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Alexander the Great in the movies

2012/05/19

This was for Hellenistic Greece and Rome. I was supposed to read our actual historical sources on Alexander, then watch Oliver Stone’s movie, then write about how and why they are different.

Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri, written in the second century BC and Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie Alexander are generally similar narratives. They are not only largely based on the same events, but Arrian wrote our best surviving record of Alexander, therefore much of the movie is adapted from his work. However, there are also numerous differences in emphasis and authorial spin. Put succinctly: Arrian saw his work as the story of a military campaign whereas Stone was telling a more personal story about how one man’s passions can have large implications.

Arrian had a tendency to attribute any new action or change of course by Alexander to a non-specific “great longing” (Romm 22, & many other times). He also defended the honor of Greek civilization by avenging the Persian attacks of several decades earlier. (Romm, 30) Arrian compared him to Heracles at several points. For instance, Alexander visited Ammon in Libya because Heracles did so, offered sacrifices to Heracles at several points and conquered Aornos rock, symbolically surpassing Heracles’s accomplishments by succeeding where he failed. (Romm, 72, 23, 68) However, beyond that he apparently found a rumor that Heracles and Alexander were kin credible and made a general presumption about the nature of Greek heroes, Arrian delved little into why Alexander was so ambitious. Arrian looked more to destiny than motivations to explain Alexander’s action. (Romm, 49 is one example.)

Stone’s movie however, is essentially all about Alexander’s motivations. While numerous characters, most of all Alexander himself, spoke of destiny, Stone himself didn’t actually believe this. (Stone, 12 & 34, most notably) For instance, when Alexander spoke to the troops in India before the battle he presented his glorious plans to build ships and sail from the sea through the Nile and back home to Greece and Macedonia. (Stone, 34) Modern audiences watching this understand rivers do not work this way and had Alexander actually gotten a chance to try this plan, he would have been lost in the Indian Ocean or had to march across Africa, where things would have gone even worse than India as he would have had no supply lines. While Alexander would think his perceived destiny was cut short by his wound, which was solid evidence he was only human, and his men’s flagging morale, Stone wanted us to understand that his ambition had surpassed reality and his plans were, in fact, doomed anyway.

While Arrian started with Alexander at twenty years old and Philip II already dead, Stone spent a great deal of time developing this period. Almost an hour of the movie occurs before Alexander becomes king, which is roughly the same time given to battles. These scenes show him caught in a conflict between his parents. His father, Philip II, was generally depicted as a brute who resented his mother, Olympias, for being too ambitious, not treating him with the respect he felt he deserved and generally not falling in line with expected feminine behavior. (Stone, 9 is where this is set up.) To an audience in a modern, liberalized society, this makes him a villain. His resentment spilled over onto his son, who she was grooming to replace him when he was in no hurry to be replaced. Still, Alexander felt the need to impress him, and by extension his country. He had to prove he was worthy to lead a great civilization, especially in light of his mother’s barbarian heritage. Just when he was beginning to win Philip’s favor, Philip rebuffed him. Alexander then permanently lost his chance to be accepted as Philip’s successor when Philip was assassinated right in front of him. (Stone, 32) His entire conquest can be seen as an attempt to posthumously both please his father and outdo him. In fact, Alexander kills Cleitus because Cleitus belittles Alexander in comparison to Philip. (Stone, 30)

Arrian, meanwhile barely touches on anyone not directly involved with Alexander’s military campaign. The posters for Alexander promoted it as starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson and Anthony Hopkins. (IMDB) These actors played Alexander, Olympias, Philip II, Hephaestion, Roxane and Ptolemy, respectively. Three of these six main characters barely appear in Arrian. As mentioned before, Arrian began the story after Philip’s death. He only mentioned Olympias once, though she featured in publicity for the movie more than anyone save Alexander himself. (Romm, 164) Alexander’s first wife, Roxane, fared slightly better with four mentions, but really only affected the plot when she first married Alexander and when she gave birth. (Romm, 111-112, 170) Arrian was more interested in the political implications of marriage to a barbarian woman and a potential heir than Roxane herself. In contrast, the movie devoted four chapters to the marriage and surrounding events and Roxane is major character thereafter. (Stone, 19-22) This difference in focus is partly due to Stone and Arrian’s own interests and partially due to their cultures. For instance, women play a more prominent social role in the modern U.S. than Arrian’s Rome, so their role is expanded.

