A Reading of Oliver Stone's Alexander

Jon Solomon

University of Illinois

Popularity at the box office, of course, is not the sine qua non of excellence in a film, but as a high-profile Hollywood release, Oliver Stone's Alexander was expected to earn much more money. Alexander also failed among popular critics. Their justifications for disliking the film were varied. Manohla Dargis in The New York Times found the choice of Alexander to be politically reprehensible, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone Magazine criticized Stone's excessive use of narration by Ptolemy; Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times thought the film attempted too much and delivered too little. Other critical complaints—besides the de rigeur "it's too long" and "the acting was poor"—included Colin Farrell's tinted hair, Angelina Jolie's Albanian accent,  the omission of battles AND their excessive length, and, similarly, the inclusion of implicit gay sex AND the absence of explicit gay sex.

Stone has made films involving such controversial, complicated, hot-button issues as the Kennedy assassination, the Nixon presidency, and the Viet Nam war overseas and at home. He knows how to sift through written material and transfer it to the screen. He is an artist who intentionally makes controversial films about controversial subjects. And yet it seems as if almost every time he releases a film critics and the public expect something quite different, or rather, something uncontroversial. They fail to follow the progress of this innovative artist. Alexander is not at all the failed traditional Hollywood ancient biopic that it seems to be at first glance.

This paper will provide a new reading of the film. Salient points will include how Stone 1) employs quasi-Aeschylean animal symbols of the panther, horse, eagle, and snake to organize his material and give it a supernatural element superior to that in perhaps any other film set in antiquity, 2) infuses his script with significant mythological allusions (particularly to Heracles [sic], Medea,  and Prometheus) to give it a genuinely ancient historical perspective, and 3) makes several parallels between Achilles/Patroclus and Alexander/Hephaestion to render their homosexual relationship as the alpha and omega of Alexander's romantic vision. I will also address Alexander's dysfunctional psychological history and Colin Farrell's portrayal of him.


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