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Richard Burton as Alexander the GreatDAWN Images July 17, 2005

Alexander's Epic Journey

Alexander is the only person to have inspired every single generation for 23 centuries straight without being a founder of any religion. His is also the only name to be found among so many different religions and nationalities.

Therefore, it seems strange that no great playwright has attempted to present him on stage, and films about his life seem to be doomed for failure. It seems that Alexander lived his life like a well-written play — the story of his life never fails to create a dramatic effect when told in simple words. Turning his life into a play is, therefore, like rewriting a play already perfected by a master playwright. The risk is self-evident. While other historical subjects allow and demand great dramatic license, any play or film about Alexander that disturbs the broad historical outline of events is doomed for failure.

Out of three great films on the life of Alexander the Great only the first one gained box-office success. It was made in India and released in 1942 as Sikander. The title role by Prithvi Raj was remembered as his best performance until Akbar the Great in Mughal-i-Azam 20 years later. The film focused on the conqueror’s South Asian campaign, his battle with the Punjabi ruler Porus, his victory and the subsequent refusal of his battered troops to march further. Folklore and fiction (some of it irksome to a modern audience) was used to beef up the plot but the broad historical outline of Alexander’s career was faithfully kept intact.

The famous repartee between Alexander and Porus was the climax of the film. It is said that after the great battle at Jhelum, where the elephants of Porus trampled many of the Greek troops under their feet but Alexander finally came victorious, he asked the defeated Rajah how he would like to be treated. “Like a king,” said Porus. Alexander replied, “That is obligatory on me, but what would you like to ask for yourself?” “All I have to say is included in my first answer,” replied Porus. Alexander immediately restored Porus to his kingdom and added new lands to it. Character actor Sohrab Modi, who also directed the film, played this undaunted spirit. The songs were composed by Rafiq Ghaznavi and became very popular — especially the marching song: Zindagi hai pyar say, pyar mien bitaye ja; Husn kay huzoor mien apna dil jhukaye ja.

In 1955, Robert Rossen wrote, produced and directed the first Hollywood film on Alexander. The title role was fortuitously given to Richard Burton, who was in his twenties at that time. His appearance on the prestigious London stage had often been compared to the images of Greek gods and to this date he remains the most convincing Alexander on screen. The film did not tamper too much with history in the first three quarters of its length, and some dramatic moments in this part are of Shakespearean stature. The love-hate relationship between Alexander’s parents, its impact on his mind and his mother’s dubious encouragement of his father’s assassin is highlighted. The development of conflict between Alexander and the Persian emperor, and the filming of two of their several battles are remarkable for historical detail (although the mayhem and gore of the battlefield was toned down to make them acceptable for the cine-goers of the 1950s).

The trouble starts in the later part of the film, where the filmmakers simplify historical facts in order to shorten the story. Historically, Alexander murdered his friend Black Cleitus in a drunken brawl in Afghanistan, repented heavily but quickly got over it and moved on. He then crossed borders into India, fought Porus and was eventually forced to turn back when his troops refused to go any further. In the film, the murder of Cleitus was placed in India and it prompted Alexander to conquer hearts rather than of land. He then voluntarily gave up further conquests and returned to Babylon for an early death. Such oversimplification takes the steam out of the complex character so beautifully established up to this point. The film was a failure despite all its finer moments. It is rarely mentioned in critical appraisals and even Richard Burton fans are not particularly fond of it.

The next Hollywood venture appeared last year — almost half-a-century after the Robert Rossen film. This is the Oliver Stone film with Sir Anthony Hopkins as the narrator Ptolemy and Collin Farrel as the young Macedonian. However, the real saving grace of this otherwise unsuccessful movie is the stunning performance by Angelina Jolie as Alexander’s mother, Olympias. Oliver Stone, the two-time Academy Award winning director, seems to have made two big mistakes: First, a historical inaccuracy in the later part of the film which was not required by any dramatic necessity. The second is the effort to downsize Alexander without trying to figure out how that could be done.

