Oliver Stone's Alexander Warner Bros. and Intermedia Films (2004)

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Oliver Stone's Alexander Warner Bros. And Intermedia Films (2004)

There are very few films in which a historian appears, and this film has two. One is the historical consultant Robin Lane Fox (he rides in the cavalry charge at Gaugamela [331 BCE], courtesy of a highly irregular deal made personally with Oliver Stone), and the other is Alexander's general Ptolemy (c. 382-301 BCE) (played by Anthony Hopkins). The classical accounts of the life and times of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) (played by Colin Farrell) are of course Arrian's (c. 87-after 145) Campaigns of Alexander, and the History of Alexander the Great by Q. Curtius Rufus (d. 53), both writing some centuries after the actual events. It is assumed on good grounds that they were drawing on memoirs left by Alexander's generals and on material from Callisthenes (370-327 BCE), Alexander's own historian 'embedded' with his army (until he annoyed his commander-in-chief, who is said to have murdered him). Arrian is generally thought to be more directly indebted to these participant-chroniclers, whereas Curtius Rufus writes more (or less, depending on your point of view) as a historian, given that he develops Alexander as a character (based on the lost contemporary history by Cleitarchus). While this sort of thing could be dismissed as unwarranted speculation, it is rather unlikely to be ruled out nowadays as altogether foreign to historiography, given the obvious tradition of 'great men' in historical accounts. However much this genre has been criticized (and indeed sent up in Karl Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), it is going to be with us forevermore.

This is where history shades into dramatization and seems to slide out of historiography. Films that are 'like history' in their narrative and composition are documentaries (an apt term), as one would expect them to focus visually on source material (whether artifact or interview) and to move chronologically forward as conventional historiography does, even if written history and filmed documentary are allowed flashbacks and asides. Defying the conventions of the Hollywood biopic, Alexander puts the historian in charge, as Ptolemy and his voice-over dictation frame the film and recur at turning points along the way. As a filmic device, this largely replaces the cue-cards that would otherwise clue us as to where we are, when, and who is going to be on stage for the ('historical') drama. Ptolemy is the opposite of a chorus; he does not comment on the action so much as drive it forward. Even when he is off camera, we know he is there in Alexandria (the Egyptian one), dictating to the assembled scriptorium. Sadly, though, in dramaturgical terms he interrupts the action and adds nothing to the plot (or rather lack of it) every time he comes on screen.

Thankfully Homer never appears in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, twanging his lyre as historian-poet and giving us his bardic ode in Sprechstimme. After a few postcard-like 'snaps' giving us time, place, and a few character-clues (Agamemnon is a greedy conqueror; Achilles is an arrogant demi-god; they do not like each other), Petersen lets his actors get into character, and his characters propel the plot all by themselves right up to the tragic conclusion (though why Briseis should kill Agamemnon is a mystery...was Petersen worried about a sequel Oresteia?). History functions as a character-trope here; all the major players want to live forever 'in the eyes of men'. While fictionalization is rather more an issue in Troy than it is in Alexander, it is certainly a stronger film with better performances (albeit with even worse music). Any sword-and-sandal epic is going to have risible dialogue, though this is really a translation problem not unique to films: how should the ancients speak to us, whether the voice is that of Curtius Rufus, or of Alexander (as voiced by Curtius Rufus)? Just because English translators favour a neutral idiom does not mean that it is the right one for the historian, or indeed that the historian gives us any correct bearing on Alexander's actual words to anyone, even in public. …