Alexander in Film

Of Lions and Men

It occurred to me the other day that images of Alexander most often show him in the guise of Heracles. Think of all those coins, for example, where he is wearing the same lion-cap that the mythical hero wore. Why is this, I wondered, when he drew his real inspiration from Achilles?

alexander_coin
The answer to this is perfectly obvious, which is probably why I missed it: Heracles was Alexander’s paternal ancestor, the god from whom the Argead dynasty claimed descent. Alexander may have liked Achilles more but for propaganda purposes he had to focus on Heracles. I am very grateful to my friend Jen for helping me see this.

This morning, another question occurred to me – did Alexander really wear a lion shaped helmet? One, that is, like Colin Farrell wears in Oliver Stone’s Alexander,

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Well, he is certainly portrayed wearing one on the Alexander sarcophagus,

alexander_sarcophagus
In his biography of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox notes the sarcophagus image and says ‘no doubt Alexander wore it in real life’. This wording suggests to me that we don’t know for sure that he did but (at least in RLF’s opinion) it is very likely.

One final question: What exactly is Alexander’s relationship to Achilles? I don’t mean in terms of his family, but rather, did he really see himself as a second or new Achilles or is that the invention of the ancient historians? Well, I don’t know for sure – none of us do – but as I write these words I feel that even if details were made up later on, if Olympias – Alexander’s mother and descendent of Achilles – had any influence on her son, she would have imbued him with a knowledge of, love for, and desire to emulate/beat the great hero of the Trojan War.

Credits
Jen’s Alexander blog
Silver tetradrachm: VRoma
Colin Farrell as Alexander: Aceshowbiz
Alexander Sarcophagus: SUNY Oneonta

Categories: Alexander in Film, Alexander Scholars, Art, By the Bye | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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

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

Alexander Revisited: Alexander’s Confrontation with Olympias to the Gedrosian Desert

Read the other posts in this series here
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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.

Scenes Covered

  1. Alexander’s confrontation with Olympias
  2. The Macedonian Camp
  3. The Giant Altars
  4. 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.
  • fin

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).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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Alexander Revisited: Aristotle’s Letter and the Battle at the Hydaspes River

Read the other posts in this series here

In our last post we saw Alexander’s army rebel against their king for the first time. Despite none other than Craterus speaking out against him, the king won the day – just. The leaders of the ‘revolt’ were executed and the army moved on. But, as the elder Ptolemy tells us in the voice over, the king ‘was no longer loved by all’.

Scenes Covered

  • Aristotle’s Letter
  • The Battle of the Hydaspes River

Aristotle’s Letter
In real life, the Macedonian army’s rebellion took place on the Hyphasis River. Oliver Stone places it much further west. We know this because they haven’t reached Porus on the Hydaspes River yet. Despite that, the elder Ptolemy tells us that the army were marching south to the ocean.
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After an evocative scene of the Macedonians, sarissas upturned, marching against a pale sky, we join them in an Indian forest during the Monsoon season. Rain, rain, and yet more bloody rain.
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The scene proper begins with Aristotle dictating a letter to Alexander in which he warns him about taking on ‘eastern ways’. I liked the juxtaposition of Aristotle in his cloak set against a cold, austere sky and Alexander, topless and looking a little debauched in his tent.
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Aristotle expresses his hope that Alexander will remain the (inquisitive) boy that the philosopher once taught. By the king’s expression, though, that boy died a long time ago. It’s a very sad moment. Appropriately enough, perhaps, the screen turns black.
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The Battle of the Hydaspes River
The darkness does not last for long. A small circle appears in the centre of the screen and draws towards us. We are still in the forest but days? Weeks? later as the Macedonians await the arrival of Porus’ army. Wood creaks and breaks. The captains bid the men to remain calm. There is shouting in the distance. The camera shakes as something big approaches. No wonder the men look nervous! I’m sure this is elementary film making but I like the way Stone builds the suspense here. It enables us to be as awed as the Macedonians are when their nemeses – Porus’ army of elephants – is finally revealed.
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Alexander fought the Battle of the banks of the Hydaspes River using his phalanx. The film keeps the phalanx but has the battle take place in the forest. I am no tactician but surely the phalanx model would have been useless there? This is a scene that definitely only works in the heat of the moment. When you watch it with a cooler eye, the sight of the Macedonians forming up amidst the trees looks a bit silly.
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From the phalanx we move on to Alexander as he prepares to charge at the oncoming Indians. His cavalrymen are close by but this doesn’t stop the king from yelling at them to hurry. “Why do you hang back?!”. As they have not met the enemy and their elephants yet I assume that the cavalry’s reticence has been caused by the snipers in the trees. Ironically, speeding up would make them more difficult targets to hit. I have to say, I appreciated the presence of this line as, for me, it also references the way Alexander got so impatient during the siege of the Mallian fort (325 BC), he grabbed a ladder, climbed the walls of the fort and jumped inside to take on the Mallian army by himself.
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Of the battle itself, the stand-out moments for me are these –

