Alexander Revisited: Entry Into Babylon to the Palace Balcony

Welcome back to this series of posts on Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited. We are now an hour into the film, and we pick it up as Alexander makes his triumphal entry into Babylon. Before going any further, though, I must commend to you this comment, which was made in connexion with my last post on this topic. In it, the author displays a knowledge and understanding of the film which far exceeds my own. The comment gives me an opportunity to thank all of you who comment, and indeed, all of you who read The Second Achilles. I am very grateful. I would use more flowery language but I am English and that is not what chaps do.
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Scenes covered

  1. Entry into Babylon
  2. Walking through the palace
  3. In the harem
  4. Olympias’ letter
  5. On the balcony

Entry Into Babylon
I wish I knew how to do screen captures so that I could show you the start of this scene. If anyone knows how it is done on the MacBook Pro’s DVD player then do let me know. The scene before us is Alexander’s arrival in Babylon. Riding beside him is Hephaestion. Two things immediately jump out at me.
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Firstly, the mere fact of Hephaestion’s presence. I don’t speak with any authority here but I can’t believe that Hephaestion would really have ridden beside the king on a formal occasion such as this. Yes, he was Alexander’s best friend/lover, but surely the honour of entering Babylon at the conquering king’s side would have gone to his most senior officer – Parmenion. So, why is Hephaestion there? The answer is simple, really – for the same reason that Ptolemy is in the Royal Tent on the night before the battle at Gaugamela even though in real life he wasn’t at that point one of the High Command: for the sake of the narrative. Ptolemy is in the tent to re-enforce his credibility as the narrator of the story. Hephaestion rides beside Alexander to remind the audience of how close he was to the king, which in turn makes the future scenes (and his death) between them more meaningful.
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Secondly, Hephaestion’s helmet. It is topped with a white ‘mohawk’ (I’m afraid I don’t know the proper name for this feature) down the middle with two black feathers on either side. I have no idea how historical this helmet design is but I like it nonetheless as it is clearly meant to be a ‘companion’ to Alexander’s lion helmet, with its red mohawk and white feathers.
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Alexander arrives in Babylon to rapturous applause from the Babylonians. I was a little suspicious of their enthusiasm until I read in Arrian that on approaching the city, Alexander was,

… met by the people of the place who with their priests and magistrates came flocking out to bring him various gifts and to offer to put the city, with its citadel and all its treasures, into his hands.

This is not quite the same as the scene that Oliver Stone gives us but the people’s joy we see therein certainly echoes Arrian’s words.
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At the end of the scene, the camera rises and we see the famous ziggurat. Wikipedia tells me that it was in a state of decay by the time Alexander arrived in Babylon, and that he destroyed it in order to rebuild the structure. Unfortunately, his untimely death in 323 meant that this project was never completed.
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Walking through the palace
A most sumptuous scene indeed; very befitting of its location. As an added bonus, we discover that Virgil got his phrase ‘fortune favours the bold’ from Alexander himself! In the bedchamber, Alexander describes himself as the ‘king of the air’. I doubt it was intentional, but wasn’t that one of the appellations of the Devil in Jewish theology?
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[A moment later…]
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I have just looked it up. This is what I was thinking of – St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 2:2,

… you were living by the principles of this world, obeying the ruler who dominates the air

A round of applause to anyone who can guess which translation of the Bible that comes from (answer below).
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Philotas tells Alexander that Darius is not worth bothering with.

Philotas … he has no power, Alexander. He is lost in the mountains with no army.
Alexander As long as he is lost, Philotas, he can be believed in.

The truth of this is still very evident in our own time. Look at the example of Osama Bin Laden. He, too, was lost, but still able to inspire Al-Qaeda agents the world over until the American army finally tracked him down.
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To be sure, Darius’ influence was never so great as Bin Laden’s. Indeed, by the end, he could not even inspire those who were with him, and they assassinated him. Nevertheless, Alexander’s words remain relevant to us in that they recognise that power can lie as much in the person of someone, or the idea that they represent, as much as in laws and so-called ‘legitimate’ authority. I am sure this thought sustained Osama Bin Laden as he made his way from one cave to another.
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Alexander’s words here also remind me of something that Arrian says,

… when [Alexander] knew his death was imminent he went out with the intention of throwing himself into the Euphrates, in order to disappear without trace and make it easier for posterity to believe that one of the gods was his father and he had gone away to join them.