Oliver Stone starts with the best formula to narrate the story of Alexander in a single film — fragmented narrative. This leaves him with an opportunity to choose the highlight moments without bothering about the continuity of narrative. However, he takes little advantage of this device when it comes to the later part of the film. Stone seems lost as soon as Alexander crosses the border into Pakistan (then a part of India). The first thing that irritates us is the filmmaker’s geographical ignorance. For instance, the kind of monsoon described here is something you don’t see in Pakistan but only in some parts of India (which were never visited by Alexander).

Just like Robert Rossen before him, Oliver Stone places the murder of Cleitus in India rather than Afghanistan. He makes it the reason why Alexander’s army decided to turn back (which isn’t historically true). On the way back, the elephants of Porus’ army ambush Alexander, while the magnificent Porus himself is dwarfed into some kind of subhuman jungle creature with whom Alexander never holds a conversation (the famous repartee, “Like a king,” is used up earlier in the exchange between Alexander and Darius’ daughter, Barsine). It is indeed politically incorrect and outright offensive that the filmmaker who follows the minutest historical details in the rest of his narrative should pick up Pakistan as the only region on Alexander’s route where history, geography and anthropology all become irrelevant.

Dramatically, the battle with Porus becomes unnecessary in Stone’s Alexander. Its historical significance is that it disheartened Alexander’s army to such a point where they refused to carry on the campaign soon after this fateful victory. Since Oliver Stone had ignored that significance and linked the mutiny of the army with the murder of Cleitus, there was no need to show this battle or to heighten it up with the wounding of Alexander. The dramatic impact of tampering with historical material in this manner is most unfortunate — the film seems to suggest that human decisions don’t count. Although Alexander had agreed to give up the campaign, he could still not avoid a near-fatal accident (and the fatality of the accident is highlighted with the slow-motion and bloodshot filming effects given to this portion).

This is obviously the message that Oliver Stone wants to give in the first place. The film is about an intentional downsizing of Alexander’s larger-than-life figure. Sir Anthony Hopkins’ opening statement: “Did such a man as Alexander live? Of course not. We make them up” brings a typically pseudo-intellectual flavour to this whole thing and it stays there right up to the end where the same actor makes a somewhat contradictory statement: “Alexander’s failure towered above other men’s successes.” At that point, one feels like asking how since the movie in between has shown us only the lowest ebbs of the conqueror.

It is not a question of whether one wishes to portray Alexander as a hero or not. It is a simple question of artistic intelligence. This film was about a man who defeated the great Persian Empire with a small army mostly consisting of foot soldiers, conquered the entire known world in the short span of five years when the average marching speed of an army was 13 miles a day, discovered new territories and made an astonishing effort to fuse the world cultures. The least that the audience could demand is to be told how this was achieved. The film offers a brilliantly filmed portrait of some tortured soul but fails to establish any connection between that magnificently portrayed character and the events of the plot.

At the very beginning of the film, the narrator Ptolemy (Sir Anthony Hopkins) rhetorically asks: “Was there ever a man like Alexander? Of course not. We make them up.” Historically, this isn’t true. The film portrays a brilliantly etched character but fails to make a connection between him and the events of the plot. Oliver Stone’s Alexander is doomed because like Hamlet, his hero moves from one soliloquy to another but unlike Hamlet, he goes on achieving impossible victories in between until the audience feels completely at a loss about what to make of the mess.

We hear that two more films are coming out of Hollywood on the life of the Greek conqueror. One of these, reportedly started by the makers of the Superman series, will be in three parts and the first part is focused on Alexander’s life in Greece — just like the trilogy of Mary Renault. Let’s hope that those films are better than the ones made by Oliver Stone.

It is politically incorrect and outright offensive that Oliver Stone, who follows the minutest historical details in the rest of his narrative, should pick up Pakistan as the only region on Alexander’s route where history, geography and anthropology all become irrelevant

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