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Oliver Stone’s new epic Alexander has hit the headlines. The New York Post has labelled it ‘Alexander the Gay’, and US Christians thinking of going to see it have been advised to ‘speak to your pastors immediately because Satan is attempting to enter your mind’.
Greek nationalists have been fuming. How could the greatest hero in their history be bisexual? What ancient source describes Alexander and Hephaistion making love? It is a modern slur concocted by Hollywood’s politically correct glitterati.
The film critics have panned it. ‘Not just a bad movie, but a bad movie of truly epic proportions.’ ‘You know a Hollywood spectacle is in trouble when its hero yearns to go forward, but his soldiers just want to go home – and the audience sides with the weary mutineers.’ ‘Alexander is full of brilliant highlights, and they’re all in Colin Farrell’s hair.’ ‘In the marital bed, Farrell hisses and bears his fangs like a jungle cat. I didn’t know where to look.’
Are the attacks justified? It is worth investigating. After all, Alexander is one of the central figures of world history, and his cultural impact in the 2,300 years since his death has been immense. Any attempt to turn this chunk of ancient history into three hours of Hollywood epic – and present it to an audience of millions – involves a fascinating engagement between cinematic entertainment, historical interpretation and archaeological evidence.
The movie’s director certainly took it all very seriously. The Vietnam war veteran who had made such classics as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July hoped it would be ‘the greatest masterpiece of my life’. He hired Oxford ancient historian Robin Lane Fox, author of a brilliant biography of Alexander published in 1973, as his historical consultant. (His fee was to be allowed to participate in a series of cavalry charges: ‘Oliver, you know I’ve just done the one thing I wanted most of all to do in my entire life … I can never thank you enough.’)
Lane Fox remains a firm supporter of the film. He is refreshingly free of academic stuffiness. One would expect an Oxford don to be moaning on about how they had got everything wrong. The mutiny against marching further east came after, not before, the battle of Jhelum. The battle was fought on a plain, not in the jungle. Alexander was not wounded there, but months later attacking a walled town. It is easy to imagine the historical consultant, marginalised and embittered, eventually stomping off indignantly back to Oxford.
In fact, the big, brash, mega-bucks Hollywood director and the gangly fox-hunting English don hit it off straightaway when they first met in spring 2002. ‘Be sure you understand,’ Stone insisted, ‘we’re not making a history book. This isn’t a documentary. It’s a dramatisation, though it should take history as its starting point. There’ll have to be compromises, because of time, money, drama and space.’ Lane Fox willingly embraced the demands of film, adapting his historian’s craft to them, and became deeply implicated in the whole production. His defence of the result is robust.
Stone had warned that straight history would ‘have emptied the cinema in seven minutes flat’. To create a human drama that makes sense, to present characters and conflicts that engage the emotions of an audience, and to fit it all into a budget and three hours’ viewing, you have to compress time, conflate characters, even alter chronology. ‘If the interpretation is putting the events into the wrong sequences,’ explains Lane Fox, ‘it will not be historical; it may, however, be dramatic.’ It may, moreover, make it possible to communicate a deeper truth – to present a distilled ‘essence’ of the historical Alexander.

