Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited, Reviewed by Jeremy

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Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited vividly reintroduced the life of Alexander III of Macedon, arguably the most eternally revered conqueror in Western culture. The film is narrated by Ptolemy, a prominent general in Alexander’s army who inspired the most important surviving account of the campaign, Arrian’s Anabasis. Despite this choice of narrator, the plot depends more heavily on another account written by Plutarch. The purpose of the film is less to retell the great events of the ancient narrative and more to facilitate a better understanding of Alexander himself. Essentially, what kind of a person Alexander was as well as his relationships with his men and Persian subjects. Stone attempts this by covering Alexander’s life chronologically from the decisive Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC), while occasionally imbedding important childhood scenes to facilitate our understanding of the man behind the legend. With the occasional flashback, the narrative covers Alexander’s conquest of the Persian mainland, his push east into Bactria and India, the mutiny that caused him to return to Babylon and the final days before his untimely death in 323. In light of its occasional fictions and biases, the film’s fresh and informative portrayal of Alexander can only be fully appreciated by those with sufficient background knowledge on the subject.[1]

It is evident throughout the film that Stone, under the advisement of Oxford Historian Robin Lane Fox, consulted a wide array of ancient narratives and archeological finds to reproduce the campaign. The Battle of Gaugamela is especially well done. The uniforms, weapons and equipment of the Macedonian forces are entirely consistent with the archeological evidence.[2] The complex procedure of maneuvering Alexander’s well trained phalanxes is appreciated and well illustrated.[3] Drums are accurately depicted coordinating delicate, precise maneuvers. Additionally, Stone remains loyal to Arrian’s account of the battle by portraying the phalangites as skillful warriors capable of breaking rank to evade incoming chariots.[4] Arrian’s comments about the decisive advantage of the longer sarissa over shorter Persian weapons are also brought to life in an excellently filmed scene.[5] Stone even stays true to Arrian’s precise account at the macro level, accurately depicting broad battlefield developments. The Persian double envelopment, Parmenion’s wavering line and Alexander’s decisive cavalry charge are all included. Moreover, there is even some evidence of Stone consulting secondary sources, at times dismissing the claims of contemporary accounts to respect the modern historical consensus. For instance, instead of blindly accepting Arrian’s fantastical figure of over a million Persians at Gaugamella, he acknowledges a more realistic figure deduced by historians by having Ptolemy allude to “hundreds of thousands”. Similarly, the debate on whether Alexander’s marriage to Roxana was a personal or pragmatic decision is addressed and deliberately left unanswered, thereby introducing an important historical debate in secondary literature without passing judgment. Even the harshest of critics cannot deny the thorough research that went into this movie in light of its frequent references to primary and secondary sources.

Despite the tremendous amount of research that went in to creating the film, Stone distorts history liberally at times, compromising accuracy of entertainment and plot coherence. However, such is mostly done for the sake of broadening our understanding of the “real” Alexander. While he falsely associates Aristotle with Plato’s “Like frogs in a pond” analogy,  this does not mean that Alexander, educated by Aristotle, did not share this common mindset about the Mediterranean.[6] Introducing the audience to the mindset of contemporary Greco-Macedonians through the limited evidence we have is necessary when precise sources concerning Alexander’s education are missing. As apparent throughout the film, fiction can strangely be used as a platform to present other truths.  Similarly, Stone places Alexander’s conversation with Darius’ daughter in Babylon after Gaugamela while in reality it occurred two year earlier after Issus. As the battle of Issus was skipped in the film, Stone decided to still include the conversation Plutarch recorded at a later stage, preserving a crucial dialogue in understanding Alexander’s relationship with the Persians. On this occasion, amalgamating historical facts into a distorted plot abridges, but does not take away from our understanding of Alexander.

