AlexanderThe Defeated Conqueror
By: Aydin Aghdashloo
According to Will Durant, "Alexander was a handsome young man with piercing blue eyes and blonde hair." You could see the balanced composition of his face on the coins remaining from his times. But with his dark eyes located so close to each other, his stiff broken nose and highlighted hair and thin lips and open-ended downfallen mouth, Colin Farrel, the Alexander in Oliver Stone's film, looks more like a young George W. Bush than a young man who “ccording to the description given by his contemporaries was uniquely handsome and fair."
Alexander was the son of Macedonian Philip although inspired by his mother's suggestions, Alexander himself believed to be the son of Zeus the God of all Gods. It was Philip who started the conquest of Greece. He smashed with his well trained army any Greek city which refused to obey his rule. He left his killing machine, the Falangists, as his legacy for his son along with an aspiration to conquer the great Achaemenian empire of Persia.
The young Alexander rose to throne when he was 20. He was born in 356 BC. It took him 13 years to capture the entire Achaemenian Persia from Egypt to India. He died of malaria in Babylon when he was only 33. He had a burning desire to explore and go to the end of the world and Hellenize the whole world although he had ruined Greece - "He demolished Thebes, killed its men and sold its women and children as slaves." – and wherever he stepped, he created a new Alexandria. But unlike what we see in this film or read in the books of history written by his admirers, like his father and later world devourers, this pupil of Aristotle wanted to capture the rich lands laid far away. Whenever his soldiers effused to go ahead, he flared up their greed and promised them further looting.
The main objective of this father and son was conquering the world. They terrorized Greece by defeating Athens and demolishing Thebes and gave themselves a mission which made Macedonia superior in the hands of Macedonian warriors who made Greek honor and perfection extinct.
Isocrates had said previously that "a small company of Greek troops could defeat a whole army of Persians." This was the case indeed as 47 thousand Greek warriors, often homosexuals, defeated the army of Darius III, several times their size but otherwise separated by ethnic differences and lack of a proper command.
Alexander was paradoxical. He loved art and philosophy, he was a commander, generous, ambitious, sensitive, sentimental, constructive and committed and at the same time he was an angry man who let and shed blood easily, he was superstitious, brutal, arrogant, revengeful, destructively violent and melancholic.
He is definitely the most well known conqueror of the ancient world. And as history is authored by conquerors, his many admirers including Plutarch, Bossuet and Montaigne could forgive the destruction of Thebes and the killing of Menander and Hephaestion and all those Iranian captives to his young age and short life and good luck. Historians such as Plutarch have given him such an unbelievable collection of exaggerated attributes of genius that one could hardly look and find a bit of truth in their accounts of his life. On the other hand, another historian, Xenophon finds such a perfect being in Cyrus the Great and writes Cyropaedia not as a realistic account of his life but as the outcome of an endeavor to portray the perfect and ideal man.
With the death of Alexander and the splitting of his territory by and between his numerous warlords, often incompetent ones, the ambition for Hellenizing the world did not last as long as fifty years; while the Achaemenian world endured up to some 200 years after the death of Cyrus. But Alexander's life went on alongside history as of the moment of his death and is still continuing today.
Like other admirers of Alexander's, Oliver Stone developed his character around the ideal man who was so ambitious to want to conquer the world rather than the 24-year-old paradoxical nosy young man. A man who is after an illusion; that of reaching to the end of the world and finding what Iranian historians call "the water of eternal life". A man who rose to power for 13 years thanks to his good luck and ruled over a vast territory before being defeated by a culture he disdained.
The art of film is not indebted to truth and has failed to, or rather has never wanted to, narrate the truth and the whole of the truth. Art is something and history is something else which is written, according to Oliver Cromwell, by a bunch of liars. Oliver Stone's claim about his historical look in films such as Nixon, JFK, Platoon and Salvador has never gone anywhere beyond the populist demand for disclosure. He conceals his left-wing tendencies in the disguise of historical narration. So, it is essential to separate the false and deliberately forgotten layers of his film in order to find out his true intentions. When he made JFK about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the “Time” magazine dedicated a whole issue to separating facts from lies in that film. The magazine found tens of forged points. It is obvious that the director wanted to blame the Cuban expatriates in Florida for the assassination much to the delight of Fidel Castro. He absolutely forged the mysterious character played by Donald Sutherland. Later, he had to apologize for this.
Nixon too is full of added false information and the mixing of right and wrong and true and false. Like Salvador, this film follows a definite hidden agenda. But the artist's selective account of history is nothing new. Neither has it undermined the credibility of such films as Abel Gance's Napoleon, Anthony Mann's El Cid, and Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. The history of cinema has been witness to hundreds of such characterizations. But if the artist is free to tell his own personal selective stories within the frameworks of the accounts of the life of Joseph Stalin, Alexander and Emilio Zapata, then we may believe or not believe these stories. Or we can separate lies from truth. Alexander is a clear example of forgery. I know that a movie is not a history or archaeology class and that it is a work of art and follows a much more profound objective. But it needs to be a work of art regardless of forgery, additions and elimination of facts. If it fails, then the work would be highly vulnerable.
When Gustave Flaubert was about to write Salammbo, he conducted an extensive research on ancient Carthage, the city in which the story takes place. He went to Tunisia in 1875 to see the remains of the city. Yet, after the publication of his book, critics and historians made tens of comments about his factual mistakes. Salammbo may not be as important as Madame Bovary. But it is definitely one of the most important historical novels ever written. It is a full fledged work of art and an example to be followed by anyone who ventures to write a realistic historical novel.