  • The way the elephants tear the phalanx up
  • Alexander’s determination to help Craterus (despite their earlier confrontation)
  • Hephaestion’s arrival. Admittedly, I am writing these words in a cold room but I did get goosebumps when the camera cut to Alexander leading Hephaestion’s cavalrymen towards the battle. With the heroic music in the background it felt a big ‘heroes riding to the rescue’ moment

On Hephaestion, I would like to take this opportunity to say that I don’t think for a minute that he was an inferior soldier. I read someone say he was the other day; the insinuation seemed to be that if he had been a good one, Alexander would have given command of the entire Companion Cavalry to him rather than just half. My impression, though, is that after the Philotas Affair Alexander feared anyone – even, perhaps, Hephaestion – having too much power. This is a matter I need to look into more but I thought I would mention it here.

  • Alexander’s and Bucephalas’ solo attack on the Indian army. The eagle of Zeus is absent and everyone – even Hephaestion – holds back. It is a breathless moment. I envy anyone watching it who doesn’t know Alexander’s story. They would surely think that this was his last stand.
  • Bucephalas and Porus’ elephant rearing up. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to watch this properly as my damaged disc skipped the scene but I remember it well. It is a mighty – if wholly unrealistic – moment
  • Alexander lying on the ground having been shot with an arrow. The screen turns to red. He is dying but does not look at all upset by this. Why would he, though? This is the man who has just said, “Isn’t it a lovely thing to live with great courage and to die leaving an everlasting fame? Come, Macedonians. Why do you retreat? Do you want to live forever?”
  • Bucephalas ‘defending’ Alexander. Again, unrealistic and real emotional manipulation but great cinema

On the whole, the battle at the Hydaspes is well filmed and very enjoyable to watch. Enjoyable, that is, in the sense of being very exciting, sad and nerve wracking. It suffers from one profound problem, though. When Alexander rode forward by himself, the Macedonians were in retreat. When he fell, Hephaestion led the men forward. The battle, as the elder Ptolemy says, was Alexander’s bloodiest, ‘pure butchery’, are we to expect that the Macedonians could really have pulled it round so comprehensively on the strength of Alexander’s fall? I’m not so sure.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Retribution
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).
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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.
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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.
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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.

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Alexander Revisited: Alexander and Philip ride to the theatre to Alexander’s Accession

For previous posts in this series click here
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Welcome back to this series of posts on the third version of Oliver Stone’s film about Alexander the Great. In this post we look at Stone’s interpretation of the most decisive event in Alexander’s life – the assassination of his father, Philip II.
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Scenes Covered

  1. Alexander and Philip ride to the theatre
  2. Arrival at the theatre
  3. Philip’s Assassination
  4. Pausanias’ End
  5. Alexander’s Accession

