Alexander Revisited: Alexander vs Craterus at the Hyphasis River

Read the other posts in this series here

In the last post we saw the bloody circumstances in which Alexander became king of Macedon. Now, in ‘India – 9 Years Later’ (i.e. 327 BC), we come to the moment when his authority as king was challenged for the first time – by none other than Craterus, the philobasileus, on behalf of a tired and worn out army.
Scenes Covered

  1. The Hyphasis Confrontation

The Hyphasis Confrontation
Here is Alexander’s speech to his men.

You break my heart, you men. Afraid. Of course you have fears. We all have fears because no one has ever gone this far before. And now we are weeks from the encircling ocean, our route home. We’ll build a fleet of ships and sail all the way back down the Nile to Egypt. And from Alexandria we shall be home within weeks. There to be reunited with our loves ones. To share our great treasures and tales of Asia. And to enjoy our imperishable glory to the ends of time.

The key themes of the speech are betrayal, fear, reassurance, promise, and comfort/joy. If I were writing a similar speech, I would probably write it in that order as well – get the difficult business out of the way first then end on a high so as to give the soldiers something (and someone) to cheer about. It doesn’t work quite so well for Alexander, of course, as only an uncomfortable silence follows his speech. Admittedly, it is punctured by cries of support, but they are isolated voices amidst the crowd.
It takes Colin Farrell thirty-five seconds to deliver the above speech. By contrast, Rory McCann’s (Craterus) response takes one minute five seconds; twice as long – could this be an indication of whose side Oliver Stone is taking in the matter? I couldn’t help but notice that Craterus also has the soundtrack on his side as well. It takes a moment to start but when it does it is very sympathetic to his sadness. Alexander, by contrast, simply has silence; Apollo has deserted him.
Tête a Tête
Alexander and Craterus’ dialogue begins positively with Alexander admitting that he should have sent the veterans home earlier. He promises to do so. Playing to the gallery, he says that they will go home with full pensions. Warming to his theme, he then tells the veterans that they’ll be treated like heroes back home. But while the soldiers cheer, note Cassander’s chiselled frown, Hephaestion’s look of concern, and Ptolemy’s wariness. They know what the soldiers do not – there is a sting to come. And what a sting it is. Alexander says,

… you, as well as I, know that as the years decline and the memories stale and all your great victories fade it will always be remembered you left your king in Asia! (my emphasis)

On the one hand, there is something utterly pathetic about Alexander’s charge. It is not the voice of a king (let alone the king of the world) that is speaking but a sulky teenager. We would do well to let that image go, however, because this is a deadly serious moment. When Alexander was shot in the chest during the siege of the Mallian city (modern day Multan), a rumour went round the Macedonian (base) camp that he had been killed. Arrian records the army as being in the ‘deepest distress’ and ‘plunged into helpless despair’. Who would lead them? How would they get home? They were surrounded by enemies and ‘impassable rivers’. This is surely the kind of intense emotion that they would be feeling now as Alexander threatened to stay in Asia.
And it gets worse, for not only does Alexander say they will leave him behind but that he will go on – with his Asian soldiers. Fear becomes mixed with shame; no surprise, then, that the scene ends with anger.
Disgruntled soldiers fling accusations at Alexander – he wants them dead to hide his crimes, Alexander desecrates Philip II’s memory; then, someone flings what appears to be an animal carcass at the king’s feet. I have to admit I don’t know the meaning of it but it can only be an insult of some sort, and a grievous one at that because it leads to Alexander wading into the crowd to arrest anyone he thinks might be the guilty party. As always, Hephaestion is at his side, but I liked how the Persian soldiers also protect him (although, admittedly, it is in their best interest to see that no harm comes to Alexander).
As he takes hold of each ‘guilty’ person, Alexander levels his own accusation at them – they insulted his  honour, his paternity, this man was a loudmouth, that one treasonous, he called me a murderer, Philip’s assassin. But then, just as he accuses the men of being cowards and traitors, Alexander swings round and comes face-to-face with Craterus. Even at this most highly wrought of moments, Alexander will not or cannot speak against him, and he moves away quickly. It is a very powerful moment, full of politics and – I believe – love. Craterus is an intriguing figure that I would like to learn more about. Pothos has a good article here. As it notes, however, we don’t know much about him. One thing that is one my mind, though, is his set-to with Hephaestion. Given how much both loved Alexander, what could have been the cause of their fight? I look forward to finding out in another post.
The scene ends with the dead bodies of those men Alexander arrested being passed by the Macedonians as they march away. It recalls the humiliation of Bessus.

André Castaigne (1861 - 1929) The Punishment of Bessus

André Castaigne (1861 – 1929) The Punishment of Bessus

Finally, the elder Ptolemy – in a voice over that stinks of realpolitik – says, “In smashing the mutiny and executing the ringleaders [Alexander] did nothing, to my mind, that any general in wartime would not have done.” Alexander, however, was not just ‘any general’ and in truth this was not any war. The choice of Ptolemy to deliver the line does little justice to the real man. According to Diodorus, Ptolemy was well loved by his friends and subjects. If there is any truth in this he must have been the kind of man who if he did not exactly speak for the men would not be the kind to speak against them. Instead, rather like Hephaestion in this film, I think he would be the type to speak cautiously or not at all. With that in mind, I really don’t think he would ever have spoken the words that Oliver Stone puts in his mouth. Writing these posts, I really do begin to see why people get frustrated at Hollywood’s rewriting of history! To be fair, though, I am more aggrieved at Philip’s treatment than Ptolemy’s but it is still a shame to see him so used.
Anyway, onwards we go, and in the next post we shall discuss Alexander’s last set piece battle – that at the Hydaspes River against the brave Indian king Porus.

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Alexander Revisited: Alexander vs Craterus at the Hyphasis River

  1. Istvan

    I find myself a little more forgiving of Stone and his decision to put that ‘realpolitik’ line into Ptolemy’s mouth. Historically accurate or not, it is important for character development and drawing the audience into the scene itself, by reminding them that this was not an irregularity. However, you do make fair points. Perhaps an ideal solution would have been to slightly extend Ptolemy’s line, to include your points about Alexander not being just any general, nor being engaged in just any war. This would have given the audience understanding of the harsh necessities of the situation, but it would also have encouraged the viewer to morally question what they have just seen. This way the audience wouldn’t be spoon fed the answer as to whether it is right or wrong, but rather would be encouraged to consider the situation from different perspectives and judge Alexander’s character based on that.

    I have been enjoying reading your insightful and interesting blog, however, I have one problem: I cannot find the entry that discusses Philip’s assassination scene. This entry, ‘Alexander vs Craterus…’ begins by reminding us that previously you discussed Alexander’s bloody succession of Philip, but the most recent entry before it is actually discussing Alexander mourning over Cleitus’ death. It seems you the link for Philip’s assassination is missing in the table of contents section.


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