He goes on to state that Roxane stopped Alexander from fulfilling this plan; in fairness to Arrian I should say that he prefaces the anecdote with a very dismissive comment regarding the writer who ‘had the face’ to tell the story in the first place. Likewise, I do not believe that Alexander would ever have thought of throwing himself in the Euphrates but it is noteworthy that someone thought the story worth making up in the first place. I have to admit, it does rather tally with what we know of the care with which Alexander cultivated his image.
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In the harem
We move from the bedchamber to the Great King’s harem. Here, we see Alexander exercise his wisdom and clemency in a reactive and proactive way. Firstly, he stays Nearchus when the latter’s desire to acquaint himself with the concubines threatens to get ahead of him. Secondly, he releases any slave or servant from duty who wishes to return home.
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By the way, if you freeze the frame at 1:03:30 you can see the raised back of Ptolemy’s armour. I presume that this is in order to provide additional protection from sword blows aimed at the back of the neck. It actually reminds me of the head and neck support device that motor racing drivers use to prevent whiplash injuries. It’s a tenuous link, I know, but it struck me (no pun intended) nonetheless as I watched the film.
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Alexander’s first meeting with Bagoas is followed by a brief glance from Polyperchon (who, again, does not speak), and an unsteady camera shot of Hephaestion. I really liked that; the odd camera angle emphasises Hephaestion’s emotions – who is that person Alexander is taking such an interest in? I’m not sure I like him…
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As the Macedonians bundle Alexander over, Darius’ daughter, Stateira, makes her entrance to plead for the lives of her family. Except, she mistakenly thinks that Hephaestion is the king and turns to him instead. Alexander is nonplussed for ‘[h]e , too, is Alexander’. It is a great moment, and all the better for having actually happened. In real life, it was actually Darius’ mother, Sisygambis, who made the mistake; I wonder why Stone changed it? So that he could have a younger – and therefore, more beautiful? – woman appear? It’s not as if there weren’t enough in the harem already.
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When Alexander announces that he will treat Darius’ family as his own, Persian and Macedonian alike are taken aback. The camera cuts to Black Cleitus and Cassander. It is a great moment of tension if you know the story because it represents another breaking of the ways between Alexander and his people. It is worth noting Hephaestion’s nod when Alexander turns back to him. Despite Bagoas, he is ever faithful.
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Olympias’ letter
Olympias complains to Alexander about being left in Pella while he is in Babylon, and warns Alexander to beware of his friends. Only one person remains free of her poisonous pen: Hephaestion. Maybe she knows that Alexander would not listen to any criticism she did have.
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On Olympias and Hephaestion, this thread on the Pothos forum might be of interest.

… [a]pparently Hephaistion… received many letters from Olympias where she criticized and threatened him.

I did not know that they corresponded, so look forward to reading that thread to find out more information.
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On the balcony
Alexander the visionary comes to the fore as he and Hephaestion look over Babylon. The new Great King wants to free his people. I’m not sure of what he means by this – presumably he doesn’t intend to give people charge of their own affairs – but leaving that aside, it is significant that Alexander doesn’t seem to see himself as a liberator but how freeing the people would make him greater than Achilles and Herakles, perhaps even the equal of Prometheus, who gave the world fire. For me, this is typical Alexander – always comparing himself to the greatest and the best, always trying to outdo them. We could see this scene as Alexander displaying proto-democratic tendencies and therefore an example of Hollywood’s inability to keep a character authentic to their period, but with a little charity, I choose to see it more as a very good example of Alexander’s pothos, his yearning to go higher, ever higher, until he is somewhere north of Olympus (which, in geographical terms, funnily enough, is Macedon!).
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For his part, Hephaestion restates what Philip II told the young Alexander – remember that Achilles and Herakles suffered greatly. As they look towards the Hindu Kush from their vantage point, Ptolemy will do likewise in respect of Parmenion by encouraging Alexander to return home. Both he and Hephaestion get better shrift than Parmenion did or, I think, Philip would have had Alexander been a little older.
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Hephaestion goes on to remind Alexander that he once said ‘the fear of death drives all men’ and asks him if there are not any other forces in his life. For example, love. This is the third ‘Christian’ moment in the film. Of course, love is not a Christian concept but the way in which Hephaestion is implicitly asking if love does not drive Alexander feels to me too strange a question for him, a pagan, and a politically high ranking one, to ask. For me, the question would be more appropriate in a mediaeval drama rather than one set in antiquity.
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Read the index of posts in this series here

