By Robyn Wolf
Alexander the Great was one of the most interesting characters in history which is why the film Alexander’s inability to portray his significance was so disappointing. Although there were some positive aspects to Alexander, in the end, the negative outweighed the positive. The film’s lack of originality combined with its repetitive themes caused it to fall into the category of another boring biographical movie.
Alexander (2004) did a mediocre job of implementing Greek ideology into the movie. Although it was accurate at times, it seemed overdone and forced instead of just flowing along with the plot of the movie. The introduction of Greek philosophy starts off strong when the movie opens, with Alexander, played by Colin Farrell, getting lessons as a boy in wrestling and then shifts to him in a school setting with Aristotle. During this scene many boys are gathered around Aristotle while he was teaching lessons on geography and on other philosophical issues of the day. This scene captured the very essence of Greek culture by showing the boys openingly questioning their school master on issues of sexuality, Greek superiority, and mythology. The fact that they used reason to argue against Aristotle’s logic (despite the fact he was an elder) showed the unique learning environment they lived in and their constant efforts to understand their place in the world through inquiry.
The absence of girls in the school session was a silent testimony to the place of women in Greek society, which was in the home. However, after this point there is not too much more on the role of women in their society, but it would have been interesting to see this included in the film. Aristotle also referred to the love between two men as “beautiful when there is the exchange of knowledge… and it draws out competition.” It is no secret that the Greeks were very liberal when it came to the sexuality of men and that Alexander was bisexual. In my opinion, Alexander’s homosexuality was focused on a bit too much in the movie. The writers of the film made sure they covered every male lover Alexander ever had while briefly mentioning only two out of his three wives and then they completely left out his mistress. There were originally more homoerotic scenes in the film but they were cut out by the director after he received criticism about it. In this sense, the movie lacked balance in its attempt perhaps to accentuate the more scandalous elements in order to sell the movie. Alexander was one of the most dynamic and accomplished people in history so why do his achievements come second to his sexuality in this film?
Even more disappointingly, the film’s portrayal of the “Easterners” is rather biased, and takes on a Eurocentric viewpoint. The belief that Greek culture was superior to Eastern cultures was undoubtedly an integral part of Alexander’s life story. Thus, it is understandable that the directors would want to portray this aspect of his life in the film, but it should have been done in a more objective manner. Instead of just presenting the idea of Greek superiority as a Greek belief, the movie further reinforces this idea as fact through distorting actual events and through use of other subtle tactics.
For example, during the Battle of Gaugamela, the Persians are depicted as a barbaric and incompetent force that was quickly overwhelmed by the might of the Macedonian army. In the alternating scenes between the two forces many of their differences are highlighted. First, Alexander is shown giving an inspiring speech to his highly organized troops who are dressed in simple white clothing. Thereafter, the Persian army is shown from a bird's-eye view as scattered and disorganized with no definite formation. When the audience gets a closer view of the army, the men are in darker-colored, mismatched clothing. In addition, they are getting harangued by two men yelling simultaneously in a strange language, which only further intensifies the feeling of chaos and disarray in the army.
Prior to this point, the Persian Empire had been a formidable force for approximately two hundred years and spanned from the Indus River to the Mediterranean. This raises the question: If the Persian army was so primitive and disorganized, then how did they manage to build and maintain such a vast empire for two hundred years? The answer is quite simple; Alexander is following a trend that many Western films exemplify; that is they tend to lean towards depicting those of European ancestry in a triumphant light while demonizing those from other cultures. Historically it took Alexander multiple battles to conquer the Persian Empire but the film chose to leap straight the very last Battle of Gaugamela. This makes it seem as though the Persians were not even close to being worthy opponents for the Macedonian army and subtly illustrates the argument that they are inferior in comparison to the Macedonians.
