Alexander released in 2004 is directed by Oliver Stone and stars Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great. The movie has several releases – the original theatrical release was highly criticized for the lack of content. In this review, we take a look at Alexander’s Revised Final Cut which goes on for 3 hours and 34 minutes and though much longer than the original, is a much better depiction of Alexander’s life story.
(Note: the movie shows scenes from Alexander’s life in a non-linear fashion. However, for the sake of telling the story, I will be describing the events as they happened historically.)
The movie introduces Alexander through a story told by aged Ptolemy I Soter, around 283 BC as part of his biography. He begins by talking about Alexander’s childhood – his relationship with Hephaestion, his mother Olympias and his father King Philip of Macedon. Few glimpses of Alexander’s tutelage under Aristotle are shown – obviously a detailed account of Alexander’s upbringing would have taken 2 hours alone. Alexander’s famous taming of his horse Bucephalas is shown in detail impressing his father. However, Alexander’s relationship with his father is broken when he takes Eurydice, the daughter of one of his noblemen, Attalus, as his Queen. Attalus insults Alexander as a bastard during Philip’s wedding feast and a fight breaks out. When Philip asks Alexander to apologize to Attalus, Alexander refuses and Philip drunk tries to chase after but falls and injures himself. When Alexander insults Philip, he banishes Alexander.
Alexander’s banishment is not shown and nor the subsequent reconciliation. Next shown is Philip’s wedding where, Alexander sees his father being assassinated and him being proclaimed as King to the delight of his mother Olympias. Attalus is subsequently put to death (not shown) and Eurydice and her child starve themselves subsequently after the death of her son (an argument between Alexander and her mother related to it is shown). The movie omits, the Battle of Chaeronea, where Philip and Alexander smash the Greek Allied forces. The battle, which has been described as one of the most decisive of the ancient world, is not shown. It also introduced the Macedonian Phalanx as the dominating military force until the emergence of the Roman Legion several hundred years later. The forces of Athens and Thebes were destroyed, and continued resistance was impossible thus ending the war between Philip and the Greeks.
Alexander’s first campaigns after becoming King, the Balkan campaign where he destroyed the Getae and the Triballian tribes in the North and then crushed a subsequent uprising of the city states and razed the city of Thebes to the ground after the Battle of Thebes, are omitted. This in my opinion was a flaw of the movie as Stone tries to focus on the sleep-inducing commentaries of Ptolemy (played by a disinterested Anthony Hopkins) instead of making it more as an action drama, recreating major campaigns of Alexander as opposed to a biography, where 3.5 hours are insufficient to explain the great achievements of Alexander of Macedon.
Next we are taken to the Battle of Gaugamela, the decisive battle between Alexander’s forces and King Darius’s Persian army. Countless decisive battles like the Battle of Granicus, the Battle of Issus, the siege of Halicarnassus, the siege of Tyre etc. are omitted. His campaigns in Anatolia, the battles against Memnon of Rhodes, the Egyptian campaign are all omitted from the story. However, Stone builds up the Battle of Gaugamela well, although indulges in the typical, superior Western civilization against the barbaric Persians and Asiatic civilizations, by portraying the Macedonians as highly disciplined, organized and uniformed while the Persians are lacking uniforms, are chaotic and just shout and scream while attacking. In reality, the Persian army was highly organized and very well equipped. Most of Alexander’s victories were achieved due to his tactical genius, the power of the Macedonian phalanx and the mistakes of his opponents.
After the terrific battle of Gaugamela, for which Oliver Stone deserves credit, we see Alexander enter Babylon to enjoy its riches. The movie desperately tries to portray Alexander as a man who leaned more towards being attracted to men, as portrayed by his attraction to the eunuch slave Bagoas and his closest friend Hephaestion. Alexander’s sexuality was in line with Greek sentiments regarding close male bonding during that period. His relationships with Barsine, Darius’s daughter and many other women, are not explored fully. This incomplete portrayal, was another reason for the disappointing performance of Alexander at the box office with a lot of criticism coming against the movie regarding the inaccurate portrayal of Alexander as gay.
