I don’t want to corrupt history.
— Oliver Stone, New York Times (21 November 2004)
Americans are building another empire in the East. It seems to me an oil-driven empire out of Afghanistan, Iraq and maybe Iran, southern Russian. This is a big deal, and a lot’s going to happen and a lot’s in play right now, and who knows where it’s going to come out?
— Oliver Stone, Chicago Tribune (21 November 2004)
“Are you med!?” So hisses the fiery and oddly accented Roxane (Rosario Dawson), on discovering that her husband is gay. To be fair, her husband is not precisely mad, but only Alexander the Great, the fourth-century conqueror as reimagined for Oliver Stone’s $155 million wannabe epic. That is, he’s burdened by the brilliant ambitions, spastic insecurities, and grand delusions that tend to beset Stone’s heroes. Not to mention demented-sounding dialogue, a snake-obsessed mom (Olympias, played with welcome gusto by Angelina Jolie), or Colin Farrell’s evidently intractable Irish accent and much-reported bad blond wig.
Still, this Alexander might have survived all these excesses and details, if he weren’t also asked to navigate a tangle of current political and cultural expectations. These take him quite beyond the scope of his seeming project — to lay waste to barbarians and recreate the then-known world more or less in his own image. As the boys is inspired by his blustery drunk of a father King Philip (Val Kilmer) to distrust all women, and by his teacher Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) to lay with men in pursuit of intimacy and “knowledge” (“It is love between men,” he asserts gravely, “that can lift us”), Alexander is almost what New York Times‘ Sharon Waxman calls a “gay hero.” But, caught between explicit-flowery language and reluctant-romantic imagery, the film leaves him looking a little “med.”
The term “gay,” for instance, doesn’t exactly in play back then. Indeed, sexuality, desire, and identity were less prone to categorization in ancient Macedonia. Alexander’s lifelong devotion to his boyhood friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto, looking especially beautiful in mascara and long hair) was neither named (as in, declaring a political position) nor unusual. The film acknowledges this with shots of the young king’s inner circle members also sharing homo-desirous glances (even a couple of embraces). At the same time, this Alexander shares his bed with assorted men, including the pretty Persian eunuch Bagoas (Francisco Bosch), whose introduction parallels Roxane’s: both seduce the king with elaborately sinuous dances, intercut with his approving looks.
Their similarity ends there, however. Alexander takes great care to insinuate Alexander’s homosexual liaisons, via poignant embraces, soulful gazes, and dialogue you can misunderstand if so inclined. According to awkwardly inserted narrator Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), “It was said later that Alexander was never defeated, except by Hephaistion’s thighs.” While the movie doesn’t show male-on-male sexual action, it does offer much sublimated imagery (battling, wrestling) and a graphic sex scene between the son-desiring Alexander and the naked, knife-wielding Roxane. This being the scene that features prominently in the film’s promotional campaign, it’s not surprising that violent hetero sex is more visible than any sort of homo sex.
Screen violence per se is, of course, Stone’s own legacy. His films regularly feature full-blown disturbing violence, deployed to make clear the terrible costs of war (his Vietnam war trilogy), professional sports (Any Given Sunday), and media sensationalism (Natural Born Killers). Alexander follows suit, with appropriately hideous spearings and dismemberings and horrific numbers of corpses displayed. At the same time, as befits an “epic” (perhaps especially one the director has loudly wanted to make for decades), Alexander’s brutal destiny often appears quite glorious. As he charges forward on his “high-spirited” black stallion Bucephalas toward a wholly intimidating gigantor elephant, the shot slows down so the mutual frenzy is both acutely visible and blurred into myth. Again, Alexander is in-between: a vain man and a noble leader, an egotistical warlord and a visionary.
Mostly unreadable with regard to individual feats, the film’s two major battle scenes are rightly awful. War is not glorious, the film suggests, only made so by revisionist memories (and recordings by winners). This much is clear in the battle at Gaugamela, where the Macedonian’s defeat the much larger force assembled by King Darius (Raz Degan), whose repeated close-ups underline his stereotypically “Arabic” appearance and his cowardice; he doesn’t fight while Alexander’s all over the battlefield, and the disquieting run-in with the army on elephants in India. The literal disorder here is less a function of Rodrigo Prieto’s vivid cinematography than the scenes’ ravaging edits (rumor has it that they went through multiple re-dos). Such incoherence makes Stone’s larger point (concerning imperial hubris, which he’s been linking to the current U.S. administration) harder to parse.
