Alexander the Great is, of course, one of the greatest generals in history. So Alexander (2004, dir. Oliver Stone) is, naturally enough, bookended with two of Alexander’s most important battles. So let’s look at how Stone handles them.
Alexander had four major battles in his Asian Campaign: the Granicus River (334 BC), Issus (333 BC), Gaugamela (331 BC), and the Hydraspes River (326 BC). Stone starts the movie in 331 BC, thus completely eliminating the first two battles. A viewer could be forgiven for thinking Alexander took down the Persians in a single battle. But I think this omission was a reasonable choice. The film is already quite long, and trying to depict those two battles would probably have added another hour or two to the film’s running time.
At Gaugamela, Alexander (Colin Farrell) confronts the forces of Darius III (Raz Degan), and I think Stone does a fair job of trying to capture what the battle looked like. During the battle, Darius’s main force clashed with Alexander’s left wing, under General Parmenion, while the Persian cavalry on the left flank tried to get around Alexander’s right flank. To prevent that, Alexander led his cavalry against Persian cavalry.
Then, when the Persian infantry had engaged the Greek infantry, Alexander led a cavalry charge against Darius’ position, forcing Darius to flee. Alexander could have pursued and perhaps captured Darius, but he received word that Parmenion’s forces had been surrounded by the Persian cavalry, and so he reluctantly broke off the attack to come to Parmenion’s rescue. As a result, he would have to pursue Darius for another year, until the Persian generals killed their own shah.
Overall, this is roughly what Stone offers us, although instead of Darius making the first moves, he has Alexander attempt a flanking maneuver and then encountering the Persian cavalry. But apart from that alteration, the battle plays out roughly according to the sources. Stone gets Alexander’s and Darius’ forces more or less right in terms of what weapon systems they were using. Someone’s posted a sort of epitome of the sequence on Youtube so you can see what the fight looks like.
And, if you jump to about the 5:30 mark, when Alexander is charging at Darius’, you’ll see that Stone has very nicely worked in an allusion to the most famous ancient image of Alexander, the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii.
The problem with the whole scene comes not with what it depicts, but how it treats the two sides. The Greeks are shown as rigidly disciplined while the Persians are shown as being a disorderly mish-mash of troops. In reality, the Persian forces were highly-disciplined, wore uniforms, and used tools like music to communicate tactics and co-ordinate movements. Alexander inspires his men with a speech in which he compares the freedom-loving Greeks, who are fighting for their homeland and averaging the assassination of Philip of Macedon, with the Persian army, whom he describes as slaves to the shah. But if you think about it, it’s hard to see how the Greeks can be fighting for their homeland when they are the ones who invaded Persia.
Alexander’s speech is not without justification, since in some ways it represents the actual propaganda Alexander used to inspire his subjects. The Greeks certainly saw themselves as a ‘free’ people and the Persians as being enslaved. And a careful viewer will realize later in the film, when we see the flashback to Philip’s murder, that the Persians had nothing to do with the assassination and therefore that Alexander must be lying to his men. But the film doesn’t ask the viewer to think of the speech as propaganda and leaves us to assume Alexander is speaking the truth, especially since his speech fits in quite well with Hollywood’s grand tradition of battle speeches praising “freedom”.
So the viewer is left with the sense that the Macedonian troops were better-disciplined and more moral than the Persians. It’s no wonder that some Iranians were offended by the film.
The Hydaspes River
The film bookends Alexander’s campaign with the battle of the Hydaspes River, fought on the Jhelum river (which the Greeks called the Hydaspes) in modern Pakistan. Historically, Alexander decided to force a crossing of the river despite the fact that it was swollen by the monsoon rains. Alexander left a portion of his army facing King Porus across the river, with orders to General Craterus to make feints to lead Porus to think that Alexander would try to cross the river there. Then Alexander led the rest of his forces about 17 miles up-river and crossed unimpeded. He came down the right bank of the river, forcing Porus to move to intercept him while leaving some of his army to face Craterus.
Alexander was able to catch Porus between two wings of cavalry, forcing Porus to further split his forces. The ensuing battle was fought on a muddy plain during a rainstorm. Porus employed about 100 elephants who wreaked havoc among Alexander’s pikemen until Alexander’s javelin-throwers were able to rout the elephants, who then rampaged through Porus’ own troops (it was for just this same reason that the Carthaginians a few centuries later were to nickname their elephants “our mutual enemy.”) After a brutal battle that left a reported 20,000 men dead, Porus was eventually forced to surrender. A year later, after a mutiny by his troops, who were demanding to return home, Alexander reluctantly marched south to the coastline. During a siege, he was badly wounded.
Stone’s Hydaspes, however, comes after the mutiny of the troops. Alexander agrees to let his Macedonians go home, but then petulantly shames them into continuing on, saying that they will be remembered as the ones who abandoned their leader when he marched into India. Then he confronts Porus at Hydaspes. The scene completely omits the river and depicts the battle as a less successful version of Gaugamela, in which Alexander tries unsuccessfully to flank Porus (in the middle of a jungle on a sunny day) and then has to rescue his center flank because the elephants are massacring Craterus’ pikemen. Craterus is killed by an elephant, when in fact he outlived Alexander. Alexander then seeks a confrontation with Porus and comes close to killing him, only to be badly wounded and have his horse Bucephalus killed underneath him. A weakened Alexander decides to return home.
The changes do make a difference in how we understand Alexander. The historical Alexander, after a decade of getting brilliant performance from his troops, finally pushed his men too far, and they were able to force him to bring his campaign to an end. Stone’s Alexander, however, returns home out of his own sense of exhaustion and perhaps a sense of mortality. He remains the master of his troops all the way to the end. So Stone’s version of events is one in which events are shaped purely by Alexander’s personal choices. Had he chosen to continue, he would surely have found a way to get his reluctant soldiers to continue to follow him. This is a Great Man view of history, a common failing of historical biopics.
So while Stone gets the first battle roughly correct, he completely misrepresents the second battle. But at least his battles make sense, unlike some other movie about ancient Greece I could mention.
Want to Know More?
Amazon doesn’t carry the Ultimate Cut, but does carry Alexander, Revisited: The Final Cut (Two-Disc Special Edition). Stone based his film on Robin Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great. Fox is a well-regarded ancient historian, but at almost 600 pages, reading it is a serious commitment. If you want something a bit shorter (and more recent), I liked Ian Worthington’s Alexander the Great: Man and God. If you want to dig a bit deeper into Alexander, you might start with Alexander the Great: A Reader. And if you want to read one of the original sources, start with Arrian’s account, available as The Campaigns of Alexander (Classics). If you want to know more about Alexander’s campaign, you might check out the Osprey publishing book on Alexander 334-323 BC: Conquest of the Persian Empire (Campaign)