Whatever else you say about the career of Alexander the Great—and classicists, at least, say quite a lot1—it was neither funny nor dull. So it was a sign that something had gone seriously wrong with Oliver Stone’s long, gaudy, and curiously empty new biopic about Alexander when audiences at both showings I attended greeted the movie with snickering and obvious boredom. The first time I saw the picture was at a press screening at a commercial theater, and even from the large central section that was (a personage with a headset informed us) reserved for “friends of the filmmaker” you could hear frequent tittering throughout the film—understandable, given that the characters often have to say things like “from these loins of war, Alexander was born.” A week later, a matinee suggested one likely reaction by those unconstrained by the bonds of amity: at the end of the three-hour-long movie, four of the twelve people in the audience had left.
This was, obviously, not the reaction Stone was hoping for—nor indeed the reaction that Alexander’s life and career deserve, whether you think he was an enlightened Greek gentleman carrying the torch of Hellenism to the East or a savage, paranoid tyrant who left rivers of blood in his wake. The controversy about his personality derives from the fact that our sources are famously inadequate, all eyewitness accounts having perished: what remains is, at best, secondhand (one history, for instance, is based largely on the now-lost memoirs of Alexander’s general and alleged half-brother, Ptolemy, who went on to become the founder of the Egyptian dynasty that ended with Cleopatra), and at worst highly unreliable. A rather florid account by the first-century-AD Roman rhetorician Quintus Curtius often reflects its author’s professional interests—his Alexander is given to extended bursts of eloquence even when gravely wounded—far more than it does the known facts. But Alexander’s story, even stripped of romanticizing or rhetorical elaboration, still has the power to amaze.
He was born in 356 BC, the product of the stormy marriage between Philip II of Macedon and his temperamental fourth wife, Olympias, a princess from Epirus (a wild western kingdom encompassing parts of present-day Albania). His childhood was appropriately dramatic. At around twelve he had already gained a foothold on legend by taming a magnificent but dangerously wild stallion called Bucephalas (“Oxhead”)—a favorite episode in what would become, after Alexander’s death, a series of increasingly fantastical tales and legends that finally coalesced into a literary narrative known as the Alexander Romance, which as time passed was elaborated, illuminated, and translated into everything from Latin to Armenian. While still in his early teens, he was at school with no less a teacher than Aristotle, who clearly made a great impression on the youth. Years later, as he roamed restlessly through the world, Alexander took care to send interesting zoological and botanical specimens back to his old tutor.
At sixteen he’d demonstrated enough ability to get himself appointed regent when his father, a shrewd statesman and inspired general who dreamed of leading a pan-Hellenic coalition against Persia, was on campaign. He used this opportunity to make war on an unruly tribe on Macedon’s eastern border; to mark his victory he founded the first city he named after himself, Alexandropolis. At eighteen, under his father’s generalship, he led the crack Macedonian cavalry to a brilliant victory at the Battle of Chaeronea, where Macedon crushed an Athenian-Theban coalition, thereby putting an end to southern Greek opposition to Macedonian designs on hegemony. At twenty, following the assassination of Philip—in which he (or Olympias, or perhaps both) may have had a hand—he was king.
And that was just the beginning. At twenty-two, Alexander led his father’s superbly trained army across the Hellespont into Asia. Next he liberated the Greek cities of Asia Minor from their Persian overlords (i.e., made them his own: the governors he appointed were not always champions of Hellenic civic freedoms), staged his most brilliant military victory by successfully besieging the Phoenician island fortress of Tyre (part of his strategy to “defeat the Persian navy on land” by seizing its bases), and freed a grateful Egypt from harsh Persian suzerainty. While in Egypt, he indulged in one of the bizarre gestures that, wholly apart from his indisputable genius as a general, helped make him a legend: he made an arduous and dangerous detour to the oracle of Ammon in the desert oasis of Siwah, where the god revealed that Alexander was in fact his own son—a conclusion with which Alexander himself came more and more to agree. While in Egypt he also founded the most famous of his Alexandrias, a city that eventually displaced Athens as the center of Greek intellectual culture, and where his marvelous tomb, a tourist attraction for centuries after, would eventually rise.
