Alexander in Film

Versions of Cleopatra

A belated Happy Easter! 

This time last week, I let my diet go for the day and tucked into my Easter Egg. Happiness was mine. Ironically, I was even happier on Monday after resuming my more sensible eating regime. How could it be? Well, in the six or so months since I started watching the calories alongside doing my daily exercise (which I have been able to do more and more of following my hip operation in November) I have lost over two stone. I like my selfies more these days, and appreciate no longer filling out my shirts when I put them on.

The Post That Got Away
But that’s enough of me, what about Alexander the Great? Well, I should first apologise for not posting anything last week. I did mean to, and began writing a post, but I started it too late in the day to finish. Despite thinking about it a lot during the week, the moment had gone and I never picked it up again.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the film of the same name (1963)

Queen Cleopatra
Late last week, Google Alerts notified me of two interesting projects coming to Netflix. The first, which will start streaming on 10th May, is a docu-drama about Cleopatra VII. It is titled Queen Cleopatra. The second is a docu-series about Alexander himself.

Over the last few weeks, I have tried to keep my Alexander Facebook page active by posting to it every Friday. Two days ago, however, I knew that if I posted about Queen Cleopatra some people would get annoyed. Why? Because the actress (Adele James) playing her is black, and there is no evidence in the historical record for this being Cleopatra’s ethnicity. I tried to circumvent this by referencing in my post how it would make people angry. I thought that if I highlighted this possible response it might make people think twice before being so predictable. Of course, it didn’t work; though I am pleased to say that I have not yet had to warn anyone about their behaviour or ban them*.

If you would like to read the post and its replies, you can do so here. My view of the Queen Cleopatra docu-series was and remains this: if the filmmakers chose Adele James to play the last Ptolemaic queen because they felt simply that she was the best person for the role or they wanted to use Cleopatra’s story to say something, for example, about the world today, fine. Actually, that’s laudable. If they chose her because they think Cleopatra was black, however, then potentially we have a problem – for the reason mentioned above.

The Queen Cleopatra trailer appears to reveal the filmmakers’ position. You can watch it on YouTube here. It is that they think Cleopatra was indeed black (or, as it is written in American-English, Black). Now, that’s not very encouraging. However, we must be cautious – and charitable. It’s in the nature of trailers to be spicy so as to get you to watch the film or programme. Perhaps Queen Cleopatra itself will be more nuanced: for every person who says, ‘Cleopatra was this’, there will be another to say, ‘Actually, she was that.’

* in between writing this post and publishing it I did have to warn someone. Oh well. Two days was a good run

Adele James as Cleopatra in Queen Cleopatra (2023)

A Look at the Trailer
I’d like to highlight a few points in the trailer that I disagree with or which have made me think. 

Firstly, (0:04) the narrator states, ‘There was a time long ago when women ruled with unparalleled power.’ I would very much like to know when that was. It certainly wasn’t in first century BC Egypt. 

Secondly, a talking head tells us (0:44) that Julius Caesar wanted ‘to be king to Cleopatra’s queen’. Well, Caesar certainly behaved like he wanted to be a king but I have to say I have a hard time believing that he ever saw Cleopatra as his equal, which sounds like the implication here. 

Thirdly, Cleopatra is made to say (0:55), ‘There is no Rome without Egypt’. Actually, this line is quite intriguing. My first reaction was to dismiss it: By the time Julius Caesar came knocking on Cleopatra’s door, Rome was by far the more powerful state. However, I am aware that Egypt provided a lot, if not most of, Rome’s grain. It therefore was a country of vital importance to the latter’s well-being. Unfortunately, I don’t know when Rome’s reliance (if such it was) on Egypt’s grain began. Maybe it was before Cleopatra’s time, hence her confidence. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with showing Cleopatra being proud. Rome was a whippersnapper compared to Egypt, after all.

Fourthly, and here we come back to Cleopatra’s ethnicity. A talking head states (1:22), ‘it’s possible she was an Egyptian’. I mean, in that she was born in Egypt she certainly was. But that is probably not what they mean as another talking head (1:27) adds, ‘I remember my grandmother saying to me, “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.”‘ I bow to no one in my love of grandmothers and their wisdom. However, even I know not to take everything they say as gospel. As I mentioned above, there is simply no evidence to support this grandmother’s view. If Queen Cleopatra acknowledges this, the programme will be doing its work well; if it doesn’t, it will, to paraphrase Mr Knightly, have done badly.