Stone is especially successful in using fragmentary evidence to accurately recreate the collective sentiments of the Greco-Macedonian forces fighting the campaign. Like Alain Corbin, the screenwriter uses a scarce amount of sources to effectively depict the sentiments of a group that produced no surviving literature.[7]  He does so by referring to both common Hellenic views (as attested in the literary evidence) and recurring literary themes that are used to portray the opinions of Alexander’s soldiers. While most of the likely mythical conversations recorded by our sources are not used directly, it is evident that these were consulted and cross-examined in a way that mirrors Corbin’s treatment of rumor.[8] The conversations were then interpreted collectively to understand the likely sentiments behind these dialogues.[9] Stone takes these historically credible sentiments and presents them in a creative way.  He is notably effective in accurately capturing how these soldiers viewed the “other”.  Despite living under Macedonian hegemony after Philip II conquests, the Greeks as a whole never accepted the Macedonians as true Greeks. These sentiments can undoubtedly be extended to the tens of thousands of Greeks that were employed in Alexander’s army. Despite frequent Macedonian attempts at associating themselves with the Pan-Hellenic world, there were never referred to as “Greeks” due to cultural differences such as their distinct clothing and their bizarre local dialect of Greek. Stone picked up on this and purposefully made most of the Macedonians talk in an Irish accent.  By contrasting these accents with the British ones of Greek characters, he subtly informs the audience that like the real Macedonians in the 4th Century, his Macedonians are also portrayed as outsiders in the Greek world. This point is furthered by certain scenes that depict Phillip II, Alexander’s father, in an outfit more associate with Greece’s northern neighbors.

Furthermore, while all historical films must include some element of fiction to “fill in the gaps”, Stone imbeds fictional dialogues as a platform to expand upon sentiments attested in the ancient sources. For example, while it is evident in most accounts that Alexander’s troops were dissatisfied with his cosmopolitan policies geared towards the equality and mixing of Greeks and Asians, Stone builds upon these sentiments and creates conversations consistent with these concerns. Amongst other points, these conversations expand upon Macedonian reservations about adopting Asiatic cultures, the implications behind Alexander marrying a Bactrian and not a Macedonian; subjects likely covered in Alexander’s real conversations with his men. While some elements remain fictional, historically guided fiction in these instances facilitate rather than detract from our understanding of a disgruntled army on the brink of mutiny.

However unlike Corbin who warns us not to “reproduce or to follow too closely the interpretations of contemporary observers”, Stone fails and even at times enhances the biases of the ancient accounts.[10] The heavy Hellenic bias against the Persians is reinforced throughout the film. Representations of the opposing peoples on the battlefield serves as a prime example.  The well organized Macedonian ranks are filled with blond, well quaffed soldiers with surprisingly white uniforms despite years of intense battles. Contrastingly, the Persians are portrayed as filthy ungroomed Orientals with flies infesting their disorganized lines. Stone neglects the obvious facts that Greco-Macedonian males were typically bearded and were no cleaner than their adversaries and enhances the rampant biases of the ancient writers using contrasting imagery. Whether he does so deliberately or not is uncertain. It could have been intentional, or perhaps as Haden White would argue, a product of the inherent subjectivity of the historical trade laden with personal biases.[11] While Persian military organization is undoubtedly as Trouillot would describe it,  a “silenced history” as a result of a lack of surviving evidence, there is enough available information in the Greek accounts to deduce that the Persian lines were organized.[12] The hordes depicted in the film are merely a biased representation with no historical backing. The scene where Aristotle describes the Persians as an “an inferior race” of barbaric brutes would have been more than enough to emphasize the Greek mindset towards the Persians. The contrasting imagery of the deployed armies on the other hand, does nothing but amplify millennia old biases that distort our image of what truly happened.

As Ptolomy ponders in the beginning of the movie: “did such a man as Alexander live? Of Course not. We idolize him, make him better than he was.” Despite his historical advisors, Oliver Stone is equally as guilty of distorting the image of Alexander as the ancient sources. The director is determined to present Alexander as an idealistic humane character to the extent that he chooses to neglect some of his crueler attributes that even the sympathetic Plutarch includes. Like all conquering forces in his time, Alexander’s army was involved in a tremendous about of looting, pillaging and rape. Such realities are only referred to in passing, as the Alexander that crucified all the military aged males of Tyre and enslaved whole cities is hidden from the sympathetic audience.[13] Stone has no problem having Alexander say fictionally that his men should “take back what is ours, but spare what belongs to the Persians” while not acknowledging the significant looting required to sustain his army. He strives to protect his positive image of Alexander to the point that he enhances the biases of the ancient sources and willingly neglects the less palatable aspects of Alexander’s campaign. As he treated and incorporated homosexuality in the movie, Stone should have represented Alexander and his cohorts as they really were, without suppressing certain attributes to appease a 21st Century American audience.[14] Overall, Alexander Revisited can be used to facilitate our understanding of the conqueror, but only by those knowledgeable enough to evade the biases and fictions liberally imbedded throughout the film.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Alexander Revisited: The Final Unrated Cut. Directed by Oliver Stone. Performed by Collin Farrel, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins et al. United States: Warner Bros. 2012. DVD.