Alexander and Philip ride to the theatre
As Alexander wallows in self-pity in his tent, Oliver Stone takes us back to ‘Macedonia 336 B.C. – 9 Years Earlier’ and the day of Philip’s assassination. The scene opens with a great close-up of Philip’s statue of himself, which he really did have carried into the Pella theatre behind those of the twelve Olympian gods.
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Upon its arrival in the theatre, the statue-bearers seem almost to lose their hold of it for a moment, and the statue lurches dangerously to one side. The assembled Greek guests laugh. We may smile with them, or else see the incident as a foreshadowing of what is about to happen to Philip.
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Meanwhile, as they approach the theatre on horseback, Philip tells his son, “All my life I’ve waited to see Greeks grovel with respect for Macedonia. Today is that day.” I am open to being proven wrong but these words do not represent the real Philip for me. Yes, like many powerful men, he wanted more and more power, but I have never got the impression that he disliked – much less hated, as appears to be the case here – the Greeks.
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I’m afraid I see that line as another example of Oliver Stone’s hatchet job; making Philip look bad so that Alexander gets to look good. When Philip adds ‘Today is that day’, I can almost hear Oliver Stone saying “look how limited and parochial Philip was compared to Alexander who wanted to bring Men together and change the world!”
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The dialogue does not improve for Philip goes on to comment that, ‘They say already, “Philip was a great general, but Alexander is simply great.”‘ By they I assume he means the Macedonians and / or Greeks. But on what grounds are they calling Alexander ‘great’ already? In terms of the film, he’s done very little by 336 that would be worth Greek notice let alone adulation.
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Philip continues, “But if you ever insult me again, I’ll kill you.” The ‘but’ seems to suggest that Alexander is being called ‘great’ on account of the way he stood up to Philip at the pre-wedding party (which we looked at in this post). Now, granted the Greeks may have enjoyed Philip’s embarrassment, I really doubt that they would have called Alexander ‘great’ for his part in causing it.
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To find the answer to this question we have to go beyond the film. By 336 Alexander had already fought in one major battle – at Chaeronea – where he fought on the left wing. That was in 338. Two years earlier, while Philip was campaigning in Asia Minor, Alexander had defeated the Thracians in battle and even founded a city (Alexandropolis) – a rather cheeky action as the right to do so was really the prerogative of the king.
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It is true that Alexander was involved in other military engagements between 340 and 336 but Thrace and Chaeronea were, I think, the most likely to get him noticed by anyone. And yet, I don’t think I am being too harsh when I say that neither Chaeronea or Thrace were enough to have him called ‘great’. It seems to me that Stone and his fellow screen writers are simply and very clumsily trying to foreshadow Alexander’s later reputation. There is really no need for them to do so; if anything, it just cheapens his later heroism.
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Arrival at the theatre
More clumsy foreshadowing takes place when Philip dismounts his horse and greets Black Cleitus outside the theatre. He turns to his son and says, “This man you can always trust, Alexander. Treat him as you would me.” Oh dear times two. What makes the foreshadowing here feel clumsy is the fact that although Alexander’s showdown with Cleitus is for him many years in the future, we have already seen it happen and not ten minutes earlier, at that. The short gap between Cleitus’ death and this scene makes it feel redundant, and makes me wonder why Stone decided to break the story up with flashbacks in the first place. I suppose it does add new information to the story – the suggestion that Alexander’s murder of Cleitus is a parricide-by-proxy – but only at the cost of slowing the flow of the narrative. Could the information not have been given in another way? Was it worth suggesting that Cleitus’ death was a form of parricide in the first place?
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At the stage door, Philip tells Alexander to enter the theatre with the rest of the Guard. But his son pauses, for he sees Pausanias ahead and senses that his father is in danger. Missing the sight of his killer, however, Philip thinks that Alexander only wants to enter the theatre with him so that everyone thinks that he – Philip – is implicitly declaring Alexander his heir. He accuses Olympias of putting Alexander up to the job. But why should he care if Olympias did, though? Just moments earlier – while they were still on horseback – Philip told Alexander that  after they invade Persia he – Alexander – will have ‘all the gold in the world’. Philip obviously does not mean this literally, but it is a rather strong hint that he regards Alexander as his successor.
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When Philip walks through the door he is bathed in shadow, and we see him walk awkwardly. I really liked this nod to his lameness.
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Philip’s Assassination
In real life, we do not know whether Alexander had prior knowledge of his father’s assassination much less whether he had anything to do with it. What happens next in the film suggests to me that in Oliver Stone’s opinion he was innocent of any kind of involvement.
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As Pausanias violently kisses Philip in the theatre, we see Alexander on his way to join the Guard. He recalls the rape of Pausanias at the pre-wedding party. Pausanias stabs Philip. Hearing the murmur of surprise in the theatre, Alexander connects the dots and rushes to his father’s side. He holds Philip in his arms and looks genuinely shocked by what has happened. Conversely, Olympias is about the only person in the theatre who remains calm and collected.
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If we follow the cui bono principle, Alexander certainly has to be a suspect in his father’s demise but so far as the film is concerned, the fact that he only realises that Philip is in danger when he recalls what happened to Pausanias at the party, his shock and Olympias’ coolness shows that she was more likely to be behind his violent death.
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One last point – as Philip entered the theatre, there were several quick shots of the statues of the gods. The camera also panned up to the sky where I am sure that we heard the cry of an eagle – Zeus declaring that Philip’s time was up. Neatly done by Stone et al.
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Pausanias’ End
There is not much to say about this scene except that it follows what is supposed to have happened to Pausanias – according to one tradition, anyway. As he ran away from the theatre, Pausanias tripped over a tree root. If I recall correctly, he was either killed there and then by his pursuers or taken alive, and executed afterwards. I don’t think we see it in this film but it is also reported that after his execution, Olympias placed a crown upon his head. I seem to recall that she also had his cremated remains buried on top of Philip’s.
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Alexander’s Accession
As Philip lies dying in Alexander’s arms, the Greeks flee from the theatre. Quick action is needed to restore peace in the realm. Thus, Hephaestion raises Alexander’s arm and declares him king. Ptolemy raises his other arm; both of them – as it seems – put the crown on his head. In reality, it was Antipater who declared Alexander king. In terms of the film, though, Hephaestion and Ptolemy are the perfect choices for this duty.

By-the-bye, did you know that the real Hephaestion’s nickname was Philalexandros – Lover of Alexander – while Craterus was called Philobasileus  – Lover of the King. The nicknames obviously point to the way they related to Alexander. Given Craterus’ closeness to Alexander as king it is a shame that Oliver Stone didn’t choose him to raise Alexander’s arm along with Hephaestion. Perhaps this is why Stone instead gives Craterus the honour of proclaiming Alexander king the loudest after Hephaestion.