Oliver Stone's Alexander has taken shape based on elimination and exaggeration. This is because he wants to present a perfect image of a conqueror who is also a symbol of the victory of Western civilization over the barbarians who were represented by Persians! In parts of this talkative three hour long boring movie Achaemenians are referred to as Barbarians. But in the Pre-Alexander Greek culture, Barbarians were the nations whose language was not understood by the Greek. The term had nothing to do with brutality and lack of proper culture. It is as simple as that!
Alexander, as a movie, is full of mistakes and fallacies. The film mistakes the battle of Granicus for Gaugamela. It was in Granicus that Cleitus severed the hand of a Persian soldier who made an attempt on Alexander's life. In the movie, Darius III, the king of Persia is a well made up 25-year-old young man. But Darius was 45 when he rose to throne. Roxane, Alexander's Oriental wife, comes from a wrong ethnic background. The film is silent about the huge massacre by the Greek in Iran. Only in Susa they confiscated a huge amount of wealth. They do not set fire to Persepolis in Oliver Stone's movie. Maybe the fire was the result of a short circuit! Reminding that "his soldiers broke into houses in Persepolis, raped the women and killed the men," could have distorted Alexander's generous image! In the first part of the film, Alexander speaks abut liberating the Oriental world. What liberation? Alexander sold so many free men and women in Athens as slaves. But there were no trace of slavery in the Achaemenian empire. Persepolis was built by wage earning workers rather than slaves. Unlike what the film shows the Greek did not paint gibberish paintings on the walls of caves and they definitely never painted a blood stained sword. There is no ancient panting as such anywhere. Philip was not killed in a conspiracy. He was instead killed by a young Macedonian whose chastity was mutilated and whose demand for reparation had been denied by Philip.
The film neglects Alexander's melancholic behavior towards the end of his lifetime. It fails to observe that he ordered the entire residents of a village to be killed for the treason that was committed by their forefathers some five generations ago. There is no explanation about his war against Indians and why pacifist Indians should have been massacred. There is little about the homosexual relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion. Instead this is briefly explained as Platonic relationship. By the way, Hephaestion died in Ekbatan and not in Babylon. There is no trace of Alexander's claims of divinity in the film. He had said that he should be known as the son of Zeus and Amon the Egyptian God. Statira had died much earlier and could not be a witness to Alexander's death. Baguas, the eunuch was killed a long time before the attack and no one knows who is the young guy who is named Baguas and does not say a word.
Nevertheless, cinema tells its own version of history. It selects whatever it needs and sets aside whatever it does not want. The art of film is indebted only to its own creativity and inner structure and can pick any extent of the reality that it needs without having to offer any explanation.
John Ford's The Searchers does not want to reconstruct the reality of 19th century American West. It tells the story of a man's search with a decent intention in mind, but he finds it lost and transformed at the end of his long journey. But Oliver Stone's Alexander does not have such an intention. Nor can it portray such a man; although the motif of remaining alone at the end of the journey is shared between the two films.
Alexander is a silly and rubbish film, made up in haste. From the very beginning a boring monologue by an old Ptolemy imposes a set of presuppositions and leaves the set to Alexander's mother portrayed by a lovely Angelina Jolie who comes of age in this movie so slowly. Not only the relations between Alexander and his mother, Socrates and Philip are not made clear, but no relation has been portrayed meaningfully in this movie. Apparently Hollywood still thinks of the Oriental world in terms of The Arabian Nights and The Thief of Baghdad. Still belly dancers can entertain Alexander in the same way they did Harun Al Raschid. What rubbish!
The long flash back scene of Philip being killed is absolutely in the wrong place, so that one would assume that reels of films have been displaced. Ptolemy as the narrator has no impact on the furthering of the story. The exaggerated performances by Val Klimer (Philip) and Angelina Jolie with her artificial accent are unbelievably banal. Even her tame snakes act badly! Colin Farrell is shouting and crying all the time and has no sign of an intelligent and hesitant Alexander. Costume designs are foolish and the screenplay by Oliver Stone is a catastrophe. It wastes such a long time on Alexander's childhood.
Alexander came to love Persia and its people. He put on their dresses and promoted their rituals. He married to Persian wives and at the end found out ashamedly that it was this decent and first class nation he was calling barbaric. He learned statesmanship from the organized administration that ran a large part of the ancient world. The film simply ignored all that only not to give any concession to the "barbarians". It failed to understand that the splendid Persia and Iranians will make the conquerors surrender for a long time to those they had defeated.
But where does Oliver Stone want to go by compiling this mixture of facts and fallacy? Obviously, he, like his counterpart Michael Moore, wants to convince others about something right through forgery, elimination and distortion. But a right word should be said in the right way. Even in documentary cinema, art is not supposed to pave the way for hatred-packed ideologies. Perhaps Oliver Stone is following Huntington's idea of Clash of Civilizations and hoping in the final victory of the West in the clash between the superior and inferior civilizations! In the beginning of the film when the ring given to Alexander by Hephaestion falls off the dead man's finger, we come to believe that another “Rosebud” is to be looked for. But it is a shame that there is no mystery in this film and its one-dimensional characters. In another look from a place far away, one might be able to find a trace of the 1970 children in the joyful Macedonian children who embarked on a journey from Greece to bring a great empire to its knees. It is in this way that Oliver Stone's Alexander and its message could be understood.
I reach out into the drawer of my desk and fish a fistful of coins, Euro, Drachma, cents, and I find and watch a coin with a picture of Alexander. His profile is looking at the right side and he has dragged the half-lion skin over his head. His face looks calm and dignified. He does not look like Oliver Stone's Colin Farrel at all.