Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Alexander (dir. Oliver Stone, 2004)

I don't quite know what to say about Alexander. I feel vaguely like there's a good film trying to get out, somehow - but it hasn't quite managed it.

The portrayal of Olympias is interesting. Her relationship with Philip is perfectly plausible and actually fairly intriguing, but it's the emphasis on her as foreign and exotic that's noteworthy. The business with the snakes is presumably inspired by the stories about Philip seeing her sleeping by a snake around the time she conceived Alexander - which were meant to imply that Alexander was the son of a god, usually Zeus. She's portrayed as foreign and exotic, with a pseudo-mid-European accent (as opposed to all the others who have... Irish accents. Hmm. I'll get to that). But although young Alexander refers to all of them as Greeks, Olympias is actually the only Greek - the others are all Macedonians. Since Aristotle, also Greek, has an English accent, logically, so should Olympias (though to be fair, she may have been from a different city-state, I can't remember offhand). In Greek terms, everyone else are the barbarians - she's the Greek. That wouldn't fit Stone's insistence of filming her as an exotic, almost witch-like villainess though. She insists that Alexander is Zeus' son, whereas in reality it's more likely he came up with that idea, or it seems that way to me anyway.

The use of Irish accents for the Macedonians, presuambly resulting from Colin Farrell having trouble doing anything else, results in some rather unfortunate playing into stereotypes. Just as the Greeks characterised Macedonians as semi-barbaric, alcoholic, violently-inclined thugs, as Val Kilmer as Philip literarlly throws Olympias around in a drunken rage, with red hair and bellowing in an Irish accent, the portrayal plays into all those stereotypes of the Irish that Americans seem so fond of. I suppose I should admire the synchronicity of the way the ancient Greek prejudice against Macedonians is directly reflected in the modern prejudice against the Irish, the two nations both related, both speaking the same language but it different dialects, the one displaying a certain scorn towards the other. But, being more-than-half-Irish myself, I just find it annoying I'm afraid.

This film is very oddly structured. It entirely skips over Alexander's conquest of Greece and Egypt, heading straight to the battle of Gaugamela and the conquest of Persia. Military history isn't really my forte, so my reaction to the battle of Gaugamela is as follows - yay, camels! And shouldn't the Greek hoplites be standing closer together? Also, there seems to be more blood in the hospital after the battle than during the battle itself.

I quite like the scenes showing Philip and Alexander bonding a little bit, as Philip teaches him some particularly pertinant Greek myths (Oedpius! Medea! I wonder how they may turn out to be relevant to the plot...). Some of the wall paintings Philip shows Alexander look weirdly like they're styled afrter Picasso or something though, which is odd. The interpretation of Achilles and Patroclus' relationship as described in the film fits how it was interpreted in classical Athens, so accurate historically (though I disagree on the interpretation of Homer).

Ptolemy asks why Alexander took Roxanna as his wife and the audience want to ask the same thing - he's had a big row with his mates about her, but she hasn't had so much as a line of dialogue at that point to show us why he's so taken with her. We've been told she loves him and he seems strangely obsessed with her, but all we've seen them do together is he's watched her dance. They have a less close relationship than Herod Antipas and Salome. Surely it wouldn't have been too much to hear a single conversation between them, or see them relate to each other in some way before Alexander marries her against advice and much to the chagrin of Hephaestion?

I rather like the story between Alexander and Hephaestion, a tragic love story in which they love each other but Hephaestion has to be cast aside for a woman who can bear him sons (hopefully). It's not entirely appropriate for an ancient Greek context, of course. In Classical Greece, a man could marry and have a wife and sons, and have a homosexual relationship with another man alongside quite happily. In Athens, it would be expected that these relationships would only be with younger men, teenagers, but perhaps in other cities, like Sparta, it could be with men of the same age. The ancient world did not have separate terms for 'heterosexual', 'homosexual', 'bisexual' and so on. There was sex - you have it with wives to produce children, with captives to demonstrate power, with boys/men (depending on city-state) for love/lust/affection. Or you're Plato and you try to argue for the superiority of a meeting of minds.

The bit where everything gets tinted red is pretty weird, but I think it's supposed to symbolise Alexander's disoriented state after being shot. Or something (I'm watching the director's cut). Certainly, Ptolemy solemly tells us it was Alexander's bloodiest battle (except it looks kind of pink, so essentially it seems to suggest that Alexander's army is made up of Klingons). I think Stone might be trying to tell a story about hubris - but hubris in the modern sense, as in terrible pride before a big fall (hubris in an ancient Greek context is very hard to define, but refers broadly to a crime against the gods, that dishonours the gods as well as human beings).

