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.
- Medius’ Party
- The Caves of Pella / Olympias’ Bedchamber
- Alexander’s Death
- Ptolemy’s Soliloquy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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