Alexander Revisited: Re-entry into Babylon to Alexander’s Rage

Read the other posts in this series here
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With this post we enter the last half hour of Alexander Revisited. Taking the end credits into account, however, just twenty minutes are left to cover this last, most tragic, period of Alexander’s all too short life.
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Scenes Covered

  1. Re-entry into Babylon
  2. In the Royal Palace
  3. The Death of Hephaestion
  4. Alexander’s Rage

Re-entry into Babylon
This is a short scene that gives the elder Ptolemy time to tell us that upon his return to the city Alexander took two more wives. He goes onto refer to the unstable political situation at the time, which extended to Alexander’s generals who, he says, questioned ‘his every decision’. Not that we have seen any of them actually doing so during the film. By-and-large they have all been portrayed as being – at the very least – outwardly loyal. It seems to me that Oliver Stone decided to take this opportunity to account for the collapse of Alexander’s empire after his death. I wish he had integrated the instability of it more fully into the film’s narrative, though, rather than simply through his voice-over, which comes across as being cack-handed.
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In the Royal Palace
We now move on to the Royal Palace where we find Alexander discussing plans with Nearchus and Cassander to expand his harbour and fleet. I’m trying to remember if there were any scenes earlier in the film where we saw Alexander engaged in administrative work and I can’t actually think of any. Perhaps it would have been nice to see more of this side of his kingship, but as he wasn’t really an administrative king (to put it politely) I don’t suppose we can fault Oliver Stone for not foregrounding it!
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After telling Cassander – in the nicest possible way – to get on with his work, Alexander asks Ptolemy how work on the library is getting along. “We must not forget our libraries. All the Alexandrias we have. I want libraries.” He refers to all the Alexandrias, but if I lived in America I would bet my bottom dollar that this exchange is meant to remind us that Alexander was responsible for the building of the library of Alexandria-outside-Egypt. The fact that the film has not highlighted the intellectual Alexander (beyond a few references to his inquisitiveness) makes it, however, a very forced reminder and, if I’m honest, a rather cheesily delivered one.
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Despite that, it does make me think – I know Alexander laid out the plan for Alexandria-outside-Egypt. I don’t know, however, how detailed it was. I presume he meant for a museum (of which the library was part) to be there. Did he intend for the library to become the institution that it did – confiscating originals MSS and becoming the greatest storehouse of knowledge in antiquity – or should we thank Ptolemy I and/or his son, Ptolemy II Philadephus, for that? Who would have thought cheese could be so thought-provoking, but there it is.
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The Death of Hephaestion
Alexander enters Hephaestion’s bed chamber to find his friend close to death. The doctor tells the king not to worry – Hephaestion mixed his wine with water, that’s all. On the surface, the doctor’s words sound facetious but actually are very well chosen. The water around Babylon was known for being impure and diseased. The doctor then tells Alexander that Hephaestion just needs rest and ‘… no wine or cold chicken.’ Again, this sounds a bit silly. What difference could no wine or chicken make? But his words are wisely chosen for (according to Plutarch), the real Hephaestion died after eating a boiled wild fowl and drinking wine.
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Hephaestion’s death is handled very touchingly – the evocation of memories past and dreams of the future give it depth. Having said that, I felt that Hephaestion’s recollection that Alexander used to dress him up as a sheik (or ‘sheek’ as Jared Leto pronounces it) was a slight misstep. It feels like a comment that was inserted to give greater weight to Alexander’s planned expedition to Arabia rather than because it was actually true, either in real life (which I very much doubt) or the film.
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As I write, I am in two minds about Alexander’s soliloquy by the window. It’s not that I don’t like it, but wouldn’t it make more sense for Alexander to stay by his friend’s side? I suppose the answer depends on whether or not he realised that Hephaestion was close to death. If he didn’t, then leaving him makes sense. If he did, I find it unlikely that Alexander would chose to deprive himself of Hephaestion’s gaze, voice and touch before they were taken away from him. However it goes, Oliver Stone’s interpretation of Hephaestion’s untimely demise is very reminiscent of Ruth’s death in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café and the way Idgie leaves her side to tell the story of the flying lake.
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From uncertainty to certainty – Hephaestion dies as one of the most important and yet underused characters I have ever seen in a film. I have no problem with Oliver Stone treating him as Alexander’s best friend rather than lover – the sources allow for this interpretation – but why oh why did he get such little screen time; hardly more than Bagoas. Because of this, Alexander’s kind words about how important Hephaestion is to him (he tells Hephaestion that he is only person who was ever honest with him; that he saved him from himself; that he is nothing without Hephaestion) come across as being rather empty.
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In the midst of imperfection, however, a perfect moment – Hephaestion takes Alexander’s hand. He holds two fingers leaving Alexander’s ring finger free. The ring that he does not hold is Alexander’s ring of office. It’s as if Oliver Stone is showing us the personal nature of the two men’s friendship and is a lovely touch.
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I hope one day a film director will realise that the story of Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s friendship is a story that was not adequately told in this film and consider it worth telling in his own. How he does so, in terms of whether they are friends and/or lovers I don’t mind, just as long as he does. Hephaestion deserves better than to be ignored – as he apparently is in the Richard Burton Alexander (1956) – or downplayed as he is in this film.
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Alexander’s Rage
After ordering the execution of Hephaestion’s doctor, Alexander goes in a rage to Roxane and blames her for the murder. It is possible that Hephaestion was assassinated, though I don’t know how likely, but I have never heard that Roxane might have been to blame. Regrettably, rather than use this opportunity to explore Alexander’s grief in a more meditative fashion, Stone leans on his cod-freudian titan imagery from earlier in the film (and which he made use of in the Alexander’s Confrontation with Olympias scene which I looked at in the last post). Essentially, Stone portrays Alexander as having turned into his father. By use of flashback to the caves of Pella he also implies that – just as Philip warned would happen – Alexander has been betrayed by the gods. Roxane, of course, fulfils Philip’s warning to his son to beware of women.
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And here, I shall end the post because with the next scene we come to Alexander’s own death and the end of the film. I can’t wait to watch it to see how Oliver Stone handles it. My memory of previous viewings is that Stone portrayed Alexander’s death as being the result of over-drinking leading to a fever. However, if I recall comments to a previous post in this series correctly, he actually implies that Ptolemy, Cassander, and possibly others, murdered him. We shall see!

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

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One thought on “Alexander Revisited: Re-entry into Babylon to Alexander’s Rage

  1. Alexander was showing doing some administrative work earlier before he got into bed with Bagoas.

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