Teasing Threads – The Pleasure of Forgotten Movies: Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’

Chris Palazzolo seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of the criminally scorned Alexander, directed by Oliver Stone, 2005

Image result for alexander movie imagesThis isn’t really a forgotten movie. It gets a regular airing on Australian free-to-air tv, can be streamed on Netflix and has a special Director’s Cut version on dvd. I just feel the need, 12 years after its shabby reception by reviewers to call for some kind of critical rehabilitation of it. Shabby is an understatement. At its release in 2005, most reviewers dropped their daks around their ankles so fast they were tripping over themselves in their haste to drop a turd on it. I saw it twice in one week just to be certain I was watching the same movie, and each time the ancient Greek army descended from the Himalayas into the jungles of the Ganges plain, drunk on wine because they couldn’t drink the water, and throwing spears at attacking monkeys who they believed were native warriors, I thought, not since Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, have such blood and guts images of world transforming incongruity been committed to the screen.

The story is this. In the 4th Century BCE, Alexander, heir to the Macedonian throne, currently ascendant among the Greek states, is educated in Aristotle’s Lyceum, where his precocious mind is filled with the most rarefied currents of Hellenistic thought – universal reason, and the ennobling of his sexuality (thus making the already perilous question of succession just that more impossible). On becoming king, he flees his scheming mother (who intends for him to consolidate Macedonian power in Greece) and embarks on a series of crazy military campaigns, conquering Persia, marching into Babylon, and then, in order to seed Greek civilisation in Asia, dragging his armies across the Himalayas into India where they eventually founder in constant fighting, mutiny, and sexual intrigue in the courts of wily Asian despots. After his death, and with no heir to hold it together, the Alexandrian empire quickly falls apart and is swept away.

Of course there are problems with this movie. These mainly stem from the narrative’s structure of staggered flashbacks which are executed so clumsily it’s like a truck double-clutching up a steep hill; it’s not until two thirds in that the movie really starts to build momentum.  On the other hand the overwrought dramatics seem to me to be perfectly justified. The subject is a man who conquered most of the known world, and a considerable chunk of the unknown world, before his death at age 33. An awful lot was packed into such a short life, much of it would’ve been overwrought. And the Scots and Irish accents for the Macedonians and English accents for the Greeks also makes sense. The movie is explicit in its analogy with western imperial adventures in the Middle East and Asia. The Macedonians were, to the older Greek states of antiquity, like the Scots and the Irish to the English of the Common Era; frontier states, tribal and restless. As the argy bargy of conquest, resistance and eventual accommodation (with the Scots at least) on the British Isles laid the foundations for Britain’s expansion into a global empire, so Macedonian ambition combined with Greek resources (economic and intellectual) made possible Alexander’s empire building.

While I agree with Oliver Stone when he said that homophobia was the reason critics were so down on his movie, I think its intellectual ambitions offended them more. As if the subject matter isn’t grandiose enough, the clear parallels it draws with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 pushes its connotations to the absurd (Colin Farrell’s Alexander, with his tight blonde curls and small triangular nose, even looks like a camp George Bush). I think this is Stone’s point – the invasion of Iraq, the incoherence of the US government’s motives for invasion (was it eliminating WMDs, or avenging 911, or bringing democracy to the Middle East?) – was completely absurd. But then Stone’s own motives seem to be incoherent too. Is he comparing George Bush favourably or unfavourably with Alexander? I think it’s the latter, given that Alexander is portrayed as being open to influences from Asia, seeking to marry West and East and create hybrid civilisations, whereas George Bush, a famous Know Nothing, exhibited no curiosity whatsoever about the country he invaded. Still, it’s difficult to be sure. I think it’s important to note that the legend of Alexander the Great, the exemplar of imposing civilisation through military conquest, is an entirely European conceit. Indian historians barely rate him a mention, and Iraqi historians regard him as just another foreign tyrant.

– Chris Palazzolo

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