Everyone knows of or has heard of Alexander. Or Iskandar as he is called in the East.
Alexander was the Macedonian King whose military exploits were the shining example of what human arrogance and achievement can accomplish. Exploits that were emulated for thousands of years after, proof that one man can do wonders. That one man can conquer the world.
Although, conquer is a strong word. Alexander sought to unify the world. To bring it under one ruler and therefore banish the ills that plagued it… which is an over simplification I know. In order to do that, the was a lot of war, blood, death and carnage, and the attempt ended in defeat. Defeat is a strong word to, and may not be entirely accurate. But this post isn’t concerned with an in-depth historically accurate portrait of Alexander.
No, what I really want to write about, to put out there in the blog-o-sphere, are my thoughts on the the 2004 film, Alexander by director Oliver Stone, starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto and Rosario Dawson.
A retrospective/reappraisal of Stone’s original theatrical release was writing by for rogerebert.com in 2014, which you can read here: A REAPPRAISAL OF OLIVER STONE’S “ALEXANDER: THE ULTIMATE CUT”
The film was panned when it was first released and since then it has had a number of re-edits and versions – talked about in the article above and so is now seen as a much better film than when first released. Though it still has flaws.
It’s long and flips back and forth in time, and the battle and action scenes while grand and epic, can be hard to follow at times. Its hard to encompass the idea of Alexander, as Anthony Hopkins explains in the beginning. How do you tell the story of a man who is more legend than reality?
I recently re-watched the film – which is currently streaming on Netflix) and was struck by the words Alexander uses during one of the arguments that Alexander has with he ‘companions’. The debate and discussion comes as they push further and further East, away from their homeland of Greece (Macedonia). The men are weary and trying to understand Alexander’s bid to reach the ‘outer sea’. He wants to sail back round to Africa, travel up the Nile and to Egypt, thus encircling/conquering the known world.
The argument I’m talking about in the film is, essentially, very pertinent to what we are dealing with today, here in the US and around the world. And which seems to be the only thing that matters to our society/culture/species – this never-ending conflict between East and West.
Alexander’s companions are tired, war-weary and beginning to question his motives and leadership. To them, he seems much more enamored of their enemies and to be forgetting who he is. He’s taking on their mode of dress, participating in their customs – he even takes a “barbarian” wife.
The men are naturally upset – because it goes against everything they’ve been raised and taught to believe. The tribes and people to the East are beneath them. They are decadent, overly emotional, savages. As Aristotle (played by Christopher Plummer in the film) tells them: “…the Oriental races are known for their barbarity and slavish devotion to their senses. Excess in all things is the undoing of men. That is why we Greeks are superior, we practice control of our senses. Moderation.”
The movie was released three years after 9/11 and the start of the War on Terror. In one sense, it can be seen as a pro-democracy film. Greece was the birthplace of Democracy after all. So, this film and others, like Zack Snyder’s 300 in 2006 do very much play as a reminder and assertion that the West is, as Aristotle states, superior.
The end of the argument between Alexander and his men ends with the young king furious with his men –
Parmenion: He never lusted for war, Alexander, or enjoyed it so. He consulted his peers in council, among equals! The Macedonian way. He didn’t make decisions based on his personal desires.
Alexander: I’ve taken us further than my father ever dreamed! Old man, we’re in knew worlds.
Cassander: Alexander, be reasonable! Were they ever meant to be our equal? Share our rewards? You remember what Aristotle said. An Asian? What would a wedding vow ever mean to a race that has never kept their word to a Greek?
Alexander: [throws Cassander against the wall] Aristotle be damned!
Alexander: By Zeus and all the gods, what makes you so much better than them, Cassander? Better than you really are! In you and those like you is this!
Hephaistion: [pleading] Alexander…
Alexander: What disturbs me most is not your lack of respect for my judgment, but your contempt for a world far older than ours!
Of course this is dialogue written for a film. Its not the actual words that passed between Alexander and his men. Its thinking that is modern, said in a modern way. But it captures an aspect of what Alexander was trying to achieve.
And that argument, I think, is what we are still facing and fighting today. We’ve been entrenched in this conflict for thousands of years – West vs. East.
The East in Alexander and in 300 is painted as an alien culture and landscape, they are dark and ugly and cruel. They are ruled by despots and tyrants, made rich on the backs of slaves. They pay men to fight to enrich themselves.
The West on the other hand is light and good and fighting for freedom – the same rhetoric we hear today. Which of these is true? It all depends on where you stand.
Many won’t understand Alexander’s last line in the film scene quoted above. They think and believe as Alexander’s men do, as Aristotle did: that they are superior.
When you listen to the speeches of our leaders listen to the words that are used. Its not so much the people of Ancient Persia we are fighting against now, but ideologies and beliefs which did not exist in Alexander’s time
We not battling not the barbarian hordes, its Radical Islam.
I always am bothered by arguments on the subject that treat it as though this is something new and that can be stamped out. the truth of it – in my own mind – is that the ugly things happening out there right now: immigration bans, terror attacks, the rise of populist leaders, the Left vs. Right bigotry and hatred – stretch much further back than just a very horrible and terrible day in September 16 years ago.
And I think people forget that. I think people only see what is front of them.
Like Alexander’s men… they don’t understand the dream he was trying to achieve. The thing that drove him, the thing he was chasing and what many after him chased as well. What some still chase today.
A unified world.
Many don’t want that in this day and age. The current political climate in America is very much not about unity.
What many see, and what many want is separation and division. Them above the other. They are in the Right and we are in the Wrong.
Its an argument that stretches back millennia… and one that will not have an end in my lifetime.
At the close of the film Anthony Hopkins has the following speech:
Old Ptolemy: The truth is never simple and yet it is. The truth is we did kill him. By silence we consented… because we couldn’t go on. But by Ares, what did we have to look forward to but to be discarded in the end like Cleitus? After all this time, to give away our wealth to Asian sycophants we despised? Mixing the races? Harmony? Oh, he talked of these things. I never believe in his dream. None of us did. That’s the truth of his life. The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams.
Those who dream exhaust those who want things to stay as they are.
And they fight against a dream of unity because they fear they will be lost in it. If we are all the same, how can I be me? How can I be just one?