So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live… Acts 17:24-26
If you love history, then you might find Oliver Stone’s screen biography of the world conqueror fascinating. However, if you were victimized by one of those high school athletic coach/history teachers who taught history as a succession of dates and battles to be memorized, then Alexander might seem like one long bloated excess. I found it a bit of both, and look forward to seeing it again because some of the scenes were a bit murky and the dialogue, at times murmured the way we do in life, a bit hard to follow. The statistics surrounding Alexander are incredible—he died a little before his 33rd birthday after traveling with his army some 22,000 miles and conquering more territory than anyone else; boldly attacked an army of 220,000 with his army of 40,000 troops, a 5 ½ to 1 disadvantage, yet he won, putting to flight the king of the most powerful empire of the day.
Stone and is co-writers Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis obviously faced a daunting challenge in selecting what to show from a life so crammed full of glory and conquests. They begin with the framing device of having Pharaoh Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) dictate to a scribe the story of the man whom he had followed into battle forty years before. Ptolemy was one of the four powerful generals who were loyal to their commander during his life, but who quickly divided up Alexander’s vast empire following his death. Using Ptolemy as narrator is convenient for summarizing portions of the conqueror’s busy and tumultuous life (the film could easily be six or eight hours long were all his battles included) and for commenting upon some of his acts.
The film spends almost half an hour on the early formative years of Alexander. What strange ones they were, with his powerful, one-eyed father Philip (Val Kilmer) constantly at war with his estranged wife Olympias (Angelina Jolie). His conquests upon the battlefield have added all of Greece to his Macedonia, and his lust in the bedroom is about to add another wife to his family. Thus Olympia is worried that her son might lose out in the succession to the throne, something that she is determined to prevent at all cost. A devotee of the god Dionysus, she is constantly fondling pet snakes and forces her son also to handle them. Telling him that he must never hesitate with them because if he does, then they might strike, she imparts to Alexander a lesson that will serve him well on the battlefield. Angelina Jolie gives an over the top performance so that her queen reminds us of Lady Macbeth.
His father also makes an indelible impression on his son’s character when he takes Alexander into the cave where ancient paintings depict the mighty deeds of the gods and of heroes. Life is hard and great deeds always include suffering, he tells the boy as he points to Prometheus being horribly punished by the gods for stealing and giving fire to humans. But the heroes who attract Alexander the most are Achilles and his constant companion Patroclus.
Alexander has his own Patroclus in Hephaistion (Jared Leto), his bosom friend from childhood. Their attraction to each other is more than just friendship, something hard for us to accept, and yet Greek culture condoned such relationships, even accepting pedophilia. Indeed, the sensuousness of both the Greek culture and that of the Persian is frequently on display—though Alexander can never forget his famous teacher (Aristotle) who counseled “moderation in all things.” Strangely, as we see, the fate of Achilles and Patroclus becomes that of Alexander and his companion.
Alexander’s relationship with his father is a stormy one, reaching to the breaking point in one tempestuous scene in which the family of his new wife to be is present. Thus, when the king is murdered, rumors abound that either the son or his mother were behind the assassination. Nevertheless, Alexander secedes to the throne and is soon prepared to carry out the plans of his father to invade Asia Minor and take on their old nemesis the Persian Empire. It is at the Battle of Gaugamela that Alexander will test the powerful weapon developed by his father, the phalanx, a rectangular arrangement of troops armed with sixteen foot-long spears and able to quickly move sideways as well as forward whenever commanded. This, plus Alexander’s confidence that if he can get to the Persian King Darius for a face to face encounter his adversary will break and run, proves to be decisive in the battle in which his 40,000 troops manage to defeat the 220,000 Persians.
When the Macedonians enter Babylon they are duly impressed by the magnificence of the city—its massive walls, brilliantly decorated places and towering Hanging Gardens bolster Alexander’s view that the Greek disdain of other peoples and cultures is too narrow. This is touched on several times, a part of his dream of not only spreading Greek culture but also blending and improving it with the best of other cultures. Not content to sit back and enjoy his conquests, he pushes on, subduing nation after nation until in India his exhausted and decimated troops almost mutiny. There is a magnificently stage battle against elephant mounted troops in a rain forest, but this proves to be his last victory. He too is tired and his body ravaged by fever and the toll caused by burning the candle of his life at both ends.
Director Oliver’s presentation of Alexander as a conflicted ruler, torn by his lusts and his desire to do the right thing, makes us wonder how this man could have conquered most of the known world. The film is a fascinating look at ancient times, but often confusing and plodding. There is at least a little humor amidst all the carnage and poisonous family spats—for instance, after still another of his mother’s harangues sent from Macedonia, Alexander comments, “It’s a high rent she charges for nine months in the womb.” The intense love scene with his Persian wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson) definitely earns the film its R rating, as does the depiction of the conqueror’s bisexuality (though there are no love scenes shown with Hephaistion, their relationship is not in doubt). The film opened far behind a children’s film and other releases, which is no surprise, Stone apparently deciding not to produce the usual action-centered epic. Although they are well staged and graphically photographed, just two of the many battles are depicted. Alexander is thus a very mixed affair, with many rewards, but requiring much patience also during its almost three hour running time.
1) Many historians and other folk have been impressed by the statistics of Alexander’s career—that he was always outnumbered and that he conquered most of the world by the time he was 25 and died at the early age of 32. Do you think Koholeth, whose Judah was one of the many nations swallowed into Alexander’s empire, would have been as impressed by him?
2) What do you think that Ptolemy means when, as we see Alexander leading his army into Babylon, he says, “Babylon was a far easier city to enter than to leave”? How is victory often a more difficult time than the struggle to achieve it?
3) How was Alexander interested in more than just founding a vast empire? What was his vision or dream of an Alexandrine world? (This was talked about more than it was shown.) For those who know their post-Biblical history, how did this vision, carried on by Alexander’s successors, become a nightmare for the people of Judah?
4) Compare Alexander’s vision with that of the apostle Paul’s in the Book of Acts.
5) The film offers an opportunity to see what kind of a society that Paul faced when he planted the gospel in Corinth. For some pertinent passages that show culture and values conflict see: 1 Cor.5:1; 6:12-20;8:1-13; 10:6-32.
6) Alexander died at almost the same age of Jesus (assuming the tradition surrounding the latter is correct). Compare the two—their vision and their methods, and their legacies.