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Roxane’s Arrival in Alexander’s Tent to the King’s Regret

For previous posts in this series click here

It has been nearly a month since the last post in this series, so welcome back, and apologies for the delay. By taking so long to write this, I have not done myself any favours in terms of remembering previous scenes in the film, so if you see any errors caused by me forgetful do feel free to point them out in the combox.
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Scenes Covered

  1. Roxane’s Arrival in Alexander’s Tent
  2. Hephaestion comforts Alexander

Roxane’s Arrival in Alexander’s Tent
Three days have passed since Alexander murdered Black Cleitus; for three days he has lain in his bed chamber and wept for his crime. The scene opens as Roxane sweeps into the royal tent demanding to see her husband. Her path, however, is blocked by Hephaestion; the king does not want to see anyone, he tells her, “not even you.”
“He needs me.” Roxane insists.
No, he doesn’t.” Hephaestion replies.
“And he needs you?” she retorts, jealously. Hephaestion smiles sarcastically at her pettiness and glances at Cassander, as if to say, Why did you bring her here? She comes with nothing and can give the king nothing.
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As Hephaestion turns back to the bed chamber, Cassander calls out that he has made a mistake. Why? I think because he wants Alexander back on his feet by any means possible and as soon as possible. The way to achieve this? By giving him his wife. Sex will sort him out. Hephaestion knows better, though, and thus ignores him as he walks past the joint Macedonian-Persian guard and back into the bed chamber.
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Hephaestion comforts Alexander
The first thing we see after Hephaestion returns to the bed chamber is a white snake slithering over Alexander’s leg. Oliver Stone could hardly be more unsubtle about at least one source of the king’s anguish if he tried. Only Philip is mention in the ensuing conversation; after the snake’s appearance, though, Olympias doesn’t need to be.
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In this scene, Alexander looks one part grief struck and two parts stoned. Before we turn to his conversation with Hephaestion it is worth nothing who the other person in the room is – Bagoas the eunuch.
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Thoughts on Bagoas
Bagoas is only mentioned once by Plutarch (in connection with a dancing contest that he won), and seems to be completely ignored by both Arrian and Diodorus. Curtius mentions him a very few times.  His most detailed reference is to a lurid story about how Bagoas brought about the execution of Orsines, satrap of Pasargadae.
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I strongly suspect that Curtius embellishes this story. It is far too neat to be completely accurate. For example, Curtius represents the ‘cast’ in a very simplistic fashion. Orsines is the good guy – ‘a man preeminent among all the barbarians for his nobility and wealth’; while Bagoas is condemned as ‘the unconscionable male whore’. Boo, hiss. For me, Curtius’ account reads more like the plot of Othello (Bagoas as Iago, Alexander as Othello and Orsines as Michael Cassio) than an account of a real event.
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Despite the above mentioned insult, Curtius’ dislike for Bagoas seems to stem from the fact that the latter is Alexander’s receiving sexual partner, for he refers to Bagoas ‘submitting to the shame of the sexual act’ (Curtius X. 1. 29). To be fair to him, he does elsewhere mention Bagoas in a positive capacity, but it is a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

Darius had had a sexual relationship with him and presently Alexander did, too. It was Bagoas’ pleas that did most to influence Alexander to pardon Nabarzanes.
(X. 6. 23)

The paucity of references to Bagoas in the sources and Curtius’ probable embellishment of the Orsines story suggests to me that Bagoas was not a very important person within Alexander’s court. If he had been, I don’t think he would have disappeared from the historical record at Alexander’s death. By-the-bye, and rather interestingly given that they were not always so committed to Alexander’s integrationist policies, the Macedonian soldiers (rank and file apart from the senior officers or both?) appear to have liked Bagoas. It may have been the liking of superiors to inferiors but nevertheless, it was there. Plutarch tells us that after Bagoas won his dancing competition, he,

… seated himself beside the king. At the sight the Macedonians applauded loudly and shouted to Alexander to kiss the winner, until at last the king put his arms around him and kissed him.
(Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 68)

Back to the film
Where does this put us in regards the film? I think Oliver Stone’s Bagoas is definitely informed by the sources. His silence – both in this scene and others – evokes the fact that he rarely appears in the source material. It also shows that he is respectful of the hierarchy of relationships that exists in the Macedonian court. That is why he remains quiet even when Hephaestion implicitly criticises him when he tells Alexander that he has ‘gone too far’. If there is any truth at all to Curtius’ Orsines story then it shows that Bagoas was capable of speaking out. That was against a Persian, though; I know of no occasion when he attempted to turn Alexander against a Macedonian. Perhaps that is why the Macedonian soldiers were so humoured by him.
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At first glance, Hephaestion appears to be fighting a desperate rearguard action in order to bring Alexander out of his guilt and grief. A couple of things that he says really jumped out at me.

“Come. You know more than any… great deeds are done by men who took and never regretted. You’re Alexander. Pity and grief will only destroy you.”

