Alexander Revisited: Finding Darius’ Body to Alexander’s Bed Chamber

Welcome to this the fourth post in my series on Oliver Stone’s flawed epic; welcome back if you have read any of the others and hallo-for-the-first-time if you haven’t. If you would like to do so, I have indexed them here.
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A couple of posts ago (here), I commented on the eagle of Zeus, which features throughout the film. Apropos of that, I came across a reference to the same eagle in Arrian the other day. Alexander sees it ‘on the beach just astern of [his] ships’ off Miletus, and regards it as a ‘sign from heaven’ that he will defeat the Persian fleet on land, which, of course, he does.
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Scenes Covered

  1. Finding Darius’ Body
  2. Homes, Horses, and Ptolemy’s voice-over
  3. Alexander’s Marriage to Roxane
  4. Macedonian Council
  5. Party
  6. Alexander’s Bedchamber

Finding Darius’ Body
This scene opens with the caption ‘Northeastern Persia 329 – 327 B.C.’ and opens with a dramatic view of a barren landscape. Later on, when Olympias narrates her letter to Alexander, we see her looking at a map of the world on the wall; it indicates that Persia extends to what I presume is the Hydaspes River with India being on the other side of it. Certainly in Alexander’s day, Persia was not such a large territory so I presume that Stone has simplified the geography of the east for the audience’s sake. That decision has had the knock-on effect of him saying Alexander was in Persia until 327 when he wasn’t.
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The discovery of Darius’ body is a sad moment in the picture since he is presented quite favourably at Gaugamela (his only significant scene). When I see him lying on the ground I am reminded of what the Indian (?) sage said to or of Alexander, namely that, ultimately, the only ground we own is that which we stand upon.
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Homes, Horses, and Ptolemy’s voice-over
A number of ‘connecting’ scenes now follow as the elder Ptolemy describes Alexander’s hunt for his rivals as Great King (he uses the plural but in reality only Bessus was a serious contender). That search ends with a decapitated head being held aloft.
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According to Wikipedia, our sources give different accounts of Bessus’ fate – Arrian says he was beheaded while Curtius claims that he was crucified; Plutarch tells us that Bessus was tried and torn apart. Let’s hope Arrian was right so that death came quickly for him then. Unless the executioner botched the job, that is; I better move on before I make myself sick.
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During his voice over, the elder Ptolemy states that during their hunt, the Macedonians got completely lost. I am not going to say that this is incorrect as I don’t know for sure that it is, but I don’t recall ever reading that it happened. As I understand it, Alexander used local guides to get where he wanted to go. This is not mentioned by Ptolemy. I suppose Stone is humanising the expedition, although it doesn’t say much for his confidence in the characters if he can’t do it with them.
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Alexander’s Marriage to Roxane
I am as mystified as the Macedonians were as to why Alexander chose to marry Roxane. I am currently reading Arrian for another series of posts on this blog and will be interested to see if he comments on it.
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As for the marriage – everything begins so well; Alexander remits his soldiers debts and gives the women dowries. I had to smile when – at 1:19:21 – I saw Polyperchon standing on his own among the people. I’m sure it wasn’t Oliver Stone’s intention to present him as Poly No Mates but with his silent voice and apparent lack of friends that really is how he comes across.
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The good will that Alexander creates with his announcement of the debt remittance is almost immediately destroyed by his declaration that the children of the barbaroi will be educated according to the Greek fashion so that they may grow up to be soldiers of Alexander’s kingdom in Asia. Meaningful glances are exchanged between Philotas and Parmenion.
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Before going any further, I must put in a word for a character who we often see in Alexander’s court but who has few lines and not even a name. On IMDB he is referred to simply as ‘Persian Prince’. The actor’s name is Erol Sander, and here he is,
erol_sander
I know the film is primarily about Alexander, and secondarily his relationship with his fellow Macedonians, but given Alexander’s desire to bring east and west together, it’s a shame that Sander was not given even just a slightly larger rôle to give the Persian view of things.
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Macedonian Council
From Alexander’s wedding we go to a meeting of the senior officers in Alexander’s court. Note how Ptolemy sits at the far end of the table, watching, and keeping his counsel, while Hephaestion sits right behind Alexander.
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The frustration of the officers opposed to Alexander’s ‘medising’ comes out strongly at the council; to be honest, I think it comes out too strongly, or rather, too vocally. When Cassander shouts, “Alexander… BE REA – SON – A – BLE!!!” he seems to be overacting so much my immediate reaction is to smile rather than think, “Oh dear, things really are going downhill now”. Less is often more, and would have been so here.
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To be sure, there is more than just frustration coming out in the council – a profound difference in world view is expressing itself. Philotas tells Alexander he should take Roxane as his concubine – she is his captive after all. When Alexander says that he might take a Macedonian woman to wife one day, Philotas retorts that that would be an insult to Macedon. Would it? I have a feeling that there was no hierarchy within Macedonian polygamous marriages based on who married the man first (Olympias was not Philip II’s first wife, after all, but was certainly the most prominent of them). I imagine Stone is once more simplifying things for the sake of the narrative.
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The tension rises still further when Alexander pins Cassander to the wall but the most powerful moment comes at the end when, rather than attack individuals, Alexander looks round the whole room and says,

What disturbs me most is not your lack of respect for my judgment [sic]. It’s your contempt for a world that is far older than ours. .

