Victor Davis Hanson: Why Oliver Stone's Movie About Alexander the Great Is a Bore

Roundup: Talking About History

Victor Hanson, in National Review (12-18-04):

The consensus about Oliver Stone's Alexander is that the film's splashy gay motifs could not overcome the stilted dialogue, ludicrous Irish-brogue and Count Dracula accents, and excruciating minutes of dead screen time devoted to model-like poses, secretive eye contact, and soap-opera double entendres. Stone's apparent hope was that he could garner media hype by overt homosexual scenes of kissing and hugging, and by candor about same-sex relations: The world's first global conqueror was really more a sensitive and feminine creature of the bedroom and banquet hall than a great captain of blood and iron.

In reality, the movie proved not so much scandalous as boring. The problem with Stone's lurid sexual narrative is not his historical inaccuracies, but the movie's obsession with sexual intrigue, which causes much of Alexander's amazing story to be lost. The controversies that emerge from the extant historians of Alexander — Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, and Plutarch — do not hinge on sex. Rather, the "good" and "bad" ancient and modern traditions of Alexander involve a number of far more fascinating issues — nearly all of them omitted by Stone.

Alexander helped to kill more Greeks at the victory of Chaeronea, the siege of Thebes, the campaigns in Ionia, and the battles of Granicus and Issus than the Persians killed in a century and a half of EastñWest conflict. The razing of Thebes — the dramatic setting of much of Athenian tragedy, home to Pythagoreans and Pindar — is ignored. The brutal siege of Tyre was considered a military masterpiece; it and the storming of Gaza go unnoticed. How or why Persepolis was torched is never really investigated, but has framed centuries of debate. There is a good-enough description of the battle of Gaugamela, but Granicus and Issus are unmentioned. Some sort of Vietnam-like elephant fight in the bush apparently substitutes for the set-piece against Porus at the Hydaspes. In any case, it resembles more Stone's mythodrama of Platoon than anything out of Arrian.

Alexander's ego killed more of his men in a needless trek through the Gedrosian Desert than Darius III ever did on the battlefield. That disaster and the dirty fighting in Bactria merit almost no screen time. Also omitted is Alexander's introduction to the Western world of decimation, crucifixion, and other phenomena.


But the problems of Stone's three-hour sexual melodrama transcend the omission of important facts. This gay extravaganza ignores the great debate over the assessment of Alexander the Great himself. Was he an avatar of multiculturalism or, in fact, a mass killer of the Caesar and Napoleon stamp, wise enough to cloak his barbarity in intellectual pretension? Is his great decade in the East proof of military genius, or simply explained as the career of a ruthless young firebrand who inherited the army and generals of his far more brilliant father? Did Alexander really Westernize the East, or, in fact, provide only a thin veneer of Hellenism to Asia, and instead doom the five-century legacy of the free Greek city-state by importing Oriental despotism, theocracy, and crony corporate agriculture? Did he die exhausted on the altar of an idealistic "Brotherhood of Man," or was the worn-out alcoholic finally poisoned by reactionary Macedonian marshals who had enough of his wild-goose chases over the badlands of Afghanistan, India, and Iran? Stone is clueless about these debates over Alexander. Yet all of these issues are not the dry stuff of academia; they could easily have been captured on the screen, inasmuch as they were played out in mayhem and carnage on the battlefield. In lieu of such seriousness, however, we get a glitzy ancient Dallas or the sexual energy of Desperate Housewives....

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