On the face of it, this is a reprehensible thing for anyone to say as it justifies any amount of wickedness. In the context of that scene, though, I can understand why Hephaestion resorted to saying it. Alexander has sunk so low he can only be saved by a similarly great act of affirmation by his friend. I can just imagine Hephaestion thinking ‘Perhaps I went too far, there; it doesn’t matter – there will be time to row back later.’

“Sometimes to expect the best of everyone is arrogance.”

Really? Really?? Actually, if you are the king of an army, yes, it can be. What seemed at first to be a very unwise comment suddenly comes across as being very wise indeed.
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Arrian states that Anaxarchus the sophist philosopher laughed when summoned to Alexander’s tent after Black Cleitus’ death.

“Don’t you know,” he said, “why the wise men of old made justice to sit by the side of Zeus? It was to show that whatever Zeus may do is justly done. In the same way all the acts of a great king should be considered just, first by himself, then by the rest of us.”
(Arrian, IV. 9)

This comment may be contrasted to what Alexander in the film tells Hephaestion,

“Philip once said that there’s a titan in all of us. That they wait, mixed in our ashes. It wasn’t because of the wine, I killed. It was because I wanted to.”

This comment is both ancient – for its reference to the influence of the titans – and modern; how many times have we heard of a famous person who is suffering in some way or another due to their ‘inner demons’? Of course, Alexander appears to literally believe in the presence of the Titans within himself whereas for us ‘inner demons’ are a metaphor for our own faults* but we meet him at the point at which we agree that we humans are a fallible people. What does Hephaestion have to say to that? Unfortunately, we do not get to find out, as the film now cuts to the scene that will lead to Philip II’s death. You can be sure, though, that he stayed close to Alexander for he was his friend.
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* I believe this to be the case also in regards educated Christians as well as non-religious people. A Christian who knows his faith will assert that while the Devil is real his rôle is as a tempter of souls rather than – except in a few extreme cases involving either him or one of his minions – a possessor. I avoid mentioning the beliefs of Islam and Judaism in this respect as I don’t know where they stand on this point.

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Alexander Revisited: The Indian Forest to Cleitus’ Death

For the previous posts in this series, click here.
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Scenes Covered

  1. The Indian Forest
  2. Bagoas’ Dance
  3. Alexander and Ptolemy
  4. The Death of Black Cleitus

The Indian Forest
The intermission over, we rejoin Alexander in the middle of what seems like monsoon season deep in an Indian forest. The caption informs us that it is 327 BC.
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In the last post, I said that Alexander’s conversation with Ptolemy atop the Hindu Kush took place in 326 BC. I obviously got that wrong. Or did I? Here are all the captions from Alexander’s arrival in Babylon onwards:

  • Babylon, Persia 331 B.C.
  • Northeastern Persia, 329 – 327 B.C.
  • Macedonia – 10 Years Earlier [i.e. 337]
  • Sogdia, Northeast Persia – 10 Years later [i.e. 327]
  • Macedonia – 9 Years Earlier [i.e. 336]
  • Hindu Kush – 10 Years Later [i.e. 326]
  • India – 327 B.C.

As you can see, unless I have made a mistake somewhere, it appears that not for the first time, Oliver Stone has got his dates mixed up slightly.
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India
As the Macedonians trudge through the forest, the elder Ptolemy tells us how hard it was to conquer India. The land was ‘without a center’ he says; kings ‘conspired against one another.’ and there existed ‘[a] labyrinth of tribes urged on by zealots and philosophers to die by the thousands for their strange gods’.
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I would be very interested to know what the Indian political and religious situation was actually like in the late fourth century BC. Was it really as fractured as Oliver Stone is making Ptolemy suggest? My instinctive reaction is that the comprehensiveness of the difficulties faced by Alexander are too much of a ‘perfect storm’ to be taken seriously as historical fact. However, beyond knowing that within a few years Chandragupta united the country under his rule, I am ignorant of Indian history so would welcome others’ thoughts on the matter.
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One thing that I do know, however, and which is worth keeping in mind when watching films or reading about Alexander, is that he did not enter the territory of modern day India. Alexander’s eastward journey ended at the Hyphasis (Beas) River, which is in modern day Pakistan.
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Knowledge
I found the short scene where Alexander examines the monkey to be a very touching one; it felt very authentic. Given that Hephaestion was an intellectual (as indicated by his correspondence with Aristotle) it made perfect sense for him to be the one who worked out that monkeys were not ‘men with hairy skins’ but animals. His contention, though, that they were animals who ‘imitated men’ neatly pointed to the limit of his knowledge.
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I also appreciated the nod to Alexander’s interest in learning new knowledge by showing him sitting with the Indian teachers. Nothing to do with knowledge, but I have to ‘break a lance’ for the scene where Craterus comes to the soldier dying of a snakebite. Craterus’ distress was palpable and deeply affecting. It was a short scene with few words but it didn’t need any more and was really well acted.
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Discordant Notes
Firstly, The elder Ptolemy informs us of the naked men ‘who spent hours at a time staring and doing nothing’ as if they were unusual. But surely he met a similar person in Corinth in 336 – Diogenes of Sinope.
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Secondly, the elder Ptolemy also says ‘… with the local water putrid we drank the strong wine’. Is this the same Ptolemy who comes from Macedon where drinking strong wine is regarded as de rigueur?!
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Bagoas’ Dance
Francisco Bosch, who played Bagoas, is a ballet dancer by profession so it is not a surprise that Oliver Stone gave him a dance scene. When Roxane danced for Alexander, we got an insight into her character by her use of knives and the way her character ‘divided’ into multiple persons – all indicative of her being a submissive princess yet still a tigerish woman (in private, as the sex scene showed).
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As with Roxane so with Bagoas. His dance is overtly (one might say rather too obviously) sexual, clearly indicating his desire to have Alexander for himself. This is confirmed in his proud glance at Roxane at the start of the dance. It is Bagoas’ bad luck, however, that when he starts to look proud – and why shouldn’t he, he is a very good dancer – one just thinks ‘yes, but you are still a eunuch and at the mercy of all of Alexander’s officers’.
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Bagoas’ duet with the second dancer seemed to me to be a kind of ‘imagining’ of his relationship with Alexander. In that respect, the scene offered very little that we didn’t know already after their earlier sex scene. What really made the whole scene for me, though, is what is going on in the court while Bagoas is dancing: Alexander getting steadily more drunk (as indicated by the Paul Greengrass camera), and Black Cleitus’ frowning over his cup.
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Thaïs?
In my last post, I said that I thought Ptolemy’s companion, Thaïs, was dead. Since then, two people – here on the blog (thank you, Sheri) and elsewhere (thanks to @oresteshighking’s scribe), have mentioned that she appears at Bagoas’ dance. Unfortunately, and despite my best efforts, I was unable to to make a screen capture on my computer of Ptolemy and his companion so I did the next best thing and took a picture with my mobile phone. With apologies for the poor quality of the picture, therefore, here is Ptolemy and the woman who is said to be Thaïs.

