How could the son of a relatively minor king in a minor backwater province of ancient Greece go on to change the course of history? Alexander of Macedon earned his moniker “Great” through personal magnetism, audacity and sheer courage.
The story starts by establishing the relationships among Alexander; his scheming mother, Olympias; and his brutal and unpredictable father, King Philip II of Macedon. Alternately doted upon or derided by his father (depending on how drunk he was), Alexander grows up with a need to prove himself. His mother introduces him to palace intrigue and whatever-it-takes ambition. Add a natural intelligence and keen interest in learning all he could about the world, instilled by his tutor, Aristotle, and Alexander is destined to become a bright star set to do great things—or burn out early. He winds up doing a bit of both.
This three-hour biopic barely mentions Alexander's early conquest of Asia Minor and the biblical lands of Israel, Assyria and Egypt, including his great victories at Granicus, Issus and Tyre, which established his reputation as a military genius. The first battle shown is the decisive victory at Gaugamela, in what is today northern Iraq, which breaks the back of the Persian army under Darius III and allows Alexander to take Babylon.
Alexander then takes his army deep into the Hindu Kush mountains (today’s Afghanistan) and on into India, driven both by ambition and an addictive need to know what lay beyond the next river. Along the way, he takes a wife, Roxane of Bactria, and becomes increasingly arrogant and distant from his loyal generals.
After the only battle he ever lost, in India, Alexander marches his army toward home. But he never makes it. Alexander the Great, conqueror of the known world, dies of a mysterious disease (or is poisoned) in Babylon.
Despite being injured himself, Alexander insists that his wounded men be treated first. He never asks his soldiers to do anything he’s not willing to do himself, including being at the very front of a cavalry charge. And he honors a fallen foe by covering the body with his own cape. Upon capturing the wife and family of King Darius, Alexander shows mercy and allows them to continue to live in the palace. He later asks his men to forgive him for his anger and pride.
Alexander comes to see his mother’s scheming as a bad thing. He denounces the racism of his generals, who object to having to mix with “barbarians.” Alexander’s lifelong friend, Ptolemy, says, “Excess in all things is the undoing of men.” (Alexander does not follow the advice.) Aristotle tells his students, including young Alexander, “When men lie together in lust, it is an excess of passion and leads to destruction," but when men "lie together," or join their minds in knowledge and virtue, "this strengthens them and leads to excellence.” (Alexander ignores this advice, too. See Sexual Content below.) King Philip says, “No man can be too powerful or too beautiful without disaster befalling him.”
Old Ptolemy, in looking back on Alexander’s life, says, “He was a god, or as close to one as I’ve ever seen.” Olympias convinces young Alexander that he is the son of Zeus. Later, it's said that a sycophantic soothsayer in Egypt “confirms” this. Conversely, Aristotle expresses skepticism toward the existence of the gods and says only the uneducated believe in them.
Olympias is called a sorceress. Numerous scenes feature statues of the various Greek gods. Men frequently invoke the names of these gods, often before a fight. Alexander whispers to a horse afraid of its own shadow, “It is just Apollo [sometimes referred to as the sun god]. His shadows are a trick.” King Philip, a drunkard, is said to worship Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, and he takes young Alexender on a tour of a cave in which walls are engraved with images of Greek mythology, including that of Medea, who murdered her children in revenge for her husband's abandonment of her. The myth of Prometheus [the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind] is mentioned several times.
The night before a big battle, a man toasts, “Let’s feast tonight, for tomorrow we will dine in Hades [in Greek mythology, the realm of the dead].” Alexander looks up at the night sky and says he is praying to Phobos [the god of fear and terror]. Before a battle, Alexander sacrifices a bull to the gods. Later, a seer looks through the entrails of the animal to try to predict the outcome of the fight.
Hallucinating, Alexander sees his mother as the snake-haired Medusa. (Olympias is frequently seen holding serpents.) Alexander is told a ring is “from a time when men worshipped the sun and stars.”
Before Alexander's release, The online news world was abuzz with rumors that it contained heavy homosexual and/or bisexual content. And history pretty much confirms that Alexander had a voracious appetite for both sexes. In the final print, however, much of the bisexual content is confined to innuendo and assumption. Significant glances and whispers of affection are exchanged between Alexander and Hephaistion, his lifelong friend and probable homosexual lover. Alexander hugs Hephaistion lingeringly, says to him, “Stay with me tonight,” expresses a longing for growing old together, and assures him, "It's you I love." Olympias tells Alexander, “You love Hephaistion more. I understand. It’s natural for a young man.” Alexander also kisses a very effeminate male dancer full on the mouth—in front of his wife. (Interestingly, a group of Greek lawyers is threatening to sue director Oliver Stone and Warner Bros. over this portrayal of Alexander. In true Seinfeldian manner, they say they have no problem with homosexuality; they just don’t want to see their cultural hero portrayed that way.)
King Philip, in a drunken rage, attempts to rape Olympias. He slaps her, chokes her and throws her upon the bed that young Alexander lies in, ripping at her clothing. (Palace guards eventually pull him off as Alexander pleads with him to stop.) In a like-father, like-son echo, Alexander later violently attempts to force his "rights" on his wife, Roxane. (During the struggle, she's seen nude from the front; shadows obscure the lower portion of her body.) After he has beat her and wrestled her down, she seizes a knife and puts it to his throat. Then, the two turn their anger and acts of violence into a means of summoning sexual attraction. What follows includes explicit motion and sounds, seen in flashes of flesh and in silhouette. Elsewhere, in low light, we see Alexander briefly expose part of his sexual anatomy to the camera.
