Alexander Revisited: Medius’ Party to Ptolemy’s Soliloquy

Hello, and welcome to the last post in this series on Alexander Revisited. I hope you have enjoyed this talk-through. I certainly have. While Oliver Stone’s film is a flawed one writing these posts has allowed me to appreciate it a little more deeply than would otherwise have been possible. If you haven’t read all the previous posts or would like to refresh your memory you can find the index of them here.
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Scenes Covered

  1. Medius’ Party
  2. The Caves of Pella / Olympias’ Bedchamber
  3. Alexander’s Death
  4. Babylon/Pella
  5. Babylon
  6. Ptolemy’s Soliloquy

Medius’ Party
The scene opens with apparently incongruous shot of a Macedonian (Nearchus?) dressed up as Bacchus. Given that Hephaestion has just died, shouldn’t the scene be more sombre? Actually, no. Oliver Stone has jumped forward eight months to late May/June 323 BC, and the night that Alexander took ill after attending a party given by his friend, Medius.
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I really liked the debauched air of the party – especially stoned Antigonus with his painted eye and the other Macedonians and their make-up and costumes. I exclude Alexander and his lion headdress from this as Heracles was his ancestor.
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When Alexander speaks his voice sounds rough. Here is someone who, perhaps, has been drinking rather more than he should have lately. Although, as I said above we are some months after Hephaestion’s death, I see the roughness in his voice not as a consequence of drinking too much that night or recently but as Oliver Stone’s nod to the physical consequences of Alexander’s deep grief for his friend.
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Previously, I have criticised the film’s cod-freudian interpretation of Alexander’s relationship with his mother but I have to admit, I did the king’s vision of Olympias in the krater – snakes swirling round her face as if she had become Medusa. I don’t know if it is freudian to say so but I think there is a sense in which Alexander was turned to stone (i.e. made weak) by his overbearing mother. Just as Philip warned would happen. At any other point in his life, I suspect Alexander would have become angry or distressed at the sight of his mother. In a sign of how drunk and uncaring of life he had now become, though, he simply smiles and in his second toast, he celebrates ‘the myths’ – that stories that his father warned him about in the caves under Pella.
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I have jumped ahead of myself, though. Before we see Antigonus et al, a very nervous page hands Alexander a krater of wine. Is the young man is apprehensive because he is in the king’s presence? Maybe. But perhaps he knows that the wine is not pure…
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Do the party-goers expressions reveal any clues as to why the page is so nervous? Not just yet –

  • Antigonus – stoned
  • Ptolemy – sober; concerned; no sign of injuries
  • Leonnatus – sober; concerned; recent wounds visible on his face
  • Lysimachus (?) – drunk
  • Cassander – sober; calm
  • The unnamed Persian Prince – happy and relaxed

Things change when Alexander looks around the room. Cassander appears to be anxious, and Ptolemy suddenly very distressed. In my first and second posts in this series, I mentioned that I didn’t think Stone gave Cassander a role in Alexander’s death. A commenter (thank you Sheri!) put me right by saying that Oliver Stone

… uses camera angles to implicate Cassander quite implicitly… he also implicates Ptolemy.