Although Alexander had, apparently, set out simply to complete his father’s plan—that is, to drive the Persians away from the coastal cities of Asia Minor, which for centuries had been culturally Greek, ostensibly in retaliation for a century and a half of destructive Persian meddling in Greek affairs—it’s clear that once in Asia, he began to dream much bigger dreams. Within three years of crossing the Hellespont, he had defeated the Persian Great King, Darius III, in a series of three pitched battles—Granicus, Issus, and Gaugemela—in which he triumphed against sometimes dire odds. It was in the rout that followed Issus that Darius fled the field of battle, leaving his wife, children, and even his mother behind in the baggage train. Alexander, with characteristic largesse and fondness for the beau geste—like most extravagant personalities, he had a capacity for generosity as great as his capacity for ruthlessness—honorably maintained the captives in royal state.
His brilliant victory on the plain of Gaugemela in Mesopotamia in October, 331 BC, made him the most powerful man the world had ever known, ruler of territories from the Danube in the north, to the Nile valley in the south, to the Indus in the east. He was also the world’s richest person: the opulent treasuries of the Persians at Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis yielded him the mind-boggling sum of 180,000 silver talents—the sum of three talents being enough to make someone a comfortable millionaire by today’s standards.
After Gaugemela, Alexander, driven by a ferocious will to power or inspired by an insatiable curiosity (or both), just kept going. He turned first to the northeast, where he subdued stretches of present-day Afghanistan, Uzbekhistan, and Tajikistan, and there took as a wife the beautiful Roxana, daughter of a local chieftain, much to the consternation of his xenophobic aides. Then he moved to the south, where his designs on India—he believed it to be bordered by the “Encircling Ocean,” he longed to see—were thwarted, in the end, not by military defeat but by the exhaustion and demoralization of his men, who by that point, understandably, wanted to head back to Macedon and enjoy their loot. Himself demoralized by this failure in support, and suffering the effects of his gravest wound to date, from an arrow that pierced his lung during a battle with the Malli, a fierce Indian tribe, Alexander relented and agreed to turn back.
The westward journey through the arid wastes of the Macran desert toward Babylon, which he planned to make the capi-tal of his new world empire, is often called his 1812: he lost tens of thousands of the souls who set out with him during the two-month march. That tactical catastrophe was followed by an emotional one: after the army regained the Iranian heartland, Alexander’s bosom companion, the Macedonian nobleman Hephaistion—almost certainly the King’s longtime lover, someone whom Alexander, obsessed with Homer’s Iliad and believing himself to be descended from Achilles, imagined as his Patroclus—died of typhus. (The two young men had made sacrifices together at the tombs of the legend-ary heroes when they reached the ruins of Troy at the beginning of their Asian campaign.) This grievous loss precipitated a severe mental collapse in the King, who had, in any event, grown increasingly unstable and paranoid. Not without reason: there were at least two major conspiracies against his life after Gaugemela, both incited by close associates who’d grown disgruntled with his increasingly pro-Persian policies.
Within a year, he himself was dead—perhaps of poison, as some have insisted on believing,2 but far more likely of the cumulative effects of swamp fever (he’d chosen, foolishly or perhaps self-destructively, to pass the summer in Babylon), a lifetime of heavy drinking, and the physical toll taken by his various wounds. He was thirty-two.
There can be no doubt that the world as we know it would have a very different shape had it not been for Alexander, who among other things vastly expanded, through his Grecification of the East, the reach of Western culture, and prepared the soil, as it were, for Rome and then Christianity. But as extraordinarily significant as this story is, little of it would be very interesting to anyone but historians and classicists were it not for the added factor of what the Greeks called pothos—“longing.” The best and most authoritative of the ancient sources for Alexander’s career are the Anabasis (“March Up-Country”) and Indica (“Indian Affairs”) by the second-century-AD historian and politician Arrian, a Greek from Nicomedia (part of the Greek-speaking East that Alexander helped to create) who was a student of Epictetus and flourished under the philhellene emperor Hadrian. Throughout his account of Alexander’s life, the word pothos recurs to describe the yearning that, as the historian and so many others before and after him believed, motivated Alexander to seek far more than mere conquest.
