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Responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander

Film, History, and Cultural Studies

Edited by Paul Cartledge and Fiona Rose Greenland; Afterword by Oliver Stone

Publication Year: 2010

The charismatic Alexander the Great of Macedon (356–323 B.C.E.) was one of the most successful military commanders in history, conquering Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia, central Asia, and the lands beyond as far as Pakistan and India. Alexander has been, over the course of two millennia since his death at the age of thirty-two, the central figure in histories, legends, songs, novels, biographies, and, most recently, films. In 2004 director Oliver Stone’s epic film Alexander generated a renewed interest in Alexander the Great and his companions, surroundings, and accomplishments, but the critical response to the film offers a fascinating lesson in the contentious dialogue between historiography and modern entertainment.
    This volume brings together an intriguing mix of leading scholars in Macedonian and Greek history, Persian culture, film studies, classical literature, and archaeology—including some who were advisors for the film—and includes an afterword by Oliver Stone discussing the challenges he faced in putting Alexander’s life on the big screen. The contributors scrutinize Stone’s project from its inception and design to its production and reception, considering such questions as: Can a film about Alexander (and similar figures from history) be both entertaining and historically sound? How do the goals of screenwriters and directors differ from those of historians? How do Alexander’s personal relationships—with his mother Olympias, his wife Roxane, his lover Hephaistion, and others—affect modern perceptions of Alexander? Several of the contributors also explore reasons behind the film’s tepid response at the box office and subsequent controversies. 

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Contents

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pp. v-vi

Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-

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Introduction

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pp. 3-12

The ancient world makes for exceptionally good silverscreen entertainment. More than 600 films about ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt have been produced since Enrico Guazzoni’s silent epic Quo Vadis (1912),1 and among these the historical—or pseudo-historical—epic features prominently. Its enduring popularity is perpetuated by a raft of stereotyped characters and visual backdrops...

Part 1. Stone's Alexander

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pp. 15-54

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Oliver Stone's Alexander and the Cinematic Epic Tradition

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pp. 15-35

The release of Alexander in late 2004 (early 2005 in the United Kingdom) was a cinematic event generating excitement and anticipation in audiences eager to see what Oliver Stone would do with this “incomparably famous” ancient ruler.1 The excitement was countered by the controversy and condemnation that surrounded the project at every stage of its development...

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The Popular Reception of Alexander

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pp. 36-51

ALEXANDER grossed $13,687,000 during its opening weekend in the United States in late November 2004, a disappointing sum for a film budgeted at approximately $160 million. Over a run of sixty-eight days until it was withdrawn from theatrical release at the end of January 2005...

Part 2. Precursors of Alexander

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pp. 52-118

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Alexander on Stage: A Critical Appraisal of Rattigan's Adventure Story

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pp. 55-91

During filming Oliver Stone described his film to me as a wheel with five spokes, moving in three different times. The “spokes” are the five main settings: Alexandria in Egypt, Macedon, Babylon, Bactria, and India. Each of them is distinguished by distinctive coloring and light exposure: a crisp contrast of gray and white for Ptolemy’s Alexandrian palace as the new future after Alexander’s death...

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The Appearance of History: Robert Rossen's Alexander the Great

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pp. 92-116

There are two sides to Alexander’s story—the history (what he achieved) and the myth (what he became). The two are fatally linked, with the incredible feats found in the former driving the embellishments and inventions found in the latter. This awkward mix makes biographical treatments of Alexander especially difficult to achieve and may have contributed to the scarcity of dramatic retellings of his life, in the theater and also on the screen...

Part 3. Alexander's Intimates: Sexuality and Gender

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pp. 117-218

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Alexander and Ancient Greek Sexuality: Some Theoretical Considerations

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pp. 119-134

To contextualize this chapter, let’s revisit the opening scenes of another recent blockbuster, Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004). Two armies, the Greeks and the Thessalians, are drawn up in battle formation to witness a single combat between their respective champions. In front of the lines the enemy defender is flexing his muscles, while the Greeks are frantically shouting for their man, an unaccountably missing Achilles. He turns up in his tent, not sulking over some insult but sprawled naked in bed...

