Alexander Revisited: Philip’s Wedding Party & Atop the Hindu Kush

For the previous posts on Alexander Revisited click here
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As you can see from the title to this blog post, I am covering just two scenes in the film today. This is because an intermission follows the Hindu Kush scene so it forms a natural break for both the film and me. I’m not sure why Oliver Stone felt the need to have an intermission on a DVD but I don’t mind as it gives us the opportunity to admire some ancient Greek works of art (or copies of the same). And listen to Vangelis’ evocative music, which reminds us very well indeed of Alexander’s nobility.
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In the last post I said that I would not use the word ‘ravage’ to describe an act done by one person to another. Well, perhaps not surprisingly, I have since seen it used in that context and it fitted perfectly. We live and learn.
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Scenes Covered

  1. Philip’s Wedding Party
  2. Alexander and Ptolemy atop the Hindu Kush

Philip’s Wedding Party
Pausanias
‘Macedonia – 9 Years earlier’ and it is party time in Pella as Philip celebrates his forthcoming marriage to Attalus’ niece, Eurydice. And everyone except Alexander is having a wonderful time. The reason for his sadness, of course, is he knows that as and when Eurydice gives birth to her first son, he will replace Alexander as heir to the throne of Macedon. We know, of course, that things were not quite that simple in real life, but this is a film and films have to simplify their stories in order to fit them on the screen.
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Although I love the movies one thing I will never get used to is the way they habitually include dialogue or scenes that seem not to make any sense at all in terms of the narrative. For example, after chiding Alexander for his self-pitying, Philip tells Pausanias to go away; ‘you bore me’ he tells him. Seconds later, however, we see him raping the young man before sending him away to be assaulted by others. How can Philip be so dismissive of Pausanias one minute and then hateful enough to brutally attack him the next?
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It could be that his dismissiveness is an act, designed to gain Pausanias’ trust in order to facilitate the rape, but if so the film is guilty of bad story telling. You can’t introduce one idea (Philip’s dismissive attitude) then turn it round (his hatred) without explaining why the change took place. It might be that we will see the reason for Philip’s switch later on. If we don’t, though, the script writers are guilty of a mistake. Either that or I am because I have missed the scene where Philip’s behaviour was explained.
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One thing I will give Oliver Stone credit for, though, is the perfect casting of Nick Dunning as Attalus. We don’t know what the real Attalus was like but Stone’s is a nasty, sneering nobleman with a fatal amount of pride poisoning his soul. Dunning captures the physical appearance of such a man perfectly.
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By the way, if you would like to read about what really happened between Philip and Pausanias (and Attalus), Diodorus Siculus is your man. His account is available to read here. As you’ll see, Philip never raped Pausanias – his worst crime was not to take Pausanias’ complaint against Attalus seriously. If Diodorus is to be believed (and we must be wary), Attalus is the real villain of the piece.
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Attalus’ Intemperance
Once Pausanias has been sent away, Attalus proposes a toast; firstly, to ‘Macedonia and Greece, equals in greatness!’. Would any Greek or Macedonian have ever actually said that? Well, maybe, although I find the statement hard to reconcile with their constant attempts to beat each other up. More to the point, why would Attalus bother making that toast upon the marriage of two Macedonians? Perhaps when he wasn’t ruining people’s lives he was just a very polite man.
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His third toast, to Eurydice, “a Macedonian queen we can be proud of!”, his malevolent expression towards Alexander, and the final toast, ‘… to their legitimate sons!” took my breath away. You’ve got 99 problems, son, and Alexander is now each and every one. Also, it’s notable how it is Hephaestion who launches himself like a rocket at Attalus while Ptolemy tries to restrain Alexander. That’s their rôles in the film explained in a second.
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Father and Son
The next moment gives me much food for thought. Philip accuses Alexander of being lead by his mother. Alexander angrily denies that this is so. Given how the last scene between them worked out I am not surprised, but had Philip touched upon a truth here? I think he had, to a point. Alexander is obviously worried about what is going to happen to him but he remains loyal to his father; until, that is, he is ordered to apologise to Attalus.
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Alexander and Ptolemy atop the Hindu Kush
‘Hindu Kush – 10 Years Later’ (i. e. 326 BC). The film is now behind the times. In 326, Alexander was at the Hydaspes River preparing to fight his last major battle, against Porus.
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The scene opens with a neat mosaic graphic showing Alexander’s progress over the mountain range. A beautiful wide angle shot of the snow capped mountains then appears. Finally, we stand behind Alexander in a rich red cloak staring into the distance.
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The elder Ptolemy tells us that in the spring, ‘Alexander marched an army of 150,000′ across the passes of the Hindu Kush’. When I first saw this figure, I thought that Stone and his fellow script writers had succumbed to the same temptation to exaggerate as some ancient Greek writers. However, while looking up in Robin Lane Fox’s biography the name of the river that marked the easternmost point of Alexander’s expedition (it is the modern day Beas, known in antiquity as the Hyphasis) I found that while at the Hydaspes River (on his way back from the Hyphasis), Alexander received 35,000 troops from the west, which ‘raised the army’s strength to 120,000’. Not quite 150,000 but close enough. Having said that, when Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush he only had around 30,000 men.
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As we watch Alexander’s army trudge across the desolate landscape, the elder Ptolemy gives a special mention to the rôle of slaves, the ‘anonymous, bent, working spine of this new beast’ which is a complete sop to modern sensibilities – the real Ptolemy would not have given them a second thought. He then says, ‘[r]avaged or expanded, for better or worse, no occupied territory remained the same again’. That is certainly true in some cases. However, one of my chief impressions of Alexander, is that more often that not he was very happy to let natives continue in their administration of their particular region. Occasionally, he would put Macedonians in charge but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. This is something I need to look more closely at. If you have a different impression, though, feel free to leave a comment.
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Alexander and Ptolemy
Alexander and Ptolemy look over the Hindu Kush (The ‘Indian Caucasus’ in Arrian). The king asks his friend, “Have you found your home…?” Ptolemy tells him he thinks it will be Alexandria, ‘Well,” he says, “at least it’s hot. And Thais, she loved it there.’ Eliot Cowan’s delivery captures Ptolemy’s gentle humour, sadness (note the past tense used to describe Thaïs) and longing perfectly. It is my favourite moment in the film.
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Historically, the scene is all wrong. Thaïs could not have loved Alexandria as when they left it, it had not yet been built. Ptolemy’s use of the past tense when talking about his mistress suggests that she is already dead. Well, this might be correct, but at least one writer in antiquity says she married Ptolemy after Alexander’s death (see my post here). It doesn’t matter, though, for the beauty of the scene in both its words and Eliot Cowan’s acting forgives all its sins.
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When Alexander tells Ptolemy that he has no home, Ptolemy reminds him that he has Babylon, ‘Where your mother awaits your invitation’. Except that Olympias is in Pella, waiting for Alexander to bring her to Babylon. The reference to her waiting for his invitation only makes sense if she is in Pella but not Babylon.
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Alexander then goes into full mystical mode, “… each land, each boundary I cross I strip away another illusion.” What are these illusions? Could they be about what he is capable of? That would certainly make sense of his suspicion that death will be the last one to fall away. Despite the fact that he fears he will be confronted by illusions until his death, Alexander says, “Yet still I push harder and harder to reach this home.” I have to admit I am not entirely clear what Alexander is saying here – he has, after all, just told Ptolemy that he has no home. I’m guessing that ‘home’ is a euphemism for his desire to find himself fully, to strip away all of the illusions he has about himself. What do you think?
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“We must go on Ptolemy. Until we find an end.” Poor Ptolemy; now he knows: ‘an end’ means ‘the end’ – death. Death, that is, for Alexander; but if for him, then so for everyone. Unless, of course, something is done about it.

