History vs Hollywood – Alexander the Great
Welcome to our newest feature here at Bulletproof Action where we take a serious look at badass historical figures and how those sissies in Hollywood portrayed them on the big screen. This will give us an opportunity to check out some of the greatest men and women to ever live alongside their Hollywood counterparts and decide whether the movies got it right or got it wrong.
Our first historical figure to be featured will be Alexander the Great. Oliver Stone’s 2004 historical epic Alexander may have bombed at the box office but it made a considerable amount of money with its DVD sales and was re-released a whopping 4 times! So does that mean that the film was an accurate portrayal of one of the greatest military leaders in the history of mankind? We shall see…
Who was Alexander the Great?
Maybe you don’t have a degree in History sitting in a box in your closet like me so you might not know all there is to know about Alexander of Macedonia. Fear not! Here’s what you need to know:
It has been roughly 200 years since the glory days of Ancient Greece and now the power no longer lies in the southern city-states like Athens and Sparta but now rests in the northern region of Macedonia.
Son of Philip II of Macedonia, Alexander’s youth was filled with battle plans and philosophy lessons from Greek men like Aristotle. Alexander had spent his life being told stories about Greek heroes like Achilles and Heracles and deep in his heart he desired nothing less than being regarded in the same breath as those legends. Upon the death of Philip at the hands of an assassin, Alexander took over as King of Macedonia and immediately began consolidating power both in the north and south into Greece.
Alexander quickly kicked the shit out of the Thracians and used his superior maneuvering to get around Thessaly and subdue the Athenians without a fight. Now that Alexander was made Captain-General of the League of Corinth (the Greek allies planning on attacking the Persians) he made one last decision to secure the northern border of Macedonia before fixing his sights solely on Persia.
A series of battles took place between Alexander’s forces and the tribes of The Triballians, The Getae, and The Illyrians among others. During these battles the strategic genius of Alexander began to show itself as he was able to fight against a multitude of forces using several different maneuvers that would be difficult for any army to master, let alone one commanded by someone not yet 20 years old. After his victories of the northern tribes, a new rebellion arose in the Greek city of Thebes. Aided by the Athenians, Thebes denounced the new King Alexander (some actually believed he had died in the Balkans) and prepared to fight off the Macedonians. Unable to allow such a rebellion in Greece, Alexander force marched his men 300 miles in under two weeks to surprise the Thebans and massacre more than 6000 of them before destroying the city and enslaving the populace. Athens, however, was left alone as Alexander knew that he would need their naval power for his invasion of Persia.
The ambition of young Alexander
We get some flashbacks of Alexander as a young boy in Oliver Stone’s Alexander, scenes showing him led through a cave painted with all of the Greek legends written about in The Illiad and other works. The movie takes special care to show that Alexander’s mother was a snake-charming outsider to the Macedonian elites. How true this is we don’t really know. Did she really walk around with snakes draped around her legs? Doubtful. Did she have big pouty lips like Angelina Jolie? Unlikely. What is known is that women of those days didn’t dress nearly as sexy as Jolie does in the film and I would be surprised if she went around talking shit about the king and bragging about banging Zeus the way she does in the film. Although, if you’re going to commit adultery, it might as well be with the God of Thunder!
The film actually does a pretty decent job of showing Alexander getting lessons from Aristotle, and wrestling with other kids during his training. I could have done without a few of the scenes but Oliver Stone really wanted to show as much of Angelina Jolie as he could. They must have paid her a bunch!
The Battle of Gaugamela
Our first action scene, just a few minutes into the movie, is the battle that won the Persian Empire for Alexander and his men. The film skips the background that I listed above and instead jumps right onto the battlefield. It takes a couple minutes to show the Macedonians sacrifice a bull (they were deeply religious) but it didn’t show any of building of idols or the visiting of Achilles’ tomb. Alexander was said to have switched his shield for the shield of Achilles. That would seem like a pretty kickass scene to me. Either way, the battle depicted in the film is really well done. My one complaint being that they didn’t show how numerically superior the Persians were to the Macedonians. Some historians suggest it was a 5 to 1 advantage for the Persians although we’ll never really know.
The make up of the battle lines in the film were spot on; Alexander led his heavy cavalry on the right flank, opposite the Persian King Darius in the center of his forces. At the start of the battle, Alexander pushed right with his cavalry, extending the flank of the Persians and just like in the film, left his left flank to hold the brunt of the Persian attack while Alexander led the attack on the right and later into the heart of the Persian army. The film also did a good job of showing the Persian use of the scythed chariots, although in reality they were more useless than they appeared in the film.
The final thing I’ll mention about Gaugamela in the film is Alexander’s superior tactics compared to the Persians. The film would have you believe that they simply met on an open field but the fact is that Darius had a serious advantage when it came to manpower and he was able to select the ground that the battle was fought on. This was important because he was using scythed chariots, elephants, and his army wasn’t as disciplined as the Macedonians so it was crucial for them to be able to communicate more easily. That is why the extension of the right flank by Alexander was used to such great effect.
Guerilla warfare in the East
For all of it’s excellence in showing the Battle of Gaugamela, Oliver Stone decided not to show many of the smaller battles that would cement Alexander as being one of the greatest military generals of all time. The film spends far more time showing him making out with other dudes, crying about his mother, and arguing with his most loyal generals than it does of him winning major victories in Tyre, Gaza, Issus, Bactria, and Sogdiana. This decision to highlight his faults (his ego, inability to conceive, paranoia, drunkenness) instead of his many legendary features shows that Stone may not have been reading the same books during his research as me.
There are no ancient sources that talk about Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship the way that the film does. The writer Aelian mentions that Alexander garlanded the tomb of Achilles while Hephaestion the tomb of Patroclus, the later being his assumed beloved. But the Greek word for beloved does not carry with it sexual meaning, so take that as you will. The film does take great care to show that Alexander wasn’t a womanizer by any stretch of the imagination. He did marry three times; to Roxana from Bactria, and twice for political reasons in Babylon. Alexander’s lust was never for women, but instead for glory and fame.
Stone’s attempt to turn the life of Alexander into a shitty E! reality show doesn’t eliminate the fact that a brutal campaign was fought between the conquering forces of Alexander and a rebel by the name of Spitamenes. His Scythian and Bactrian allies fought off the Macedonian forces for nearly two years, ending finally when Spitamenes was killed by his own men. Although none of this campaign is shown in the film there is a brief shot of a rebel head being delivered to Alexander, that head being the former head of Spitamenes. One of the final battles before the Macedonians moved on to India was the capture of the Sogdian Rock. It was supposedly an impregnable natural fortress, which gave Alexander ever bit of incentive that he needed. The Sogdian rebels also made the mistake of goading Alexander by saying that he would need ‘flying men’ to breach the walls of the fortress. No such thing existed in 328 BC so instead Alexander sent 300 volunteers to scale the mountain in the dark of night. Dozens of them fell to their death but the sight of them scaling the walls alone cause the rebels to surrender. Another bold and decisive maneuver from Alexander that led to victory.
Alexander split his army into two forces; one led by himself and the other by loyal Hephaestion. The fighting in India was very similar to that of Bactria and Sogdiana, smaller clashes like that at the natural fortress Aornos, a 1 mile high peak similar to the Sogdian Rock, gave Alexander opportunities to flex his strategic muscles once again. The film would have you believe that he just partied with local leaders and continued to screw his soldiers and eunuchs all while drinking an insane amount of wine. While some of that may have happened, an epically awesome battle happened at Hydaspes.
In Alexander, we’re introduced to the battle as the Macedonian forces line up in battle formations and await the Indian army. As it arrives, the war elephants trample the tight formations of Macedonians until another cavalry charge led by Alexander breaks the stalemate and allows for another victory. In reality, the lead-up to the battle, involving the crossing of a massive river, a torrential downpour (causing the ground to be very wet for the Indians to use their chariots), and the impressive battlefield tactics of Alexander caused the battle to be a very one-sided affair. In fact, the disciplined Macedonians had essentially driven the elephants into their own men, killing scores of Indians as they retreated.
The injury that Alexander sustained in the film actually happened during the Siege of Multan. Macedonian forces had been making little progress during the siege until Alexander jumped on a ladder and began to climb the ramparts. Suddenly inspired, his men jumped on the ladder, causing it to break and leaving him and a few others inside the compound. Alexander was wounded with an arrow to the chest and his companions protected him long enough for the rest of his men to make the save.
The Return home and Death
Alexander had decided after 9 months along the Indus River that it was time to head back west. The film accurately portrays many of the mutinies and physical and emotional state that the campaigns had put the veterans in. The march through the Makran Desert was very tough on the men but Alexander, when given a helmet full of water, poured it to the ground and said that he would not drink until all of his men could drink too. That was the type of leader that Alexander was. The film would have you believe that his men couldn’t stand him by the end and all were lining up to be the one to poison him.
In June of 323, Alexander died from a long bout with the fever. Some speculate that it could have been from poison, others believe that he drank himself to death, but it was most likely a combination of him succumbing to his injuries and possibly malaria. If it was malaria then he certainly didn’t help himself by drinking so much. His empire was broken up after his death. Something that the film does a decent job of portraying, only if by the words of Anthony Hopkins.
I have watched every single cut of the film that has been released and The Ultimate Cut, which is supposed to be the final version, is by far the best. You’ll have to sit through 3.5 hours if you want to make it through the entire film but if you are a history buff like me then it’ll be worth it. There are several things that I wish had been in the movie more; Alexander consolidating power in Greece (diplomatic skills), Siege of Tyre, Gaza, and the Sogdian Rock (strategic skills), and his battlefield speeches could have used some work (mic skills). As I said, the film is already 3.5 hours so there isn’t much room for more footage but there is an obscene amount of time wasted with Angelina Jolie’s character and Oliver Stone just couldn’t get enough of showing Alexander making out with his boy toy and close-ups of Jared Leto’s eye liner. Say what you will about Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Alexander ( I wasn’t impressed), the attempt at using Jolie (who is less than a year older than him) as his mother is downright laughable.
The film has some excellent fighting sequences, easily more accurate than movies like Troy, and 300, but it’s main problems come from trying to tell the tale of a flawed man who became a leader instead of a great leader who turned into a flawed man. His strategic victories and battlefield tactics won him the largest empire the world had ever seen, while the film was more interested in his bed chamber than his legacy. In this case I would say that Hollywood had a really good opportunity but dropped the ball. What do you think?