For the previous posts in this series, click here.
- The Indian Forest
- Bagoas’ Dance
- Alexander and Ptolemy
- The Death of Black Cleitus
The Indian Forest
The intermission over, we rejoin Alexander in the middle of what seems like monsoon season deep in an Indian forest. The caption informs us that it is 327 BC.
In the last post, I said that Alexander’s conversation with Ptolemy atop the Hindu Kush took place in 326 BC. I obviously got that wrong. Or did I? Here are all the captions from Alexander’s arrival in Babylon onwards:
- Babylon, Persia 331 B.C.
- Northeastern Persia, 329 – 327 B.C.
- Macedonia – 10 Years Earlier [i.e. 337]
- Sogdia, Northeast Persia – 10 Years later [i.e. 327]
- Macedonia – 9 Years Earlier [i.e. 336]
- Hindu Kush – 10 Years Later [i.e. 326]
- India – 327 B.C.
As you can see, unless I have made a mistake somewhere, it appears that not for the first time, Oliver Stone has got his dates mixed up slightly.
As the Macedonians trudge through the forest, the elder Ptolemy tells us how hard it was to conquer India. The land was ‘without a center’ he says; kings ‘conspired against one another.’ and there existed ‘[a] labyrinth of tribes urged on by zealots and philosophers to die by the thousands for their strange gods’.
I would be very interested to know what the Indian political and religious situation was actually like in the late fourth century BC. Was it really as fractured as Oliver Stone is making Ptolemy suggest? My instinctive reaction is that the comprehensiveness of the difficulties faced by Alexander are too much of a ‘perfect storm’ to be taken seriously as historical fact. However, beyond knowing that within a few years Chandragupta united the country under his rule, I am ignorant of Indian history so would welcome others’ thoughts on the matter.
One thing that I do know, however, and which is worth keeping in mind when watching films or reading about Alexander, is that he did not enter the territory of modern day India. Alexander’s eastward journey ended at the Hyphasis (Beas) River, which is in modern day Pakistan.
I found the short scene where Alexander examines the monkey to be a very touching one; it felt very authentic. Given that Hephaestion was an intellectual (as indicated by his correspondence with Aristotle) it made perfect sense for him to be the one who worked out that monkeys were not ‘men with hairy skins’ but animals. His contention, though, that they were animals who ‘imitated men’ neatly pointed to the limit of his knowledge.
I also appreciated the nod to Alexander’s interest in learning new knowledge by showing him sitting with the Indian teachers. Nothing to do with knowledge, but I have to ‘break a lance’ for the scene where Craterus comes to the soldier dying of a snakebite. Craterus’ distress was palpable and deeply affecting. It was a short scene with few words but it didn’t need any more and was really well acted.
Firstly, The elder Ptolemy informs us of the naked men ‘who spent hours at a time staring and doing nothing’ as if they were unusual. But surely he met a similar person in Corinth in 336 – Diogenes of Sinope.
Secondly, the elder Ptolemy also says ‘… with the local water putrid we drank the strong wine’. Is this the same Ptolemy who comes from Macedon where drinking strong wine is regarded as de rigueur?!
Francisco Bosch, who played Bagoas, is a ballet dancer by profession so it is not a surprise that Oliver Stone gave him a dance scene. When Roxane danced for Alexander, we got an insight into her character by her use of knives and the way her character ‘divided’ into multiple persons – all indicative of her being a submissive princess yet still a tigerish woman (in private, as the sex scene showed).
As with Roxane so with Bagoas. His dance is overtly (one might say rather too obviously) sexual, clearly indicating his desire to have Alexander for himself. This is confirmed in his proud glance at Roxane at the start of the dance. It is Bagoas’ bad luck, however, that when he starts to look proud – and why shouldn’t he, he is a very good dancer – one just thinks ‘yes, but you are still a eunuch and at the mercy of all of Alexander’s officers’.
Bagoas’ duet with the second dancer seemed to me to be a kind of ‘imagining’ of his relationship with Alexander. In that respect, the scene offered very little that we didn’t know already after their earlier sex scene. What really made the whole scene for me, though, is what is going on in the court while Bagoas is dancing: Alexander getting steadily more drunk (as indicated by the Paul Greengrass camera), and Black Cleitus’ frowning over his cup.
