Alexander Revisited: Alexander and Philip ride to the theatre to Alexander’s Accession

For previous posts in this series click here
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Welcome back to this series of posts on the third version of Oliver Stone’s film about Alexander the Great. In this post we look at Stone’s interpretation of the most decisive event in Alexander’s life – the assassination of his father, Philip II.
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Scenes Covered

  1. Alexander and Philip ride to the theatre
  2. Arrival at the theatre
  3. Philip’s Assassination
  4. Pausanias’ End
  5. Alexander’s Accession

Alexander and Philip ride to the theatre
As Alexander wallows in self-pity in his tent, Oliver Stone takes us back to ‘Macedonia 336 B.C. – 9 Years Earlier’ and the day of Philip’s assassination. The scene opens with a great close-up of Philip’s statue of himself, which he really did have carried into the Pella theatre behind those of the twelve Olympian gods.
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Upon its arrival in the theatre, the statue-bearers seem almost to lose their hold of it for a moment, and the statue lurches dangerously to one side. The assembled Greek guests laugh. We may smile with them, or else see the incident as a foreshadowing of what is about to happen to Philip.
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Meanwhile, as they approach the theatre on horseback, Philip tells his son, “All my life I’ve waited to see Greeks grovel with respect for Macedonia. Today is that day.” I am open to being proven wrong but these words do not represent the real Philip for me. Yes, like many powerful men, he wanted more and more power, but I have never got the impression that he disliked – much less hated, as appears to be the case here – the Greeks.
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I’m afraid I see that line as another example of Oliver Stone’s hatchet job; making Philip look bad so that Alexander gets to look good. When Philip adds ‘Today is that day’, I can almost hear Oliver Stone saying “look how limited and parochial Philip was compared to Alexander who wanted to bring Men together and change the world!”
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The dialogue does not improve for Philip goes on to comment that, ‘They say already, “Philip was a great general, but Alexander is simply great.”‘ By they I assume he means the Macedonians and / or Greeks. But on what grounds are they calling Alexander ‘great’ already? In terms of the film, he’s done very little by 336 that would be worth Greek notice let alone adulation.
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Philip continues, “But if you ever insult me again, I’ll kill you.” The ‘but’ seems to suggest that Alexander is being called ‘great’ on account of the way he stood up to Philip at the pre-wedding party (which we looked at in this post). Now, granted the Greeks may have enjoyed Philip’s embarrassment, I really doubt that they would have called Alexander ‘great’ for his part in causing it.
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To find the answer to this question we have to go beyond the film. By 336 Alexander had already fought in one major battle – at Chaeronea – where he fought on the left wing. That was in 338. Two years earlier, while Philip was campaigning in Asia Minor, Alexander had defeated the Thracians in battle and even founded a city (Alexandropolis) – a rather cheeky action as the right to do so was really the prerogative of the king.
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It is true that Alexander was involved in other military engagements between 340 and 336 but Thrace and Chaeronea were, I think, the most likely to get him noticed by anyone. And yet, I don’t think I am being too harsh when I say that neither Chaeronea or Thrace were enough to have him called ‘great’. It seems to me that Stone and his fellow screen writers are simply and very clumsily trying to foreshadow Alexander’s later reputation. There is really no need for them to do so; if anything, it just cheapens his later heroism.
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Arrival at the theatre
More clumsy foreshadowing takes place when Philip dismounts his horse and greets Black Cleitus outside the theatre. He turns to his son and says, “This man you can always trust, Alexander. Treat him as you would me.” Oh dear times two. What makes the foreshadowing here feel clumsy is the fact that although Alexander’s showdown with Cleitus is for him many years in the future, we have already seen it happen and not ten minutes earlier, at that. The short gap between Cleitus’ death and this scene makes it feel redundant, and makes me wonder why Stone decided to break the story up with flashbacks in the first place. I suppose it does add new information to the story – the suggestion that Alexander’s murder of Cleitus is a parricide-by-proxy – but only at the cost of slowing the flow of the narrative. Could the information not have been given in another way? Was it worth suggesting that Cleitus’ death was a form of parricide in the first place?
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At the stage door, Philip tells Alexander to enter the theatre with the rest of the Guard. But his son pauses, for he sees Pausanias ahead and senses that his father is in danger. Missing the sight of his killer, however, Philip thinks that Alexander only wants to enter the theatre with him so that everyone thinks that he – Philip – is implicitly declaring Alexander his heir. He accuses Olympias of putting Alexander up to the job. But why should he care if Olympias did, though? Just moments earlier – while they were still on horseback – Philip told Alexander that  after they invade Persia he – Alexander – will have ‘all the gold in the world’. Philip obviously does not mean this literally, but it is a rather strong hint that he regards Alexander as his successor.
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When Philip walks through the door he is bathed in shadow, and we see him walk awkwardly. I really liked this nod to his lameness.
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Philip’s Assassination
In real life, we do not know whether Alexander had prior knowledge of his father’s assassination much less whether he had anything to do with it. What happens next in the film suggests to me that in Oliver Stone’s opinion he was innocent of any kind of involvement.
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As Pausanias violently kisses Philip in the theatre, we see Alexander on his way to join the Guard. He recalls the rape of Pausanias at the pre-wedding party. Pausanias stabs Philip. Hearing the murmur of surprise in the theatre, Alexander connects the dots and rushes to his father’s side. He holds Philip in his arms and looks genuinely shocked by what has happened. Conversely, Olympias is about the only person in the theatre who remains calm and collected.
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If we follow the cui bono principle, Alexander certainly has to be a suspect in his father’s demise but so far as the film is concerned, the fact that he only realises that Philip is in danger when he recalls what happened to Pausanias at the party, his shock and Olympias’ coolness shows that she was more likely to be behind his violent death.
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One last point – as Philip entered the theatre, there were several quick shots of the statues of the gods. The camera also panned up to the sky where I am sure that we heard the cry of an eagle – Zeus declaring that Philip’s time was up. Neatly done by Stone et al.
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Pausanias’ End
There is not much to say about this scene except that it follows what is supposed to have happened to Pausanias – according to one tradition, anyway. As he ran away from the theatre, Pausanias tripped over a tree root. If I recall correctly, he was either killed there and then by his pursuers or taken alive, and executed afterwards. I don’t think we see it in this film but it is also reported that after his execution, Olympias placed a crown upon his head. I seem to recall that she also had his cremated remains buried on top of Philip’s.
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Alexander’s Accession
As Philip lies dying in Alexander’s arms, the Greeks flee from the theatre. Quick action is needed to restore peace in the realm. Thus, Hephaestion raises Alexander’s arm and declares him king. Ptolemy raises his other arm; both of them – as it seems – put the crown on his head. In reality, it was Antipater who declared Alexander king. In terms of the film, though, Hephaestion and Ptolemy are the perfect choices for this duty.

By-the-bye, did you know that the real Hephaestion’s nickname was Philalexandros – Lover of Alexander – while Craterus was called Philobasileus  – Lover of the King. The nicknames obviously point to the way they related to Alexander. Given Craterus’ closeness to Alexander as king it is a shame that Oliver Stone didn’t choose him to raise Alexander’s arm along with Hephaestion. Perhaps this is why Stone instead gives Craterus the honour of proclaiming Alexander king the loudest after Hephaestion.

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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