The trouble with this film is, it's far too long, the structure is confusing and none of the characters are really likeable enough to hold the interest. By the time you get to the end, you just want first Hephaestion and then Alexander to just die already (and what's he dying of anyway? Syphilis?). The fact the story was told by Ptolemy is kind of nice, as it was his account that was a major source for the surviving biographies, of Arrian in particular. But that's not enough to save it from it's central problem of being just a bit dull. Which, considering it's about a man who conquered half the known world by the age of 33, is probably unforgivable. And I haven't even mentioned that wig...

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  1. Interesting and funny review! For some reason I never got around to watching this... I think it was because I only heard really negative feedback when it came out.

    But yeah, based on that last pic. What were they thinking with that WIG?! ;o)

  2. I hope I'm not going to come across as annoying, but…

    Olympias was from Epirus and the business with snakes has to do with stories that she was a maenad, i.e. a female devotee of Dionysus, whose ecstatic rituals involved handling snakes – Euripides' Bacchae provides a good representation of maenadism.

    Secondly, the Macedonians were not Greeks? If they weren't Greeks, then I don't know what they were. Remember, Alexander's campaigns against Persia were undertaken partly, and explicitly, as a pan-Hellenic crusade to avenge the Persian invasions of Greece the previous century – the burning of Persepolis was supposed to be pay back for the Persians burning Athens. And it was not other Greeks who thought of Macedonians as 'barbarians', it wasn't even the Athenians, it was one Athenian – Demosthenes; an ardent Athenian nationalist, who wanted Greece united under Athenian, not Macedonian, leadership. Other Athenians, notably the rhetorician Isocrates, practically begged Philip to unite and lead the disparate Greek states – something he would not have done if he regarded Philip or the Macedonians as foreign or barbarian. And here's Robin Lane Fox on the Greekness of Macedonia: http://youtu.be/AGDxbER23qI

    On the film, it is disappointing. Robert Rossen's version from 1956 – with Richard Burton as Alexander – is better. There is another American version, with William Shatner (before he became Captain Kirk) as Alexander, which I've never seen.

  3. "I don't quite know what to say about Alexander. I feel vaguely like there's a good film trying to get out, somehow - but it hasn't quite managed it."

    Which is exactly why I have yet to write a review of this film. I'm not certain there is anything I can add that has not already been said. There are several very good aspects to this film, but after several edits even Stone remains unsatisfied.

    That said, I must, with respect, disagree with John about the Richard Burton Alexander. Yes, it is better than thew William Shatner Alexander (like Star Trek on the Planet of the Greeks) but with the exception of Fredric March's mad "Philip the Barbarian" dance, there is little to recommend it. That is only my humble opinion.

    Your review may motivate me to revisit this film, but then again ...

  4. It really is a strange film isn't it?!

    The debate over whether the Macedonians were Greeks or not goes back to at least the fourth century BC, has never been resolved and to be honest, I'm not that invested in it! Put it this way - it's debateable. A lot of the authors who are our sources for the story of Alexander (all much later than him so not overly reliable anyway) did not consider Macedonians to be fully Greek (Plutarch gives that impression) and they spoke a dialect of Greek, different from what was spoken in Classical Athens. Alexander, on the other hand, almost certainly considered himself to be Greek and I'm sure he portrayed his mission as a pan_hellenic one - but that's a slightly different issue.

  5. I enjoyed the film, which obviously owed a lot to Mary Renault. Re Alexander and Roxane, I hadn't really thought about it before, but wouldn't any attraction have had to have been primarily visual? What language would they have had in common?

  6. That's a good point, though I assume she learned enough Greek to communicate with him. I would still have liked a bit more though - even if visual and no language-based, something other than 'She's pretty, I'll have her' to explain why he married her against advice.

  7. To the extent that everything is debatable, then the Greekness or otherwise of the Macedonians may also be debated; but the question is whether it's a serious debate or not, and it isn't. It's on the same nonsensical level of Cleopatra's 'blackness'. None of the ancient authors who wrote about Alexander were interested in the question of whether the Macedonians were 'fully Greek' – whatever 'fully Greek' meant or means – certainly not Plutarch. The distinction made between Macedonians and Greeks or Greece and Macedon is mostly political and geographic – Macedon's political institutions were backward by prevailing Greek standards and Macedon, of course, lay beyond Hellas' borders; but there is no question that the Macedonians were part of the Greek world – even if at its periphery – and even if being Greek was just one of their identities. (All Greeks had multiple identities). In fact, if you remove Alexander and his story from Greek culture and political history, it makes no sense and is of no interest. He becomes like Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. And both Robert Rossen and Oliver Stone seem to know this, that Alexander is not just a conqueror but also the apotheosis of the Greek tradition, even if squeezing in Homer, tragedy, Herodotus, Xenophon, Aristotle, lyric poetry – all of which find their way into Alexander's story – into a two-hour Hollywood entertainment is too much for them, which is why both films are superficial and ponderous, but well-meaning.