Arrian was a military man himself, but also a Greek in Roman society. A narrative to reassure Greeks of their national greatness would have a lot of appeal when Greek dominance was in decline. He saw Alexander as a Greek hero in the classical tradition and framed his story as a very successful military campaign. He emphasized Alexander’s daring, ingenuity, and tendency to do things his enemies would never expect, such as crossing the Granicus even though the Persians had an apparently strong position on the opposite bank. (Romm, 37) He undoubtedly exaggerated Alexander’s successes in order to do this, including inflating the height of enemy troops as well as their numbers and giving a highly improbable 75:1 casualty ratio in the battle of the Hydaspes. (Romm, 122, 127, 130) He likely didn’t do this purposefully and merely repeated errors in his sources, but he did choose to believe the sources that depicted Alexander most favorably in this regard. His plot was driven by troop movements, battles and political difficulties in managing the loyalties of his troops and officers.

On the other hand, Stone’s background was largely in making movies about the downfall of revered figures like presidents and rock stars and the intersection of their personal and public lives. He saw Alexander as akin to a figure like Richard Nixon or Jim Morrison. His Alexander was extraordinarily gifted and ahead of his time. His desire to unite the world through conquest is shown as a sort of multiculturalism, as compared to the provincialism of his contemporaries. (Stone, 19, most prominently) However, like the American heroes of Stone’s past work, he was ultimately undone by his own success as his paranoia and ego combined with his hot temper made him increasingly unstable. We see a progression from the Alexander at the battle of Granicus and its aftermath, where he made flimsy accusations against Darius, but had a personal relationship with his troops who all loved and admired him, to his questionable assassination of Parmenion because his son was a traitor (Stone, 3, 8, 24). Ptolemy defended this in voiceover, much as Hephaestion defended Alexander when he killed Cleitus in a drunken rage and Ptolemy said he was only doing what any general would do when he executed men who only wanted to go home for treason (Stone, 30-31, 35). The audience accepts each defense less and less. Alexander himself seemed to go increasingly mad in his attempts to justify his actions.

The entire movie contained only two battles which add up to less than a quarter of its length. These scenes were as much about the chaos and brutality of war as Alexander’s borderline reckless courage. His military brilliance seemed to be as much force of personality as anything. The plot was driven more by emotional conflicts than military ones. Besides the struggle between Alexander’s parents, Hephaestion and Roxane compete for Alexander’s affections. Hephaestion was jealous at the wedding and Roxane, in turn was jealous when Alexander was in a deep depression and would see Hephaestion, but not her. (Stone, 21, 31) Alexander was constantly caught between masculine and feminine forces vying for dominance.

Despite his faults, Stone ultimately admired Alexander. At worst, he was better than the alternative. Compare Darius hiding behind his men and killing some of them in his escape, to Alexander fighting on the front lines or Philip’s treatment of Pausanias with Alexander’s treatment of Bagoas. (Stone, 7, 15, 25). Ptolemy admitted in the beginning that we mythologize men like Alexander and make them better, and Stone in fact made a number of changes to history to make Alexander more likeable, such as leaving out the entire conquest of Europe and incidents like burning the palace at Persepolis. (Stone, 2) In his closing narration, Ptolemy remembered Alexander not as overly ambitious, but as dreaming too big and says, “His failure towered over other men’s success.” In Stone’s commentary, he essentially agreed and says as dangerous and problematic as men like Alexander are, we ultimately need them. (Stone, 38)

Arrian also spent his conclusion praising Alexander’s virtues, but seemed mainly concerned with defending Alexander as a good, civilized Greek, not a barbarian. He praised him not just for his considerable skill, but for his honor in keeping his word and not using conquest for personal gain, but for the good of his people. He defended his excesses as understandable in the circumstances and says all men make mistakes, but at least Alexander would admit them. (Romm, 171-173) Throughout the narrative, Arrian was always careful to find something admirable even in difficult situations, such as when he razed Thebes, but spared Pindar’s house. (Romm, 30-31). He also mythologized Alexander, albeit in a less self-conscious fashion and closed by declaring Alexander essentially above criticism because of his favor with the gods.

Overall, both Stone and Arrian both liked Alexander better than many of their contemporaries, who viewed him largely as a cunning and unusually successful tyrant, but a tyrant nonetheless. (Winks, 103) To both, whatever Alexander’s faults, his great success itself should be an inspiration to men.

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