Oliver Stone and the Romance of War: A Review of Alexander (2004), With Reflections on the Macedonian and American World Empires

Artists have a long history glorifying empire and lionizing conquerors. Virgil's Aeneid, for all its stylistic brilliance and good storytelling, is also a justification of the Roman Imperium with Augustus as its legitimate ruler. The painter Jacques Louis David might have immortalized the liberating spirit of the French Revolution, but he also romanticized the aggressive militarism of Napoleon with his vainglorious and preposterous painting of the Corsican adventurer crossing the Alps. Kipling wrote poems exalting the British imperial mission and invited the Americans to do their share, and so on.

Late in life, the famed director Oliver Stone seems to have fallen for this same temptation. In an interview with Charlie Rose last November 25th (2004), Stone praised Alexander for freeing slaves, overthrowing tyrants, building cities, spreading commerce and culture, and attempting to blend Hellenic (Western) and Asian civilizations. He even suggested that Bush's delusional ambition to democratize and pacify the Middle East is of a similar nature and might succeed where Alexander failed. Stone did not support the Iraqi war, or Bush's wilder plans, but in glorifying Alexander he furnishes a precedent and thus gives it unwitting moral and artistic support.

His admiration for Alexander is unsettling and even seems a betrayal. His Born on the Fourth of July (1989) is one of the most powerful antiwar films ever made, and few films puncture the myth of American martial valor – disciplined and righteous – more than Platoon (1986). Stone's betrayal would be more tragic if his talent and artistry had not made a film whose scenes and character development undermine his vision of Alexander as conquering hero. What I saw depicted on screen was a crazed idealist and megalomaniac, who betrayed his own men by "going Persian," who reacted violently to dissent, and whose dream of a universal empire could not possibly succeed. We actually see Alexander's fine army come to a wall in the jungles of India, where they are tormented by mosquitoes and cobras, weakened by stifling humidity and monsoon rains, poisoned by bad water, and assaulted by enraged war elephants.

The film closes as it opens with an aged but keen Ptolemy reciting his memoirs from his palace overlooking the harbor of Alexandria. When he comes to the king's death, he makes a stunning admission: he and the other generals allowed Alexander to be poisoned because they had finally had enough of the endless campaigns and their leader's limitless ambition – if allowed to go on, Alexander and his "ideas" would have killed them all. Although he immediately recants and orders the words scratched off the parchment, it is clear they represent his true thoughts and feelings despite his following peroration in praise of Alexander's glorious accomplishments and dreams.

Stone's Alexander is not being well-received by the critics. Their dismissals and disparagements are having an effect: of my friends, none have seen it, but all report that they have heard it stinks. I have told them all to see it anyway – damn the critics; and that goes double for the historically minded of the libertarian Right. Alexander is not a great film, but it is very, very good. My biggest complaint was the smarmy soundtrack: it is really lousy; and there are editing issues. Yet, overall, I know of no film that captures the spirit and feel of the classical world more than this one (perhaps too much so when it comes to the sexual predilections of the Greeks). Stone takes the polytheistic faith and ancestral piety of the Greeks seriously and has them thinking and speaking like ancients, not moderns. And, unlike some of his other films (Nixon, JFK) he stays true to the history. He also wisely refrains from turning the story into a saturnalia of violence, in the form of endless battle sequences, like Gibson's Braveheart and Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, both of which are burdened with gratuitous slaughter and are frankly masochistic. Stone chose to depict only two of Alexander's great battles: Gaugamela in Mesopotamia and Hydaspes in India. They are stunningly rendered and both evoke the terror of war in a way that few films ever manage to do. In addition, the recreations of ancient Alexandria and Babylon are gorgeous; and, by the way, so is the dark beauty Roxane, Alexander's Asiatic wife.

Imperialists have always dressed up their conquests as contributions to civilization and boons to mankind. The Romans claimed to be spreading peace and the rule of law, the British boasted of Christianity and commerce, the French had their culture and language, and now the Americans claim to be extirpating evil, liberating women, and implanting righteous democracy. For such worthy ends, all means are justified, all atrocities are covered, and profit and power justly accrue to the strong. If the Americans are sanctimonious, brutal, self-interested, and hypocritical, so were those who went before. Simone Weil said of the Romans that "they never committed any acts of cruelty, never granted any favours, without boasting in each case of their generosity and clemency." Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Weil wrote her masterpiece, L'Enracinement (Rootedness), or The Need for Roots, in early 1943 while living in London, in exile from her native France, then under German occupation. She rebuked her countrymen for helping to prepare the way for Hitler's aggressions by their veneration for Napoleon and, before him, Caesar, the ancient conqueror of their land. Her argument was simply this – if one says yes to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, one must say yes to Hitler; if not, take your stand with the hypocrites. "If one admires the Roman Empire, why be angry with Germany which is trying to reconstitute it on a vaster scale by the use of almost identical methods?" Why indeed?