Related Material
When I read my Google Alerts, I did a search to see if I could find any more info about Cleopatra’s ethnicity – preferably from a reputable source. In doing so, I came across this article on the Oxford University Press’s website. I like its headline: Cleopatra’s true racial background (and does it matter?) In a way, it doesn’t matter at all but it certainly does if someone takes a position for which there is no justification.

To Watch or Not?
So, will I watch Queen Cleopatra? Of course! And for the reason I mentioned above about trailers purposefully being ‘spicy’. The only way to find out what the programme is really saying is to watch it. I admit I am not very confident but that’s irrelevant. Fairness demands a viewing.

Alexander @ Netflix
As I mentioned above, Netflix are also making a series about Alexander. You can read about it here. Please try to forgive Deadline’s faux pas in calling ancient Macedonia a city. They are but a humble entertainment website and cannot be expected to be able to research basic facts. More seriously, though, Netflix have a big job on their hands if they are going to improve upon, say, Michael Wood’s In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.

Thinking Aloud
How does someone mistake a country for a city, anyway? To be fair, the writer is probably thinking of the Greek city-states. And if he is rushing to finish his article, he may forget to double check that what applies to the rest of ancient Greece also applies to Macedon. It is a bad mistake to make but an easy one. To quote Warnie Lewis in Shadowlands, ‘there it is’ so let’s move on.

To Conclude
These are my thoughts. Please feel free to let me know yours. One thing that has occurred to me in the writing of this post is that the OUP article I linked to was written in 2010. I wonder if any new evidence about Cleopatra’s ethnicity has come to light since then. If you know of any, please do mention it!

One last thing: This blog has had the same travel theme since I created it over ten years ago. I’m thinking about replacing it. If you know of any other WordPress themes that might suit The Second Achilles, I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Lyndsey Marshal as Cleopatra in Rome (2007)

Visions of Cleopatra
Elizabeth Taylor – The Guardian
Adele James – CAM (Creative Artists Management)
Lyndsey Marshal – HBO

Categories: Alexander in Film, On Alexander, Television | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Changing the Past: In Antiquity and Today

New Year is well and truly over and I am back at work. When is my next holiday?


This week I read Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan. Don’t be confused by the last name, she is that Agatha Christie. Mallowan was her married name. The reason for its use here is because Come, Tell Me is not a crime novel but an account of the archaeological trips to the Near East that she undertook with her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, in the 1930s.

In Chapter One, Christie and her husband make their way to Syria on the Orient Express. They witness no murders, fortunately, but do pass the Sea of Marmora and Cilician Gates in Turkey.

As soon as I saw these names, my mind went back to Alexander. Christie’s Marmora became Diodorus’ Marmarens. The Marmarens (who, I should say, lived in Lycia rather than around the Sea of Marmara) attacked the Macedonian army as it marched past, killing no few soldiers, kidnapping others and stealing booty. Alexander, unsurprisingly, was rather displeased by this, and lay siege to the Marmarens’ fort.

For two days, Alexander attacked it. However, although he failed to break its defences, he did enough to persuade the Marmaren elders that he would stay until he had done so. Upon realising this, the elders,

… advised their younger countrymen to end their resistance and make peace with the king on whatever terms were possible.
(Diodorus XVII.28)

Interestingly, the younger Marmarens refused to do this. Diodorus tells us that they ‘were eager to die together simultaneously’ (Ibid) for the sake of their freedom. Now, at this point, you might have thought that the elders would have knocked their children’s heads together, remind them of who was in charge and lead the surrender before the youngsters came out with another tom fool idea. But no, they acquiesced to this, and came out with a tom fool idea of their own. The elders told the young men If you are determined to die, kill your wives, children and elderly relatives then break out of the fort and hide yourselves in the mountains.

The young men liked this idea and went away to have a last meal with their families. That evening, however, some of them reneged on the plan. But they didn’t run away with their loved ones. Instead of killing their families ‘with their own hands’ (Ibid) as the elders had suggested, they set fire to their homes and burned them alive. Six hundred men did this, and having done so, they should have had the decency to die with their loved ones. But no. They duly broke out of the fort and headed to the mountains.

This story has stuck with me since I read it. I am fascinated by the apparent equality of power between the young and old Marmarens. I have not heard of any other society in antiquity, or since, for that matter, where a similar situation has existed.