Ptolemy - and Thaïs?

Ptolemy – and Thaïs?

Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a speaking part in this scene so is not named on screen. Neither is she mentioned in the credits at the end of the DVD or on IMDB. We can’t, therefore, be certain that she is Thaïs; however, given that one does not need to interpret Ptolemy’s words on the Hindu Kush as indicating that Thaïs is dead – making it likely that any woman he is seen with will be her – and because the woman above does look rather Greek, I am very happy to accept that she may well be our elusive hetaira. My grounds for doing so may be a little weak – especially in regards her appearance – but Thaïs intrigues me as a person so I pretty much want it to be her!
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Wine Time
After the dance, Alexander rather needlessly antagonises his older Macedonian soldiers (i.e. Black Cleitus), and embarrasses Roxane and his hosts by kissing Bagoas. He proposes a toast to Dionysus. I liked the shot of the drunk Macedonian being carted away behind him. He’ll wake up tomorrow with a headache but it will go soon enough when he discovers what happened after he passed out.
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Having made his toast, Alexander then downs the wine. I have to say, he appears to only do so with some difficulty. Now, I know that some people think that he didn’t drink as much as others say, but I will admit to being a little disappointed at the effort that he had to put into draining his cup.
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Roxane
Alexander catches up with Roxane on her way out of the hall. She tells him that in Persia he is regarded as a great king, but here, “they hate you.” Do they? Did I blink and miss the scene where the Indians demonstrated this fact? When the camera switches to two senior Indian leaders, they look perfectly content to me.
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Roxane then follows in Parmenion’s and Ptolemy’s footsteps by asking Alexander to ‘take us back to Babylon’ where he is strong. Roxane may well have been taking lessons in politics but it doesn’t make much sense for her to talk about going back to Babylon as she has never been there before.
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Alexander and Ptolemy
Upon Roxane’s departure, a group of Alexander’s Persian subjects invite him to join them. He is interrupted on the way by Ptolemy – which makes a certain amount of historical sense – who, I have to say, sounds just a little drunk. He still has enough in him, though, to warn Alexander about the dangers of drinking too much.
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Earlier on, I quoted the elder Ptolemy on how the Macedonians turned to strong wine when the local water was found to be putrid. Just before that line, he says, “Our quest for gold and glory evaporated as we realized there was none to be had. Tempers worsened. We massacred all Indians who resisted.” For his part, Ptolemy must have realised after their conversation on the Hindu Kush that Alexander was not interested in gold, anymore. It seems he has kept that information to himself. Now, Alexander tells him that Dionysus frees him from himself. This must have set alarm bells ringing in Ptolemy’s heart: they are now following a king who would not only never stop exploring the world but who appeared to have given himself over to dangerous Dionysus.
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Before Ptolemy can say anything, however, Black Cleitus stands up and sarcastically proposes a toast to Bagoas and the ‘30,000 beautiful Persian boys’ who will form Alexander’s army in the future. It’s the beginning of the lowest point of Alexander’s life.
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The Death of Black Cleitus
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Alexander’s argument with Black Cleitus is a good piece of knockabout but really steps up a gear when Cleitus asks Alexander how he can compare himself to Herakles; Alexander leans forward angrily and asks aggressively, “Why. Not?” Colin Farrell delivers that line with really great force. No wonder that the Indians decide now would be a good time to return home.
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What is less good is, first of all Cleitus’ reference to Alexander’s ‘fairy god’. Did Oliver Stone run out of proper insults for Cleitus to give and so decide upon that gratuitous and unlikely one? Maybe Cleitus did not believe in the gods but given his conservative views I find that very unlikely. Secondly, how on earth is Cleitus able to slip away from Craterus, Nearchus and Perdiccas (?) seconds after leaving the hall? And why does it take them several more to re-enter it after he does? This is one of those irritating moments that sometimes occurs in films where logic takes second place to the needs of the narrative.
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A third, and more serious problem, is the fact that in the film we see too few examples of what Cleitus is complaining about. True, there is plenty of ‘eastern pomp’ on show, but less bowing down and sycophants quaking (one man does bow down to Alexander when he is talking to Ptolemy but the moment is over very quickly). Indeed, I can’t think of any character who is worthy of being called a sycophant. Cleitus names Hephaestion, Nearchus and Perdiccas (not Ptolemy, interestingly enough) but there is really no proof of them being so. Gary Stretch puts in a powerful performance as Cleitus, a man who is as much sad as he is angry about what he sees as Alexander’s descent into error, but he would have been greatly helped if the script had backed up his words.
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One final point. We already know that Hephaestion supported Alexander in all his deeds, not least his desire to integrate Macedonian and barbarian with one another. We see a clear example of this support at 10:22, which is a wide angle shot of the gap between where Alexander and Cleitus are sitting. Standing halfway between them, in a red coat and – more significantly – dusty brown trousers is Hephaestion.