It all depends on which side one is on. It was easy for Virgil, lounging in his comfortable villa, to rhapsodize that the Romans had civilized Gaul, but it was harder for the forty thousand Celtic inhabitants of Bourges who were butchered by the Roman infantry for daring to resist the peace and good order offered them (their beautiful city was then burned to emphasize the lesson).

So it was with Alexander, and now is with his modern multicultural apologists. He razed the ancient and venerable city of Thebes and sold its people into slavery (20,000 of them according to Plutarch), for a strong ruler cannot tolerate rebellion, as Ptolemy explains at the beginning of Stone's film. And of course he had to raze Gaza, which resisted him, for how else could he found his beautiful Alexandrias, linked by trade and culture, if some cities on the route said no. As for recalcitrant Tyre, which he had to besiege: what better instruction could there be than the crucifixion of the city's two thousand surviving warriors, and the selling into slavery of its thirteen thousand women and children?

In Persia, Alexander carried out his doctrine of multi-generational guilt. After an all-night drinking party, he torched the royal palace of Persepolis, even though it was now his palace, at least by right of conquest. And there were limits to his multiculturalism: according to tradition, he tried to extirpate the state religion of Zoroastrianism by desecrating its shrines, destroying its temples, burning its scriptures, and murdering its priests – so much for Alexandrian religious toleration.

Then there is the sad story of the Branchidae, fellow Greeks, whom Alexander put to the sword because of a crime committed six generations before. While marching deep into Central Asia, Alexander and his army came upon a town of exiled Greeks who lived north of the river Oxus. The people, who were overjoyed to greet the Macedonians, revealed that their ancestors were of the priestly family of Didyma and had fled long ago from the Aegean city of Miletus. Their crime was to have collaborated with the Persian king Darius during his invasion of Greece one hundred and fifty years before. The next day, Alexander surrounded the town with his troops, and the people, bearing olive branches, went out in supplication. Alexander ordered his men to kill them all, which they did, raze the town, tear down its walls, and dig up its orchards and sacred groves – nothing would be left, as a lesson. None of that got into the film.

Of Alexander's other war crimes and atrocities Stone depicts only the murder of Clitus, one of the Macedonian king's most trusted and competent generals, whom Alexander, in a drunken rage, ran through with a spear for daring to talk back to him. There is nothing of Callisthenes, the expedition historian and nephew of Aristotle. According to the historian Curtius, he was known among the Greeks as "the champion of public freedom," for he spoke out when others were afraid, and dared to oppose Alexander’s more grandiose ideas, including his self-deification. After he had conquered all, Alexander thought it was time that his men acknowledged his divinity by prostrating themselves before him, as the Persians were already doing. Callisthenes thought this rather un-Greek (demeaning and hubristic), and quoted Alexander's favorite book – Homer's Iliad – against him: "A better man than you by far was Patroclus, but still death did not spare him." This was too much for Alexander, who already resented his outspokenness and independence of mind; so he had the Athenian intellectual implicated in an assassination plot (he was innocent), found him guilty, and had him tortured to death. Few spoke out after that.

As they blunder and butcher their way through the heart of Alexander's eastern empire, the Americans have a lot to learn (having already forgotten the lessons of Vietnam), especially of the insanity and corruption of absolute power.

Here is a short list of recommended readings and viewings:

  1. Oliver Stone, director: Born on the Fourth of July (1988); Alexander (2004)
  2. The Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus' History of Alexander
  3. The British documentary filmmaker Michael Wood's In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (1998). Wood and his team actually follow the route of Alexander's epic march through Asia. They visit battlefields, climb mountain passes, tramp across deserts, and grace it all with intelligent commentary and beautiful photography. Best of all, though Wood admires Alexander as a gifted general and leader of men, he is in no way seduced by his dream of universal empire by means of liberating war. His final judgment is apt: "All the evils unleashed by men of war in our own time, teach us that we must reject Alexander's ideas."

December 16, 2004