The word is used by Arrian of Alexander’s yearning to see new frontiers, to found new cities, to loosen the famous Gordian knot, to explore the Caspian Sea. It is used, significantly, to describe his striving to outdo the two divinities with whom he felt a special bond, Herakles and Dionysos, in great deeds. An excerpt from the beginning of the final book of Arrian’s Anabasis nicely sums up the special quality that the pothos motif lends to Alexander’s life, making its interest as much literary, as it were, as historical:
For my part I cannot determine with certainty what sort of plans Alexander had in mind, and I do not care to make guesses, but I can say one thing without fear of contradiction, and that is that none was small and petty, and he would not have stopped conquering even if he’d added Europe to Asia and the Britannic Islands to Europe. On the contrary, he would have continued to seek beyond them for unknown lands, as it was ever his nature, if he had no rival, to strive to better the best.3
What Alexander’s psychology and motives were, we are in a particularly poor position to judge, the contemporary sources being absent. But there can be little doubt that the quality that Arrian describes here—the restlessness, the burning desire to see and to know new things and places for (it seems) the sake of knowing—is what captured the imagination of the world in his own time and afterward.
Particularly striking was his openness to the new cultures to which his conquests had exposed him—not least, because it showed a king who had clearly outgrown the notoriously xenophobic ways of the Greeks. This new sensibility expressed itself in some of Alexander’s boldest and best-remembered gestures, all of which have the touch of the poetic, even the visionary about them: his courtly behavior toward the family of the defeated Darius (the Persian emperor’s mother became so close to the man who defeated her son that on hearing that he had died, she turned her face to the wall and starved herself to death); his creation of a vast new army of 30,000 Iranian “Successors,” meant to replace his retiring Macedonian troops (which provoked a mutiny among the Macedonians); the grand mass wedding he devised the year before he died, in which he and nearly a hundred of his highest officers were married, in the Eastern rite, to the cream of Persia’s aristocratic women as a symbol of the unification of the two peoples.
Yet however much it resulted in a desire to form a new hybrid culture, the appeal of Alexander’s pothos is precisely that it seemed to be an expression of something elementally Greek. Travel for the sake of knowing, a burning desire to experience new worlds at whatever cost, and the irreversible pain that results whenever a Western “anthropologist” makes contact with new civilizations: these are, of course, themes of another archaic text, although not the one Alexander associated himself with. He may have seen the Iliad as the blueprint of his life, but what gives his life such great narrative and imaginative appeal for us is, in fact, that it looked so much like the Odyssey. Indeed, he was, perhaps, Tennyson’s Odysseus as much as Homer’s. Without pothos, Alexander is just another conqueror. With it, he’s the West’s first Romantic hero, and possibly its first celebrity.
Much of the problem with Stone’s movie arises because it is torn between the facts of Alexander’s life and the romance of his personality—between showing you all the research that’s been done (there are fussy recreations of everything from Alexander’s tactics to Darius’ toilette) and persuading you of Alexander’s allure. Between these two horses the movie falls, and never gets back on its feet.
Much has been made in the press of the scrupulousness with which the director endeavored to remain true to the known facts: “historical accuracy” was heralded as a hallmark of this latest in a string of big-budget Hollywood treatments of classical material. Stone retained a retired Marine captain as his military adviser; and engaged Robin Lane Fox, the author of a popular biography of Alexander, as a historical consultant, in return for allowing Fox, an expert horseman, to participate in a big battle scene—a remunerative strategy that, I fervently hope, will not recur in the cases of classicists called to advise future toga-and-sandal epics.