Categories: Alexander in Film | 6 Comments

Alexander Revisited: Philip’s Wedding Party & Atop the Hindu Kush

For the previous posts on Alexander Revisited click here
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As you can see from the title to this blog post, I am covering just two scenes in the film today. This is because an intermission follows the Hindu Kush scene so it forms a natural break for both the film and me. I’m not sure why Oliver Stone felt the need to have an intermission on a DVD but I don’t mind as it gives us the opportunity to admire some ancient Greek works of art (or copies of the same). And listen to Vangelis’ evocative music, which reminds us very well indeed of Alexander’s nobility.
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In the last post I said that I would not use the word ‘ravage’ to describe an act done by one person to another. Well, perhaps not surprisingly, I have since seen it used in that context and it fitted perfectly. We live and learn.
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Scenes Covered

  1. Philip’s Wedding Party
  2. Alexander and Ptolemy atop the Hindu Kush

Philip’s Wedding Party
Pausanias
‘Macedonia – 9 Years earlier’ and it is party time in Pella as Philip celebrates his forthcoming marriage to Attalus’ niece, Eurydice. And everyone except Alexander is having a wonderful time. The reason for his sadness, of course, is he knows that as and when Eurydice gives birth to her first son, he will replace Alexander as heir to the throne of Macedon. We know, of course, that things were not quite that simple in real life, but this is a film and films have to simplify their stories in order to fit them on the screen.
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Although I love the movies one thing I will never get used to is the way they habitually include dialogue or scenes that seem not to make any sense at all in terms of the narrative. For example, after chiding Alexander for his self-pitying, Philip tells Pausanias to go away; ‘you bore me’ he tells him. Seconds later, however, we see him raping the young man before sending him away to be assaulted by others. How can Philip be so dismissive of Pausanias one minute and then hateful enough to brutally attack him the next?
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It could be that his dismissiveness is an act, designed to gain Pausanias’ trust in order to facilitate the rape, but if so the film is guilty of bad story telling. You can’t introduce one idea (Philip’s dismissive attitude) then turn it round (his hatred) without explaining why the change took place. It might be that we will see the reason for Philip’s switch later on. If we don’t, though, the script writers are guilty of a mistake. Either that or I am because I have missed the scene where Philip’s behaviour was explained.
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One thing I will give Oliver Stone credit for, though, is the perfect casting of Nick Dunning as Attalus. We don’t know what the real Attalus was like but Stone’s is a nasty, sneering nobleman with a fatal amount of pride poisoning his soul. Dunning captures the physical appearance of such a man perfectly.
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By the way, if you would like to read about what really happened between Philip and Pausanias (and Attalus), Diodorus Siculus is your man. His account is available to read here. As you’ll see, Philip never raped Pausanias – his worst crime was not to take Pausanias’ complaint against Attalus seriously. If Diodorus is to be believed (and we must be wary), Attalus is the real villain of the piece.
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Attalus’ Intemperance
Once Pausanias has been sent away, Attalus proposes a toast; firstly, to ‘Macedonia and Greece, equals in greatness!’. Would any Greek or Macedonian have ever actually said that? Well, maybe, although I find the statement hard to reconcile with their constant attempts to beat each other up. More to the point, why would Attalus bother making that toast upon the marriage of two Macedonians? Perhaps when he wasn’t ruining people’s lives he was just a very polite man.
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His third toast, to Eurydice, “a Macedonian queen we can be proud of!”, his malevolent expression towards Alexander, and the final toast, ‘… to their legitimate sons!” took my breath away. You’ve got 99 problems, son, and Alexander is now each and every one. Also, it’s notable how it is Hephaestion who launches himself like a rocket at Attalus while Ptolemy tries to restrain Alexander. That’s their rôles in the film explained in a second.
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Father and Son
The next moment gives me much food for thought. Philip accuses Alexander of being lead by his mother. Alexander angrily denies that this is so. Given how the last scene between them worked out I am not surprised, but had Philip touched upon a truth here? I think he had, to a point. Alexander is obviously worried about what is going to happen to him but he remains loyal to his father; until, that is, he is ordered to apologise to Attalus.
