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Alexander: Refocused Enigma

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The time of Alexander draws nigh (November 24 to be precise), Oliver Stone’s epic historical biopic of one of the greatest and most enigmatic figures in history.

Click on the above banner for every manner of interactive doo-dad and gizmo relating to the film, starring a blonde Colin Farrell as the Mighty Macedonian, including a hard-charging trailer with the iconic line, “Conquer your fear and I promise you will conquer death” (unless you get killed or something), clips from the Vangelis soundtrack (a real Greek, you know), downloads including the mega-spiffy Xtreme Desktop, and a synopsis (Greek word) of the film:

    He was many things to many people – a dashing warrior king, filled with ambition, courage and the arrogance of youth, leading his vastly outnumbered forces against the massive Persian armies.a son desperately longing for the approval of his stern, battle-scarred father, torn and conflicted by his mother’s legacy.a relentless conqueror who never lost a battle and drove his soldiers to the very edges of the Known World.a visionary whose dreams, deeds and destiny echo through eternity, helping to shape the face of the world as we know it today. He was all that and more. He was Alexander the Great.

    Oliver Stone’s Alexander is based on the true story of one of history’s most luminous and influential leaders (COLIN FARRELL) – a man who had conquered 90% of the known world by the age of 25. Alexander led his virtually invincible Greek and Macedonian armies through 22,000 miles of sieges and conquests in just eight years, and by the time of his death at the age of 32 had forged an empire unlike any the world had ever seen. The film takes a bold, honest look at Alexander’s life and his relationships with his mother, Olympias (ANGELINA JOLIE), his father Philip (VAL KILMER), his lifelong friend and battle commander Hephaistion (JARED LETO), Roxane, his ambitious and beautiful Bactrian wife (ROSARIO DAWSON), and his trusted general and confidant Ptolemy (ANTHONY HOPKINS). Set in Alexander’s pre-Christian world of social customs and morals far different from today’s, the film explores a time of unmatched beauty and unbelievable brutality, of soaring ideals and staggering betrayals.

    His extraordinary journey begins when Alexander launches his invasion from Macedonia, first leading his armies to wrest Western Asia from Persian control, then driving his vastly outnumbered troops to an impossible victory over the mighty Persian army itself. Alexander expands his empire into the unknown lands of modern day Central Asia before venturing across the Himalayan foothills, further than any Westerner had ever gone, continuing his conquests all the way to the exotic world of India. Incredibly, and possibly uniquely in the annals of military history, Alexander was never defeated in battle. He relentlessly pushes his army across the sands, mountains and jungles of strange and mysterious lands, conquering every enemy who dares oppose him.

    The film chronicles Alexander’s path to becoming a living legend, from a youth fueled by dreams of myth, glory, and adventure, to his intense bonds with his closest companions, to his lonely death as a ruler of a vast empire. Alexander is the incredible story of a life that united the Known World and proved, if nothing else, fortune favors the bold.

Or at least Oliver Stone does.

We took a look at the film through the eyes of is chief historian Robin Lane Fox in September, and now with the film a mere fortnight away, Peter Green has a lengthy survey of recent Alexandrian literature in the New Republic:

    It is no accident, I suspect, that only now, after a fifty-year silence, are Alexander movies in the works again. That gap commemorates a truly seismic shift in fundamental interpretation. If advance reports are correct, it is this new, darker Alexander, a filthy-tempered and murderous egomaniac, openly if not cheerfully bisexual, and liable to the destructive alcoholic binges induced by prolonged combat stress–a hero who might indeed be plausibly played by the unruly Colin Farrell

    ….”Some talk of Alexander,” the old song reminds us: a notable understatement. They do indeed. Ever since the pint-sized military genius (known to the Romans, but not, for good reasons, to his Greek contemporaries, as “the Great”) breathed his last in Babylon, nearly two and a half millennia ago, the inquest has been going on, and it shows no signs of slackening today. Nor is there any final consensus. Right from the start, the loud whirr of ground axes regularly drowned out the objective voice of reason. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Greece itself. When the news of Alexander’s death reached Athens, that pliable political wheelhorse Demades exclaimed: “Alexander, dead? Impossible: the whole earth would stink of his corpse.”

    Demades had good reason for so bitter a reaction. Before setting out on his Asian expedition, Alexander, infuriated by Thebes’s attempt at rebellion in the name of liberty, and, worse, by being taunted from the walls of the city as a barbarian tyrant, proceeded to prove the taunt true. Thebes was not only sacked, with horrendous slaughter and rape, but systematically destroyed. Alexander’s aim, the Greco-Roman historian Diodorus wrote, was “by this act of terror to take the heart out of anyone else who might venture to rise against him.” The Thebans had thwarted his will; and throughout his life Alexander’s most savage reprisals were to be directed against those who in any way interrupted the parabola of his demon-driven and meteoric career of conquest.

    ….To follow the course of–and, where possible, to explain–this and other extraordinary metamorphoses in the concept and evaluation of Alexander over the intervening centuries is the main function of Claude Mossé’s Alexander: Destiny and Myth.