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Olympias and Oliver: Sex, Sexual Stereotyping, and Women in Oliver Stone's Alexander

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pp. 135-167

Since my graduate student days, I have occasionally played a kind of parlor game with other Alexander historians in which we cast the major characters in the saga of Alexander the Great for an imaginary movie. When we invented the game in the 1970s, most of us had seen Robert Rossen’s 1956 Alexander the Great years earlier, but recalled it only dimly (in the days before video and DVD)...

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Fortune Favors the Blond: Colin Farrell in Alexander

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pp. 168-182

The telecast of the 77th Annual Academy Awards, which aired on Sunday, February 27, 2005, was supposed to be a celebration of the film industry’s finest productions and performances of the previous year. But instead of lavishing the usual accolades on the glamorous attendees, edgy comedian-host Chris Rock opened the show by mocking the past year’s less than stellar cinematic efforts...

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The Cult of Hephaestion

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pp. 183-216

When first I embarked, some twenty years ago, on a critical examination of the historical figure of Hephaestion Amyntoros and his place at the court of Alexander the Great, I had no idea that the subject of my study would turn out to have fans. Much to my astonishment since, I have fielded literally hundreds of enthusiastic letters from all over the globe, asking about Hephaestion...

Part 4. Alexander's Dream: Macedonians and Foreigners

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pp. 217-284

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Oliver Stone, Alexander, and the Unity of Mankind

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pp. 219-242

Any historical film treads a very fine line between the need to ensure at least a degree of historical plausibility and the need to generate a plot and characters capable of sustaining the audience’s attention. The viewer too is torn between appreciation of the plot and identification of minute divergences from the historical record—and the more informed he or she is, all the more so. I might as well state at the outset that...

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"Help me, Aphrodite!" Depicting the Royal Women of Persia in Alexander

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pp. 243-281

I’m gonna go where the desert sun is; where the fun is; where the harem girls dance,” sang Elvis Presley in his 1965 musical Harum Scarum (also known as Harem Holiday). Presley plays the role of Johnny Tyronne, an action-movie star and ladies’ man, traveling through the Middle East on a goodwill tour to publicize his latest film...

Part 5. Ways of Viewing Alexander

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pp. 283-336

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Viewing the Past: Cinematic Exegesis in the Caverns of Macedon

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pp. 285-304

In the introduction to his Life of Alexander, Plutarch compares his work as a biographer to that of a painter: Just as painters get the likenesses in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men, and by means of these to portray the life of each, leaving to others the description of their great contests...

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Blockbuster! Museum Responses to Alexander the Great

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pp. 305-336

Blockbuster: a term derived from the popular name of the huge German bombs used in World War II to blast large sections of a city; in the museum sense, it refers to a revolutionary, powerful exhibition” (Dean 1996, 159). Judged by all the usual measures, Oliver Stone’s film Alexander falls into the “blockbuster” category. As described in considerable detail by Robin Lane Fox...

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Afterword

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pp. 337-351

I’ve learned much from the foregoing essays by this distinguished panel of historians, and it’s certainly exciting to feel Alexander once again breathe among us, analyzed and redigested in ways peculiar to our present era. When the film was released in 2004–5, I found that very few film reviewers around the world were able to identify with Alexander’s concepts of war and conquest, largely because of the experiences we suffered in the last century...

Contributors

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pp. 353-356

Index

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pp. 357-375


E-ISBN-13: 9780299232832
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299232849

Page Count: 370
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Stone, Oliver -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Alexander, the Great, 356-323 B.C. -- In motion pictures.
  • Alexander (Motion picture).
  • Historical films -- History and criticism.
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