Alexander (2004), revisited

For the entirety of my academic career, Oliver Stone’s epic biopic Alexander has been an object of ridicule. I praised a handful of casting choices when it came out (Angelina Jolie as Olympias, even if I don’t love what they did with the character; Anthony Hopkins as old-man Ptolemy), but otherwise loudly complained about the way the film warped history and have particular issues with the work of one of the main historical consultants.

In short, I was in line with the 16% score Alexander received on Rotten Tomatoes.

Outside a handful of conversations I hadn’t given thought to Alexander in a decade when I decided to show it this semester in a class called “The Afterlives of Alexander the Great.” Then two things happened: first, I discovered that 67% of reviews on Amazon gave it either 4 or 5 stars; second, I discovered that the movie is not as bad as I remember it.

First, despite hitting a few of my pet peeves in filmmaking (e.g. how will we know we’re in Greece if there aren’t schooling scenes with broken columns???), it is beautifully costumed in ways that show the increasing distance of the expedition away from Greece. I’m not wild about the script and Colin Farrell looks too old for teenaged Alexander, but the look is gorgeous and immersive, nicely capturing the fact that the Macedonians were leaving a relatively poorer part of the Ancient World for territories that were older and wealthier.

Second, Alexander tries to offer a psychological portrait of a king. I think this is where the critiques that it is a talk-y epic come from. I can appreciate the ambition even as it hews too far toward “Alexander the Idealist” for my taste, and the theatrical cut is overly concerned with an Oedipal interpretation that is deemphasized in the later cuts. However, this big swing also comes with drawbacks. For instance, one of the hallmarks of the ancient sources like Curtius Rufus and Plutarch is that they struggle to reconcile the great, humanistic idealist with the brutal and ruthless monarch.*

In fact, since all of our surviving narrative histories of Alexander campaign date from several hundred years later, they offer as much a commentary on monarchy and power as they do evidence for Alexander’s reign.

Stone’s Alexander struggles in much the same way, trying both offer a humanizing portrait of the great man and a soup-to-nuts biopic that covers the warts and all. The result is an uneven movie that swings from Alexander espousing idealistic platitudes about how Asians are people, too, to a wedding-night rape scene, to Alexander the tender homosexual lover, to him killing his loyal followers in a drunken rage, to showing his perpetual struggle for the approval of his parents. Trying to put it all in a single film that focuses this closely on Alexander lays bare just how contradictory our original sources can be.

*There are a number of books on this subject, my favorites being Elizabeth Baynham’s Alexander the Great and Diana Spencer’s The Roman Alexander.

Third, I was much more forgiving of how the movie warps the chronology, combining and compressing the battles. These scenes dragged in the film as it stands, so I could see how doubling or tripling their run-time would have just bloated the movie further without supplementing the attempted psychological portrait.

The obvious solution is that an entire Alexander story cannot fit in a movie. But Alexander predates HBO’s Rome (2005–2007), let alone Game of Thrones or a show like the Crown. The space afforded by a prestige drama, whether a single season on Alexander culminating in his death a la Ned Stark and multiple seasons on the period of the successors or an eight season run with three on Alexander is a much more appropriate format for this story, both because it better fits long-form storytelling and because a series would allow the creators and writers to develop characters other than Alexander, both Greek and Persian––an under-appreciated requirement for any successful adaptation of this story.

Fourth, one of the really interesting things that Alexander does is to frame it as being told by old-man Ptolemy, now a king in Egypt, in the process of writing his history of Alexander’s campaign. As with other points, I picked nits with the scenes, including that there is a fully-completed Pharos lighthouse and a statue of Philip with a Pericles helmet, but since Ptolemy did write a history of this period he is a natural surrogate as a narrator in the same way that Bilbo and Frodo Baggins tell the stories of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and Samwell Tarly writes Game of Thrones. The problem is that this framing device has layers of consequences for the story that the movie utterly disregards, leaving both superficial narration and a generic amalgam of the Alexander story.