There is no denying that a lot of the film is richly detailed, despite some inexplicable gaffes—why a mosaic wall map in the Greek-speaking Ptolemy’s Egyptian palace should be written in Latin is anybody’s guess—and absurd pretensions. (The credits are bilingual, with awkward transliterations of the actors’ names into Greek characters: To whom, exactly, is it necessary to know that Philip II was played by “OUAL KILMER”?) Research has obviously gone into matters both large and small, from the curls in Darius’ beard to the layout of the battle of Gaugemela, which at thirty minutes makes up one fifth of the entire film, and which has been dutifully recreated in all its noise and confusion, right down to the clouds of orange dust we are told obscured the field of battle. Even in the much-discussed matter of the accents the actors are made to assume, there is in fact a certain method: Stone has all the actors portraying Macedonians speak with an Irish (and sometimes a Highland) brogue, the better to suggest the cultural relationship of the back-country Macedonians to their lofty Greek counterparts. (To poor Olympias, played with scenery-devouring glee by Angelina Jolie, he has given a peculiar Slavic drawl.)
And yet the matter of accents, however admirably motivated, also helps to illuminate a weakness that is characteristic of the film in general. For the director’s clever notion ends up being an empty gesture, since there are virtually no Greeks in his film for the Macedonians to be contrasted with. Apart, that is, from a two-minute appearance by Christopher Plummer as Aristotle, who is shown lecturing to his pubescent charges among a pile of fallen marble columns, describing the differences between the beneficial and the deleterious brands of same-sex love—a scene patently included in order to prepare audiences for the fact that little Alexander and Hephaistion will grow up to be more than just wrestling partners. (Provided with this Aristotelian introduction, we are supposed to breathe easy in the assumption that they’re the kind who “lie together in knowledge and virtue.”) The absence of Greeks in the movie is more than structurally incoherent: it is a serious historical omission, given that Alexander’s troubles with the Greeks back home were a critical problem throughout his career.
The narrative of much of Alexander has, indeed, a haphazard feel: it’s not at all clear, throughout the three hours of the film, on what basis Stone chose to include, or omit, various events. Vast stretches of the story are glossed, with patent awkwardness, by a voice-over narration by the aged Ptolemy, who is shown in a prologue sequence that takes place in his palace in Alexandria, busily writing his history forty years after Alexander’s death. But the film misses many crucial opportunities to dramatize its subject by lurching from Alexander’s youth to his victory at Gaugemela: there is nothing about Egypt, no oracle at Siwah, an event of the highest importance and well worth visual representation, and no double sacrifice at Ilium, which would have nicely suggested the intensity of Alexander’s attachment both to the Achilles myth and to Hephaistion—certainly more so than the silly dialogue about “wild deer listening in the wind” that Stone puts in the lovers’ mouths. (As with many an ancient epic, this one veers between a faux-biblical portentousness and excruciating attempts at casualness: “Aristotle was perhaps prescient.”) Even after Gaugemela, there are inexcusable omissions. Where, you wonder, is Darius’ mother; where, crucially, the mass interracial wedding pageant at Susa? And what about the story of the Gordian knot, a favorite that famously demonstrated Alexander’s approach to problem-solving?
What does get packed into the film, on the other hand, is often treated so perfunctorily as to be meaningless, to say nothing of confusing to those who don’t know the life; a better title for this film would have been Lots of Things That Happened to Alexander. Famous tidbits of the biography—a reference to his tendency to cock his head to one side; another to an embarrassing episode in which his father mocked his fondness for singing—are awkwardly referred to en passant to no purpose other than to show that the screenwriters know about them. Much that is of far greater importance is similarly poorly handled: the conspiracies against his life, the mutiny in India, and above all his ongoing and ultimately failed efforts to impose the “prostration,” the Persian ritual obeisance to the king, on Macedonians and Persians alike are either so briefly alluded to or so hurriedly depicted as to leave you wondering what they were about. Historical characters are similarly paraded across the screen, often without being introduced, again merely to show that the filmmakers have done their homework. The beautiful Persian eunuch Bagoas, who our sources tell us was presented to Alexander as a peace offering by a surrendering satrap, suddenly appears, in this version, as little more than an extra in the harem at Babylon, and the next thing you know he’s giving Alexander baths.