This gives the lie to Parmenion’s belief that Alexander is acting out a mere whim, for the above words are the product of a deep engagement with foreign cultures that even today remains uncommon. We regard ourselves in the West as being enlightened but when the Coalition invaded Iraq in 2003 it set up one of its bases on the site of Babylon potentially destroying the foundations of the lost city. And we insist upon imposing our democratic system on countries with no such tradition and therefore unable to nurture it. Oliver Stone’s Alexander is not just ahead of his time but in some respects ahead of ours.
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Party
This scene starts with Oxyartes fawning over Alexander and continues with a welcome relief from the rising tension – Roxane’s dance. It is notable, however, that the dance is intercut with dramatic moments – a wrestling match, a fire breather, Black Cleitus punching Hephaestion, and the growling animals. We can’t get away from the fact that matters are going to come to a head. Fate is inexorable.
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Alexander’s Bedchamber
Later that night, Hephaestion comes to Alexander’s bedchamber and gives him a ring that he bought in Egypt, made, Hephaestion explains, ‘when man worshipped the sun and stars’ – which I thought they still did in Alexander’s day. It is the ring that Alexander holds up on his deathbed, so perhaps we might add Hephaestion (who died the previous year) to the list of persons he was offering it to.
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At this point, I want to mention the issue of Hephaestion’s eye-liner. I am not an expert in make up but I think it is very obvious in this scene.
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I’m not sure when he starts to wear the eye-liner – I think in Babylon; while I would never have included it if I had written the screenplay, its use does make a certain amount of sense if we regard it as a metaphor for the way in which Hephaestion, like Alexander/out of loyalty to Alexander, goes native. I would have said that Alexander’s lengthening hair is further proof of his becoming more ‘Persian’ on the grounds that by his day long hair (outside Sparta) was regarded as being effeminate, except that others – most notably Hephaestion – have long hair from the start of the film.
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We come to Alexander and Roxane’s fight. I didn’t really enjoy this scene as it didn’t ring true for me. I really can’t believe that Roxane would ever have fought Alexander much less attempted to kill him. Perhaps it is a precursor to the suggestion that it was Roxane who poisoned the king. I mention this because contrary to what I have said previously, I have been told that Oliver Stone does imply that Cassander / Ptolemy did poison Alexander (see this comment). If not them, why not here? We’ll see.
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On bringing Roxane to his bed, Alexander takes his copy of The Iliad and says,

A man searches for a woman at Earth’s top and finds her. The myth becomes real.

Now, I know that Roxane is a fierce spirit but I really don’t see the connexion between her and the myths that Alexander loved so much. Is Alexander comparing her, for example, to the Amazons? It’s hard to say as the moment comes and goes so quickly. I’m sure I am missing something in this scene but I don’t yet know what it is.
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As Alexander and Roxane relax after making love the scene divides between them and Olympias  as she dictates / narrates her latest letter. While trying to warn Alexander off Roxane, she adds curiously,
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You must know that she does not speak in your name, which is yours and yours alone. Preserve it, secret it… .

Names are power, whether in legend or today. But quite what relevance this has to Alexander and Roxane, again, I am not sure. There is no suggestion in the film that Roxane might act in Alexander’s name, so why must he ‘preserve’ and ‘secret’ it? If nothing else, the awkward – incorrect – language makes the sentence very awkward to hear. Further to this, the fact that Olympias wants Alexander to return home but at the same time fulfil his ‘glorious destiny’ is also odd. What does she imagine his destiny is? As she understands that he must or will die young like Achilles it presumably involves war but that makes no sense as she has told him to stop chasing his dream.
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Read the index of posts in this series here

Categories: Alexander in Film | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Alexander Revisited: Finding Darius’ Body to Alexander’s Bed Chamber

  1. Sheri

    I’ve sort of given up trying to understand Olympias-in the movie, and maybe historical Olympias as well, for that matter. I think Stone is trying to imply that Alexander is going too far for even his own Mom to understand. That perhaps Olympias is just fine with Alexander conquering Persia, but when he starts to talk about India she’s afraid he’s just going to chase fantasies and forget about setting up an empire (Roxane does urge Alexander to return to Babylon because “there you’re strong”). A case of “you’re going about this entirely wrong”…I think. Like I said, I’ve given up trying to understand Olympias, and have just settled on cowering at the mere thought of her 😀

    About Alexander extending the ring before his death, I’ve watched Oliver Stone’s commentary on the Director’s Cut (which was like half this movie-horrible), and he was explaining what that was about and I….forget. I’ll find it and post his explanation here-it was something about love, if I recall. I’ll get back to you! Alternatively, I think it was something to do with Ptolemy’s line “all men reach and fall, reach and fall”, which Alexander echoes in Hephaistion’s death “oh, we reach, we fall” (something like that). A harkening back to the Greek tragic world view and the tragic heroes of Sophocles-the sense that all greatness ends in loss, that you may reach but sometime you will fall. Therefore Alexander’s final moments may be a metaphor for his life. At least, that’s one way of looking at it.

    Keep up the great work!

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  2. Sheri,

    I don’t think the historical Olympias is that hard to understand. As for the film version – I agree with what you say about Alexander going too far for her to understand.

    I would certainly not want to be left in a room with Stone’s Olympias. Or his Roxane, for that matter.

    If you do get the chance to find out the meaning of the ring I would very much appreciate it!

    AOS

    Like

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