that you’re doing this series. Makes all those afternoons where I watched this movie out of sheer boredom worth it! Please keep up all the work you do on this wonderful site, and I look forward to hearing more from Alexander on twitter 🙂


  2. Sheri,

    Thank you very much for your comment; you have done me a great honour by spending so much time and effort on it. I must say, in its length and depth what you say really deserves to be a post as well as a comment. Would you mind if I made it one?



  3. Sheri

    Hey AOS-I’m sorry I disappeared on you! I went on vacation, but I’m glad you liked the comment-I get a bit nervous commenting on things sometimes (but write super long ones anyway!) I think it’s a bit too late to be a post, but if you want to, I wouldn’t mind. I’m off to catch up on your other entries in this series and your letters to Arrian. This website has quickly become my favourite 🙂


  4. Sheri,

    As you can see I am replying to outstanding comments. I think what I will do is link to them from the index page. Thank you for your kind words above. They are much appreciated! You came back from your holiday a few weeks ago now, but I hope you had a good time.



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