Having now reached the critical moment, I can finally appreciate what she was saying. Could there be any other reason for their expressions – especially Ptolemy’s? Well, their expressions clearly show that they know something is about to happen. Of course, awareness doesn’t imply responsibility but this film is not a murder mystery. I would not expect Oliver Stone to point the finger at one person unless he wanted us to believe that that person did the deed.
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A small detail here – when Alexander holds the krater up, we can see that it is decorated with the image of a soldier striking down his enemy. I’m sure that is not in full view of the camera by coincidence.
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After Alexander has drunk from the krater, the camera returns to Ptolemy. He has recovered his composure. Given how tense he was a moment ago it is quite a turnaround. IS this bad direction? Charitably, we could say that he has relaxed because what needed to be done has been. The matter is over bar the shouting, or rather, dying. I still think he is much too relaxed, though.
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Meanwhile, Alexander collapses. The scene does not end with him, but Bacchus who is still dancing. I can’t quite work out why. Is Nearchus, or whoever it is, not aware that Alexander has collapsed? Or is Oliver Stone implying that he doesn’t care – because he too is part of the conspiracy?
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The Caves of Pella / Olympias’ Bed Chamber
This scene begins with the camera panning through the caves of Pella. After a brief shot of Alexander on his death bed, we meet him again as a young boy in his mother’s bed chamber. Obviously, this is a flashback; at his end, Alexander is remembering the time when he was most happy. Why does Oliver Stone refer to the caves here? I think it is because the caves (or rather, the truths that Philip taught his son in them) represent what went wrong with Alexander’s life. The panning shot, therefore, is a visual representation of Alexander going back in time to when he was happy; before the corruption started.
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If I had written this scene I would have replaced Olympias with Hephaestion. That Oliver Stone uses her, however, is in keeping with his more freudian approach to Alexander’s story. Having said that, the bed chamber scene – a reprisal of a scene we saw much earlier in the film – remains a very touching one. I really liked the close-up of Olympias placing her snake decorated bracelet on the stand. Although it happened in real life (i.e. in the original scene), the taking-off of the bracelet stood for me as representative of Olympias putting the person that she is, apart from that of mother, aside in order to look after her son. It is a very tender moment. It as a high point of the film.
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Alexander’s Death
We return to Babylon. Alexander is in bed, surrounded by his men. His face is worn and his eyes are red – just how how Hephaestion looked when he lay on his deathbed. Although Alexander licked the wine from Hephaestion’s cup suspiciously no more was ever made of this suggestion that he, too, was poisoned.
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Alexander lives long enough to receive ambassadors and gifts from as far away as Greece. In regards the former, someone looking rather like Aristotle appears at 1:01:56 though surely it is not him. On the conspiracy theory, I noted the unnamed man who tells Alexander that he loves him, and – after looking pointedly at the Macedonian generals  – his seed. This is why I have enjoyed writing these posts on Alexander Revisited as, despite watching the film several times before, I have never picked up on that man’s very significant words.
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Once the well wishers have gone, Alexander gives a discourse on happiness to Bagoas. What is happiness? He asks him. It is the the doing, he says, not the thinking. This is not the most authentic thing for him to say. Alexander was, after all, very interested in acquiring new knowledge even if winning glory through war was his first objective. Even in terms of the film his words are unconvincing – this is the Alexander, after all, who told Ptolemy that all his cities must have libraries.
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The scene ends with Alexander telling Bagoas ‘It is done’. He means his life but one cannot help but think of Jesus’ last words on the Cross. As much as I love Alexander of Macedon, comparing him to Jesus is not something I would consider terribly wise or relevant.
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The film does not specify how long Alexander is ill for but the presence of the Greek ambassadors suggests a long period. Any doubt that Oliver Stone is playing about with time (again) is removed, however, with when we hear Roxane refer to the upcoming birth of his son – in three months. Alexander, therefore, has been bedridden then for six months. Is there any poison in antiquity that would lay a man low for half a year before killing him? I doubt it. Roxane is ushered out of the bedchamber, accusing the generals standing around the king’s bed of being ‘vultures’. Ptolemy glances at Cassander who in his turn glances glaringly at Roxane.
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At this point we return to the beginning of the film with Nearchus warning Alexander that ‘the army will divide’ if he does not name an heir. Alexander has a series of flashbacks to key moments in his life before saying – no one knows quite what. To the best? To Craterus? This reflects what he is supposed to have said before his death (though not necessarily in the moments before as it is also said that he lost the power of speech) and I’m glad Stone kept it. For what it is worth, I think Alexander had no interest at all in the running of his empire. He was Achilles and lived only to win glory. Therefore, I would consider ‘to the best’ to be the mod likely interpretation if indeed the words were ever spoken.
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Finally, Alexander holds up the ring – to Zeus-Ammon, and dies. The ring falls to the floor and – as his empire will do – shatters. The scene closes with a close-up of Ptolemy, contemplating what he has done and what will now happen.
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Babylon/Pella
The elder Ptolemy now steps in with his assessment of Alexander’s character, and whether Olympias was responsible for Philip II’s murder. The Pella scene ends with a snake biting the eagle that has caught it causing both to fall to the ground. We saw the eagle in Alexander’s last moments. There, it was Zeus. Now, to  Olympias who witnesses its fall, it is Alexander. There is, of course, a point of connection between the two as previously Olympias told her son that Zeus was his real father.
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Babylon
We return to the bed chamber, where Alexander’s body now rests to witness the beginning of the collapse of the empire. The generals stride in. Some want Alexander’s body kept where it is, others say it must be returned to Macedon. As the elder Ptolemy says, ‘The wars of the world had begun. [For] Forty years, off and on, they endured.’ As for Alexander’s body, it would be laid to rest neither in Babylon or Macedon but Memphis, and then Alexandria.
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As the generals fight in the bed chamber – and literally over Alexander’s body – the elder Ptolemy outlines what happened in the wars of the diadochoi. A funny spelling error comes onto the screen during the subtitles – Seleucus is called Solucas. The scene closes with a hellish scene of what appears to be a great battle under a sea of orange and red smoke. It seems an appropriate image given the great conflicts that followed. In 2014, 100 years exactly after World War One began, the image still has a very real and uncomfortable resonance.
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Ptolemy’s Soliloquy
The caption says ‘Alexandria, Egypt 285 B.C. – 40 Years Later’ which repeats the error made at the start of the film. If it was correct, Alexander would have died in 325 but a caption that appears on the screen after his death clearly states that it happened in 323.
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In this scene, the elder Ptolemy rounds off the story for us by explaining to his amanuensis what happened to the various central figures in Alexander’s life. Most of his accounts seem to be correct. A couple of things jumped out at me:-

