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Oliver Stone's Alexander Warner Bros. And Intermedia Films (2004).

There are very few films in which a historian appears, and this film has two. One is the historical consultant Robin Lane Fox (he rides in the cavalry charge at Gaugamela [331 BCE], courtesy of a highly irregular deal made personally with Oliver Stone), and the other is Alexander's general Ptolemy (c. 382-301 BCE) (played by Anthony Hopkins). The classical accounts of the life and times of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) (played by Colin Farrell) are of course Arrian's (c. 87-after 145) Campaigns of Alexander, and the History of Alexander the Great by Q. Curtius Rufus (d. 53), both writing some centuries after the actual events. It is assumed on good grounds that they were drawing on memoirs left by Alexander's generals and on material from Callisthenes (370-327 BCE), Alexander's own historian 'embedded' with his army (until he annoyed his commander-in-chief, who is said to have murdered him). Arrian is generally thought to be more directly indebted to these participant-chroniclers, whereas Curtius Rufus writes more (or less, depending on your point of view) as a historian, given that he develops Alexander as a character (based on the lost contemporary history by Cleitarchus). While this sort of thing could be dismissed as unwarranted speculation, it is rather unlikely to be ruled out nowadays as altogether foreign to historiography, given the obvious tradition of 'great men' in historical accounts. However much this genre has been criticized (and indeed sent up in Karl Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), it is going to be with us forevermore.

This is where history shades into dramatization and seems to slide out of historiography. Films that are 'like history' in their narrative and composition are documentaries (an apt term), as one would expect them to focus visually on source material (whether artifact or interview) and to move chronologically forward as conventional historiography does, even if written history and filmed documentary are allowed flashbacks and asides. Defying the conventions of the Hollywood biopic, Alexander puts the historian in charge, as Ptolemy and his voice-over dictation frame the film and recur at turning points along the way. As a filmic device, this largely replaces the cue-cards that would otherwise clue us as to where we are, when, and who is going to be on stage for the ('historical') drama. Ptolemy is the opposite of a chorus; he does not comment on the action so much as drive it forward. Even when he is off camera, we know he is there in Alexandria (the Egyptian one), dictating to the assembled scriptorium. Sadly, though, in dramaturgical terms he interrupts the action and adds nothing to the plot (or rather lack of it) every time he comes on screen.

Thankfully Homer never appears in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, twanging his lyre as historian-poet and giving us his bardic ode in Sprechstimme. After a few postcard-like 'snaps' giving us time, place, and a few character-clues (Agamemnon is a greedy conqueror; Achilles is an arrogant demi-god; they do not like each other), Petersen lets his actors get into character, and his characters propel the plot all by themselves right up to the tragic conclusion (though why Briseis should kill Agamemnon is a mystery ... was Petersen worried about a sequel Oresteia?). History functions as a character-trope here; all the major players want to live forever 'in the eyes of men'. While fictionalization is rather more an issue in Troy than it is in Alexander, it is certainly a stronger film with better performances (albeit with even worse music). Any sword-and-sandal epic is going to have risible dialogue, though this is really a translation problem not unique to films: how should the ancients speak to us, whether the voice is that of Curtius Rufus, or of Alexander (as voiced by Curtius Rufus)? Just because English translators favour a neutral idiom does not mean that it is the right one for the historian, or indeed that the historian gives us any correct bearing on Alexander's actual words to anyone, even in public. Historians rightly rely on reported speech as a rhetorical cover, though not always; nonetheless everyone in Thucydides' constructed speeches sounds pretty much the same. Historians also rely on a supposed public face of their characters, leaving their private moments to (by definition) unhistorical dramatists, librettists and filmmakers. There are exceptions amongst historians, of course, but they are not generally praised for this.

Napoleon had the painter Jacques-Louis David to make visual history for him; modern conquerors like Hitler had film crews in tow; and with due regard for the bureaucratic character of modern government and corporate media imperatives, we have CNN and other news archives as our contemporary chronicles. We also have historians who capture ordinary lives, and we have world-historical politicians who audiotape themselves (and others). Interestingly the best example of a 'plotted' history film is still Stone's own JFK, in which professional and amateur film footage seamlessly intercuts with fake versions of the same, a strong character (derived from a real person, always a gripping device) drives the plot along, and the whole film itself became history. It remains a monument to an unresolved mystery, a gateway to historical might-have-beens, and a disturbing tract linking democracy to tyranny. What does Stone do with Alexander the Great, and why?

The answers are 'not very much', and 'we really don't know'. Soldierly camaraderie is a strong theme, and certainly the way the character-interest plays out as boy-fighters become soldiers and conquerors for the sake of it. This is not the great gay movie that some have feared (or hoped for). Alexander and Hephaistion (played by Jared Leto) do not get much further than lingering glances and manly hugs that will hardly cause straight guys to throw up. In this respect it is barely more than a buddy-film, and the plot keeps it clean not so much by adhering strictly to the Hays Code (1930) on nudity and sexual contact but by failing to give them a real relationship with ups and downs. Boy-meets-boy, they like each other, and they die, not even together. It is all rather flat, which cannot be said of Derek Jarman's Sebastiane (1976), where the boys in the Roman army speak Latin (even in [modern] provincial accents), get down to it with each other in the barracks, and end up in Christian martyrdom (rather than worldly conquest). This is really the 'queer other' to Stone's very straight 'bi' and his homosocial mates. Roxanna (played by Rosario Dawson) does her best to liven things up in the love and lust department, and there is a bit of domestic conflict between her and Hephaistion over Alex, but the emotional center of the film is Alexander's mother Olympias (played by Angelina Jolie). There will be a serious contest for Best Supporting Actress between her and the snakes she steals her scenes from.

Historians and classicists can pick at the details, but fidelity to all that they have established would not save this film, or indeed any biopic. Michael Woods' TV documentary series 'In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great' revisits Arrian et al. with consummate self-consciousness and thoughtful musing, not so much on the now inaccessible Alexander as on the strength of his legend as local folklore, right in the places where he trod, stormed, and pillaged. Stone's film sacrifices the drama we expect in the biopic genre to the merest nod at 'history-speaking' (via his annoying voice-over Ptolemy), and he fails utterly to interest us much in someone who was surely not so dull. Or maybe he was, in which case Stone's poetic license could surely have kicked in (and does not). Even the pursuit of Darius (380-330 BCE) is thrown away dramatically; very few historians could resist getting their teeth into that one and making an epic out of it. Stone should have fired Robin Lane Fox (even as an extra), dispensed with Ptolemy and his droning history, and hired Hayden White. There is a historian who could get on with the plot.

Terrell Carver

University of Bristol
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Author:Carver, Terrell
Publication:Film & History
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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