    ….What emerges, with some clarity, is the uncomfortable fact that Alexander’s character and career combined to offer posterity the ingredients for an infinitely adaptable icon: a receptacle for the dreams and ambitions of almost any kind of would-be emulator, a target for a wide range of hatreds (and of course a shape-shifting hero for moviemakers). The process had already begun during Alexander’s lifetime

    ….But for every philosopher sickened by the violence of conquest, there were ten ambitious generals eager to rival or even to exceed Alexander’s achievements: most notably, of course, his hard-bitten marshals Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Craterus, and the one-eyed Antigonus, who spent several decades after Alexander’s death locked in a deadly struggle for the spoils of empire. (It is a mark of Alexander’s charismatic dominance that on several occasions these men would confer only in the presence of their dead leader’s throne, robe, scepter, and other regalia.) Romans, too, saw the Macedonian conqueror as an ideal leader to be emulated, with a mantle of power that might somehow, almost magically, be appropriated. Pompey wore his cloak, imitated his hairstyle, and assumed the title of “the Great.” Julius Caesar famously wept because at the age of thirty-two–when Alexander, after subjugating Asia, was to die still planning fresh conquests–he himself had achieved nothing comparable.

    Augustus, wondering shrewdly why Alexander paid so little attention to organizing the territories that he had conquered, inspected the conqueror’s embalmed corpse, on permanent display in its glass coffin in Alexandria, and while depositing a crown and a wreath on it managed to break a bit off its nose.

    ….The mythicization of Alexander began as propaganda by his own spinmeisters during his career of conquest, and was fueled by the persistent rumor that the oracle of Zeus-Ammon (Amun) at the Siwah Oasis in the Libyan desert had acknowledged him to be the son of the god.

    …Alexander himself was ambivalent on the subject, toying not only with divine paternity but with godhead tout court. From Babylon, shortly before his death, he sent out the so-called Deification Decree, a request to the Greek states that he be accorded divine honors. On the other hand, when, during a battle, he sustained a flesh wound and some sedulous courtier, quoting Homer, exclaimed, “Ichor, such as flows from the blessed gods,” Alexander snapped testily, “That’s not ichor, you fool: that’s blood.”

    ….The first truly modern student of Alexander was Johann Gustav Droysen, who published his History of Alexander in 1833. He was not only soaked in Hegelianism, theories of social evolution, and the German Romantic movement, but also directly affected by contemporaneous political trends seeking the unification of the German states. All this tilted him in favor of the kind of strong Prussian-style leadership associated with Philip and Alexander, and against the fractious in-fighting of those small polis-dominated Greek states that Philip first disrupted by his divide-and-rule diplomacy, and then crushingly defeated in 338 at Chaeroneia. Greece was degenerate, Asia was decadent.

    ….If he was not to be dismissed as the mere bloodthirsty conquistador pilloried by Seneca, Lucan, and Augustine, then he had to be endowed with an acceptable mission. This proved surprisingly easy. An essay of Plutarch’s supplied the notion of invading Asia in order to bring the benefits of Greek Hochkultur to a continent of unenlightened heathens; and European scholars, confronted on all sides with the twin rewards of imperial colonization and Christian proselytism, took up the idea and ran with it. By far the most influential version of this thesis was promoted by W.W. Tarn, who not only put a sympathetic face on Droysen’s conquering hero but also made him a torch-bearer for the Stoic notion of the Brotherhood of Man. Tarn was writing in the aftermath of World War I, in the heyday of the League of Nations, and at a time when Lowell Thomas was weaving a very similar myth around the charismatic figure of Lawrence of Arabia. Both the League and Lawrence, each in their own way, had an indelible impact on Tarn’s portrait of Alexander.

    ….The age hungered for an old-fashioned hero, and in Tarn’s sanitized, sexually impeccable, golden-haired promoter of brotherhood through conquest, who lived by an archaic moral code of honor and had the additional romantic advantage of dying young, at the very pinnacle of success, they felt they had found one: a kind of proto-Lawrence.

    ….it is important that we should have a new and authoritative summing-up of Alexander scholarship that establishes a reasonable consensus of opinion on the evidence.

    ….Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great, the fruit of twenty-five years of Cambridge lectures on Alexander and the problems surrounding him, fills this need as well as anyone could hope. Just as Worthington emphasizes Alexander’s constantly uneasy and competitive relationship with his father, so Cartledge sees his exercise in world conquest as an extension of the kingly chase: it’s tempting to subtitle his biography “The Royal Hunt of the Son.” He has an easy, vivid style, a cool mastery of facts and theories, and a commonsensical imperviousness to flimflam of any sort. He is also prone to startling modern comparisons that must have gone down wonderfully with an undergraduate lecture audience. Here is one such aside I particularly relished: “We are not privileged to know whether [Alexander], like the British commander Orde Wingate in Abyssinia . . . ever gave his officers their battle-orders lying in his tent stark naked and smoothing his pubic hair with someone else’s toothbrush.”