  • The way Ptolemy looks at his ring when he refers to Alexander’s son (Alexander IV) as the ‘true heir to the empire’. I don’t suppose that the real Ptolemy ever thought of himself as anything other than the rightful king of Egypt but I liked this touch of doubt
  • Ptolemy saying that he trusts that his sons will be ‘just in their affairs’. Philadelphus, yes; Keraunos, hmmm
  • Ptolemy’s admission that ‘the truth is, we did kill him. By silence we consented. Because we couldn’t go on’ not so much because they were tired, though, but because they feared sharing Black Cleitus’ fate, of being replaced by Asians. What makes this admission stand out is not so much the ‘truth’ of it but the fact that it comes after Ptolemy has spent the last few minutes eulogising his old friend
  • The contradictory nature of the soliloquy. One moment Ptolemy berates Alexander for being a dreamer then celebrates his failure – ‘which towered over other men’s successes’

Ptolemy’s last statement is upbeat.

… the glory and the memory of man will always belong to the ones who follow their great visions. And the greatest of these is the one they now call Megas Alexandros.

There is something quite sad about the elder Ptolemy’s dictation. He all but blames Alexander for forcing his generals to kill him but clearly still idolises him. On the conspiracy theory, there is no proof that the real Ptolemy assassinated Alexander – alone or with the help of others – but here, right at the end of the film, I think Oliver Stone meets the real man. Ptolemy’s nickname is Soter – Saviour* – but should also be the Realist. He rarely fought in the Wars of the Successors but stayed at home in Egypt to build his kingdom. Ptolemy knew his limits. Stone’s Ptolemy does, too. It lead him to (help) kill Alexander but also be fair in his assessment of the king and understand and appreciate his greatness. How did Ptolemy sleep at night with such contradictory thoughts in his head? Like I said, he was a realist. What he did needed to be done. In one fell swoop, the film becomes about the death of heroism and the birth of the sceptical, and utilitarian age from which in 2300 years we have so far failed to emerge.

* Given by the Rhodians for helping them against Antigonus in 304

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Alexander Revisited: Medius’ Party to Ptolemy’s Soliloquy

  1. blazeaglory

    Good series and for anyone who has seen the movie, a very good analysis.

    Well, while the scene before Alexander drank the wine was quite heart breaking, I have a more positive view of the camera angles and expressions of Cassander and Ptolemy. Could it possibly be, that since Hephaestion had died from an unknown illness months earlier and there was strife among Alexander and his counter (or lesser) parts, could it be that the expressions were from a fear that Alexander might be the next? Im sure assassinations and poisonings were on everyone’s mind back then, maybe the expression were “No please dont drink the wine Alex”. Where as Alexander knew it was poisoned and wanted to prove that he did not fear someone assassinating him? Or to show them he was still a bad ass? Maybe he wanted to die?

    Just a thought. I dont know if I actually prescribe to this idea but it had crossed my mind.

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    • That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. I don’t think the real Alexander wanted to die after Hephaestion’s death, however, Oliver Stone’s is another matter. Maybe that is why Stone jumped straight from Hephaestion’s death to Alexander’s – to re-enforce the point. While I would still lean towards Oliver Stone blaming Ptolemy and Cassander I think your view of what happened is certainly a possibility.