But… Did it exist? It may not have. The above quotations from Diodorus comes from my Loeb edition. The notes there state that ‘Appian… tells the same story of Xanthus, traditionally destroyed in this way three times… it was something of a literary topos’ (Diodorus XVII.28 n.5). Indeed, as the notes say, Diodorus repeats the story in Book XVIII.22 of his Library. There, it is the Isaurians in Pisidia who, seeing that they have no chance of breaking Perdiccas’ siege, burn their families alive in their homes. The Isaurians, however, do not try to flee afterwards. Instead, they destroy their possessions in the fire and, after defending the city for a little while longer, jump into the flames themselves.

Diodorus calls the Isaurians’ actions ‘a heroic and memorable deed’ (Dio.XVIII.22). I can only wonder if he changed the original account of what happened to the Marmarens and Isaurians to highlight their perceived heroism or if his sources did so.


Only Diodorus mentions the Marmarens. In contrast, both Arrian (II.4.3-6) and Curtius (III.4.11-14) refer to Alexander’s passage through the Cilician Gates on his way to Tarsus. There, their similarity ends.

Curtius states that Alexander looked at the narrow path ahead of him and,

… they say [was] never more surprised at his good fortune. For, he observed, he could have been crushed just by rocks, if there had been anyone there to hurl them down on his approaching troops.
(Curtius III.4.11)

According to Arrian, however, the Cilician Gates were heavily defended when Alexander arrived, but when the Persian soldiers realised ‘that Alexander was leading the attack in person’ (Ar.II.4.4), they fled. This sounds altogether a more likely version of events than Curtius’ as it would make no sense for the local satrap, Arsames, to leave the pass undefended.


One of the things that makes Alexander such an interesting figure to study is the fact that he defies our expectations. I was reflecting on this the other day and contemplating writing a blog post titled ‘Alexander the (Social Justice) Warrior’ focusing on how he pardoned Timoclea after she killed the Thracian soldier who raped her (Plutarch Life of Alexander 12), his treatment of the Persian queen and princesses (Pl. Life 21) and the conquered Persians (e.g. in the way he tried to integrate them into his imperial hierarchy as satraps). These were all very progressive social actions.

Alexander was not just about the fighting; and when he did fight he did not do so just to make Greece look good. Like any social justice warrior he wanted to change the world for the better. Hence, the above mentioned actions and the fact that he took surveyors and scientists on his expedition.

Of course, the name ‘social justice warrior’ has a pejorative meaning as well. And guess what. Alexander can be found there as well.

Thus, taking the Urban Dictionary’s definition (here),

… an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.

Having been taught by Aristotle, Alexander could hold his own in an argument. However, he was undeniably concerned with his reputation. That was the whole reason for the expedition.

Social Justice Warriors or SJWs are: People with paper thin skin who always find something to be offended about. They generally have no concept of humour.

As Black Cleitus (Curtius VIII.1.22-52), Callisthenes (Pl. Life 53) and Cassander (Pl. Life 74) found out to their collective cost Alexander could be very easily offended sometimes, with fatal consequences.

[SJWs] aggressively call for the downfall of the person who carelessly offended them.

Philotas (Curtius VI.7.1-11.40), anyone?

But as I said above, Alexander defies our expectations. He is not only a progressive but also very conservative. Perhaps I will come back to that in my next or a future post.


The BBC and Netflix are producing a new drama based on the Trojan War. Controversy is following in the series’ wake, however, due to the fact that some of the characters, including Achilles, are being played by black actors. For more, see the Greek Reporter here.

If I had been the casting director, I would have chosen a white actor to play Achilles. That’s what he was. However, the more I think about it, the less I think that the casting director is obliged to hire a white person.

The Iliad is not history. Homer’s Achilles did not exist. He might be based on a real person but he is not them. Homer’s Achilles is a myth. He is a meaning. And in that capacity, he can be reinterpreted by every age as it sees fit. Indeed, it is only by being reinterpreted that he remains relevant to us.

If a law was made that permitted only one, single version of Achilles, we would bound him to the meaning of a specific time and place, and one day, he would become strange and unknowable to us. I would a thousand thousand times over rather have a black Achilles, a female Achilles, an Achilles who loves Hector rather than Patroclus or a pacifist Achilles rather than an irrelevant Achilles.

Categories: Alexander in Film, Arrian, Books, Diodorus Siculus, Homer, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Macedonian Supremacy

Today’s post is being powered by a glass of St. Chinian’s wine. It is a French red that, I am disappointed to say, tastes rather bland. Before you ask, this isn’t going to stop me from finishing the bottle. Red wine is too important for that. Anyway, let’s talk about Alexander.


Since last Wednesday, I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to anymore of Robin Lane Fox’s lecture. In fact, I am going to listen to Nos.1-4 again as I’d really like to share some of his insights.


