ALEXANDER (opened 11/ 24/04)
Oliver Stone's Costly History Lesson
Director Oliver Stone spent years of his life and $150 million
to recreate on film the life of Alexander the Great (played by Colin
A film epic is a costly way to deliver a history lesson. But if
done with an eye to accuracy (and of course, deep pockets) there's
no other medium like it to evoke the grandest spectacles from the
Alexander does a bang-up job of restaging some colossal historical
battles, with authentic weaponry, charging camels, rearing elephants,
and a cast of thousands. The film also vividly recreates vignettes
from long-dead societies, like the boisterous drinking parties of
the Macedonian elite, and the exquisite beauty of Babylon's ancient
But $150 million can't always buy you a great story, or memorable
dialogue. For this film, the moments of historic spectacle have
to carry it. Here's what to glean from its history.
Q. Was there some historical reason for the odd accents in this
A. It's disconcerting to hear Scottish burrs and Irish brogues in
an epic about the ancient Greek world. (Although, interestingly,
the Irish-born Colin Farrell spoke with an American accent, and
the American-born Angelina Jolie spoke with, well, an accent apparently
of her own imagining.)
Oliver Stone has said that the Scottish and Irish lilts were deliberate,
meant to evoke the language difference between Greece and its northern
neighbor, Macedonia-Alexander's homeland. Macedonians
spoke an accented Greek, scorned by 'proper' Greeks as uncouth.
A creative concept, but unfortunately, it simply sounds silly.
Even though we know that everyone in the ancient world didn't speak
in plummy British accents, it's become a convention we expect in
movies. Imagine the shock if Russell Crowe used his native Australian
accent in Gladiator. G'day, Maximus.
Q. So, was Alexander gay?
A. Ah, the gay question. Stone's film alludes to lots of
relationships-male and female-for Alexander, but focuses primarily
on his intense attachment to his lifelong male companion, Hephaistion.
Though bashed by some, Stone's depiction of Alexander's sex life
meshes with current historical interpretations. The evidence suggests
(though it doesn't prove) that Alexander had intimate relationships
with men as well as women throughout his life. And though the film
may overplay it at times, his favoritism towards Hephaistion is
And the context of the times must also be considered. Bisexual
behavior was typical for elite Greeks and Macedonians, including
Alexander's own father, Philip. Greek philosophers, like Alexander's
famed tutor, Aristotle, taught the Greek conventional wisdom: that
intense relationships-sexual or otherwise-were most appropriate
(being the superior sex, and all). There was little concern in the
Greek world for the 'hetero' and 'homo' labels our society adheres
Q. Did Alexander's mother really keep that many snakes?
A. Stone goes over the top with this one. Every scene with Olympias
(Angelina Jolie) shows a snake either coiled in her lap, twined
around her arms, or curled up on her bed. It's more than a little
there is some historical basis for it. Olympias was remembered for
being a snake-charmer, and also was an enthusiastic follower of
the god, Dionysius, whose rituals often involved numerous snakes
themselves around dancers' bodies.
Q. Did Olympias, have a hand in arranging King Philip's death?
A. Alexander had one hell of a dysfunctional family, as the film
stresses repeatedly. Historians suspect that Olympias, in her ruthless
determination to further her son's interests, arranged for the murder
of her husband, who had recently taken another wife (of 'purer'
lineage than Olympias) and fathered an infant son. Some historians
suggest that Alexander himself was complicit in his father's murder.
In the film he isn't, but in reality, we'll never know for sure.
Q. Did the real Alexander wear the mini-skirt battle tunic sported
A. Images from that era show that, yes, indeed, Alexander and his
Macedonian and Greek warriors donned those fetching short tunics
for battle. In fact, they revered their battle 'skirts' as manly,
sneered at the 'girly' pants worn in battle by their Persian opponents.
Q. Early in the film we see a huge battle. How accurate is it?
A. The Battle of Gaugamela was key to Alexander's conquest of Persia
(centered in today's Iran and Iraq.) Its recreation on film has
some spectacular moments, and is heavily based on recorded history,
Alexander's refusal to launch a surprise night attack despite his
army being vastly outnumbered; Macedonia's famous battle phalanx-a
disciplined, massed infantry unit wielding eighteen-foot pikes;
Alexander's perfectly timed cavalry attack which won the day; and
King Darius of Persia hightailing it off the field while his army
Q. What made Alexander 'Great?'
A. The film never offers a coherent explanation to that question,
and thus Oliver Stone's Alexander is far less interesting than the
historical Alexander. The actual Alexander was fearless, charismatic,
a brilliant tactician, a genius at leading men and empires, and
intensely curious intellectual. He pushed himself and his troops
onward not only to conquer the next hill but to see what wonders
lay beyond it.
A tyrant to some, a benevolent despot to others, his empire reshaped
the world politically and intellectually. By encouraging the diffusion
of Greek culture and learning throughout the known world, Alexander's
empire profoundly shaped the development of Western civilization.
Not much of this is to be found in Stone's film. Watch it for the
spectacle, then come home and curl up with a good biography of this
fascinating guy. (I like Alan Fildes and Joann Fletcher's Alexander
By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.
Dayton Daily News, November 24, 2004. (Also
in Joliet Herald News, November 28, 2004; Bend Bulletin, November
28, 2004; Providence
Journal, November 26, 2004.)