 

Arrianus, Flavius, Peter A. Brunt, and Edgar I. Robson. 2010. Arrian: in two volumes. London: Heinemann.

 

Corbin, Alain. 1992. The village of cannibals: rage and murder in France, 1870. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

 

Curtius Rufus, Quintus, John Carew Rolfe, and John Rowe Workman. 1946. Quintus

Curtius: History of Alexander. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press.

 

Plato, and David Gallop. 1975. Phaedo. Oxford [England]: Clarendon Press.

 

Plutarch, Perrin, Bernadotte. “Plutarch’s Lives”. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1968. Derived From: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/home.html

 

Polybius, and Fridericus Hultsch. 1962. The histories of Polybius. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

 

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the past: power and the production of history. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press.

 

White, Hayden. “Interpretation in History.” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (1973): 281. doi:10.2307/468478.

 


[1] One would need sufficient knowledge of the prominent ancient and secondary sources in order to understand what are the more accurate aspects of the film that should be taken in. Simply put, the film should not be engaged at face value but by a well informed student of history.

[2] The Sarissa (pike) for instance, the primary weapon of the Macedonian infantryman, is identical to those found in Vergina, the depictions of Sarissae in ancient artwork, and the descriptions of Polybius; Polyb.18.29.

[3] Phalanxes were cumbersome formations of tightly packed men with bristling 16 foot pikes. It took significant coordination for the phalanx to maneuver.

[4] Arr.Anab.3.16.6.

[5] Arr.Anab.1.12.9.

[6] Pl.Phd.109b.

[7] Corbin, Alain. 1992. The village of cannibals: rage and murder in France, 1870. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 39.

[8] Ibid., 8.

[9] In the ancient world, it was common for historians to create fictional conversations which although never took place, play upon real sentiments. Ancient historians used to use myth as a platform to present broader truths.

[10] Corbin, Alain. 1992. The village of cannibals: rage and murder in France, 1870. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2.

[11] White, Hayden. “Interpretation in History.” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (1973). doi:10.2307/468478, 283.

[12] Our knowledge or the Persian army is similar to the knowledge we possess of Sans Sourci; we are entirely reliant of fragments of a mostly silenced history; Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the past: power and the production of history. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 53.

[13] Curt.4.4.21; Plut.vit.Alex.11.12.

[14] The film was originally released in 2004. Oliver stone embraced the homosexual aspects of Alexander’s story despite likely reservations from a somewhat homophobic American audience.

One response to “Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited, Reviewed by Jeremy”

  1. Ilya Gromovikov says:

    Jeremy, I have really enjoyed your review that demonstrates your profound knowledge of ancient history. The comparison between the Stone’s approach to myths compared to Corbin’s analysis of rumours was brilliant, as this open-minded approach enables the historian to include oral history, myth, legends, rumours or the fake news of the past into his narrative not by quoting them directly and trusting them blindly, but by extracting people’s thoughts, ideas, attitudes and aspirations that are truthful to their time.

    Of course, the representation of Alexander as a White hero leading his rightful army to the victories in a fight for their homeland might entirely mislead a man with limited historical knowledge. However, as in the movie we see the world from Alexander’s perspective (I presume so from your review, I have not seen the actual movie), the romanticizing of himself and his army and the contradistinction to the “Barbarian” Persians might as well be consistent with Alexander’s worldviews.

    However, I understand your concern about sharing the romantically distorted narrative with the wide public without making them aware of the particular bias that is craftily weaved into a larger historical narrative. The phrase in the beginning, seemingly trying to make the audience aware of the idolization that follows in the next three hours, might as well incline spectators to believe a romanticized tale despite being warned.

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