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Alexander and Ptolemy atop the Hindu Kush
‘Hindu Kush – 10 Years Later’ (i. e. 326 BC). The film is now behind the times. In 326, Alexander was at the Hydaspes River preparing to fight his last major battle, against Porus.
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The scene opens with a neat mosaic graphic showing Alexander’s progress over the mountain range. A beautiful wide angle shot of the snow capped mountains then appears. Finally, we stand behind Alexander in a rich red cloak staring into the distance.
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The elder Ptolemy tells us that in the spring, ‘Alexander marched an army of 150,000′ across the passes of the Hindu Kush’. When I first saw this figure, I thought that Stone and his fellow script writers had succumbed to the same temptation to exaggerate as some ancient Greek writers. However, while looking up in Robin Lane Fox’s biography the name of the river that marked the easternmost point of Alexander’s expedition (it is the modern day Beas, known in antiquity as the Hyphasis) I found that while at the Hydaspes River (on his way back from the Hyphasis), Alexander received 35,000 troops from the west, which ‘raised the army’s strength to 120,000’. Not quite 150,000 but close enough. Having said that, when Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush he only had around 30,000 men.
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As we watch Alexander’s army trudge across the desolate landscape, the elder Ptolemy gives a special mention to the rôle of slaves, the ‘anonymous, bent, working spine of this new beast’ which is a complete sop to modern sensibilities – the real Ptolemy would not have given them a second thought. He then says, ‘[r]avaged or expanded, for better or worse, no occupied territory remained the same again’. That is certainly true in some cases. However, one of my chief impressions of Alexander, is that more often that not he was very happy to let natives continue in their administration of their particular region. Occasionally, he would put Macedonians in charge but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. This is something I need to look more closely at. If you have a different impression, though, feel free to leave a comment.
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Alexander and Ptolemy
Alexander and Ptolemy look over the Hindu Kush (The ‘Indian Caucasus’ in Arrian). The king asks his friend, “Have you found your home…?” Ptolemy tells him he thinks it will be Alexandria, ‘Well,” he says, “at least it’s hot. And Thais, she loved it there.’ Eliot Cowan’s delivery captures Ptolemy’s gentle humour, sadness (note the past tense used to describe Thaïs) and longing perfectly. It is my favourite moment in the film.
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Historically, the scene is all wrong. Thaïs could not have loved Alexandria as when they left it, it had not yet been built. Ptolemy’s use of the past tense when talking about his mistress suggests that she is already dead. Well, this might be correct, but at least one writer in antiquity says she married Ptolemy after Alexander’s death (see my post here). It doesn’t matter, though, for the beauty of the scene in both its words and Eliot Cowan’s acting forgives all its sins.
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When Alexander tells Ptolemy that he has no home, Ptolemy reminds him that he has Babylon, ‘Where your mother awaits your invitation’. Except that Olympias is in Pella, waiting for Alexander to bring her to Babylon. The reference to her waiting for his invitation only makes sense if she is in Pella but not Babylon.
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Alexander then goes into full mystical mode, “… each land, each boundary I cross I strip away another illusion.” What are these illusions? Could they be about what he is capable of? That would certainly make sense of his suspicion that death will be the last one to fall away. Despite the fact that he fears he will be confronted by illusions until his death, Alexander says, “Yet still I push harder and harder to reach this home.” I have to admit I am not entirely clear what Alexander is saying here – he has, after all, just told Ptolemy that he has no home. I’m guessing that ‘home’ is a euphemism for his desire to find himself fully, to strip away all of the illusions he has about himself. What do you think?
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“We must go on Ptolemy. Until we find an end.” Poor Ptolemy; now he knows: ‘an end’ means ‘the end’ – death. Death, that is, for Alexander; but if for him, then so for everyone. Unless, of course, something is done about it.

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | 4 Comments

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