During one of Philip's drunken orgies, men drag women off, apparently to have their way with them. Upon viewing King Darius’ harem in captured Babylon, Alexander is told there’s a woman for every night. But while his generals ogle the women, Alexander exchanges looks with Bagoas the eunuch. At various times men and women dancers perform sexualized dances—one of them homoerotic. A Greek general denigrates “barbarians” by saying, “They mate in public.” Roxane, jealous of Hephaistion’s hold on Alexander, is told by Alexander, “There are many different ways to love.” Nude statues and paintings are on display.
The battle scenes are intense, violent and gory. The Greek phalanx featured rows of soldiers with 15-foot pikes, and we see Persian warriors run through with the spears. Limbs are severed with huge gushes of blood. Men vomit blood when they are stabbed in the chest. Arrows hit bodies with sickening thuds. Soldiers are covered with the spattered blood of their victims.
Darius outfitted his war chariots with large scythes on the wheels. Soldiers are sliced open and lose limbs as the chariots race through their ranks. After the battle, a field is littered with hundreds of bloody bodies.
A man is executed by a spear thrown into his chest, and later, in a drunken rage, Alexander kills his friend Cleitus by running him through. We see the bloody bodies of torture victims tied to tree trunks. Two men are assassinated by having daggers rammed into their abdomens. As already discussed, Alexander and Philip both rough up their wives. Roxane pulls a knife and holds it to Alexander's throat. (He dares her to kill him.) Mercy killing involves driving a spike into the base of a man’s skull.
Alexander slits the throat of a bull, whose blood splashes all over him. Elephants crush soldiers beneath them; one explicit scene shows an elephant’s foot flattening a man, another shows an elephant's trunk being lopped off. A man’s head is stuck on the end of a pike. Lightning kills a group of men. A man dies after a snake bites his neck.
Crude or Profane Language
Three uses of "d---," two of "bastard" and one of "a--."
Drug and Alcohol Content
King Philip was a drunkard, and he’s frequently seen guzzling wine and quite drunk. He explains his drunkenness: “I want to drink this sadness away.” Once he tells an aide, “Make sure the wine flows freely. I want them to like me.” Alexander is also fond of drink, and in one scene—as if he were presiding over an out-of-control frat party—he downs a large goblet of wine in one go. (It's the same thing he saw his father do earlier in his life.)
Other Negative Elements
Declining to buy a spirited horse, King Philip quips, “Why would I want such a beast? I already have a wife.” A man spits in King Philip’s face, and later Olympias spits in Alexander’s face. It’s implied that Olympias is behind the assassination of King Philip, although history also points to Alexander as a possible culprit. It's noted that Olympias orders the second wife and child of King Philip murdered.
There is no doubt that Alexander the Great rerouted the flow of history, and not necessarily for the worse. His conquests set the stage for the rapid spread of Christ's gospel (300-some years afterwards) by establishing a common language, Greek, for a large swath of mankind. He even shows up in the Bible as the shaggy goat referred to in Daniel 8, and his kingdom is represented by the bronze belly and thighs in Daniel’s dream interpretation documented in Daniel 2.
It is possible to call a man great without approving of what he does. (It’s the dilemma faced by Time magazine when it names its annual Person of the Year; to nominate Osama bin Laden is not to praise him.) Alexander was without a doubt a courageous, bold and brilliant military commander who had conquered most of the known world in his 20s. He was, at times, a selfless and inspiring leader. He was also, among many other dreadful things, a murderer and adulterer—with both sexes—and was prone to drunkenness and fits of rage. As a king, he was willing to kill thousands to feed his own ambition.
To adequately capture the intricacies of the life of such a man is beyond difficult, and Oliver Stone can’t quite pull it off here. He glosses over many of the events that earned Alexander his historical title and tries to show us instead his inner life of turmoil, but uses an actor, Colin Farrell, who just doesn't seem cut out for the job. (Ragged pacing and an amalgam of forced European accents don't help matters much, either—Angelina Jolie, for instance, sounds like she just got off the boat from Russia.)
What the film does a good job of is showing audiences how easily the sins of fathers are passed on to their sons. Many of Alexander's actions are reflections of what his dad taught him, not with words but with base behavior. It also aptly illustrates Solomon's assertions in Ecclesiastes 1 and 2 that a life spent pursuing riches, sex, conquest and power is always a life filled with futility.
Remarkable for an Oliver Stone film, Alexander is reasonably accurate from a broad historical perspective. One notable liberty: the movie shows Alexander capturing Darius’ wife and family in Babylon. In fact, he’d captured them earlier at Issus, when Darius fled the battlefield, leaving his family behind. Alexander’s merciful treatment of them is accurate, though.
So, Alexander could have been a fascinating historical and social study for both adults and teens. But the relative restraint Stone showed in dealing with Alexander’s bisexuality is nowhere in evidence in his handling of rape and battle scenes.