I used to be a little obsessed with Oliver Stone’s Alexander, and I look back on the enthusiasm with which I threw myself into trying to write an Alexander epic in Homeric hexameters with a little chagrin these days. But I grew up with movies like The Black Stallion, which left me fascinated with the legend of Bucephalus and Alexander, so I was primed to enjoy a film that featured Alexander and Bucephalus facing off against an elephant chariot in the previews!
There are interesting little historical flourishes in the Oliver Stone film, like the use of knives in Roxane’s dance (Philip’s father was assassinated by a troupe of dancing girls who danced with knives to get close enough for the kill), or the momentary glimpse of a hoplite shield at the battle of Gaugamela. Alexander’s use of the sarissa was effective not against chariots or cavalry but only against hoplite formations of Spartan mercenaries, who made up the core of the Persian emperor’s fighting force. Strangely though, the film’s battle of Gaugamela features sarissa-wielding phalanxes repulsing chariots and camel cavalry instead, and makes the lone hoplite shield appear to belong to an isolated bodyguard in a rearguard action as Darius flees in his chariot. Perhaps because explaining how the Spartans came to be fighting Alexander’s army in Asia would have added too much exposition to an already unwieldy script?
If I had to pick just one scene in the movie to explain how it grabbed me, it would be when Alexander’s army mutinies in India, and he stands before them, urging them on into the East, where none of them want to go.
This poem about that scene, based on the 44th Psalm, is in the voice of one of his commanders, flouting his orders and speaking for the other unruly Macedonians, men who have travelled so far with him already, while longing for home. They are uneasy with Alexander’s adoption of the court customs of the oriental despot he deposed in Persia, and disgruntled with his decision to legitimize their unions with camp followers and captives whom they would be embarrassed to call their wives back home.
They compare his wars to his father Philip’s conquest of Greece, when he was just a boy fighting in Philip’s cavalry. At the same time, they remember Alexander’s early promise when he routed the legendary Theban band, thus capturing a city where Philip had lived as a royal hostage in his own boyhood. And they remind him of the deaths of Philip’s most trusted generals, at his own orders and one of them by his own hand, on grounds of treason but in one case, during a drunken orgy and over an ill-considered remark.
Alexander, we have heard the stories told,
our fathers versed us well in Phillip’s battles,
and told us of your charge at Chaeronea,
in the days of your father’s conquest of Thebes.
You led the horse to dispossess the Thebans.
You smashed the proudest of Greeks, and none survived.
Not by the sword and the phalanx was Thebes won,
and not by the arm of Phillip’s prized warriors,
but your right hand and your javelins and horse,
and the light of your youth when you favored us.
You are out king, and perhaps a sort of God.
Lead us again to victories like Phillip’s.
Through you we captured elephants, gored our foes,
through your name we trample all who resist us.
For not in my spear and my shield do I trust,
and my sword will not conquer all Persia’s hosts.
For you alone led the victorious charge,
and put Darius and his Spartans to shame.
Zeus hears our praises from over the mountains,
and your name beside his all peoples acclaim.
Yet now you neglect and disgrace Phillip’s friends
and hold yourself aloof from your companions.
You kept us back from our families and our homes,
as though our spoils of war could last forever.
You made our comrades-in-arms food for serpents
and exiled your generals to alien forts.
You spent our birthrights on worthless excursions
and set no high price on our blood in your wars.
You gave us wives that our sisters blush to meet,
derision and scorn is our posterity.
You made us a byword, your vanity’s pawns,
our unconquered army an object of scorn.
Everywhere I look my disgrace greets my eyes,
and the trappings of Asians we wear shame me,
From the crude whispered curses – they revile us! –
these, our enemies, join us, but want revenge.
All this is plain to see, but you are our king,
and we did not betray you, though we wondered.
Our hearts have never quailed before a battle,
nor have we whispered against you or set snares,
though you brought us face to face with monstrous beasts,
and many of our comrades fell for strange ends.
Had we forgotten our king and our homeland
and given our oaths to some alien tribe,
like the Spartans, would not Zeus have fathomed it?
For our hearts’ secrets are open before you.
For your sake we’ve fought in every land on earth,
and the path we’ve beaten is red with slaughter.
Rouse yourself to face our claims, Alexander!
Put aside this stupor, do not neglect us.
Why do you withdraw from us, seeing no one,
forget our bond to you, discount our burdens?
For our necks are not made to grovel in dust,
we have never pressed our bellies to the ground.
Rise and stand as one of us again, my king,
and redeem our constant service – lead us home.