Next we see Darius being betrayed by his eunuch general Bessus and being left for dead making Alexander the King of all of the Persian Empire with no rivals. The burning of the great city of Persepolis and the mass wedding of Persian women with 10,000 Macedonians is also not depicted. As Alexander begins adopting more and more Persian customs, we see growing discontentment within his army. His own companions are aghast at his decision to marry Roxanne, instead of a Macedonian pure-blood. The discontent culminates in the attempted assassination attempt by Alexander’s pages. It also implicates his boyhood companion Philotas, who is tried and found guilty and executed. His father, General Parmenion, who is in charge of protecting Alexander’s supply lines is also assassinated on Alexander’s orders.
After the wedding, Alexander moves into India. Rains, heavy forests, snakes, disease, jungle tribes take their toll on the Macedonian soldiers and destroy their morale. During a celebration with the Indian tribal leaders and minor kings, Cleitus, one of Alexander’s father’s commanders and a respected general, begins berating Alexander for forgetting Macedonian customs and behaving like a Persian. During the drunken war of words, Alexander loses his temper and rushes at Cleitus with a spear, running him through his stomach and killing him. The death of Cleitus upsets Alexander greatly and also worsens the mood within the army. On the banks of the river Hydaspes, his soldiers refuse to go further, tired after being away from Macedon for so many years. After crushing a minor mutiny, Alexander manages to convince his soldiers to campaign with him for one more month.
We next see the Battle of Hydaspes, though portrayed as a direct attack where in reality, it involved crossing the Hydaspes river, along with a flanking attack against the forces of Porus. The battle is shown brilliantly with the savage butchery the troops engaged in, a constant presence. The deaths of Macedonian soldiers by Porus’s elephant troops and the ensuing retreat is shown. Alexander rallies his men through a daring assault on the enemy lines, attempting to kill Porus on his elephant. However, he is hit by an arrow and misses his aim. As Alexander lies wounded and his horse is killed, his soldiers rally around him and launch an assault that put the Indian soldiers under Porus to flight. In reality, Alexander was gravely wounded in another battle and not the Battle of Hydaspes. King Porus, fought bravely until the end and Alexander admiring his opponent’s bravery allowed him to remain King.
After recovering from the battle, Alexander announces to his troops that they are turning back. They take a long route through the desert back to Babylon. In Babylon, his close companion Hephaestion falls ill and dies. Alexander driven to drinking heavily due to his grief, succumbs to excessive alcohol and dies as his soldiers and generals grieve over losing him. After his death, we see Alexander’s companions or the Diadochi (“Successors”) fight over his body and legacy as each carve out pieces of Alexander’s great empire. His companion Cassander, assassinates Alexander’s mother Olympias as well as Roxane and Alexander’s son.
Ptolemy ends his tale by asking his page to burn the manuscript and admits poisoning Alexander, having grown tired of his endless wars. However, historically this is debatable with such slow acting poisons not available during that time (Alexander died 12 days after the onset of his illness). Most historians agree that malaria or typhoid along with the battle injuries and heavy drinking took its toll on Alexander’s body. His grief at the loss of his closest friend also took its toll. Anyways, the movie ends with Ptolemy agreeing that the greatest of glory belongs to the men that have the courage to follow their dreams and the true glory belongs to Megas Alexandros – the greatest of them all.
Colin Farrell plays a convincing Alexander if not a charming one. Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer are acceptable as Olympias and King Philip. The problem with Alexander is that for such an inspiring historical figure, the movie fails to inspire. It is the best motion picture about the life of Alexander out there, but one hopes for an even better one in the making or a mini-series.
A movie that promised much more than it delivered. Do watch if you are a fan of magnificent epics which are not historically accurate.