      Thank you for the comments. I’m glad you have enjoyed reading it!

      Like

      • blazeaglory

        No problem, I love the story of Alexander. Im glad to see anyone else take so much time and effort into putting together such a fantastic series!

        Also, what I forgot to add was, maybe the look Alexander gave to each one of his captains was a question of loyalty? As in “I know this is poisoned, and I know YOU KNOW its poisoned, so if none of you speak up, then your silence is consent of my death”? Maybe that is why the older (was it Ptolemy?) at the end says “By our silence we consented”? It looked like maybe a couple of them wanted to shout DONT DRINK IT, but they could not gather the courage! I really dont know but that scene was a heart breaker.

        Well probably never truly know but as long as there are series such as yours, we can always discuss and re live the live of “Megas Alexandros”! Thank you again!

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  2. blazeaglory

    Or I should say, maybe Alexander ‘suspected’ it was poisoned.

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    • Blazeaglory,

      Yes, it was the elder Ptolemy who said ‘by our silence we consented’. What you say makes perfect sense. My own feeling is that Alexander didn’t know the krater was poisoned but the film doesn’t present any obstacles to your proposition. Just before Christmas I bought the version of the film with Oliver Stone’s commentary. I wonder if he will say anything about the matter?

      AOS

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      • blazeaglory

        You havent watched it yet?? What are you waiting for?? 😉

        I agree. Half of me feels Alexander had no idea it was poisoned and the other half of me feels he “kinda” knew and let his brash personality take over. It really bothers me though…lol

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  3. I wonder if there is any connection between the scene in Babylon when Alexander looks into the wine cup and a similar scene in …oh, I don’t remember (I think in the movie it’s happens in India) before the pages’ conspiracy? By connection I meant if Oliver Stone wanted us to connect both scenes?

    In a scene before pages’ conspiracy Alexander looks into the cup, is about to drink it, then he looks into the ring that Hephaistion gave him and somehow he “knows” that the wine is poisoned; he turns to the page who trembles and by this betrays the fact of poisoned wine. In this stage of his life Alexander is still strong and full of desire to live and achieve more. In the Babylon scene he looks into the wine and I am sure he knows as well that it’s poisons but he doesn’t care anymore. My impression of the Babylonian scene always was that Alexander knew the wine was poisoned, he gives somewhat scornful look to his guests and drinks the wine as a challenge. The challenge being something like that, “so, you all want me dead, you think you don’t need me any more. So be it! I don’t care to live either but you greatly mistaken if you think you continue to prosper on your own.”

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    • Hello Delos,

      As I mentioned to blazeaglory just above I don’t think Alexander knew the wine was poisoned. However, i can’t think of any reason within the plot that would stop him from knowing.

      As I think about it, though, if we say that Alexander knew the krater was poisoned and drank anyway, I have a big problem with Ptolemy’s reaction. He is very tense to begin with – understandably – and then, once the cup is drunk, calm. That would make him a rather cold blooded killer, don’t you think? Maybe that’s how Oliver Stone wanted him to be seen but it doesn’t accord with the picture of him in the rest of the film.

      Maybe I am too unsubtle but I really wish Stone had been more clear about which generals wanted Alexander out of the way and not left it to implication and the elder Ptolemy’s narration. I have a feeling that the film didn’t earn the assassination conclusion, if that makes sense.

      AOS

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      • blazeaglory

        Yes I agree, Ptolemy would be very cold blooded but I think that was how the men had to live back then? That said, “if” Ptolemy was actually in on it. That scene has been bothering me since I first watched it. I have been trying to decipher it since then. Maybe that is what Stone wanted?

        I wouldnt say Alexander knew it was poisoned but maybe suspected? And with his larger than life personality, he looked at each one of his generals and said, “If you wont try and stop me, TO HELL WITH YOU! You fools cant kill me!!” Lol. If he didnt drink it, then he was weak (in his own eyes?). Or maybe he was too drunk to even think about it? I feel the same way as you do though, not knowing if Alexander knew or if Ptolemy knew, has been killing me for a long time! One of my life’s greatest mysteries! I would like to think that Alexander (in real life) would have been drinking and carrying on that night without a care in the world (and drunk) and had no idea he was poisoned (if he was ever poisoned at all). If I could go back in time to one point in history, it would be that night, or preceding days, to listen in on the conspiracy and JUMP out of the shadows and smash whatever fool dared to poison Alexander…lol I think mans greed, bitterness and envy forces them to do foolish things at times.

