Gaugamela Nights: The Ballad Of Oliver Stone’s Alexander


alexander stone farrell

“Fortune favours the bold,” quoth Virgil in the opening titles to Oliver Stone’s epic, Alexander (2004).  It is meant to sum up the the reach of perhaps the greatest overachiever in any world, ancient or modern; conqueror, explorer, king, diplomat, demi-God. And one who fled to the end of the known world to escape the malign influence of  squabbling parents, achieving all before his death at 32.

Another quote or saying pithily encapsulates Stone’s retrograde struggle to bring clarity and structure in his final, “Ultimate Cut” to this most derided and ambitious of all his cinematic children: “God loves a trier.”

The theatrical cut of Alexander was a  bit of a mess – Stone was pushed by Warner Brothers to deliver an epic to rival Gladiator and Troy, yet on a ridiculously tight 90 day schedule (the crew trekked like Alexander’s caravan across Morocco, Thailand, and the Hindu Kush), and was also chased by the threat of Dino De Laurentiss’s rival Baz Luhrmann directed picture (which never even had a script, and remains unmade). It’s a testament to Stone’s cajones that the film got made at all, even if he did consider “I did lose my balls, frankly. Warner Bros is intimidating.” 

Although Stone’s passion project was the largest independent film ever made, the normally bullish director delivered a conventional, linear narrative, that largely failed to impress, cramming in too much to a conventional running time, yet also managing to annoy both conservatives, and gay rights advocates, over his fudging of Alexander’s polyamorous proclivities. Timing could not have been worse, with the subject of gays in the American military being a political hot potato. Teenagers wanted blood and guts, not to snicker at Anthony Hopkins’ narrator Ptolemy consider wryly that “Alexander (Colin Farrell) was conquered only by Haphaestion’s thighs” (even if that was an ancient world double entendre wrestling quip derived from Diogenes). Stone’s research was exhaustive, and as usual with academics, subject to scrutiny both favourable and dismissive.

alexander horseback

Perhaps times winged arrow, the beneficence of Warners Home Video, and Stone’s own pockets can deliver the film that the enfant terrible always wanted to make: an epic that examines back and forth through time a monumental, short and glorious world changing life, through the vagaries of historical “truth” told long after the fact. Spectacular images and scenes now juxtapose chronologically to allude better to Stone’s themes – although sometimes too on the nose. It uses multi-stranded narrative devices of scenes with or without dialogue; flashbacks; Alexander’s father King Philip’s (Val Kilmer) mythological lecture using the cave paintings beneath their Macedon palace; Ptolemy’s periodic expository dictation to his scribes years later in Alexandria; and voiceovers. And of course, two major decisive battles in full-on Stone blood-letting – also, in the case of Alexander’s Indian excursion, where he spurs on a flagging army against war elephants, hallucinogenic colour change in cinematography to reflect his ecstasy of near-death.

alexander red


Layered around this is a psychodrama of a son drip fed a sense of his own manifest destiny by two warring parents; sublimation of Oedipal impulses through marriage to a wild Bactrian princess Roxanne (Rosario Dawson), the barbarian mirror of his scheming, wild mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie); and historically accurate bisexuality, in his affection for lifetime friend and companion Hephaestion (Jared leto) and experimentation with court eunuch Bagoas.

Quite a stew. Any wonder the running time now clocks in around the four hour mark. Stone’s instruction to his actors and crew was “Be bold.” Costume designer Jenny Beavan was worried that the look of the film was in danger of turning into “some bad 1950’s Hollywood big movie.” Stone didn’t back down. “I just love those epic movies, that epic style. I loved them as a kid, even the ones that were panned, like The Robe. I love that shit!”

Stone invited design heads to a screening of D W Griffith’s 1916 ancient world silent epic, Intolerance, for its arresting set designs of Babylon, and the (somewhat cliched) Orientalist view of Persian sultriness. The film is full of arresting visuals, such as the wedding of Alexander and Roxane in a fortress in ancient Bactria – part of today’s Afghanistan. The elaborate set was constructed on a plateau in the Lower Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Production designer Jan Roelfs created the surrounding fortress like much of rural contemporary Afghan architecture, from mud, plaster and timber.