So far so good: we should not expect a strictly accurate narrative; if that is what we desire, we read Robin Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great (1973), or Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon (1970), or any of the other (in my view, less good) biographies that have appeared since. We go to the cinema for something else: to be entertained; perhaps to get a sense of the look and feel of the ancient world; and even, if the film is very good, to be offered an interpretation of what it all meant. Does Alexander achieve this?
Most criticism of the film has been either bigoted or childish. Alexander was, like most of the ancient Greek elite, ‘bisexual’. This was so normal there was no Greek term for it – the fact there is a modern one reflects the polarised way in which our hung-up and morally repressive society views sex. As for Colin Farrell’s hair, I would like to think I never even noticed the highlights because Current World Archaeology operates at a more sophisticated intellectual level than The Guardian’s film critic. The simple fact is that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Here are the reasons.
First, the drama was sustained by two interwoven plots, both convincing and powerfully acted, involving embittered and sometimes violent personal clashes. The main one was between a visionary Alexander, who imagined he could establish global harmony and spread civilisation, and the greed and jealously of his Macedonian soldiers. The second concerned the tension within the Macedonian royal house – principally between Alexander, his mother Olympias, and his father Philip II – and the way that played on Alexander’s mind.
Then I was impressed by the attempt to translate history and archaeology into a series of images that looked right on the screen. There were compromises, of course. Lane Fox arranged an advisory symposium of specialists at Oxford. What do we know about ancient music, for instance? Not much was the expert view. What sort of music might have been played at a wedding in Bactria? We do not know. How about a wedding in 4th century Macedonia. We have no idea. ‘Professor,’ snaps back an impatient movie director, ‘I’m offering you a chance to impose your view of ancient music on millions of people for the next ten years, and are you trying to tell me that you do not even know what it was? What is this book of yours on the subject: is it a how-to-do-it manual, or is there some secret here that you’re hiding, like the recipe for Coca Cola?’
The music – like much else – had to be made up. The evidence base is limited, but the movie-maker must show the whole of life. You cannot blank out the Indian army because we know virtually nothing of its actual appearance. And what you show has to seem right to the audience – better a stereotypical ‘Indian’ look based on later Mogul sources than a Lord of the Rings flight of fancy.
Sometimes it is a matter of translating into a modern idiom. How do you show the relationship between Greece and Macedonia? The Macedonians were more tribal and feudal than urban. They spoke a dialect of Greek near-incomprehensible to Athenians and Thebans. They were marginal to the civilisation of the city-states. It was inspired, therefore, to give all the Macedonians ‘Celtic fringe’ accents, mainly Irish, but with some Welsh and Scottish, while casting the very English Christopher Plummer as Aristotle, the only major character in the film who was from a Greek city-state.
Even when audience expectations are confounded, it can add to the sense that this is what the past really looked like. Stone statues are garishly painted. Bronze ones are highly polished. So they do not look like the objects we see in museums. The subtle implication is that we are not viewing the objects today, but seeing them as they were 2,300 years ago.
One of the stars of the show is the city of Babylon as reconstructed by Production Designer Jan Roelf. Research was exhaustive, but gaps had to be filled, and the overall effect had to look right to the audience. The resulting sets – with their square symmetrical architecture, blue-glazed tiles, hanging greenery, pierced wooden screens, and Persian bull-statues – are awesome and convincing.
(There is unintended irony here. Alexander saved Babylon but destroyed Persepolis. The filmmakers decided to depict the former but not the latter. The release of the film coincides, however, with a new foreign occupation of Iraq and the conversion of the site of Babylon into a US army base, where military vehicles are crunching across 2,600-year-old pavements and trenches are being dug through archaeological layers.)
The third thing I liked was the battle reconstruction. The Lord of the Rings has set new standards. The famous opening battle scene in Gladiator where Marcus Aurelius’ legions fight the Germans in the forest, now looks not only inaccurate but also crude and small-scale. ‘Oliver’s Gaugamela is the most historically-based battle ever filmed from the ancient world’: that is Lane Fox’s judgement, and I agree with it. Moreover, it is the most spectacular I have ever seen.
How big was an ancient battle? Until now, we have never really seen an image of one on the screen. Only recently has computer-generated-image (CGI) technology reached a point where actors and pictures can appear to join seamlessly. So as the camera pans up and away from the 1500 or so extras to take in a wider view infilled with tens of thousands of virtual men, we see what an ancient battle looked like from the air. ‘It was a shock, and a revelation, to see such vast armies blackening the desert and the hillsides,’ says Lane Fox. ‘On seeing the final battle lines, I could not contain a cry of amazement: I had never begun to imagine the scale, the chaos, the terror which Alexander’s smaller army had confronted. My ideas of a big ancient battle have been changed forever.’
It is not just Stone’s CGI that makes Gladiator look dated. It is also the attention to the detail of battle. His Gaugamela is sometimes obscured by choking clouds of dust – as the ancient sources say it was. The phalanx, organised in blocks of 250 men wielding 18-foot-long pikes, had to be drilled in a real ‘boot camp’ run by a fierce US Army veteran for 17 days. The result, according to Lane Fox, was the first attempt to reconstruct the Macedonian phalanx since the Romans destroyed the original at the battle of Pydna in 167 BC (the victor there, Aemilius Paullus, afterwards claimed that it had been the most terrifying thing he had ever seen). For an Oxford historian, moreover – even one who has been in the saddle since he was 10 – the actual experience of ‘ancient’ cavalry charges quickly sifted fact from fiction. Yes, charging Macedonian cavalry could have managed 12-foot spears, but no, they could not have managed a shield on their left arm as well. Yes, they could charge without saddles and stirrups, and even strike an opponent full in the chest. On the other hand, while it is often fondly imagined that Alexander could be seen clearly at the head of his cavalry, Lane Fox discovered that you can see virtually nothing in the dust and chaos except for the handful of men nearest you.
Does the film have a ‘message’? ‘At no point is [Alexander] a comment on what critics have described as ‘Stone’s USA’, or on contemporary world events,’ explains Lane Fox. This is naive, though, a reflection of the traditional historian’s illusion of ‘objectivity’. Even an academic book – like Lane Fox’s own biography of Alexander – is a cultural artefact of the society in which it is written. A Hollywood movie has to be even more rooted in the present if it is to engage its audience of millions. The director’s conscious intentions are neither here nor there. The past is always discussed in terms of the present. For Babylon, read Baghdad. If Alexander was a hero, what is Bush? You cannot make a film about the conquest of Iraq in 331 BC and pretend it has nothing to do with the conquest of Iraq in 2003 AD.
The real Alexander may have had a ‘vision’ for his empire. Personally, I doubt it: I think he was much more like the ruthless robber-barons of the Crusades. But even if he was an idealist, so what? Many imperialists have claimed nobility of purpose. Does that justify the use of violence to impose a ‘vision’ on others – others who may well have alternative visions of their own but lack the power to achieve them? The film’s message is, therefore, a dubious one – especially now, when another world leader is claiming the right to impose his vision on others by force of arms. Oliver Stone’s Alexander looks too much like an apologist for empire.
Partly, the weakness is Lane Fox’s own. His book was the basis of the film; his advice guided it through scripting, planning and production. Lane Fox’s biography is an application of the ‘great man’ theory of history. Macedonian imperialism is explained mainly as an extension of personal ambition. The hundreds of thousands whose lives were destroyed – by death, enslavement, or the destruction of their homes and farms – do not appear. Alexander’s ‘orientalising’ policy – hiring Persians to run his empire – becomes an act of benevolence instead of a political necessity forced on him by the Macedonians’ tiny numbers in the vastness of Asia. Context is all, and without it ‘great men’ and their ‘visions’ float in a vacuum. That is the real weakness of Stone’s – and Lane Fox’s – Alexander. By contrast – despite the critical carping – the filmmakers are to be congratulated on a movie whose dramatic intensity, historical seriousness and high production standards are commendable.

For more on the background to the film, Robin Lane Fox’s The Making of Alexander, (R&L, £11.95) can be recommended.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 9. Click here to subscribe

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