Posts Tagged With: Oliver Stone

Dancing With The Lion – an interview with Jeanne Reames, Part One

Today, on the 2,375th anniversary of Alexander’s birth, I am delighted to welcome Jeanne Reames to The Second Achilles for the first of a two part ‘interview’ to discuss her part one of her new novel Dancing With The Lion: Becoming, in which she tells the story of how Alexander became the Great.

You can find Dancing With The Lion: Becoming on Amazon in the U.K. here and U.S.A. here or from all good bookshops. Jeanne’s book website is here.

To celebrate Dancing With The Lion: Becoming hitting the bookshelves, I caught up with Jeanne in the most twenty-first way possible, via e-mail, to discuss the novel and its characters.

What was your inspiration for writing Dancing with the Lion?
When I was in grad school for the first time at Emory, this guy, “Alexander the Great,” kept popping up in my Early Church history classes, yet I knew nothing about him. Deciding I might learn something, I trekked off to the library and grabbed two biographies off the shelf, somewhat at random. They happened to be Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon (the original 1974 Thames-on-Hudson edition with images), and N.G.L. Hammond’s 1980 Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman (his more measured bio). I couldn’t have picked more divergent visions of Alexander if I’d tried.

So I became fascinated by this young man who literally changed the face of his world, then died before 33, leaving behind such varying analyses from heroically positive to viciously negative. The novelist in me took note, as we love a complicated character. I kept reading, and fell in love with Macedonia itself, as well.

What was it like writing about Alexander himself? Did he come with a lot of baggage – given to you by other authors and historians – or does he travel lightly, so’s to speak?
Oh, he comes with a freight-load of baggage, which is why I chose to use his real (Greek) name—Alexandros—to cut off some of it. In addition, I wanted to write him from a Macedonian perspective, as best I could. He’s too often viewed through a Greek (and later Roman) lens.

Much of that owes to our surviving sources, none of which were written during his own lifetime; Diodorus (arguably the earliest we still have) dates to the first century BCE. That would be like trying to write on John F. Kennedy with nothing more recent than bios 200 years in the future. Lord knows what they’d actually understand about the 1960s.

Fortunately, modern archaeology is producing amazing new insights, especially about early Iron-age, Archaic, and Classical Macedonia, rewriting our understanding of the Argead Macedonian kingdom. Never mind the royal cemetery at Aigai, what’s coming out of Aiani (ancient Elimeia), Archontiko (Pella), and Methone is stunning. But unfortunately, most of these reports are in modern Greek. I’ve tried to include at least references to our new discoveries in the novel, although the bulk of the text was written well before 2000. Again, all this contributes to my goal to show a non-Athenocentric, Macedonian Alexander.

Mieza, where Aristotle taught Alexander, Hephaestion et al

Did Alexander surprise you by his actions in the course of writing this book or did you feel you always had him under control?
If your characters are real, they always have a life of their own. Non-writers can be baffled when novelists talk about characters as if they were real people with whom the author has regular conversations. But if the author can’t do that, her characters aren’t 3D.

That said, Alexander was a bit harder to write my way into than Hephaistion. Hephaistion winked into existence when I (re-)read Peter Green’s bio and hit the line that describes him as, “Tall, handsome, spoilt, spiteful, overbearing, and fundamentally stupid” (p. 465, U. Cal ed., 1991 reprint). And in my head, this little Hephaistion sat up and said, “No, I wasn’t like that at all.” That gave me both a character and a dissertation, so I thank Peter for it.*

I’m sure some of my reaction was a gelling of what I’d read, leading me to a different opinion about Hephaistion. Yet from that moment, Hephaistion’s book character has been firmly formed and hasn’t changed much. Also, I’d like to note that I do see a distinction between my character and the historical person. If the former is certainly based on my research into the latter, I’m not confused about where the lines are.

The character who morphed the most during the writing was Myrtalē-Olympias. When I began, I had a fairly traditional, negative view. Then I read Beth Carney’s work, which fundamentally altered how I understood her and her motives, creating (I hope) a more nuanced character.

The historical Hephaestion did not live to write his memoirs and appears only episodically in the works of the Alexander historians. This makes him a rather elusive personality. Was that a blessing or curse for you in writing about him?
I consider it a blessing, as it left me a lot of freedom. Yet I’ve spent so much time with this fellow, I do feel as if I have some sense of what the historical person must have been like.