What I have done, however, is started reading The Marshals of Alexander’s Empire by Waldemar Heckel. Heckel is the author of Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great which is undoubtedly the most useful reference book about Alexander that I have ever bought. If you are studying Alexander, or writing about him in any capacity, Who’s Who is an absolutely brilliant work.

But what about The Marshals? Well, I suppose this is an expanded version of Who’s Who, focusing – as the title suggests – on the most important men in Alexander’s life and army. The book is more of an academic one; you can tell this by the fact that whereas Who’s Who talks about Antipater, Craterus and Perdiccas, The Marshals has Antipatros, Krateros and Perdikkas. Scholars always mean business when they use the directly transliterated version of Greek names.

As I write this post I have only read the opening chapter of The Marshals: The Old Guard: Introduction and The House of Attalos. My green underlining pen has been busy, though. Here are some quotes.

The army that crossed the Hellespont in 334 B.C. was still very much that of Philip II…

… a purge, whether in the name of justice or filial piety, could extend only so far…

… the new King lacked the authority to reform but slightly the command structure of the expeditionary force.

All these come from the very first page. That the army was still Philip’s is, of course, a truism but also a fact that is easy to forget if we focus on Alexander too much and so worth recalling all the same. The second, and especially third, quotations are ones that are surely more difficult to remember. Alexander was king, surely he could do whatever he wanted! No, not at all. Of the latter two quotes, the third strikes me the hardest. It builds upon what I have heard other authors say about how the Greeks viewed Alexander at his accession – they did not think very much of him. It’s probably why Darius III let a satrapal army fight him at the Granicus (Graneikos if you are Weckel): Why should I waste my time with this upstart? Let the satraps give him a spanking and send him home.

One more quote,

When Alexander set out for Asia, he left many enemies, potentially dangerous, alive, both in Makedonia and within the army: witness the series of intrigues and conspiracies that followed the death of Philip II.
(The Marshals of Alexander, p.11)

This statement alone really brings home how vulnerable Alexander was in all aspects of his life. He must have had such a strong will to not succumb to paranoia from his earliest days. In light of statements like the above, it’s worth remembering that not only did Alexander not become paranoid from the start but he maintained his friendships. And had an exceptionally close one with Hephaestion. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him not to trust Amyntor’s son, and yet ~.

I do find myself in awe of his ability to be so close to Hephaestion despite having every reason to stay aloof from him and everyone.


Over on the Facebook page, I am coming to the end of my run of links. Tomorrow’s is the last and is about Circadian rhythms. This is your body clock – that part of you that tells you when to go to sleep and, unless you own a cat, when to wake up. The article that I link to (Shh – don’t tell anyone but it is this one. I don’t mind mentioning it here as I know not everyone on Facebook will click the link when I link to this blog post there). The scientist being interviewed states that it was,

… one of Alexander the Great’s soldiers [who] noticed circadian rhythms in the way that plants hold their flowers up towards the sun during the day, and drop during the night.

But doesn’t say which soldier. Fortunately, since I scheduled the above mentioned post, Google Alerts has told me about another article on the same subject It is this one; and here, we are told the soldier’s name: Androsthenes. Who was he? According to Weckel in Who’s Who he was a trierach in Alexander’s Indian fleet and served under Nearchus on his Indian Ocean expedition. Weckel says that Androsthenes wrote an account of that voyage – the original is lost now, but was cited by Strabo. Perhaps, therefore, Strabo is the source for Androsthenes observing the leaves of the tamarind tree?


Last night, I watched Jason Bourne for the first time since seeing it in the cinema. Narratively speaking, it is a rather tired film, but I still enjoyed it far more than I expected. Perhaps part of the reason for that was because I found a point of connection between Bourne and Alexander. Jason Bourne is a force of nature. He can never be stopped. When he turns his mind to something, he will see it through – all very Alexandrian traits.

Categories: Alexander in Film, Books | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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?

