- Dionysian Themes and Imagery in Oliver Stone's Alexander
Depicting the life of Alexander the Great on film presents many challenges, a fact that may explain the few attempts at it. The most notable cinematic treatments are Robert Rossen's Alexander the Great (1956) and Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004); although grounded in history, each film conveys a very personal interpretation of Alexander's life. Rossen's film lies within the cinematic epic tradition of the 1950s, featuring a mostly stoic hero who is confident in his own destiny, favored by the gods, and who gloriously follows in the footsteps of heroes. Oliver Stone, crafting his own artistic vision nearly fifty years later, introduces a tragedy riddled with ambiguity and questions. His Alexander stands in the vortex of a series of dualities: masculine/feminine, Greece/Asia, god/man, vision/blindness, moderation/excess, reason/madness. While possessing strength and resolve, Stone's Alexander is haunted by other forces—anger, pride, self-doubt—that threaten to consume him.
Stone's use of mythological paradigms in Alexander helps elucidate the film's meaning.1 Myths, gods, and heroes form an essential part of Alexander's story for Stone, just as they had for Rossen; but where Rossen introduced a predominantly heroic interpretation, Stone highlights tensions and contradictions in an ultimately tragic portrayal. The gods are not benevolent beings in his film, and the suffering of heroes becomes a major theme. Although figures such as Heracles, Prometheus, and Achilles have roles to play in Stone's complex web of symbolism, I shall focus in this paper on the god Dionysus, who is invoked repeatedly through narrative and visual allusion as a means to explore Alexander's darker side. Indeed, Oliver Stone (2005 personal communication) has confirmed the influence of The Bacchae on the script, and the film does seem to owe much to the play in respect to Dionysus and its themes of transformation, wildness, and madness.2 The Dionysian theme is not unique to Alexander, however, as it reverberates through other films of Stone and is clearly a special interest of the filmmaker. [End Page 81]
A dominant theme of Stone's Alexander is the quest for balance within the self, a quest in which Dionysus plays a strong metaphorical role. The prologue, which takes place at the Library of Alexandria years after Alexander's death, sets up the film's larger themes through dialogue and, more subtly, through visual references. The older Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins, previously seen in Stone's Nixon) dictates to a scribe as he passes among statues of deities on the Library's terrace; not only do the statues signal the importance of the gods for Alexander's story, but the choice of which gods are depicted is highly significant. Prominent among them is Dionysus, shown onscreen as bearded, longhaired, crowned with ivy, and draped in a lion skin and voluminous chitōn, in a variation on the so-called Sardanapalus statue type of the late fourth century B.C.E.3 In the context of late classical and Hellenistic art, the Sardanapalus-type Dionysus presented an indelible image of truphē (luxury) and contrasted with the youthful, beardless Dionysus more in vogue at that time (Ridgway 2002, 238). Opposite Dionysus on Ptolemy's balcony stands a nude, cithara-wielding statue of Apollo, the god youthful and beardless as typical in Greek art. These two statues frame the doorway into the Library proper, with one, the other, or both appearing in the background at various points during the older Ptolemy's speech. He moves from Dionysus to Apollo, touching the former's thyrsos and delivering these lines: "How can I tell you what it was like to be young, to dream big dreams, to believe that when Alexander looked at you, you could do anything, anything. In his presence, by the light of Apollo, we were better than ourselves."4
The visual juxtaposition of Apollo and Dionysus personifies at the outset the themes of moderation versus excess, and reason versus passion, so crucial to the film's drama. Apollo is not as overtly present in Alexander as Dionysus, but his role and influence are...