Jenny Beavan’s wedding costumes reflect the cultural mix of Alexander’s world, particularly Roxane’s magnificent and exotic bridal attire. “When I researched it, I found that Afghanistani techniques haven’t changed much in two thousand years,” said Beavan. “They sewed gold into clothes, which we did both for Roxane and Alexander’s wedding costumes. I wanted Roxane to look sexy, and I often think that the less you see the more there is.”

alexander wedding

“Babylon is definitely the richest set I’ve ever done,” said set designer Jan Roelfs. “Alexander’s entry into Babylon is the pinnacle of his career. He’s never seen such splendour in his life, never before encountered a culture which in many ways is superior to his own.” The lush Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, were incorporated into the design. Scenic artist Steve Mitchell painted a 150 foot long, 45 foot tall, wraparound cyclorama depicting a photo-realistic, detailed panoramic view of Babylon as seen from the palace terrace. Buf Compagnie, a French VFX house that Stone had worked with before, did the bulk of the CG filling in of this ancient world. As per Stone’s bold edict, the Tower Of Babel was enlarged to 1,000 feet tall.

alexander sfx gif

Shepperton Studios housed the highly detailed re-creation of one of the world’s lost treasures, the Alexandria Library, where Ptolemy dictates the story of Alexander’s life to his scribe. The geometrically designed marble floor offsets mosaic frescoes depicting Alexander’s heroic deeds. The massive shelves that lined the walls held over 25,000 different scrolls, each made from real papyrus imported from Egypt to simulate the library as it was 2,500 years ago.

alexander ptolomey

Then of course there were the real landscapes to signify Alexander’s expansion eastwards. As the young conqueror pauses on the mountains of the Caucuses (filmed in the Hindu Kush), he gazes at the mountains where legend has it Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the Gods to benefit mankind, was enchained, doomed to have his liver pecked out every day by a great eagle. A subtle, fleeting use of CG reveals Alexander’s own features projected in the contours of the mountainside.

alexander face in hindu kush

Prometheus is an additional mythological precedent Stone alluded to for Alexander’s destiny shaking rise to prominence. The young conqueror describes him as a “friend to man” and he sees something of that in himself. An eagle shadows Alexander on his eastward odyssey, a unifying link to the Promethean ideal. At one point in the spectacular battle of Guagamela that now opens the film after a brief establishing introduction, Alexander’s pre-battle speech to his troops drifts away as the camera follows the eagle gliding high above the vast, dusty throng of warriors.

Stone describes his conquests not in terms of military land grabbing, but “cultural cross-fertilization. Although there were civil wars (after he died and his generals split the empire) people generally lived a better life – trade was up, the economy was up, prosperity was up. He put the whole world together into one unit, like a return to the womb, and then after he took power he let autonomy reign. He had local satraps , local people run the show and mix the cultures. His idea was to mix.”

A benevolent dictator? Despite Stone’s protestations, Alexander achieved his dream of an empire that stretched the known world, a multi-racial Nirvana, built on the death of thousands. Do the ends justify the means? Ptolomy dismisses his sacking of Thrace, when the other Greek states resisted his overtures, as a “tragedy” that those who hated him would never forgive – but who were they, when he had achieved so much? The New Yorker sniped his further conquests were “Operation Persian Freedom”: a young energetic Western superpower occupying an older Eastern civilization.

alexander guagamala aftermath

Perhaps Stone, despite the years he took to finally get the film made, was too early. In the light of the abundant sex (gay, straight, incestuous), charged, heightened drama, politics, spectacular settings, costumes and bloody deaths in Game Of Thrones, does Alexander still seem too outré? Consider Melisandre, the Red Queen in that show, whispering of prophecies and scheming to manoeuvre Stannis Baratheon to the Iron Throne. Angelina Jolie’s derided, vampish Olympias tells Alexander he is the son of Zeus, and must secure his future. At the assassination of Philip, she wears a red gown (cut flatteringly and anachronistically to her statuesque figure). Alexander’s father substitute, Cleitus, mocks his Persian ways and derides him as a pale shadow of his father, who would be ashamed. An enraged, wild eyed Alexander stabs him in front of the assembled throng of his court, predating the shock of The Red Wedding. And Alexander’s sexual duality? Game Of Thrones doesn’t shy away from all aspects (although typically women get the fuzzy end of the lollipop). Would Stone, were Alexander made today, have been emboldened to go further in all areas, perhaps considering the HBO miniseries model?

Colin Farrell may fail to sufficiently convey Alexander’s inner drive and daring vision, and suffers from coy direction in skirting around the issue of Alexander’s bisexuality (in ancient world terms), but he’s great when piling on his flaws, weaknesses and scolding of a tired army that simply wants to go home.  As Ptolemy says, “The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams.

alexander river speech

Oliver Stone dared like Alexander to “reach and fall”  – perhaps now, with The Ultimate Cut, his reach can finally be seen to outstrip his previously maligned Macedonian fall.

Here, Oliver Stone discusses Alexander and the representation of ancient history with Ralph Hexter, UC Berkeley dean and professor of classics. It takes a little while to get going, but Stone warms to his subject and themes, and is a knowledgeable, frank and effusive speaker on a subject that has driven him throughout his life.


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