There is little mystery, on the other hand, about why other episodes are prominently featured. The courtship and marriage to Roxana, for instance, get a disproportionate amount of screen time—not least, you can’t help feeling, because Stone, whatever the loud claims that here, at last, was a film that would fearlessly depict Alexander’s bisexuality, was like so many other directors eager to please his target audience of eighteen-to-twenty-six-year-old males. Hephaistion and Alexander occasionally give each other brief, manly hugs, whereas a lengthy, stark-naked wedding-night wrestling match between Alexander and Roxana makes it clear that they, at least, were not going to be lying together in knowledge and virtue. The sexual aspect of Alexander’s relationship with his longtime lover is relegated to Ptolemy’s voice-over: you don’t envy Anthony Hopkins having to declare that Alexander “was only conquered by Hephaistion’s thighs,” one of the many clunkers that evoked snickers from the audience.
The obligation to cram in so much material affects Stone’s visual style, which—apart from some striking sequences, such as a thrilling and imaginatively filmed battle between the Macedonians on their horses and the Indians on their elephants—is often jumbled and incoherent. There’s a famous story about how, when the captive Persian royals were presented to the victorious Alexander, the queen mother, mistaking the taller and handsomer Hephaistion for the King, made obeisance to him. “Don’t worry, Mother,” Alexander is reported to have said, “he, too, is Alexander.” This crucial encounter, so rich in psychologically telling detail, is filmed so confusingly in Alexander that it’s impossible to tell, among other things, that the Persian lady (here, for no reason at all, it’s Darius’ wife rather than his mother) has made a mistake to begin with, and so the entire episode disintegrates into nonsense.
What all this betrays is a problem inherent in all biography, which is that a life, however crammed with dazzling incident, does not necessarily have the shape of a good drama. The reason it’s exhausting, and ultimately boring, to sit through Alexander—and why the movie is already disappearing from theaters—is that while it dutifully represents certain events from Alexander’s childhood to his death, there’s no dramatic arc, no shaping of the life into a good story. They’re just being ticked off a list. To my mind, this failing is best represented by the way in which the action of Stone’s movie suddenly and inexplicably grinds to a halt three quarters of the way through in order to make way for an extended flashback to Philip’s assassination a decade earlier. It seemed to come out of nowhere, was lavishly treated, and then disappeared, as the filmmaker scrambled to get to the next historically accurate moment. A lot of Alexander is like that.
None of this would matter much if the film had managed to convey Alexander’s unique appeal. From the very beginning of his film it’s clear that Oliver Stone has succumbed to the romance of Alexander, and wants us to, too. “It was an empire not of land or of gold but of the mind,” Ptolemy muses aloud as he shuffles around his palace, which itself is a fairly typical mix of the scrupulously accurate and the inexplicably wrong. The scrolls piled in the cubbyholes of his library rightly bear the little identifying tags that were the book jackets of the classical world; on the other hand, the tacky statuary on Ptolemy’s terrace looks suspiciously like the work of J. Seward Johnson Jr. “I’ve known many great men in my life, but only one colossus,” he drones on, as a put-upon secretary scurries after him with a roll of papyrus.
You can’t help thinking that one reason you’re told so explicitly and so often about the greatness of Alexander the Great is that the actor Stone has chosen to portray Alexander is incapable of conveying it himself. Colin Farrell is an Irishman with a sly, trickster’s face that betrays nothing of what may be going on behind it; in films like Phone Booth, in which he plays a sleazy PR executive, he has a skittish authenticity. He shares certain physical characteristics with Alexander—like the Macedonian, the Irishman is small, a bantamweight who looks fast on his feet. (Alexander himself was such a good runner that for a while he was considered a candidate for the Olympic games, until he protested that he’d only compete against kings.) But he simply doesn’t have the qualities necessary to suggest Alexander’s remarkable cha-risma. As he trudges through the film earnestly spouting lines that describe what we know Alexander was thinking (“I’ve seen the future…these people want—need—change”), he looks more and more like what he in fact is: a Hibernian character actor with a shaggy-browed poker face trapped in a glamorous leading man’s part.
The void at the center of this biopic must be especially embarrassing to the filmmakers, given how much they made about another aspect of the film’s attempts at capturing “historical accuracy”: the grueling boot-camp training that Farrell and the actors playing his troops had to go through in order (you assume) to lend his on-screen generalship authenticity. The night before the press screening I attended, the Discovery Channel aired a documentary entitled Becoming Alexander, which showed Farrell jogging under the hot Moroccan sun with the loyal extras and talking about the bond that had grown up between him and the men whom he would be leading into cinematic battle. A military expert hired to advise the filmmaker opined that, as a result of this earnest process, Farrell had been transformed from “an Irish street kid” into a “leader of men.”