  8. The Greek-ness of the Macedonians was a thorny question and one that still causes problems today. There seemed to at least have been a general acceptance that the royal house was Greek, but then Philip pretty much needed the threat of his army to be allowed to participate in the Olympic games. Given the long, though occasionally troubled relationship between Macedon and Athens, I would say they were certainly seen as at least Greek-ish. More Greek than the Thracians at any rate.

    As an Epirote, on the other hand, Olympias was probably seen as just barely Greek. Dodona may have been in Epirote territory, but the people were generally seen as barbarians, even if they may have spoken a Greek dialect. They made the Thracians look positively civilized. Of course, some of that may be anti-Olympias propaganda.

    What this film really tells us is that Oliver Stone ought to be forced into permanent retirement. He is a terrible film-maker. And possibly the worst thing about this movie is that it blocked the production of Baz Luhrman's Alexander project with Leonardo di Caprio. I'm sure that would have been a lot better.

  9. I'd have loved to see Luhrman's - and at the very least, Leo would be much better casting!

  10. I never got around to seeing it either. The reviews at the time were really, really negative towards it, and I don't have much of a good opinion where Oliver Stone is concerned...

  11. Well, for the masterpiece that was Conan the Barbarian, I forgive Oliver everything else.

  12. Re the accents, they are a fair modern representation of the relatively different speech of the ancient Macedonians, southern Greeks, and Epirotes. The Greeks, such as Aristotle, are depicted in line with cinematic tradition as speaking with Received Pronunciation. Naturally, then, the Macedonians, as a northern people seen by many as rugged and more earthy, are depicted with Irish and Scottish accents (cf. Craterus). This is a natural modern contrast particularly for a British audience, or at least one raised on ancient films where the elite speak in upper-class British accents. Then Olympias, as an Epirote, needed a more 'barbarian' accent, so her Eastern European/sexy vampire attempt was understandable.

    Whatever one's view of the film (and the Final Cut is the superior version), one must avoid dismissing Stone's choices as ignorant or ill-considered. The man had been dreaming up this project for years and consulted with many experts (e.g. Lane Fox as general historical consultant, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones as clothing consultant), so all the directorial decisions he made (including accents!) were made with the full knowledge of scholarly consensus. E.g. the statues in Ptolemy's house were deliberately made in white marble, despite that they would've been painted in his day; but Stone decided his audience might be confused about that. Fair enough. There's historical accuracy, and then there's audience expectation based on cinematic tradition. The film may not have been a complete success, but Stone deserves to be taken seriously as a director and not dismissed summarily as Juliette often does, clearly with a weaker grasp of the intricacies of the source material than Stone, in this review.

    1. Gideon Nisbet26 April 2012 13:12

      That's one point of view; another would be that Stone's past directorial achievements don't buy him any credit here. Since fidelity to sources has never really been part of the job of historical epic, Juliette's level of familiarity with the (dodgy) ancient sources is neither here nor there. My personal feeling is that 'Alexander' could have been a satisfactory film if its director had assigned less weight to academic input and rather more to good storytelling; as it stands, "the film may not have been a complete success" is polite understatement.

  13. Also re John Akritas, more than just Demosthenes considered the Macedonians 'barbarian'. Consider the case of Alexander I of Macedon: according to Herodotus (5.22), there were many who claimed he couldn't compete in the Olympic games because 'barbarians' weren't allowed; once he proved his Greek descent, he was admitted to the games. Did well too; equal first ;) While these dissenters were evidently Alexander's rivals and thus had reason to try and stop him coming to the games, nevertheless the fact remains that there were clearly more than just Demosthenes who publicly stated, regardless of personal motive, that the Macedonians were not Greek. There must have been more 'weight' to this claim than we have evidence for, otherwise it wouldn't have been a good rhetorical strategy. You don't see Athenians claiming the Thebans, say, weren't Greeks, despite the traditional animosity between the states.

  14. I've got nothing against Stone - I like JFK (though I wouldn't pretend to have the slightest clue how accurate etc that one is. Good film though). I just don't like this film all that much.

    1. Gideon Nisbet26 April 2012 13:13

      No-one really does...

    2. My film class were pretty meh about it too - one of them said she couldn't get past the accents!


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