With Hephaistion, we must avoid too simplistic a reading. It can be easy to slam him into certain pre-made categories. The first is a yes-man without genuine ambition or much of a mind of his own, just beauty and a steadfast loyalty to Alexander. A second is more sinister: an ambitious man of limited ability, using Alexander’s affection for him to climb the socio-political ladder at the Macedonian court, and targeting his enemies along the way. He may (or may not) have felt genuine affection for Alexander.

To me, the evidence from the ancient sources doesn’t support either of those. First, he actually was capable (both Sabine Müller and I have written academic material about this). Second, all his clashes are late in his career, once he’d risen to very high rank, and in at least the case of Krateros, he may have been the target rather than the targeted. Earlier, he had no obvious enemies (aside from, perhaps, Olympias). In the novel, in fact, I’ve made him a bit more testy than I think he actually was. If Curtius (who was no fan of Alexander) paints a mostly positive picture of Hephaistion, perhaps we should pay attention.

He appears to have been deeply—and genuinely—attached to Alexander, and Curtius observed that he was diplomatic enough to avoid pushing his place. Yet he may also not have cared for personal advancement to the same degree as his fellows. That said, we must be careful not to make him passive; the evidence suggests that if insulted, he’d strike back. Remember, a virtuous Greek didn’t turn the other cheek; one was expected to help friends and hurt enemies, not ignore them, an important difference between now and then. In fact, showing clemency could be a backhanded insult, one Julius Caesar later used to great political effect. One could show clemency only to one’s social inferiors, after all.

I’ve come to think of Hephaistion as a “gamma male”; in pop culture, there’s little agreement as to what these men are like, but originally the term was coined to define those who disengage from the whole alpha-beta dynamic. They neither attempt to lead (although may be capable of doing so), nor do they willingly follow, unless they agree on the direction. While it might seem that alpha and gamma males should naturally clash, gamma males may also be the only true friend a strong alpha can have (and trust).

I find three aspects of Hephaistion’s personality mostly consistent according to our sources: he was honest with Alexander but diplomatic about his status in public, he seems to have agreed with Alexander’s policies in general and supported them, and last—and most importantly—Alexander wasn’t the least threatened by him. Add to that a friendship that quite probably spanned two decades and it suggests he was more complex than some would allow.

In writing Hephaestion did you ever find yourself in dialogue with previous interpretations of him? For example, in authors such as Mary Renault and film makers like Oliver Stone?
Very little, actually. First, this novel is now 30 years from its inception, and Hephaistion was among the earliest solid characters I had. I wrote the first line in December of 1988. I hadn’t even read Renault yet, and all of that was long before Stone came on the scene. Not to mention Stone’s Hephaistion is really Renault’s Hephaistion.

So while some of my characters owe to the influence of others (say, Beth Carney’s impact on my view of Olympias), Hephaistion is solely mine, unless you count Curtius and the other original sources.


*(Important note: scholars can like each other very much while still disagreeing on evaluations of the evidence, and Peter gave me one of the best edit jobs I’ve ever had for “The Mourning of Alexander the Great” [Ed’s Note: Which you can read here] which I also think is probably the best article I’ve published to date. So be aware that our scholarly disagreements in no way reflect our personal opinions about our colleagues. Also, we may disagree vehemently with one point, but agree substantially on others.)


Check back tomorrow for Part Two of the interview in which, among other things, we discuss Alexander’s mother, Olympias and his sister, Cleopatra and I get some advice on how to write (historical) fiction.


For more information about Dancing With The Lion, visit Jeanne Reames’s website here.

Coming this October…

All the images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hair Today, Legendary Tomorrow

Just over a year ago, I wrote this post in which I disparaged the idea that Ptolemy I Soter could be responsible for the claim that Alexander forced his men to shave after almost losing an unnamed battle (but perhaps that of Issus) when a Persian soldier realised he could kill Macedonian soldiers more easily by grabbing hold of their beards and throwing them to the ground first.

I happened to return to the issue in April this year, here. A few months on, I still maintain that the idea of Alexander almost losing a battle because of his men’s beards is nonsense.

However, I have come across evidence to suggest that there really was a tradition that Alexander made his men shave in case their beards were used against them by their enemies.

I haven’t made an exciting new discovery. If you know your Plutarch, you will know which text I am about to quote. It comes from his Life of Theseus. In Chapter 5, Plutarch tells us about a tribe called the Abantes who were experts at close-order combat. He writes,

… in order to deny their enemies a hand-hold on their hair, they cut it off. No doubt Alexander of Macedon understood this, too, when he gave orders to his generals, so we are told, to have the beards of their Macedonians shaved, because these offered the easiest hold in battle.

