- The Alexander Bromance: Male Desire and Gender Fluidity in Oliver Stone’s Historical Epic
Alexander (2004) is an epic film that generated much controversy before it was even released. The reason was the decision of its director and coauthor of the script, Oliver Stone, to portray history’s greatest conqueror as a man who defied not only geographical but also sexual boundaries. Stone’s critics saw the homoeroticization of Alexander the Great as a distortion of the historical record.1 He, on the other hand, defended his choice by stating that a historical advisor, Robin Lane Fox, was on set to ensure the accuracy of the project. In the United States, the film was a box office failure,2 a fact attributed by Stone himself to an “American apathy to ancient history” (Scott 2004) as well as to a “raging fundamentalism in morality” (James 2005), especially in the South.
This paper examines Alexander’s sexual agenda in an attempt to determine the relation between historical accuracy and artistic license3—and assess the erotics of the film independently of this debate. I shall argue that, whereas certain male characters (such as Alexander’s father Philip) are fashioned in full agreement with the protocols of sexuality in Greek antiquity, the construction of Alexander’s own erotic image both reproduces and violates these protocols. Focusing on the relationship between Alexander and his most intimate friend, Hephaestion, I shall expose Stone’s conflicting efforts to eroticize this relationship by using standard Hollywood romance formulas and at the same time to de-eroticize it by reinscribing the physical interactions between these two male characters within heteronormative visual regimes. Although the result of this inconsistent representational strategy is a hero who cannot function as an identification figure for either the straight or the gay viewer, Stone’s Alexander is a groundbreaking film for its genre for two main reasons: first, it challenges contemporary stereotypes of masculinity in ways that recognize the fluidity of both gender and desire; second, it reinscribes the homoerotic within the homosocial and thus opens up new conceptual spaces for the representation of queer identities in mainstream cinema. [End Page 223]
The Compulsory Heterosexuality of Alexander the Great
Hollywood’s first attempt to dramatize the life of the King of Macedon was Alexander the Great (1956), a biopic written, produced, and directed by Robert Rossen at a time at which epic films set in the classical world were at the zenith of their popularity in Hollywood.4 The emphasis given in this film to history, often at the expense of spectacle,5 has led critics like Jon Solomon (2001, 42) to characterize it as “one of the most historically faithful of all movies about the ancient world.” Although Solomon’s assessment is correct with respect to the number of historical events included in the narrative, Alexander the Great is, in fact, another example of cinematic appropriation and distortion of classical antiquity.6 The veneer of historicity fades away once we begin to examine the details of the film, especially the way Alexander’s erotic life is portrayed.
Thus, although Alexander (Richard Burton) marries Roxane (Teresa del Rio), in the film she is identified as the daughter of the Persian king Darius III and not of the Bactrian baron Oxyartes, as all ancient sources present her. Similarly, their wedding does not take place after the surrender of the Sogdian Rock in the spring of 327 b.c.e., an event that is not dramatized in the film. Instead, it forms part of the mass marriage ceremony at Susa three years later, when more than eighty high Macedonian officers were forced by Alexander to take brides from some of the noblest Persian and Median families. As Arrian (7.4.4–5) narrates, at this ceremony Alexander himself took another two wives: Stateira, the eldest daughter of Darius III, and Parysatis, the youngest daughter of Artaxerxes III Ochus.7 The omission of this detail from the film shows how the past is revived and reinterpreted according to the moral standards of the present. Rossen’s Alexander is saved from the shame of polygamy that hung over his father Philip (Fredric March...