Jacqueline Oud - Culture

Alexander the Great - the eternal glory for a conqueror

The legend of Alexander of Macedonia

The life of Alexander the Macedonian is a legend that still today appeals many. Rather known as Alexander the Great he is famous for its quick conquer of the world - the Asian continent - especially at his young age. The legend clearly educates the people that for doing great things one has to suffer and one will only become a legend when achieving divine actions. The price Alexander had to pay was to die young. What ever story one will read on Alexander, it always turns around his divinity and the way he conquered the world. Maybe because today it seems impossible to us that one can achieve such powerful actions at such a young age. Or were there really some divine signs that he was destined to conquer the world and to become a legend?

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Alexander of Macedonia
One of the statues of Alexander of Macedonia

While Alexander died in 323 B.C., his legend is kept alive for more than 2300 years now. Many people since the time of Alexander admired his life, his actions. Not only for warfare but also from a historical point of view or simply to dream. His actions and decisions were studied as to learn and conquer worlds and civilisations that followed his.

The attraction to conquer

The common people also have the right to dream about Alexander with film producers dreaming of conquering their audience like Alexander himself conquered the Asian continent. By appealing their audience with a legendary topic they aim to increase their importance, their success and who knows become a legend too. (A divinity is out of reach I suppose).

Whereas in biographies you can take as much pages as you want in order to be faithful to the person, these rules do not apply in the movies. In fact, making a movie on the life of Alexander is quite ambitious. His life being a success, you will never be able to represent it in all its facets or keep the audience in their fauteuil long enough. The cinema being an artistic activity, the appreciation and personal touch of the producer will take a huge importance in the final result. The film will no longer be about Alexander and his life, but about the producer what he wanted to become could he have been in Alexander’s place, how he would have acted and what has frustrated him in his own life. All this influenced by his environment.

It is probably because of this difficulty that till now only 2 producers have tempted to make a genuine film on Alexander. In 1956, Robert Rossen made the movie “Alexander the Great” with Richard Burton as Alexander. Almost 50 years later Oliver Stone made his version with “Alexander”, choosing Colin Farell to represent Alexander.

Different visions on Alexander

Both films seem to focus on different aspects of Alexander’s story and legend. On one side Richard Rossen develops its youth, political and strategic relations and Alexander’s personality. Olivier Stone however, focuses more on the battle grounds , his conquer of the Asian territory and the frustration that arises in the end with his army being led from home to long.

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Alexander the Great by Robert Rossen 1955
One of the posters of "Alexander the Great".

When taking a closer look, some details are approached in such a different way that it deforms the impression you get from Alexander. Darius for example, is being depicted completely different in both films.

  • Rossen shows the intrigues that Greece and Macedonians have between them, shows Darius as a powerful king, full of strength and strategy. The Athenians, not willing to submit to Alexander sell themselves as mercenaries to the Persian Darius. The exchange of letters between the two rulers before the war gives the huge battle another viewpoint.
  • Stones depicts Darius rather as a simple king in the “under developed” Persia: Darius flees as soon as possible, no need to study any difficult wars and everyone accepts Alexander as the great King of Kings.

The same appears when regarding the battles. In Alexander’s life the battles are of great importance. Some battles are very famous, be it for its situation, for its preparation, or for its action.

  • Rossen does show the battle defeating the Greek, Cheronea, and against the Persians, Granicus and Guagamala but obvious it are not the actions that he likes the most. The exchange prior to the battle with Darius is the most interesting. No mention is made on the battle field strategy of Alexander’s famous Phalanx, a move that interests strategists and warfare.
  • Stone’s film on the other hand starts in a way where Rossen’s film no longer retains the audience’s attention: on the battlefields. He shows majestic battles, with many infantry and huge spectacle. In an interview he states that he admires the way the battles were fought at that time: no atomic arms, simply hand-to-hand. (There a still today battles that are being fought like this). It is all made to entertain the audience - not to make him think too much, just to be impressed.
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Alexander by Oliver Stone 2004

Sign of the times

As I stated above, in fact both these movies are not only about Alexander but as unavoidable as it is, they are also about the time when they were made. When comparing both films we can notice some differences that state the environment of the film itself:

  • The importance of Alexander’s sex life and the controversy: In Rossen’s movie, Bersiane is on Alexander’s side, Roxane seems to be given by Darius. Women have strong personalities (his mother and stepmother) but are not like “today’s sex symbols”. Therefore we find no detail of sexuality let alone homosexuality. The importance of heirs is left aside. The fifties were not so much about sex and provocation as we are confronted to today. These aspects are fully covered however by Stone’s film. Homosexuality is almost one of its main motives and sexuality and taboos are part of the plot. Provocation by simple attraction is used to entertain and to shock. It is part of today’s society to provoke and create a “dare all” image. It attracts and makes people talk about you: the final aim of conquer for some.
  • The way big battles are being represented are also a sign of the different environment of both films: War and violence was not that much the aim of Rossen’s film. The important battles are not so much detailed nor mentioned. It is more the psychological side and youth of Alexander that are shown. Today’s films are using huge budgets growing bigger and bigger. Stone’s total costs for Alexander are estimated on 195 million USD [1]. Part of the latest trend in Peplums, Alexander had to be bigger and more impressive, or so it seems. This also explains why “Alexander” focuses more on the battle fields. They are supposed to the attracting element for today’s audience.

Sex and violence, no thinking but some dreaming about the beauty of the past might be today’s vision on the ingredients to success. If we take the figures from the box office: Alexander has gained $137,279,671 out of which 75% outside of the United States [2].

What it takes to conquer

Competition was less fierce in times of Rossen’s film. The rules to conquer the audience were not the same as are those of today. As a result, Alexander in 323 B.C. is not the same as the one we can see in 1956 nor as the one in 2004. In the same way, Alexander would not be able to conquer the world in the same way today as he did back in 322 B.C.

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The Macedonian Empire
From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. Insets: The Aetolian and Achaian Leagues. Plan of Tyre.

As a result, the producers can not conquer their audience in the same way back in the fifties as nowadays. In fact, both films did not achieve the hoped for success. The challenge to make a film on Alexander from Macedonia is a huge one. And to conquer the audience may require part of the same ingredients that explained Alexander’s success: a good strategy and thought, good action and some divine ambition.

[1Budget: $155 million Est. Marketing Costs: $40 million

[2based on information on January 27, from www.boxofficemojo.com

[31 January 2005]

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