I wonder: Plutarch’s assertion seems a very reasonable one. Could he be representing a true tradition and St Synesius, not so much a fake one, but a tradition that saw the original information – perhaps Ptolemy’s – embellished to the point where fiction overtook reality?


I was never fond of the Macedonians long hair in Oliver Stone’s Alexander film. As far as I was concerned, only barbarians had such flowing locks; depicting the Macedonians with them was just another absurdity in a film that already had several.

However, He Has A Wife You Know may just have put me right. In this post, the author focuses mainly on beards, but links both them and long hair when he writes,

For the Greeks facial hair, and in particular beards, denoted masculinity. Find any Greek vase depicting Greek men and you’ll witness this simple rule, beardless males are youths, those with beards are men. For a society that prized masculinity as highly as it did the very symbol of that was something quite sacred, beards weren’t to be messed with.

I have to be a bit careful here as I really don’t know much about Macedonian social customs. For all I know, the Macedonians liked having long hair and beards but did not attach the same significance to them as Greeks did.

However, while they formed a distinct society to the men down south, the two did share some important customs (e.g. religion) so it is not beyond the realms of possibility – perhaps we may say it is very likely – that they both looked at long hair and beards in the same way, too, as masculinity was definitely very important to both. If so, I owe Oliver Stone an apology.

And that is the beauty of the internet. It helps you to learn, to write, to discover, to correct, and ultimately, to improve.

Categories: By the Bye | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

14. 3. 2014

By-the-Bye No. 1
Tom Holland and Mary Renault’s Alexander Trilogy
A few weeks ago on my Alexander Facebook page I mentioned that Virago Books are re-releasing Mary Renault’s Alexander Trilogy. I started reading one of them, The Persian Boy, I think, a while ago but got nowhere with it. Not the book’s fault – the story was being told from Bagoas the eunuch’s perspective, and I’m not really interested in him. I might have another go with the new editions, though, especially as they will come with an introduction-or-three by Tom Holland.
Alexander the Fourth… Version
Did you know that Oliver Stone is releasing a fourth version of his ‘biopic’ of Alexander? It will be called Alexander The Ultimate Cut and is due for release on 3rd June this year. Here it is at Amazon. I will buy it, if only to see what changes Stone has made. Unfortunately,  I don’t expect to come away thinking ‘Finally, Oliver Stone has made a great picture’. This is because, to my mind, his Alexander is fundamentally flawed; for example, in silly mistakes such as the absurd accents or the insipid interpretation of Hephaestion, but also in the more serious errors such as the hatchet job done on Philip II. This is not to say that the film is and always will be unwatchable – I enjoyed watching Alexander Revisited for my scene-by-scene series and appreciated the film more as a result – but I do think it means that no matter what Stone does to the film he will never get the first class picture that he craves.
And yet, he must clearly love it to come back to it time and again. If only he would move on and, perhaps, direct or produce a documentary series on Alexander. That would be worthy of his devotion and give him a new chance to write the story he obviously wants.

300 Rise of an Empire
300 Rise of an Empire has just come out in Britain. Lucky us. I am being a little unfair. 300 was immensely silly but enjoyable in its own silly way; I daresay that Rise of an Empire is more of the same. I enjoyed reading Pop Classics’ review of it; particularly as it taught me a new word – parallelaquel, being a sequel that takes place before, during and after the original movie!

Forgotten Dynasties
A couple of days ago I opened the Livius website and started reading about the Attalid and Antigonid dynasties. Before doing so you could have summed up my knowledge of both as – the Attalids? Who? Where? And, Antigonids? You mean the ones defeated by the Romans? So it was good to learn a little more about them both. Next, I should do the same for the Seleucid kings. My heart will always be with the Argeads and Ptolemies but it is good to fill in the blank spaces in one’s knowledge.
Well Done to The Last of Us et al
The British Film Academy held its annual video game awards this week (Here is the Daily Telegraph’s report). Am I the only one who would love to see a game based on the Macedonian phalanx. It could be a First Person… what? Shooter obviously won’t do; I am going for Stabber and Slasher. I believe there are strategy games based on Alexander’s conquests but the FPS&S would allow the player to get up close and personal at the front of the phalanx. Blood, gore and mayhem. Brilliant.

