Read the other posts in this series here
As Alexander recovers from the wounds he received in the Battle of the Hydaspes River (as discussed in the last post here), we return to ‘Macedonia – 9 Years Earlier’ – 336 BC and the immediate aftermath of Philip II’s assassination.
- Alexander’s confrontation with Olympias
- The Macedonian Camp
- The Giant Altars
- The Gedrosian Desert
Alexander’s Confrontation with Olympias
This scene can be broken down thus,
- Alexander blames Olympias for murdering Philip.
- Olympias gives her son a lesson in how to manipulate the weak.
- Alexander hates her and pays her with a kiss.
It builds upon Philip II’s warning to Alexander in the caves of Pella (which I wrote about here). There, he warns his son to beware of women. Greatness, Philip says, is achieved through suffering, but his mother would keep that from him; this makes him weak. Philip is right to be wary of Olympias but has (fatally?) misjudged her. When Alexander visits her chamber he is in a highly agitated state. But she is not concerned to relieve his suffering (born of the belief that people are blaming him for Philip’s murder), only to justify Philip’s death and tell Alexander in no uncertain terms to buck up as he is actually the son of Zeus. She then tells him who he should kill next (i.e. in order to consolidate his grip on the Macedonian throne).
Towards the end of the scene, Alexander aggressively kisses his mother on the lips. Insofar as she did not ask to be kissed we might say he has sexually assaulted her. It is an unreal moment. Firstly, not only is the forced nature of the kiss quite at variance with the respect that the real Alexander gave women, but the Alexander of this scene is unrecognisable with the Alexander of the film as a whole. From start of this scene to its finish he is no more than an emasculated shell of a man. He is wholly incapable of imposing his will upon his mother, and is reduced to insulting her and calling her a ‘sorceress’. No wonder he kisses her so violently. His body is the only thing he has that is stronger than her.
Midway through the scene, Alexander has a flashback to the painting of Medea in the Pella caves. When Philip showed it to him, Alexander connected it to Olympias and assured his father that she would never hurt him. Now he knows better. In a way, despite Olympias’ prominence, it is a shame that the film wasn’t focused even more strongly on her relationship with Alexander. Connecting his actions as king more solidly to his relationship with her could have made a very powerful, if dark, picture. As it is, the preponderance of themes and ideas running through the picture dilute Olympias’ impact.
The Macedonian Camp
We leave Macedon and return to ‘India – 9 Years Later’. Alexander hobbles out of his tent to greet his men. The camp cheers and roars its approval. A bit odd considering the revolt that preceded the battle against Porus? Not necessarily. So, not everyone loved Alexander any longer (as the elder Ptolemy told us earlier) but that doesn’t mean everyone hated him, and they certainly still needed him.
The understand why we need to turn to the real life event that inspired this scene. After Alexander was badly wounded during the siege of a Mallian fort in 325 B.C. his men feared that he had died. They panicked – who would lead them home? They were in hostile country surrounded by enemies. This is the fear of the Macedonian army after the Battle of the Hydaspes River, and why they still needed him.
In 325, Alexander’s first public appearance following the siege led to applause that re-echoed round the countryside. When he came among his men,
… they crowded round him, touching his hands, his knees, his clothes; some content with a sight of him standing near, turned away with a blessing on their lips. Wreaths were flung upon him and such flowers as were then in bloom.
(Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander)
As in real life, so in Oliver Stone’s film.
Upon emerging from his tent, Alexander tells his men that that they are going home. The impression is that this is because he is too badly injured to continue his expedition. Unhistorical and, once again, un-Alexanderlike. Taken on its own terms, it is a dramatic scene, a good cinematic moment, but it is such a shame that it comes at the cost of Alexander’s credibility.
I’ll record here Alexander’s vision of his father and Philip’s nod of approval at his son. It is a redundant moment, really, but still a nice touch. The reason I say it is redundant is that – as I think about Alexander and Philip in the film – I don’t have the impression that Alexander went on his expedition to please his father. Having said that, it has just occurred to me that perhaps the key to understanding the vision lies back in the caves of Pella, again. There, Philip tells his son that a king is not born but made by steel and suffering, and that he must know how to hurt those he loves. All these things Alexander has now held, been through and done. Maybe Philip’s nod is him saying ‘Well done, boy, now you know*; now you are a king.’
* Just as Philip’s father said to him after he killed his first man
The Giant Altars
Against the backdrop of the elder Ptolemy’s narration we see the giant altars that Alexander set up at the easternmost limit of his empire – including one containing a statue, very touchingly, of Bucephalas. The purpose of the altars, Alexander says, is to let all those who see them know ‘that Titans were once here’. This reminds me of something I read once about how the Anglo-Saxons mistook the (albeit ordinary sized) derelict Roman villas in England for the homes of giants.
I don’t know if I am imagining this but I am sure that – after Alexander has made his dedication – as the camera cuts to Nearchus, Hephaestion and Ptolemy it uses a different (slower?) frame rate or type of film on Hephaestion. What do you think? Something similar seems to happen when, in the caves at Pella, the young Alexander tells his father that he will remember the myths that Philip has just told him, and one day he will be painted on the walls like the heroes they have just seen. There is something about the movement of Philip on the left hand side of the screen that makes me feel the film has been altered somehow so as to invite us to ponder for a second or two more what Alexander has just said: the prophetic nature of his words, perhaps. Perhaps an invitation to consider what Hephaestion is thinking is being made in this scene as well? His expression is certainly more intense than Nearchus’ and Ptolemy’s.
The Gedrosian Desert
Oliver Stone’s elder Ptolemy’s narration absolves Alexander of any blame for the losses suffered by the Macedonian army as it crosses the harsh Gredrosian Desert. According to the elder Ptolemy, his motivation for taking his men across this unforgiving route was so that they could return to Babylon by the shortest route. I have read at least one historian say he wanted to punish his men for betraying him. Personally, I don’t believe that. Not unless the story about him refusing the helmetful of water, on the grounds that if his men could not drink then neither would he, is false.
Either way, it is a quick scene and serves best as a reminder how in war illness and adverse conditions can often kill more men than actual fighting.