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  4. Regarding Alexander’s death bed speech on happiness to Bagoas – that was taken nearly word for word from The Persian Boy (Mary Renault). I hope Stone gave proper compensation for using it to Mary’s estate. Of course he made no speeches on his death bed. He had lost the power of speech by then. Stone moved the discourse there as there was no audience when Bagoas actually asked the question. Alexander’s on-going symptoms, including the loss of his voice do not point to poison but to pleurisy after his Mallian wound. Drinking during his high fever led to fatal pneumonia.

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    • blazeaglory

      I often like to think (not that I am pleased that Alexander died so young) but maybe it was some form of sickness? But then I am reminded of mans greed and bitterness and the poisoning scenario comes to mind 😉 They were heavy drinkers too, so pneumonia is always a very reasonable scenario for his death.

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  5. Istvan

    Since I had read that poisoning was unlikely in Alexander’s death, I hadn’t considered that poisoning was what Stone was implying when I watched the film. Rather than seeing Alexander’s generals directly involved in his demise by poisoning his drink, I interpreted the scene as Alexander’s generals indirectly killing him by not stopping him from over-drinking while in a physically and emotionally weakened state.
    However, after reading this entry I am leaning towards the interpretation that poisoning is what Stone’s Ptolemy implied when he said they consented in silence. ‘Consent’ would imply a firm understanding of the consequences of their inaction, implying they knew that the drink would bring a definite end to their king. It’s hard to argue that they would have known for certain that simply binge-drinking in a weakened state would have brought about certain death, so poisoning seems to be the best explanation for what Stone sought to convey in the film.

    Personally I don’t give much credence to the idea that Alexander knew of the contents of his drink. One could argue that he was a vain, glory-obsessed maniac, and so If he wished to die he would have chosen a more memorable and remarkable manner of meeting his end. Even if he had been emotionally devastated, and therefore unable to act rationally, I think he would have still opted to go down in flames winning ever greater fame, rather than quietly in a bed.

    When I watched this final scene of Ptolemy, one of the parts of it that stood out brilliantly was the contradictory nature of Ptolemy’s soliloquy. I’m glad to come across another individual who appreciated this touch to the movie, because it really adds an extra layer of depth to the movie and encourages us to ponder on it. The dreamers are the ones who are remembered, they are the ones who bring about revolutionary changes to human society (as Philip says, the ‘gods must change’ [gods can be replaced by any number of dogmatic beliefs we have about culture, science, economics, politics, among other other things] before people change); it is the bold dreamers who are favoured by fortune and can win immortality. On the other hand, contrasting this image of the bold is the character of Ptolemy, who offers a more introspective, cautious and reflective approach to the world. He emphasizes that irrespective of what the bold dreamers do for society, they threaten human society and the friction that is created thereby brings about the necessity for the dreamer’s destruction – essentially they destroy themselves.

    I feel this thinking is alluded to when Ptolemy addresses Alexander in the Hindu Kush. Ptolemy states that he fears this world is far greater than one could have dreamed, implying Alexander needs to take a step back, refocus his lens on life from the micro level to the macro level in order to consider just how vast and complex the world is. Is it really beneficial to charge head first into the unknown? But Alexander disregards it, and states that he must go on. In the end Ptolemy acknowledges that his cautiousness might have won him a long life, but precisely for that reason he will be forgotten to history, unlike Alexander.

    I believe that this contradictory nature of the film’s message makes the film all the more compelling. It leaves us to decide how we should live our lives, rather than prescribing to us a solution.
    You could argue that perhaps the scene of Aristotle tutoring Alexander is an attempt to establish a clear theory on how we should live our lives: in moderation. However, I think this scene does more to complicate the theme I’ve been discussing than truly offer a clear answer. After all, what is moderation? What is the middle road? It’s left ambiguous. How do we avoid being cowards and also suicidal fools (Alexander charging an elephant)? Initially Aristotle discourages Alexander from pursuing his dreams in the east, but then later writes him a letter encouraging him to keep going eastward. Is Aristotle following moderation? Is Ptolemy following moderation? Is moderation even valuable?

    I realise I have gone a little off-topic, but I thought I might share my ideas on the contradictory nature of idolising while also criticising Alexander’s personality.

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