Pi in the Sky
Happy Pi Day to this blog’s American readers.
The official (??) website claims that this day is celebrated ‘around the world’. Alas, not in Britain where – as you can see from the title of this post – we place the day before the month. Still, the sentiment – that we use the day to celebrate maths – is a good one. As I am as good with numbers as Ptolemy I Soter, though, I fear I will use our different method of dating as an excuse to ignore all things mathematical until tomorrow (and thereafter).
2058 Years of Hurt
Speaking of anniversaries – tomorrow is, of course, the Ides of March. Had I been around in First Century BC Rome I would definitely have been on Julius Caesar’s side* so it will naturally be a sad occasion for me. I may have to take a little wine to assuage the pain. If so, I shall raise a glass to the other great man. 

* Well, okay, I would probably have been a peasant but I’m sure we have all harboured thoughts of being a patrician. Haven’t we?

This blog uses the WordPress “Adventure Journal” theme. I would like to replace it with one that looks more professional without being totally smooth and soulless. Can you recommend one? All ideas are welcome! On this point, if you have any comments about the content of the blog, I am very happy to receive them – this applies not only to what you have read but also anything that you like or dislike about the blog or would like to see etc. I may or may not act upon what you say but I will certainly take your thoughts into account in deciding what to write in the future.

Categories: By the Bye, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

Tarn Springs Some Surprises

I have now finished W W Tarn’s Narrative. Here are three things that made an impression upon me between pages 86 and 148. If you would like to read what I thought of the first half of the book and can’t see the relevant post below this one, just click here.
Alexander and Herodotus

Herodotus was no longer much read… there is no sign that Alexander knew him at all, not even his account of Scylax’s voyage.
(Tarn, p. 86)

I almost drew breath when I read this even though I have no idea whether it is accurate or not. My understanding is that Alexander was a well read man. Is this not true? Of course, we may well have been and still not known about Herodotus’ Histories if the latter had fallen into obscurity. Tarn’s book was published just after World War II ended and at least one part of it was written in the 20s so scholarship may have discovered that Herodotus was not a stranger to Alexander after all. I certainly hope so. The alternative does not seem at all fitting.
In the last post, I noted a couple of points where Oliver Stone used Tarn’s text in his film about Alexander. In the film, Stone has Bucephalus die during the Battle of the Hydaspes River. I had always thought this to be inaccurate and that Bucephalus died at some point earlier or later. Tarn surprised me, therefore, when I read,

Alexander after his victory [in the Battle of the Hydaspes] founded two cities, Alexandria Nicaea where his camp had stood, and Alexandria Bucephala on the battlefield, nicknamed from his horse which died there…
(Tarn, pp 96-7)

Ah. Maybe my memory was at fault, then. I jumped to Arrian to see what he said. Sure enough…

Porus’ son… wounded Alexander with his own hand and struck the blow which killed his beloved horse Bucephalus.
(Arrian, p. 274)

To be sure, Arrian is talking about the engagement that took place just before the battle started but it was a confrontation that was part of the whole so on that basis we can give Stone and Tarn a qualified pass. Except, Plutarch –

After [the battle at the Hydaspes River] Bucephalus… died, not immediately but some while later. Most historians report that he died of wounds received in the battle, for which he was being treated but according to Onesicritus it was from old age, for by this time he was thirty years old.
(Plutarch, para 61)

I don’t know much about Onesicritus but if his Wikipedia entry is accurate then he is not necessarily a writer to be trusted.
The last thing that made a big impression definitely did make me draw a breath, which is funny because its one of those things I kind of knew already. In short, it highlighted how interested Alexander was in exploring and learning about the world. My principle image of him is, of course, as the second Achilles – being all about the war and glory. Tarn makes it clear though, that Alexander was simply not about blood ‘n guts. Here is the relevant passage:

[Alexander] attacked the secret of the ocean. He sent Heracleides to explore the Hyrcanian sea, and ascertain whether Aristotle had been right in calling this great expanse of salt water a lake, or whether the old theory that it was a gulf of Ocean might not be true after all…

He himself turned his attention to the Persian Gulf. He took steps to ensure better communication between Babylonia and the sea by removing the Persian obstacles to free navigation of the Tigris and founding an Alexandria on the Gulf at the mouth of that river…