Written by Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis, with counsel from historian Robin Lane Fox, the film focuses on Alexander’s personal travails more than his war-making’s broader and long-lasting effects. He does, as Ptolemy colorfully notes, “bring the tedious Greeks to their knees,” as well as move the borders of his empire east, but such movements are typically rendered on ancient-looking digital maps or in the narration. This much is clear: Alexander is a conqueror, no matter his rationale, and feels no conflict on this count.
Alexander’s stated reason for creating multiple Alexandrias and “ruling the world” sound incongruously progressive: if only the populations would mix, their differences might be abandoned, just as he might be left in charge. To that end, his reasoning goes, marrying the “barbarian” commoner Roxane will lead to a consolidation of allegiances and territories. It doesn’t quite work out this way, as she doesn’t deliver a son and his men resent their years-long eastward advance (and their remove from their families; they note their king’s ability to bring along his own wife, even if she is, after a couple of years of no-son-bearing, cast off to her own tent).
While intent on all his conquering, Alexander (who died at age 32, in 323 B.C., here depicted as a result of his dire grief over Hephaistion’s murder) is beleaguered throughout his life by his warring parents — both literally and metaphorically. Introduced in mid-blow-out, Olympias and one-eyed Philip personify the conflict that will plague Alexander (played as a boy by Connor Paolo). In their hysterical animosity (mom states outright, “In my womb I carried my avenger”), they produce the boy’s anxieties concerning power, treachery, and fidelity.
A devotee of Dionysus, Olympias cavorts with snakes and vigorously urges her son to pursue his fate as the son of Zeus (Philip being so loathsome, she writes him out of Alexander’s genetic equation), cooing that he’s her “little Achilles,” a line that for most of this film’s viewer’s can’t help but call up images of Brad Pitt. Though she’s unbeatably charismatic (and plain fun amid all the drearily inclined boys), the film takes a typically Stonian approach to the evil woman. Jolie’s solution to this dilemma is a ferocious performance, heavily accented (Slavo-Greek?), deliriously Norma-Desmondish, even uncomfortably intimate with pretty Alexander (see also: Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey). So instrumental is Olympias in Alexander’s angst and evolution that, even though he publicly rejects her (or at least, leaves her alone in Babylon while he rides off into a very imperial lifestyle), she dominates his thoughts: as when her image cuts in, with snake erect on her lovely shoulder, during Alexander’s sexual conquest of Roxane. Alas, he sighs to a confidante, “It’s a high ransom she charges for nine months of lodging in the womb.” (And more power to her.)
At the same time, Philip urges his son to doubt women as a class and further, to appreciate the company of men. While he wants his son to be a great soldier, equestrian, and ruler, he explicitly denies the boy’s sorceress mother, essentially calling him a bastard. Though he teaches his son that women are bad-bad-bad, Philip does remarry, to have a child with the properly Macedonian Eurydice (Marie Meyer). When she bears a son almost immediately, Alexander is then in competition for the throne, only ascending because Philip is assassinated soon after his half-brother’s birth. This trauma is alluded to early in the film, when Alexander becomes king and begins leading his army, but only shown late. Though this timing seems geared to demonstrate Alexander’s suffering (he recalls his father’s death at a key moment during his own royal meltdown), this effect is dimmed by Farrell’s wailing over the bloody body, which, like most of his performance, is less than convincing.
Eventually, the movie’s psychologizing of Alexander’s motives turns tedious. While the film does complicate his “greatness,” suggesting that his understanding of warfare is at least partly cynical (“Fear makes men fight better”) and his ambitiousness the result of serious personal “issues.” At the same time, Alexander wants to make its hero heroic, a man of vision and passion. Here, rather than being both and all, he seems distracted and unfocused, necessarily undone by too many expectations.