Another problem with the Gaugamela scene is the Persian Army was not as chaotic as the movie would lead you to believe: they were highly organized into several divisions with music that helped them march in unison. They also had matching uniforms that varied depending on rank. Once again the film is feeding into the concept that the Persians lack the “self-restraint” and discipline of the Macedonians by not giving a factual account of how the two armies would have truly appeared. Another problem is that the difference of the uniforms does not just give the Macedonians an air of discipline and organization that the Persians do not have, but the white and gold of their uniforms makes them appear as if they are knights in shining armor. White is a color usually associated with purity and goodness while gold represents faith, healing, and blessings. On the other hand, the red undertones of the Persian army are synonymous with passion, sexuality, and sin.
The Macedonian troops actually wore either red or purple tunics under their armor, not white. But for the purposes of the film this fact was altered in order to support subtly the idea that “Persians are subject to their passions” and weak-willed. As the film follows Alexander deeper into the East this theme continues even after the Battle of Gaugamela. The backdrop of almost all the Eastern scenes includes decorations of deep red items. Even when Alexander meets his Persian wife she is cloaked in red from head to toe as are all the women with her.
Lastly, King Darius III seldom spoke in the scene at Gaugamela and when he did speak it was in extremely primitive language.. In many cases, when people do not speak properly they are stereotyped as unintelligent. By presenting King Darius as a person who was incapable of speaking proper English they were reinforcing the idea of Persian inferiority. It could be argued that this assumption is over-analytical and they were just giving him a Persian accent because it was --- his nationality. This is still not a plausible argument because the Greeks were given a combination of British and Scottish accents despite the fact that they were Greek. This also supports Greek idea that the Persians were people of few words and very mysterious. In addition to this the Persian generals were yelling at the troops in a Persian dialect, even more strengthening the feeling of distance between the English speaking audience and the Persians.
Similarly, the Indians in the Battle of Hydapses were unjustly represented as savage “monkey tribes”. When Alexander’s army approaches the Battle of Hydapses they are shown riding into the jungle and shielding themselves from objects being thrown by wild monkeys in trees. As the Macedonians make progress deeper into the jungle, the monkeys are replaced with Indian soldiers aiming arrows from the trees. The Battle of Hydapses was actually fought on a rainy day in an open plain. There were no ape-like men attacking the Macedonians from treetops, no Indians doing acrobatic moves through the jungle, or elephants pushing trees out of their way. Not only does this take away from Alexander’s intellect since no capable military leader would lead his men into a situation like that, but it is also blatantly disrespectful to the Indians.
The Indians did utilize elephants in warfare but they did not go charging through jungles with the elephants plowing trees out of their way. The fact that monkeys were shown doing the exact same thing the Indians were doing says in effect that monkeys and Indians are one in the same, or that their military tactics were about as advanced as animals because that was all their intellectual ability allowed. The writers of the film did not even bother to include the well known encounter between Alexander and the Indian King, Porus, or show how they became friends. This small bit of information could have possibly given some humanity to the Indians and saved what bit of dignity they had left after the jungle incident.
In the presentation of a biographical account of a historical figure such as Alexander it is important to present all sides fairly; Oliver Stone was not successful in doing so. For this reason, Alexander lacks originality and authenticity. It failed to break out of the mold of the traditional Western films that are so common place in our Western society. It would have been refreshing to see a truly accurate account of all sides of the story instead of the same point of view most are taught from elementary school. Even so Alexander is not a complete failure since it did get across an ample amount of Greek ideology to the audience, if slightly over done. Overall, Alexander is a typical biographical film but if viewers are looking to watch something out of the ordinary, this is not the film to see.
McKay, Buckler, and Hill. History of Western Society. 9th. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008.
Berrigan, Joseph. “Battle of Hydapses”. Ancient Worlds. 2/4/09. 27 March 2009 <http://joseph_berrigan.tripod.com/ancientbabylon/index.html
of Gaugamela” Historic Battle Scenarios. 12/13/00. 27 Mar 2009 http://www.ritsumei.ac.jp/se/~luv20009/Gaugamela.html