Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC) is one of the most famous and successful conquerors in history, and his conquests had enormous and far-reaching effects. So it’s a little surprising that so few films have been devoted to him. Apart from two Bollywood movies about him and an Italian animated film, there have only been two films about him, 1956’s Alexander the Great, starring Richard Burton, and 2004’s Alexander (2004, dir. Oliver Stone), starring Colin Farrell.
Writing a biography of Alexander is a challenging thing, because the earliest sources about Alexander have been completely lost. Alexander had a professional historian, Callisthenes, who served him and wrote a history of Alexander (although he did not accompany him on his campaign). Callisthenes’ work is now lost, but it was used as a source by Ptolemy and Cleitarchus (the former of whom had known Alexander well, being one of his generals) when they wrote their histories of Alexander. Another of Alexander’s officers, Aristobulus, also wrote a history of the conqueror, and his admiral, Nearchus wrote about Alexander’s exploits in India. But none of these histories have survived either.
Instead, what has survived are the works of much later historians who quoted Cleitarchus, Ptolemy, and Aristobulus in their works. For example Diodorus wrote his history around the year 30 BC, drawing off of Cleitarchus’ account. Curtius Rufus, writing about 60 years later, used Cleitarchus and Ptolemy’s histories. Arrian, writing in the early 2nd century AD, tapped Ptolemy, Aristobulus, and Nearchus but ignored Cleitarchus. Plutarch, writing about the same time as Arrian, used all but Nearchus. (Confused? Here is a page that explains it.)
So the result is that the most reliable sources can only be known through other, much later sources. These sources often disagree. The various sources mention a range of legends about Alexander, some plausible, some not. The result is a rather confusing welter of possibilities about who Alexander was, what he did and what he wanted.
So perhaps it’s fitting that Oliver Stone struggled to produce a film that told the conqueror’s story. When Alexander was released in the theaters, it was as a 175-minute version, reportedly with some cuts having been made because of pressure over the films depiction of Alexander’s homosexual relationships (a group of Greek lawyers threatened to sue Warner Brothers at one point). When it was issued on DVD a year later, Stone’s Director’s Cut was 167 minutes, with footage taken out and other footage added and scenes in a different order. In 2007, Stone released Alexander Revisited: the Final Director’s Cut, which was 214 minutes long. Then, in 2012, Stone released his Ultimate Cut, a 206-minute version that Stone swore would be his last. Thus far he’s kept his word.
I saw the original theatrical release in 2004, and my memories of it are hazy, except that Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie, playing Alexander’s parents Philip and Olympias, were involved in a scenery-chewing contest in which the winner was whomever was being paid to build replacement sets. My reaction at the time was pretty much a big ‘meh’.
But when I sat down to watch the Ultimate Cut, which is what Netflix has, I came away relatively impressed. The film has serious problems. It’s long and at time it drags. Alexander inherits his parents’ tendency toward histrionics, especially as he gets older. The film compresses various details, attributes historical actions to different people, and omits the first three years of Alexander’s campaign against the Persians. And it’s reluctant to depict Alexander’s homosexual relationships (although it does, if you listen closely, acknowledge that Alexander and Hephaestion [Jared Leto] were lovers) while dwelling at length on Alexander’s consummation of his marriage to Roxane (Rosario Dawson).
But it still does a very good job of telling a coherent story about who Alexander was, what motivated him, and what he did. Farrell’s Alexander is a man haunted by his awkward relationship with his drunken father and his increasingly hostile relationship with his shrewish, demanding mother, who is convinced that Alexander’s real father was the god Zeus. Convinced that Philip’s decision to take a second wife means that she and Alexander will be pushed aside, Olympias probably orchestrates Philip’s very public assassination to ensure that her son will become king. So Alexander spends his whole adult life trying to outdo his father and to get as far away from his mother as geographically possible. His father is a drunkard who violently assaults Olympias at least once, a dynamic he recreates with Roxane, who is jealous of Hephaeston, who is in turn jealous of Alexander’s relationship with the slave Bagoas (Francisco Bosch). He also struggles with the things that the philosopher Aristotle taught him, and wrestles with the question of whether he can match the deeds of Heracles and the other sons of Zeus. And his relationships with his generals and battle-companions veer from warm camaraderie to political quarrelling and jealous accusations of betrayal. This Alexander is a complicated, tormented man, pulled in many different directions at once, and in that sense he is perhaps one of the most complex characters ever put on the screen. It’s a fitting attempt to capture the personality of a man who both an historical giant and a mystery.
Stone also demonstrates that he has a keen mind for how to depict warfare on the screen. He does a good job making his two major battle scenes, Gaugamela and Hydaspes, intelligible to the viewer. At Gaugamela, he makes excellent use of a literal bird’s-eye view to help the viewer understand the overall battle while also explaining to the viewer that different portions of the army are doing different things. He smartly labels the scenes “Macedonian Center” or “Macedonian Right” so that viewers can understand how Alexander’s unit relates to the other parts of the army in the middle of the fighting. And at Hydaspes, Stone makes breath-taking use of cinematography in a scene in which Alexander, mounted on his faithful horse Bucephalus, confronts the Indian king Porus, riding in a howdah on the back of an elephant. Watch the scene for yourself and tell me that the shot isn’t breath-taking.
