Monday, January 31, 2005


If you went to see the movies to see the whole history of Alexander the Great unfold before your eyes, you would have been disappointed in Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Though for the most part (with a few notable exceptions and much artistic license) historically correct, this was not an action blockbuster, detailing the subjugation of the Persian Empire and the lands beyond in blow-by-blow, chronological detail.
As such, Stone’s Alexander was refreshing in its approach. At the film’s opening, all of Asia has been conquered and Alexander deceased. Sitting in the great library at Alexandria, one of the epigonoi, Ptolemy of Egypt dictates to his scribes, not the chronicle of Alexander’s demented search for lebensraum but a deep analysis of his character. This sets the tone for the movie to follow. There will be much cut and thrust, plenty of pitched battles but when all is said and done, this movie’s sole focus is Alexander.
Therein lies the difference between Hollywood blockbuster and art. Those who are unaware of Alexander’s story will leave the movie theatre confused as to the events that transpired during his life. To those however who have been enthralled by him and have studied him at length, Stone offers a personal, artistic interpretation of Alexander’s character. Stone’s offering therefore, is his personal conclusion as to who Alexander really was, as well as the how and why of his achievements. It is in this context that the movie should then be viewed, as an analysis of the psychological dimension of absolute power.
The sub-themes that seem to concern Stone are interwoven within the movie with mixed success. Particularly skilled is his treatment of Alexander’s relationship with his parents and how this haunted him all his life. Olympias, the scheming and insecure Epirot princess, proud of her Achillean ancestry, selflessly devoted to her son, is portrayed masterfully by Angelina Jolie. We are drawn deep into the fearful and dark world of a paranoid and proud woman, despised by her boorish husband, insecure in a world of Byzantine complexity, where the wrong alliance with a dominant family can cost you your life, placing all her dreams, not only of security but also of creating something worthwhile in a barren, relatively uncivilised world, in her young son. Olympias’ love and ambition for her son is all-consuming. Alexander despises her for her overbearing love but cannot extricate himself from her. In a particularly emotionally charged scene, Olympias tells him “ I am your soul,” and in effect she is right. In this film, it is difficult to distinguish where Olympias ends and Alexander begins. She constantly torments his thoughts, to the end of his days. Jolie’s portrayal of Olympias is only ruined by her thick Balkan accent, which obscures her lines. It is however kind of sexy and adds the perfect dimension to the passionate love-hate relationship between her and her troubled offspring, an example of the devastating effects of love going too far. There is a parallel made between Medusa the Gorgon and Olympias, who is always depicted playing with snakes. She is entrancing, but deadly. In a scene key to understanding the film’s purpose, Hephaestion asks Alexander “Have you come so far for glory, or because you are running away from your mother?” Interesting Doktor Freud no?
Philip II is also portrayed in an interesting light. Our first glimpse of him is at a drunken party where he storms into his Olympia’s quarters and tries to rape her in front of the infant Alexander. Another indicative scene is where Phillip leads Alexander, to whom he has difficulties relating, seeing him as an extension of his mother and an unwitting agent of her schemes, to a grotto, where primitive mythological scenes, strangely reminiscent of Lascaux cave paintings, depict human suffering, especially at the motivation of women. Philip’s world-view is one of paranoid suffering. Everyone is out to get you, especially women. While Philip is grudgingly proud of Alexander, his Macedonian upbringing has taught him to trust no one, and his overriding concern is that Alexander does not usurp his throne.
Alexander’s relationship with his parents overshadows all of his conquests. His army constantly compares him with his father and so obsessed is he with not only to emulating but surpassing his father and obtaining his approval long after he is gone, that he sees him in the crowd at his entry into Babylon, as well as in Taxila, while fighting King Porus. Stone highlights this tortured love-hate relationship in a scene where Alexander, like Philip before him attempts to rape his wife. He sees Philip’s face as his own reflection.
Great emphasis seems also to be given to Alexander’s sexuality. Though not graphically depicted, Stone implies that the relationship between Alexander and his companion Hephaestion was that of lovers. This has incensed many in the Greek community throughout the world, who have their own ideas about what virtues and vices a “hero” should possess, homosexuality not being among them. Yet it is myopic to take the view that Stone, in choosing to view Alexander as bisexual, (something for which there is no conclusive proof but plenty of contemporary gossip, especially by the Cynic philosophers, exists) is doing so either to denigrate him or in search of sensationalism. Instead, it is a logical conclusion of his relationship with his parents. There seems to be only room for one woman in the life of Stone’s Alexander, that of his mother and it is significant that Stone has his Alexander remark to his wife how much like Olympias she actually is. In a world where trust is fatal, flatterers and sycophants hide daggers under their smiles and the people who are supposed to love Alexander urge him to greater heights for their own purposes, Alexander relies on Hephaestion’s love for the sole reason that as he says: “He is the only one who loves me for what I am.” It can be quite lonely at the top.
One of the later historical narratives to be included within Greek national myth-making is that of Alexander’s civilising mission. Here Stone really excels in subtly expressing the attitudes of the conqueror towards himself and the Other. Upon entering Babylon for instance, and experiencing the opulent Assyrian culture, a thousand times older and sophisticated than that of northern Greece, Alexander expounds his dream of introducing civilisation to “barbarians” and bringing them freedom through Greek occupation, in tones reminiscent of President George Bush’s inauguration speech where he too, a pale reflection of Alexander, proclaimed his desire to “liberate the world.” Later we see Alexander, unlike George Bush, almost obtaining the sophistication of respecting the importance of traditional culture though this brings him into conflict with his virile generals, exponents of the superiority of the civilization of the conqueror. Whether that is consequent to the centralising tendencies of tyranny or deep understanding is sadly not explored. There is a cleverly woven sub-theme here, that of the eternal attraction of the west to the east, the Drag nach Ost of the Germanic tribes, their desire to dominate it and their inability to understand it. This theme in particular is quite pertinent in our times, considering the policies of the latest superpower in the same region.
While Stone effectively identifies Alexander’s demons, he doesn’t always clearly show how these are manifested. The omission of Alexander’s burning of Persepolis and his acclamation as a god at the Siwa Oasis are serious defects in that they inhibit our understanding of this most complex character. Persian scholars are also justified in their criticism of the way Persians are one-dimensionally portrayed and how their influence on Alexander is merely stated, rather than shown.
Despite the movie being difficult to understand at times due to the heavy accents of its players, it is refreshing to see a film with so much meaningful dialogue. As such it is worth seeing several times, in order to pick out the subtle nuances. Though amusing in parts, such as the inclusion of a Northern Epirot folksong during the battle of Gaugamela (Angelina Jolie seems to think that Epirus was an Albanian kingdom and she states in an interview that she had to learn an ‘Albanian’ accent), Stone’s Alexander is a powerful and meaningful attempt to understand this historically important personality. Whether or not one agrees with his analysis is a separate issue to be coloured by one’s own understanding of how and what of historical figures should be interpreted. At any rate, Stone foreshadows this by including a scene where the Epigonoi fight over Alexander’s corpse and legacy. The fight continues today. Undoubtedly though, Stone’s is an interpretation worthy of consideration, and respect.
First published in NKEE on 31 January 2005