* The translation of the Bible used is the Douay Rheims

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Alexander Revisited: Entry Into Babylon to the Palace Balcony

  1. Sheri

    First I must say thank you for the commendation-you’ve made my month! 😀

    I’ve read historians describe Alexander’s entry into Babylon as the greatest day of the entire conquest, which could be called hyperbole, but I think it is one of the most prominent. Alexander has delivered a devastating blow to the Persian army and has caused Darius to retreat to Ecbatana, and is welcomed with open arms into Babylon, Darius’ war chariot in tow. I also think that Alexander’s time in Babylon reflects well on him, as he ordered his soldiers not to enter the homes of the Babylonians. I think the harem scene is trying to highlight that.

    The parallel to Osama Bin Laden here is brilliant, and one I hadn’t thought of before. I also hadn’t made the connection to Alexander’s “king of air” comment to the Bible, which is really fascinating. In the context of the movie I think Stone is making an interesting remark on Alexander. When Alexander is speaking to the Macedonians at Guagamela, he refers to Darius as a “king of air”. In fact, upon reflection, very little of that speech is honest. Alexander is portraying the Persians as fighting only “because their king tells them they must” and not for their homes. He refers to the Persian yoke and that the Macedonians are fighting for their homes. Persia was always meddling in Greek affairs right up the fourth century BCE, and Macedonia had been conquered by Persia during the Persian Wars (though they liked to pretend they were with the Greeks the whole time). Alexander might also be trying to assure his soldiers that the men are not fighting for their homelands-that they are just slaves to their king (an implication that will come back to haunt him as he starts acting like a Persian king; he must disprove the stereotype he once propagated). Alexander would have his men believe that this is simply a war of revenge of the invasion centuries before, which the Persians themselves had provoked. But if the over thinking movie watcher considers the scene objectively, the opposite is true. The only moment in the speech where Alexander is completely honest are his remarks on fear and death, and about living with great courage. In Babylon, in the company of his friends, Alexander says the opposite of what he said in his speech-Alexander is the one who is the king of air. I think this adds to what you said in your previous post about how the lapse in sound at the end of the speech are effective-how they take the focus off Alexander’s words and put the focus on Alexander himself. I also don’t think Stone is portraying the fact that Alexander was manipulative in his speech negatively; I think he’s making an interesting comment on statesmanship, and how to rally a crowd politicians often exaggerate and mislead that crowd, even if they care for them; Alexander is always shown as loving his men. It’s also worthwhile to note that in India, Alexander’s men will fight for no reason other than that their king, Alexander, tells them they must. For all the problems with this movie, you have to give Stone credit for being really subtle about stuff like this. Or maybe I read into everything too much…:D

    I was annoyed that Stone replaced Sisygambis for Darius’ daughter (Stratiera or Statiera-I forget!) I think the sole reason here is that Alexander does marry her later on and he wanted to give Alexander’s second wife a bit of face time while praising Alexander’s kindness to Darius’ family while giving a thumbs up to a brave woman and assuring the audience that Darius’ family is not made up of cowards. A dignified and wise old woman such as Sisygambis could have pulled all of that off, but yeah-Stone was going for a young beautiful woman to attract Alexander, and perhaps give the audience a bit of assurance. Olympias and Roxane are a bit too much to take-at least Alexander married a sane woman even if only for politics! *sighs*

    Like

  2. Sheri,

    If I have made your month, you have done me no less of an honour with the thought that has gone into this comment. Thank you!

    Babylon: I’ve never considered the question of ‘what was the greatest moment of Alexander’s expedition?’ but I can understand why historians think it is his entry into Babylon. I agree with your comment regarding the harem.

    Gaugamela speech: I liked your comments about the speech’s (lack of) honesty. The question of whether it is acceptable for politicians to mislead/lie to their audience is a big question. I agree, though, that Alexander loved his men, and they him.

    Statiera: Yes, I think you are spot on. Face time to make the audience familiar to her ahead of the wedding.

    Olympias: She is definitely like a drug – only to be taken in small doses!

    I sense your regret that Alexander married a sane woman only for politics. Would you have really wanted to be part of his dangerous world, though?!

    AOS

    Like

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