One of the things about the film that I like is that it purports to be the memoirs of Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), now an old man, having ruled Egypt for decades. The film opens and closes with Hopkins dictating his account to a pair of scribes. The film has a complex structure; within Ptolemy’s narrative, we get the sequential account of Alexander’s adult conquests interspersed with sequential flashbacks to Alexander’s childhood, as we see the various events that shape who Alexander was to become. Ptolemy’s narration explains key background facts and provides commentary on various events. And because the whole film is Ptolemy’s reminiscences, we are always aware that the events we are seeing are history.
Because of this, we know the film is not the events as they happened but Ptolemy’s version of those events (although he’s a bit of an omniscient narrator, since he knows what Alexander says to his lovers in private moments). This allows Stone to play around with the complexity of his historical sources. He shows us key moments, such as Philip’s murder, an attempt to poison Alexander, the death of Hephaistion, and Alexander’s death, without giving us a statement of exactly why those events happened. And then Ptolemy later comments about what he thinks happened.
For example, Philip’s murder takes place when he is appearing at a public spectacle. One of his bodyguards, Pausanius, walks up to him, kisses him, and then stabs him to death. Olympias watches the whole scene impassively, having already hinted to Alexander that he ought to remove his father before his father removes him. In an earlier scene, however, Philip is shown anally raping Pausanius during a drunken party. And early in the film, Alexander has repeatedly declared that the Persians were behind the murder.
The viewer is left to decide what happened. Did Pausanius commit the murder out of a desire for revenge? Did Olympias orchestrate it? Pausanius clearly had some help, since when he flees he is trying to meet up with another man who has a spare horse, but he falls and Cleitus spears him before he can be interrogated. Was Cleitus part of the plot? The whole scene follows one in which Cleitus and Alexander have a falling out during a drinking party and Alexander spears Cleitus. Could Alexander have been part of the plot? At the end of the film, Ptolemy comments that Olympias was probably the one behind the murder.
What’s going here is that Stone is playing around with the contradictory sources about the incident. Diodorus, expanding on a comment made by Aristotle, claims that Pausanius committed the murder out of revenge for being raped. But other sources claim that Olympias lavished honors on the dead Pausanius, including putting a crown on his corpse, suggesting that she was behind the crime. Alexander clearly stood to gain quite a lot from the murder. And Alexander blamed the murder on Darius, using it as an excuse to invade Persia. So the film gives us at least three different perspectives on the killing before finally giving us Ptolemy’s idea of what happened.
Similarly, when Hephaeston dies, Alexander suspects poison and confronts Roxane, who denies the charge. He then throws a party in which he drinks a large amount of wine and immediately falls ill, with symptoms not unlike Hephaeston’s. Stone leaves it ambiguous just what happened. Is Alexander trying to get himself poisoned after his lover has died? Or is he distraught about the man’s death and seeking to get drunk to forget what’s happened? Is he just exhibiting his father’s alcoholism? At the end of the film, Ptolemy comments that many suspected Roxane in Hephaestion’s death and suspected one of the generals, Cassander, of poisoning Alexander. Ptolemy comments that Cassander fabricated Alexander’s diaries in an attempt to depict him as a bloated drunk, in order to make his death seem more natural.
And then he drops the bombshell. “The truth is, we did kill him. By silence we consented, because… because we couldn’t go on….What did we have to look forward to in the end, but to be discarded like Cleitas?” A few moments later he turns to the scribe. “Throw all that away. It’s just an old man’s rubbish. You shall write, ‘he died of a fever in a weakened condition.’”
Once again, Stone is playing with the complex question of what actually happened. Different ancient sources offered varying claims about exactly what Alexander died of, either poison or a fever (perhaps malaria). Consequently modern historians are divided about the role that alcohol, poison, illness, or some other problem might have played in Alexander’s death.
And Ptolemy’s confession is ambiguous. Is he admitting that there was an actual plot among the generals to murder Alexander, or when he says “by silence we consented,” is he just expressing a sense of guilt that he might have saved Alexander had he acted differently? Is this just an old man’s momentary foolishness, or something true? Regardless, Ptolemy immediately rewrites his text, obscuring the truth for posterity, and reminding the audience that this is history as it is written, not history as it happened.
Stone also uses Ptolemy to explain what happened to other characters after Alexander’s death. Cassander assassinated Olympias a few years later, and a few years after that poisoned Roxane and her young son. Roxane had already poisoned one of her rivals, Stateira. Bagoas simply disappeared, perhaps wisely, given what was happening around him. Ptolemy got Alexander’s body and followed him as pharaoh of Egypt. The scene is a bit wordy, but a nice variation on the usual “what happened to the characters” epilogue.
And then, in the epilogue, Stone gives us one last twist of the sources, telling us that Ptolemy’s memoirs were lost with the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria. So what we can know about Alexander is a rewrite of a rewrite of a writing of the past, and not the past itself.
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).