He also planned to colonise the eastern coast of the Gulf, along which Nearchus had sailed, and sent 500 talents to Sidon to be coined for the hire or purchase of sailors and colonists. This would help to establish the already explored sea-route between India and Babylon; but he meant to complete the sea-route from India to Egypt by exploring the section between Babylon and Egypt and circumnavigating Arabia, possibly as a preliminary to still more extensive maritime exploration in the future. He therefore planned an expedition along the Arabian coast…
(Tarn, p. 118)

I can’t tell you what about this passage opened my eyes because I don’t know, but reading it felt like a splash of cold water to the face. As I said above, I already knew that Alexander was a keen explorer and student but what this passage has succeeded in doing is bringing that truth home to me in a strong and direct way. I’m not going to rename this blog The Second Aristotle but sure I won’t forget it in a hurry.

Editions Used
Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 1971)
Plutarch The Age of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 2011)
Tarn, W W Alexander the Great I Narrative (Cambridge University Press 1948)

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Some Thoughts on W W Tarn’s “Narrative”

In the four years I have been reading about Alexander the Great the name of W W Tarn has often been mentioned, usually as an apologist for Alexander; a modern-day Aristobulos. Today, I visited the library and started reading Sir William Woodthorpe Tarn’s words for the first time. The book in my hands was vol. 1 of his two part book on Alexander – Narrative.
The Narrative is a short book (148 pages) and so races through Alexander’s life. Having started on page 1 I ended the day on page 85 with the Macedonian army about to invade India.
The reason I have been inspired to put finger to keyboard is because of a couple of things that Tarn says that sounded very familiar. Here is the first. According to Tarn, Persepolis marked the beginning of ‘Alexander’s tragedy’. It was,

… the tragedy of an increasing loneliness, of a growing impatience with those who could not understand, of a failure which nevertheless bore greater fruit than most men’s successes.
(Tarn, p. 55)

Sound familiar? Compare it with this:

… His tragedy was one of increasing loneliness and impatience with those who could not understand. And if his desire to reconcile Greek and barbarian ended in failure… What failure! His failure towered over other men’s successes

Here is Tarn again, talking about the Macedonian army as it reached the Jhelum river.

The army had become a moving state, a reflection of the Empire…
(Tarn, p. 84)

And now this,

In the spring, Alexander marched an army of 150,000 across the passes of the Hindu Kush into the unknown. In his dream, it was the promised route to the end of the world. We were now a mobile empire stretching back thousands of miles to Greece.

The second quotations are from Oliver Stone’s Alexander film (2004) – both form part of the elder Ptolemy’s narration. It looks to me like Mr Stone and his co-writers had Tarn by their side when they wrote the script for the film!
I don’t agree with everything that Tarn says. For example, he finds no fault with the trial and execution of Philotas but says that Parmenion’s death was ‘plain murder’. In my opinion, the issue of Philotas’ guilt is the difficult matter and the necessity to kill Parmenion the straight forward and justifiable one.
Taking Philotas first; Tarn cites Ptolemy who, according to Arrian, says that

… the persons who had reported [the conspiracy against Alexander] came forward, with various irrefutable proofs of [Philotas’] guilt… of which the most damning was that he admitted knowledge of a plot against Alexander but had said nothing about it, in spite of the fact that he was in the habit of visiting Alexander’s tent twice a day.
(Arrian, p. 191)

Philotas may have been given a fair trial ‘according to [the Macedonian army’s] lights’ (p. 63) but being executed simply because he hadn’t reported the plot seems awfully rum to me. You could say, ‘well, it was a plot; he was at the very least hopelessly naive for not reporting it’ but I can’t accept that someone of Philotas’ experience would make such a basic error. If he didn’t report, I think it would have been because he genuinely didn’t feel it needed to be reported.
As for Parmenion, Tarn himself admits that there was no chance that the general could be made to retire. ‘There were only two known alternatives: he must rebel or die’ (p. 64). It seems to me that if the Macedonian army acted properly in condemning Philotas, then Alexander acted correctly in assassinating Parmenion. He would have known what Parmenion’s two choices were and took the only decision that someone in his position could reasonably take. Parmenion’s death may have come about due to an unjust execution but his death, while unfortunate, was wholly necessary and justified.

Editions Used
Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 1971)
Tarn, W W Alexander the Great I Narrative (Cambridge University Press 1948)

The quotations from Oliver Stone’s Alexander come from the Alexander Revisited cut of the film

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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

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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!

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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.

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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.
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.

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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.
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

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