Alexander: Oliver Stone’s expensive history lesson

The recreation of the battle of Gaugamela in Stone's Alexander is heavily based on recorded history. Photos by Jaap Buitendijk

History in the Movies

By Cathy Schultz

Director Oliver Stone spent years of his life and a reported $150 million to recreate on film the life of Alexander the Great (played by Colin Farrell.)

Filming an epic is a costly way to deliver a history lesson. But if done with an eye to accuracy (and of course, deep pockets) there’s no other medium like it to evoke the grandest spectacles from the past.

“Alexander” does a bang-up job of restaging some colossal historical battles, with authentic weapons, charging camels, rearing elephants and a cast of thousands. The film also vividly recreates aspects from long-dead societies, like the boisterous drinking parties of the Macedonian elite and the exquisite beauty of Babylon’s ancient city.

But $150 million can’t always buy you a great story, or memorable dialogue. For this film, the moments of historic spectacle have to carry it. Here’s what to glean from its history.

Q. Was there some historical reason for the odd accents in this film?

A. Viewers may find it a little disconcerting to hear Scottish burrs and Irish brogues in an epic about the ancient Greek world. (Although, interestingly, the Irish-born Farrell spoke with an American accent, and the American-born Angelina Jolie spoke with, well, an accent apparently of her own imagining.)

Oliver Stone has said that the Scottish and Irish lilts were deliberate, meant to evoke the language difference between Greece and its northern neighbor, Macedonia-Alexander’s homeland. Macedonians spoke an accented Greek, scorned by “proper” Greeks as uncouth.

While I applaud Stone for the creative concept, it just doesn’t work. Even though we know that everyone in the ancient world didn’t speak in plummy British accents, it’s become a convention we expect in our toga movies. Imagine the shock of Russell Crowe’s character in “Gladiator” using his native Australian accent. G’day, Maximus.

Q. So, was Alexander gay?

A. Ah, the gay question. Stone’s film alludes to lots of relationships-male and female-for Alexander, but focuses primarily on that with his lifelong male companion, Hephaistion, depicted here as unequivocally the love of Alexander’s life.

Stone’s depiction of Alexander’s sex life has been bashed by some, praised by others. But no one can deny its historical accuracy. Alexander unquestionably had intimate relationships with men as well as women throughout his life, and though the film may play it up a bit too much, his favoritism of Hephaistion is well documented.

But such behavior was typical for elite Greeks and Macedonians, including Alexander’s own father, Philip. Greek philosophers, like Alexander’s famed tutor, Aristotle, taught the conventional Greek wisdom: that intense relationships-sexual or otherwise-were most appropriate between men (being the superior sex, and all). There was little concern in the Greek world for the “hetero” and “homo” labels our society adheres to.

Q. Did Alexander’s mother really keep that many snakes?

A. Stone goes over the top with this one. Every scene with Olympias (Jolie) shows a snake either coiled in her lap twined around her arms or curled up on her bed. It’s more than a little creepy, but there is some historical basis for it. Olympias was remembered for being a snake charmer, and also was an enthusiastic follower of the god, Dionysius, whose rituals often involved numerous snakes coiling themselves around dancers’ bodies.

Q. Did Olympias have a hand in arranging King Philip’s death?

A. Alexander had one hell of a dysfunctional family, as the film stresses repeatedly. Historians suspect that Olympias, in her ruthless determination to further her son’s interests, arranged for the murder of her husband, who had recently taken another wife (of “purer” lineage than Olympias) and fathered an infant son. Some historians suggest that Alexander himself was complicit in his father’s murder. In the film he isn’t, but in reality, we’ll never know for sure.

Q. Did the real Alexander wear the mini-skirt-like battle tunic sported by Farrell?

A. Images from that era show that, yes, indeed, Alexander and his Macedonian and Greek warriors donned those fetching short tunics for battle. In fact, they revered their battle “skirts” as manly, and sneered at the “girly” pants worn in battle by their Persian opponents.

Q. Early in the film we see a huge battle. How accurate is it?

A. The Battle of Gaugamela was key to Alexander’s conquest of Persia (centered in today’s Iran and Iraq.) Its recreation on film has some spectacular moments, and is heavily based on recorded history, including Alexander’s refusal to launch a surprise night attack despite his army being vastly outnumbered; Macedonia’s famous battle phalanx-a tightly disciplined, massed infantry unit wielding 18-foot pikes; Alexander’s perfectly timed cavalry attack, which won the day; and King Darius of Persia hightailing it off the field while his army went down in defeat.

Q. What made Alexander “Great?”

A. The film never offers a coherent explanation to that question, and thus Oliver Stone’s Alexander is far less interesting than the historical Alexander. The actual Alexander was fearless, charismatic, a brilliant tactician, a genius at leading men and empires, and an intensely curious intellectual. He pushed himself and his troops onward not only to conquer the next hill, but also to see what wonders lay beyond it.

A tyrant to some, a benevolent despot to others, his empire reshaped the world politically and intellectually. By encouraging the diffusion of Greek culture and learning throughout the known world, Alexander’s empire profoundly shaped the development of Western civilization.

Not much of this is to be found in Stone’s film. Watch it for the spectacle, then come home and curl up with a good biography of this fascinating guy. (I like Alan Fildes and Joann Fletcher’s “Alexander the Great.”)

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis, in Illinois. You can reach her through her Web site,