In my last post, I said that I thought Ptolemy’s companion, Thaïs, was dead. Since then, two people – here on the blog (thank you, Sheri) and elsewhere (thanks to @oresteshighking’s scribe), have mentioned that she appears at Bagoas’ dance. Unfortunately, and despite my best efforts, I was unable to to make a screen capture on my computer of Ptolemy and his companion so I did the next best thing and took a picture with my mobile phone. With apologies for the poor quality of the picture, therefore, here is Ptolemy and the woman who is said to be Thaïs.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a speaking part in this scene so is not named on screen. Neither is she mentioned in the credits at the end of the DVD or on IMDB. We can’t, therefore, be certain that she is Thaïs; however, given that one does not need to interpret Ptolemy’s words on the Hindu Kush as indicating that Thaïs is dead – making it likely that any woman he is seen with will be her – and because the woman above does look rather Greek, I am very happy to accept that she may well be our elusive hetaira. My grounds for doing so may be a little weak – especially in regards her appearance – but Thaïs intrigues me as a person so I pretty much want it to be her!
After the dance, Alexander rather needlessly antagonises his older Macedonian soldiers (i.e. Black Cleitus), and embarrasses Roxane and his hosts by kissing Bagoas. He proposes a toast to Dionysus. I liked the shot of the drunk Macedonian being carted away behind him. He’ll wake up tomorrow with a headache but it will go soon enough when he discovers what happened after he passed out.
Having made his toast, Alexander then downs the wine. I have to say, he appears to only do so with some difficulty. Now, I know that some people think that he didn’t drink as much as others say, but I will admit to being a little disappointed at the effort that he had to put into draining his cup.
Alexander catches up with Roxane on her way out of the hall. She tells him that in Persia he is regarded as a great king, but here, “they hate you.” Do they? Did I blink and miss the scene where the Indians demonstrated this fact? When the camera switches to two senior Indian leaders, they look perfectly content to me.
Roxane then follows in Parmenion’s and Ptolemy’s footsteps by asking Alexander to ‘take us back to Babylon’ where he is strong. Roxane may well have been taking lessons in politics but it doesn’t make much sense for her to talk about going back to Babylon as she has never been there before.
Alexander and Ptolemy
Upon Roxane’s departure, a group of Alexander’s Persian subjects invite him to join them. He is interrupted on the way by Ptolemy – which makes a certain amount of historical sense – who, I have to say, sounds just a little drunk. He still has enough in him, though, to warn Alexander about the dangers of drinking too much.
Earlier on, I quoted the elder Ptolemy on how the Macedonians turned to strong wine when the local water was found to be putrid. Just before that line, he says, “Our quest for gold and glory evaporated as we realized there was none to be had. Tempers worsened. We massacred all Indians who resisted.” For his part, Ptolemy must have realised after their conversation on the Hindu Kush that Alexander was not interested in gold, anymore. It seems he has kept that information to himself. Now, Alexander tells him that Dionysus frees him from himself. This must have set alarm bells ringing in Ptolemy’s heart: they are now following a king who would not only never stop exploring the world but who appeared to have given himself over to dangerous Dionysus.
Before Ptolemy can say anything, however, Black Cleitus stands up and sarcastically proposes a toast to Bagoas and the ‘30,000 beautiful Persian boys’ who will form Alexander’s army in the future. It’s the beginning of the lowest point of Alexander’s life.
The Death of Black Cleitus
Alexander’s argument with Black Cleitus is a good piece of knockabout but really steps up a gear when Cleitus asks Alexander how he can compare himself to Herakles; Alexander leans forward angrily and asks aggressively, “Why. Not?” Colin Farrell delivers that line with really great force. No wonder that the Indians decide now would be a good time to return home.
What is less good is, first of all Cleitus’ reference to Alexander’s ‘fairy god’. Did Oliver Stone run out of proper insults for Cleitus to give and so decide upon that gratuitous and unlikely one? Maybe Cleitus did not believe in the gods but given his conservative views I find that very unlikely. Secondly, how on earth is Cleitus able to slip away from Craterus, Nearchus and Perdiccas (?) seconds after leaving the hall? And why does it take them several more to re-enter it after he does? This is one of those irritating moments that sometimes occurs in films where logic takes second place to the needs of the narrative.
A third, and more serious problem, is the fact that in the film we see too few examples of what Cleitus is complaining about. True, there is plenty of ‘eastern pomp’ on show, but less bowing down and sycophants quaking (one man does bow down to Alexander when he is talking to Ptolemy but the moment is over very quickly). Indeed, I can’t think of any character who is worthy of being called a sycophant. Cleitus names Hephaestion, Nearchus and Perdiccas (not Ptolemy, interestingly enough) but there is really no proof of them being so. Gary Stretch puts in a powerful performance as Cleitus, a man who is as much sad as he is angry about what he sees as Alexander’s descent into error, but he would have been greatly helped if the script had backed up his words.
One final point. We already know that Hephaestion supported Alexander in all his deeds, not least his desire to integrate Macedonian and barbarian with one another. We see a clear example of this support at 10:22, which is a wide angle shot of the gap between where Alexander and Cleitus are sitting. Standing halfway between them, in a red coat and – more significantly – dusty brown trousers is Hephaestion.