Settle down, class. Let's open our textbooks, shall we? "History of the Ancient World," Chapter 6, and review the simply fabulous epic of Alexander the Great -- conqueror, king, proclaimed a son of Zeus, and a bit of a boozer, actually. Al loved to partay. But by the horns of Amon, the man could fight! So let's recall how the trendsetting teen prince from the backwater of Macedonia rose to conquer the Known World three centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Oh, Alexander carved up the vast army of the yellow-bellied Darius III of Persia, didn't he? Just hacked them into nibbles -- just imagine, tens of thousands dead, in a few hours, in hand-to-hand combat -- on the plains of Gaugamela, whose exact location is, alas, lost to us beneath the sands of time but was somewhere near a town we are all more familiar with now: Mosul in northern Iraq.
A scene from Oliver Stone's "Alexander," which opens this week. Historian Robin Lane Fox's role was to bridge the gap between entertainment and scholarship.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)
Is this going to be on the test, you ask?
Actually, it is all in the movie, "Alexander," which opens nationwide Wednesday. The film is directed by Oliver Stone, and he is back in high style -- $150 million budget, shot in the desert of southern Morocco, the jungles of Thailand and a huge soundstage in London.
For years, Stone has been possessed by the idea of bringing Alexander to the big screen -- but the provocative director has had his troubles in the past with historical films. This time, he was smart enough to hire one of the world's leading Alexandrian scholars, an Oxford don who agreed to participate in the project so long as he got to grab a rubber spear and rush into battle as an extra.
But, class: Who, really, was Alexander?
Don't know much about his inner life. His mother was Olympias of Epirus, who might or might not have looked like Angelina Jolie -- an intense queen type, plotting, domineering, worshiped the god Dionysus, might have had a thing for sleeping with snakes, maybe spoiled the boy. Today, we'd say "high-maintenance."
His father, of course, was Philip II, King of Macedonia, aka Val Kilmer, military genius, fierce warrior, though perhaps a distant authority figure: Daddy always away from home, overrunning the Greek city-states. Alexander may have had him whacked, Tony Soprano-style. Or more likely, Mum did. Hard to know (no "CSI: Palace of Aigai" back then to do the forensics).
Which brings us to Alexander's love life. We know about the Persian mistresses. The beauty of Bactria: the famous Roxane, who became his wife and bore him a son (both were later assassinated). Two more trophy wives, both political types.
And then there was his very close friend Hephaistion, who might have favored black eyeliner (Jared Leto in the role as a buff creampuff). He was certainly Alexander's lover. And don't forget the Persian catamite, the eunuch Bagoas, not a bad dancer, whom Alexander also likely bedded, etc.
So, it's complicated. And now -- what to make of it?
Stone's earlier historical features have raised eyebrows, most notably his "Nixon," which depicted the president as a foul-mouthed drunk, and his "JFK," which spun a web of dark conspiracy around the Kennedy assassination -- multiple shooters, the grassy knoll, abetted by Lyndon Johnson, the FBI and the mob. Sensational stuff. Not, technically, true, of course. But wow. Stone has his defenders, for his stab at the greater truths beyond mere facts, but "Nixon" and "JFK" were roundly criticized by historians and participants intimate with those events.
Still, the man has gall. Which brings us 'round to circa 312 B.C. In the current movie, Stone has again taken liberties to dramatize "his" Alexander, but it appears he is on more solid footing. Perhaps because this time around Stone had a worthy consultant, the respected biographer of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox, who brings to the whole project at the very least the patina of accuracy.