Whatever else it illuminates, the patent fatuity of this hype—if the actor hadn’t attended the boot camp, would the extras have disobeyed his orders at Gaugemela?—suggests that Alexander gets at least one thing across successfully: the vanity of the filmmakers. With its dramatically meaningless detail and almost total failure to convey the central allure of its subject, the film at least betrays its creators’ satisfaction with their own effort and expense—with, that is to say, their ability to outdo other classical epics that have sprung up since Gladiator was a hit a few years ago. But the reason Gladiator was successful was not that its characters sported togas and lolled about in Roman orgies, but that it had an irresistible story: forbidden love, jealousy, murder, revenge. For all the talk of authenticity and identification with the ancients on the part of the director and actors responsible for Alexander, no one seems to have paused to wonder, while they spent months and millions on recreating the Battle of Gaugemela with ear-splitting, eye-popping verisi-militude, whether the “accuracy” of such a reconstruction of the classical past actually adds anything to our understanding of that past—whether it helps tell the story or enhances our appreciation of why Alexander may be more worth making a movie about than other ancient conquerors. To my knowledge, there are no medieval romances about Julius Caesar in Armenian.
If the above sounds disappointed, it is. I became a classicist because of Alexander the Great: at thirteen I read Mary Renault’s intelligent and artful novels about Alexander, Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy (the latter told from the point of view of Bagoas the eunuch), and I was hooked. Adolescence, after all, is about nothing if not pothos; the combination of great deeds and strange cultures, the romantic blend of the youthful hero, that Odyssean yearning, strange rites, and panoramic moments—all spiced with a dash of polymorphous perversity about which no one seemed to care—were too alluring to resist. From that moment on all I wanted was to know more about these Greeks. Naturally I’ve learned a great deal since then, and know about, and largely believe, the revisionist views of Alexander, the darker interpretation of the events I read about thirty years ago in fictional form; but I will admit that a little of that allure, that pothos, still clings to the story—and to the Greeks—for me.
Soon after I read Renault’s novels (from which, I couldn’t help noticing, a good deal in Stone’s film is borrowed without credit, not least a Freudian scene illuminating the sources of Alexander’s hatred of his father, and perhaps of his indifference to women), I wrote the author a fan letter which I concluded by shyly hoping that she wouldn’t reply with a form letter. Her response, which was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted until her death ten years later, and which inspired me to go on and study Classics, came to my mind when I was hearing Colin Farrell described as a leader of men in Becoming Alexander. “I wonder,” Miss Renault wrote to me in April 1976,
whoever told you I’d send you a “form letter” if you wrote to me. Are there really writers who do that? I knew film stars do. You can’t blame them, really…about half the people who write to them must be morons who think they really are Cleopatra or whoever…. Writers, though, write to communicate; and when someone to whom one has got through takes the trouble to write and tell one so, it would be pretty ungrateful to respond with something off a duplicator.
Because filmmakers are now as addled as fans, this new fictionalized Alexander isn’t getting through to many people. I certainly doubt that it will inspire some young bookish boy somewhere to be a classicist, or a writer, or both.
Correction February 10, 2005
The scholar Waldemar Heckel, for instance, routinely updates the bibliography he maintains at hum.ucalgary.ca/wheckel/bibl/alex-bibl.pdf; it currently runs to fifty-one single-spaced pages, numbering over twelve hundred items, seven hundred of which have appeared since 1972. ↩
The scholarship just on the death of Alexander is itself vast, and serves as a footnote to a long line of fanciful popular conspiracy theories, the latest of which is Paul Doherty’s The Death of Alexander the Great: What—or Who—Really Killed the Young Conqueror of the Known World? (Carroll and Graf, 2004), which concludes that an ambitious Ptolemy, “intent on murder,” poisoned the King with arsenic. ↩
Cited in Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past (Overlook, 2004), p. 221. ↩