    ….Cartledge sensibly reminds us that in ancient Greece “homosexual and heterosexual experiences were not felt to be either emotionally or socially incompatible.” There was, of course, as he notes, an important exception to the rule: the passive adult catamite incurred nothing but scorn and contempt. Had this been Hephaestion’s role, it “would not have been something of which Hephaestion wished to boast.” This may be why neither Cartledge nor Mossé cites a remarkable anecdote told by Theophrastus, who surely had it from Aristotle when the latter was Alexander’s tutor. Both Philip and Olympias, he alleges, were scared that their adolescent son was showing signs of becoming a gynnis, that is, a “femme” invert, and actually imported a high-class courtesan to straighten out his sexual drive. (Foreman alludes to the story, but omits its central feature.)

    If the anecdote is true, it would cast a very interesting light on Alexander’s subsequent career–much of which might be seen as the result of compensatory denial on a truly colossal scale–and it would also suggest a highly cogent reason why Hephaestion so long remained Alexander’s “other self” and trusted confidant.

    ….On all other aspects of Alexander’s personality, as well as the ambiguous moments in his career, Cartledge offers reasonable and well-supported judgments: there were few moments, reading his text, when I wanted to argue with him. He emphasizes that “intense religious belief was the mainspring of all or most of his most important activity,” a salutary corrective to the political rationalist presented by Tarn and Hammond, who simply used other people’s religion and superstition as a handy legal weapon. Cartledge also concedes the possibility, on the cui bono principle, that Alexander and Olympias were involved in Philip’s too-convenient assassination, shortly before he–and not Alexander–was due to set out to conquer Achaemenid Persia. He rightly supports Badian’s thesis that Alexander’s refusal to employ Greek ships or troops on what was supposedly a Panhellenic expedition was because he could not trust them. He sees that a major factor in the conqueror’s brilliant but ruthless career was the determination to rid himself of the competition in power represented by Philip’s old general Parmenio, his son Philotas, and their network of appointees: thus Philotas’s rigged trial for conspiracy, Cartledge argues, was “judicial murder,” while Parmenio’s end was “undisguised assassination.” Right on both counts.

    ….Guy Griffith, my old ancient history teacher at Cambridge, is on record as holding it to be “one of the paradoxes of history (and historiography)” that despite Alexander’s extraordinary career, which attracted so many writers, and despite the care that he devoted to the promotion of his own image, he “should have been handed down finally in history as an enigma.” In the half-century or so since then, historians have cleared up the picture a good deal, and Cartledge’s well-documented account reflects this progress: the profile that emerges is that of a military genius driven by an overwhelming obsession, a pothos, to pursue glory through conquest to the world’s end, and take savage reprisals against any who thwarted his will while he was at it. Arrian was surely right: had Alexander lived, “he would not have stopped conquering even if he’d added Europe to Asia and the Britannic islands to Europe.” It is almost impossible to think of Alexander in old age. He remains a beacon, an icon, arrested in mid-career, a meteor streaking for all eternity toward an infinite future. The Greeks who cursed him as a barbarous killer in his lifetime, but over the millennia came to see him as the brightest torch-bearer of the Hellenic spirit, are proof enough of that.

Yeah.

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About Eric Olsen

  • tia

    If anyone thinks Oliver Stone’s remake of “Alexander” is historically accurate, they need a basic lesson in history.

    The ancient Achaemenid Persian empire has a fascinating and spectacular history and I encourage everyone to make it a point of learning about this fascinating period of world history in your leisure time, since it is not taught in schools.
    I hope people are not dumb enough to think that “Alexander” is an actual depiction of history. Oliver Stone, unfortunately, like the rest of Hollywood, is an uneducated Jew.
    Alexander’s war against the Persian Empire lasted for years and there were many battles and encounters between the Greek/Macedonian barbarians (which in this film are depicted as “civilized”) and the mighty Persian empire.
    Also, contrary to the film “Alexander”, it is a well known fact in informed circles that the Persians had, centuries earlier, brought an end to oppression and slavery and had introduced freedom to the territories they annexed during their reign of the known world. They had freed slaves after conqueering Babylon, etc.,(including jewish slaves – which I’ll bet Mr. Stone doesn’t know anything about) and brought an era of peace and stability to the known world at that time. This “Golden Age” all came to an end, for ever, with the Alexander’s barbarian invasion. Alexander masacred entire cities with crusfications numbering in the tens of thousands in Tyre and Persepolis alone. The surviving women and children were taken as slaves – thereby re-introducing slavery which had been brought to an end by the conquering Persians, two centuries earlier.
    The film incorrectly centers on Babylon, and also fails to show the wanton massacres, looting and destruction of the magnificent Persian cities and palaces of Persepolis (Parsa) and Suza. It also “Arabizes” the Persians and the Persian military, in typical, politically charged, Hollywood style
    Don’t get me wrong though, I didn’t expect anymore than this from Hollywood so I can say that (the trailers) were not a total disappointment.