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Alexander Revisited: Philip’s Wedding Party & Atop the Hindu Kush

  1. Sheri

    I think Stone is doing a lot of simplifying during Philip’s wedding scene. The whole Pausanias affair is confusing and convoluted-if it ever happened-and I don’t think he had the time to explain it in any real detail during the film, so he gives us sexually abusive Philip to explain Pausanias’ motive. This is one of my favourite scenes in the movie. I just think Stone does arguments really well. I never caught Philip telling Pausanias leave in all my….few dozen times watching it. Good ears! Now I am totally confused about this as well. *scratches head*

    Dunning’s performance is one of my favourite in the film. He just manages to give me the creeps with a single look. It’s excellent.

    I don’t think Thais is dead at this point, because Ptolemy is with a beautiful woman during Clietus’ murder scene. Before that infamous drunken argument, Alexander engages Ptolemy in a discussion of why he likes drinking so much, and Ptolemy has an arm around this woman and later sits her on his lap. Alexander seems like he knows her, so I’m pretty sure this is Thais. I also think that he might be referring to Thais loving Egypt in general, and the past tense is just colloquial.

    When Alexander looks up into the sky and talks about a “home”, I think he’s referring to death; the last illusion, the end. The illusions might be in reference to him losing his youthful hope and sense of adventure-he’s learning the harsh lessons of reality, seeing some of what his father was trying to tell him in that cave when he was a child. Yet he still believes in being that Homeric hero, of having his name on our lips, thousands of years later. He strives for that immortality, and thinks that that is what will be home. While he is living he won’t be able to stop pushing, conquering, exploring, doing-because he is too driven by thoughts of his legacy, even though he is beginning to recognize the consequences.

    At least that’s how I interpret it, anyway. Mystic! Alexander is confusing as Hades.

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    • Sheri,

      I can understand why Oliver Stone made Philip the one who raped Pausanias but I will always wish he hadn’t as people will come away from the film with the wrong impression of who Philip was. Changing characters and events is one thing but if one is going to adapt a book or historical event for the cinema I think one ought to remain true to what happened even if not factual.

      I smiled when I read what you said about Nick Dunning as you are absolutely right.

      On Thaïs – you are not the only person to say this; I shall be mentioning her again in the next post, which I am about to write.

      That is a very interesting take on what Alexander regards as his home, and I have to say quite convincing, too.

      AOS

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  2. Sheri

    I wish Stone hadn’t, too. While the historical Philip might not have shared Alexander’s restraint when it came to sex (I mean restraint in a very non-Christian sense here-more like, restraint for a King who had three wives, a mistress, most probably a lover, and a eunuch but could have had way way more), he was hardly a rapist. Philip is a hard character to portray. I like to write historical fiction based in ancient Greece and I’m working on a story centered around Philip. It’s hard to pin point what, exactly, his character was. It’s also hard to write him because he’s always seen in relation to his son, and it’s easy to either make him into the smarter, better, father or the old, conservative old man who couldn’t understand his son.

    It is really hard to write about Philip and Alexander without selling one of them short, if you think about it.

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  3. Sheri,

    I’ve never tried to write anything from Philip’s point of view but now that you mention it, yes, I could imagine it being very hard to do. I suppose one could make them a kind of team with Philip helping Alexander to build upon his achievements but there is less dramatic tension in that, plus it sounds a bit twee and lacks historicity. I don’t envy you your task! Have you published any of your fiction on the internet or elsewhere? I would love to read it if so.

    AOS

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