To be clear, Alexander remains a hot mess of a movie. It doesn’t have much time for women, doesn’t do enough to get at the fundamental violence of Alexander’s reign, or spend enough time either humanizing the non-Greeks or exploring the sense of alienation that Alexander’s men, any of which could have made for a more compelling film than its psychological portrait. But it is also a hot mess with ambition in ways that give it more to think about than most movies that fail this spectacularly.

A Recent Reading Recap

The thing about my current semester is that it barely left time to think, let alone do anything, but I did manage to crawl my way through a few books. Now that my semester is winding down and I finally have a moment to breathe, I have a chance to jot down notes.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed – My least favorite of the books I read this fall, The Possessed is a memoir about graduate school and Russian literature in which long sections read as though she was workshopping ideas for the book that eventually became her novel The Idiot. Batuman is a gifted writer and I enjoyed the discussions of Russian literature, but those often went beyond the authors I was familiar with and I was generally underwhelmed by her presentation of graduate school.

Eric Rauchway, Winter War – One of my aspirational goals for teaching is to read one new book about each class I teach in a given semester, beyond whatever other prep I have done. This was my choice for my Modern Americna history class. In Winter War, Rauchway examines the months between the election of 1932 and Roosevelt’s inauguration to show the radical start of Roosevelt’s New Deal and how Hoover sought to undermine his successor. This was a really excellent book that deftly leads the reader through the political maneuverings at the height of the Great Depression.

Josh Gondelman, Nice Try – The final non-fiction book I read this fall was Gondelman’s Nice Try. I attended Brandeis at the same time as Gondelman and we have a number of mutual friends, but I know him primarily as a writer for TV and on Twitter as the world’s nicest comedian. This collection is a delightful, light-hearted stroll through the serious topic of trying to be both a nice and good person in the world.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu – The fourth book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series is one of the best. Like Tombs of Atuan, this novel picks up the story of Tenar, now living on Gont as a middle-aged woman named Goha, her children grown. The inciting event comes when two people come into her life. First, an emotionally and physically damaged child she names Therru and then Sparrowhawk, no longer a mage, but a broken old man. The result is a heart-wrenching fantasy story of sorrow and loss that, like the rest of the series, undermines the typical heroic tropes including, this time, the notion that a single heroic victory would in fact set the world at rights.

Myke Cole, The Armored Saint – I started following Cole on Twitter because of his interest in ancient Greek history, but I also appreciate a good fantasy novel and he recommended people start with this one. The Armored Saint is a coming of age story about Heloise Factor, the daughter of the town’s scribe. What impressed me about this book is how Cole creates the sense of history, with adults having fought in past wars and an Order that prevents demons from entering the world by making sure that no wizard survives, while nevertheless focalizing this story that takes place in one small valley through the point of view of this young woman who, rightfully, is angry at members of the Order who abuse their power.

Jose Saramago, Blindness – The only capital-L literature book I read this semester was by Portuguese Nobel-winner José Saramago. Blindness is a harrowing story of a city that descends to anarchy when its citizens begin going blind. The government responds to the initial cases by quarantining the afflicted in an asylum, in the hopes that it will stop its spread. But the asylum fills up, and one of the wings organizes a ring to control the spread of supplies, extorting money and sex from the other wings. Then the supplies stop coming in and the inmates escape into a world abandoned when every one went blind. Overall Blindness struck me as a much more sophisticated and satisfying take on the themes of Lord of the Flies. My one lingering question was about the character of the doctor’s wife, who accompanies her husband into the asylum and is the only character in the entire book who never goes blind. I couldn’t decide what to make of her character, eventually deciding that she is saved by her selfless sacrifices at every turn, but also finding that this level of metaphor didn’t quite fit with the rest of characters in the novel. I quite liked Blindness in sum, but the fact that I came away wishing that I read it at a time when I could give it more attention means I might need to re-read this one.

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I am now reading Robin Hobb’s Ship of Destiny, the conclusion of her Liveship Traders Series. By the time I’m done, I hope to have enough time to write full review posts again.