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,

Well, he is certainly portrayed wearing one on the 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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
Towards the end of the scene, Alexander aggressively kisses his mother on the lips. Insofar as she did not ask to be kissed we might say he has sexually assaulted her. It is an unreal moment. Firstly, not only is the forced nature of the kiss quite at variance with the respect that the real Alexander gave women, but the Alexander of this scene is unrecognisable with the Alexander of the film as a whole. From start of this scene to its finish he is no more than an emasculated shell of a man. He is wholly incapable of imposing his will upon his mother, and is reduced to insulting her and calling her a ‘sorceress’. No wonder he kisses her so violently. His body is the only thing he has that is stronger than her.
Midway through the scene, Alexander has a flashback to the painting of Medea in the Pella caves. When Philip showed it to him, Alexander connected it to Olympias and assured his father that she would never hurt him. Now he knows better. In a way, despite Olympias’ prominence, it is a shame that the film wasn’t focused even more strongly on her relationship with Alexander. Connecting his actions as king more solidly to his relationship with her could  have made a very powerful, if dark, picture. As it is, the preponderance of themes and ideas running through the picture dilute Olympias’ impact.
The Macedonian Camp
We leave Macedon and return to ‘India – 9 Years Later’. Alexander hobbles out of his tent to greet his men. The camp cheers and roars its approval. A bit odd considering the revolt that preceded the battle against Porus? Not necessarily. So, not everyone loved Alexander any longer (as the elder Ptolemy told us earlier) but that doesn’t mean everyone hated him, and they certainly still needed him.
The understand why we need to turn to the real life event that inspired this scene. After Alexander was badly wounded during the siege of a Mallian fort in 325 B.C. his men feared that he had died. They panicked – who would lead them home? They were in hostile country surrounded by enemies. This is the fear of the Macedonian army after the Battle of the Hydaspes River, and why they still needed him.
In 325, Alexander’s first public appearance following the siege led to applause that re-echoed round the countryside. When he came among his men,

… they crowded round him, touching his hands, his knees, his clothes; some content with a sight of him standing near, turned away with a blessing on their lips. Wreaths were flung upon him and such flowers as were then in bloom.
(Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander)

As in real life, so in Oliver Stone’s film.
Upon emerging from his tent, Alexander tells his men that that they are going home. The impression is that this is because he is too badly injured to continue his expedition. Unhistorical and, once again, un-Alexanderlike. Taken on its own terms, it is a dramatic scene, a good cinematic moment, but it is such a shame that it comes at the cost of Alexander’s credibility.
I’ll record here Alexander’s vision of his father and Philip’s nod of approval at his son. It is a redundant moment, really, but still a nice touch. The reason I say it is redundant is that – as I think about Alexander and Philip in the film – I don’t have the impression that Alexander went on his expedition to please his father. Having said that, it has just occurred to me that perhaps the key to understanding the vision lies back in the caves of Pella, again. There, Philip tells his son that a king is not born but made by steel and suffering, and that he must know how to hurt those he loves. All these things Alexander has now held, been through and done. Maybe Philip’s nod is him saying ‘Well done, boy, now you know*; now you are a king.’

* Just as Philip’s father said to him after he killed his first man
The Giant Altars
Against the backdrop of the elder Ptolemy’s narration we see the giant altars that Alexander set up at the easternmost limit of his empire – including one containing a statue, very touchingly, of Bucephalas. The purpose of the altars, Alexander says, is to let all those who see them know ‘that Titans were once here’. This reminds me of something I read once about how the Anglo-Saxons mistook the (albeit ordinary sized) derelict Roman villas in England for the homes of giants.
I don’t know if I am imagining this but I am sure that – after Alexander has made his dedication – as the camera cuts to Nearchus, Hephaestion and Ptolemy it uses a different (slower?) frame rate or type of film on Hephaestion. What do you think? Something similar seems to happen when, in the caves at Pella, the young Alexander tells his father that he will remember the myths that Philip has just told him, and one day he will be painted on the walls like the heroes they have just seen. There is something about the movement of Philip on the left hand side of the screen that makes me feel the film has been altered somehow so as to invite us to ponder for a second or two more what Alexander has just said: the prophetic nature of his words, perhaps. Perhaps an invitation to consider what Hephaestion is thinking is being made in this scene as well? His expression is certainly more intense than Nearchus’ and Ptolemy’s.
The Gedrosian Desert
Oliver Stone’s elder Ptolemy’s narration absolves Alexander of any blame for the losses suffered by the Macedonian army as it crosses the harsh Gredrosian Desert. According to the elder Ptolemy, his motivation for taking his men across this unforgiving route was so that they could return to Babylon by the shortest route. I have read at least one historian say he wanted to punish his men for betraying him. Personally, I don’t believe that. Not unless the story about him refusing the helmetful of water, on the grounds that if his men could not drink then neither would he, is false.
Either way, it is a quick scene and serves best as a reminder how in war illness and adverse conditions can often kill more men than actual fighting.

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | 7 Comments

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.

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

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

For previous posts in this series click here
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: