Question: Assess the historical accuracy of the film Alexander.
In modern media, the depictions of historical events are often flawed, exaggerated, or inaccurate. This is often used to create interest and provide a platform for viewers to project themselves onto to ensure relatable characters and insert their own emotions or consciousness into film and literature. In Oliver Stone’s film Alexander (2004), the historical inaccuracies often dramatise the story and do not take into account the real events of Alexander The Great’s life. Even at almost two hundred and twenty minutes long, the film fails to identify and depict many of the major battles and campaigns in which Alexander and his army participated in. In terms of historical accuracy, there are multiple omissions within Stone’s Alexander, however, the majority of these are accounted for through the director’s creative vision. Although this does not excuse the blatant historical inaccuracies present in the film, it provides little redemption in terms of quality of entertainment. The film received much criticism for lack of detail and clarity on most of the events depicted in the film. Despite the tremendous amount of research that was put into the creation of the film, Stone distorts history, quite liberally at times, compromising the accuracy of past events, entertainment and plot coherence.
The timeline of events depicted in the film has few parallels to the real timeline of Alexander the Great’s life. Many minor campaigns during the film’s seven-year time period were completely left out, and of the two battles that were depicted, certain aspects of other battles were “mashed” into the original, most likely to keep the film coherent and so as not to extend the runtime. If stone included every battle, including the minor ones, both the runtime and the film’s budget would have to be greatly increased. The time between Alexander’s ascension to the throne of Macedon film’s first major battle, which is set at Gaugamela, much is left out. The most significant of these events include the crushing of the rebellion of Thebes, the battle of Issus and the siege of Tyre. In spite of the fact that it would be impossible to include all of Alexander’s great victories, these three events all played a major part in his long-term success. Additionally, the treacherous journey Alexander and his army made back to Babylon and the extent of the loss of life was not given an adequate amount of time to fully depict and explain the depth of this event. Further evidence of this is provided by Plutarch, who wrote “Alexander lost a vast number of his men, so that an army of one hundred and twenty thousand foot and fifteen thousand horse, he scarcely brought back above a fourth part out of India, they were so diminished by disease, ill diet, and the scorching heats, but most by famine”. The fact that the film merely glances over this disastrous and unnecessary journey across the desert indicates that it was not included so it would not alter the viewer’s mostly positive perception of Alexander. Additionally, the film’s depiction of Alexander dying from poisoning is simply speculation, and is not proven by fact. As the film comes to a close, the audience is told by Ptolemy that Alexander the Great’s death was in fact plotted by his own generals. To an extent, this is exactly what Oliver Stone’s film hoped to achieve, by over dramatising both Alexander the Great’s life and death to please its audience without it being supported by much-proven fact.
Alexander’s relationships are also a centralised theme in Alexander. His relationship with his mother is particularly dramatised, as is with his father and best friend, Hephastion. Hephastion and Alexander’s relationship appears to transcend friendship. Although it is not uncommon for historians to argue that this was indeed the case, the extent of their affection and closeness is something that can be attributed to creating tension between Alexander and his relations, adding further drama to the film, rather than simply for the sake of historical accuracy. Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Alexander’s mother, Olympias, is also heavily exaggerated and inaccurate. Her interactions and relationship with her son refer to the possibility that it may have been incestuous, although no historical record has ever suggested that this may be the case. The film accurately captures much of the raw emotion shared between the two. Olympias’s almost obsessive love and encouragement of her son in the movie is supported by many sources which suggest that she did everything to protect and advance Alexander, and constantly instilling the notion of greatness within him. The film also consistently enforces the idea that Alexander believed in the unity of mankind, and although it may seem like Stone simply added this for dramatic effect, many sources corroborate the notion that Alexander did, in fact, hold such a belief. In Alexander, The king hosted a massive banquet, at which both Macedonians and Persians shared his table. This demonstrates that the film accurately portrayed Alexander’s belief in the unity of mankind. Stone’s depiction of Alexander’s relationship with Hephastion highlights the belief shared by many historians that both men were same-sex attracted and were in fact in a relationship that was more than platonic. Alexander is also shown being physically violent with his first wife, Roxana, after she questions the validity of Alexander’s feelings for her. Historically, Roxana was known as a devoted wife and lover, rather than the character displayed in Alexander. The film’s depiction of Alexander’s relationship with his father Philip is also accurately portrayed. It builds tension between the two in certain situations, exampled by the angry outbursts between father and son at Philip’s wedding to Cleopatra. However, Alexander never denies the love that Philip holds for his son and heir, most notably in the scene in which he shows obvious pride in Alexander’s taming of his horse Bucephalus.
Despite the fact that there are many historical inaccuracies in the film’s chronology of events, costuming and characterisation were achieved in a meticulously detailed manner. The portrayal of characters was achieved through careful attribution of details and casting. Many of the character’s accents and mannerisms were far detached from those of the ancient Greco-Macedonians, and the effect this had on the overall quality of the film was drastic. The individuals portrayed in the film as Macedonians most likely do not even partially resemble their real-life counterparts, but due to Alexander the Great’s fame and successes as a general, many portraits and busts can be analysed as primary sources in order to correctly cast Collin Farrell as the film’s titular protagonist. Visual characterisation such as costuming and makeup was skillfully researched and achieved, however, and the historically accurate culture and clothing were brought to life in Alexander. On the contrary, the Macedonian army was heavily armoured, when most historical records contrast this portrayal and instead depict the soldiers of Macedon to have little to no armour at all. A typical infantryman of the Macedonian phalanx would be armed with a helmet (kranos), light shield (pelte), greaves (knemides) and a long pike (sarissa) – notice armour is conspicuously missing from this list. Roxana and the other women of Persia, including Alexander’s two other wives, were accurately shown in the attire of Persian princesses and traditional ancient Persian clothing respectively. The mannerisms of Alexander and his relatives, along with many Persians and Macedonians effectively highlighted the interactions between the two empires and their noble classes.
Overall, Alexander is a disjointed movie, but does an admirable job at portraying the history. The film never gained great popularity at the time of its release, but since has gained greater popularity. Although to historians the film has a lot of key inaccuracies, the film attempts to inform as well as entertain regarding some of the key events in Alexander’s life, including his rise to power, his attempt to unify the Greek and Persian worlds, key battles, and his marriages to foreign wives. While Stone’s Alexander recreates some relatively accurate details of Alexander the Great’s life, Stone’s major inaccuracies were centred on the chronology of events, or lack thereof, and thus a true insight into his life is lost. The main accuracies of the film were the inclusion of key points in Alexander’s life and relationships, such as the major battles, expansion of his empire, and relationships with his mother, Olympias, father, Phillip, and potential lover, Hephastion. Alexander shows some of Alexander the Great and his armies’ impact on the world, and it is a detailed attempt at conveying the incredible life of Alexander the Great correctly. Inaccurate, exaggerated, and flawed, Alexander failed to capture the true essence of Alexander the Great’s life and the sheer proportion of his war campaign, and most would say – to paraphrase Ptolemy – its failings tower over most films’ successes.