Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.14
Paul Cartledge, Fiona Rose Greenland (ed.), Responses to Oliver Stone's Alexander: Film, History, and Cultural Studies. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010. Pp. vii, 370. ISBN 9780299232849. $26.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Sheramy D. Bundrick, University of South Florida St. Petersburg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Table of Contents
An edited volume about Oliver Stone's Alexander was inevitable; both Gladiator and Troy have received similar treatments, revealing an increased interest among classicists in film and reception theory.1 Here, historians Paul Cartledge and Fiona Rose Greenland introduce twelve essays that respond to Alexander or to issues raised by it. A capstone essay is provided by Oliver Stone, allowing the filmmaker himself to respond to the papers and in some ways to have the last word.
Essays discussing Stone's conception of Alexander and the film's reception open the compilation. Joanna Paul's contribution details pre- and post-production controversies, then situates the movie within the larger context of the Hollywood epic, stressing Stone's conscious debt to old-fashioned cinematic spectacle. Already the reader sees what Cartledge and Greenland promise in the introduction, that much of the volume will consider why Stone's film "failed" at the box office. Jon Solomon's essay continues the discussion launched by Paul, focusing on the film's reception by movie critics and academics. Solomon critiques the critics, not necessarily as an apologia for Alexander (although his essay more than once defends Stone's choices), but making a larger point that the goals and considerations of filmmaking differ from scholarship. In this Solomon's essay comes across as more balanced than some others in the collection. Indeed, Solomon is one of the few here to contextualize Alexander within Stone's larger oeuvre, a welcome and important inclusion.
Part Two examines the "Precursors of Alexander." Robin Lane Fox, historical consultant to Stone's movie, examines a 1949 play about the conqueror by Terence Rattigan, Adventure Story. Fox points out that this play was unknown to Stone as he was writing Alexander's screenplay, but there are coincidental parallels (and significant contrasts) between the two. Film historian Kim Shahabudin tackles the other major cinematic treatment of Alexander, Robert Rossen's 1956 Alexander the Great. By analyzing its narrative themes, namely its use of history and myth, Shahabudin pronounces Rossen's movie ambitious yet an "honorable failure" (p. 98). She situates Rossen's efforts within his larger oeuvre and against the backdrop of early-1950s McCarthyism. Like Solomon's essay, Shahabudin's is balanced in its criticism and considers the movies specifically from a film-historical methodology.
Part Three, "Alexander's Intimates," confronts issues of sexuality and gender, not a surprising direction given the massive attention paid to the "bisexual" Alexander of Stone's movie. Marilyn Skinner's article presents a clear and concise discussion of ancient Greek concepts of homosexuality, focusing on the evidence for elite males in 6th-4th century B.C. Athens. She then moves to consideration of the Achilles-Patroclus relationship within the framework of the Athenian tradition, and finally to treatment of Alexander's sexuality in Stone's film.
Elizabeth Carney, a renowned scholar of Alexander's mother Olympias, focuses on this character and on the film's images of women. Carney's essay emerges as one of the most critical, both in terms of content and language. Rather than focusing on "factual errors" in Stone's film -- Carney admits that most were actually conscious choices -- she delves into what she considers "the stereotypical and unsubtle depictions of [the film's] two central characters [Olympias and Alexander]" (p. 141). Her critiques extend to the script as well as to the choice and performance of Angelina Jolie as Olympias. (An influence on the film that Carney neglects to mention is Mary Renault: the "rape scene" between Philip and Olympias appears to be inspired by Fire from Heaven.) Stone reacts the most strongly to Carney's piece in the Afterword; while saying he "takes to heart" her essay (p. 338), he also argues that stereotypes "can reflect a certain truth" and cannot be ignored by dramatists (his self-identification).
Monica Silveira Cyrino explores Colin Farrell as Alexander in her piece, "Fortune Favors the Blond." Opening with a discourse on celebrity and the challenges of reconciling the casting of stars to audience expectations, Cyrino considers Farrell, who joined Stone's film at the height of his tabloid fame and with a notorious bad-boy image. She stops short of lambasting Farrell's actual performance; rather, she suggests that the portrayal of Alexander in the script, whether in terms of his sexuality or otherwise, was too ambiguous for audiences to accept. Farrell, she seems to imply, was not given enough to work with.
Hephaestion is given suitable treatment by longtime Hephaestion scholar Jeanne Reames. After beginning with the intriguing relevation that this ancient figure has a considerable modern-day internet fan following, Reames moves to Stone's film. The bulk of her essay does not analyze the cinematic conception of Hephaestion but instead aims to flesh it out, moving from Hephaestion in modern scholarship to a succinct analysis of his military and political career. She concludes by speculating why Hephaestion's role has often been downplayed, whether in the ancient sources themselves or in modern treatments like Alexander.
Section Four, "Alexander's Dream: Macedonians and Foreigners," opens with Thomas Harrison's essay ("Oliver Stone, Alexander, and the Unity of Mankind"), which concerns itself primarily with the perceived failure of Stone's film. Harrison lists several things that for him undermined Alexander, but he focuses on Stone's conception of Alexander's motives, or more accurately, what he interprets as Stone's overly idealistic conception. The film, Harrison suggests, "represents Alexander in a straightforwardly heroic light" (p. 223), downplaying or making excuses for incidents that do not seem to fit. Stone and his colleagues, according to this argument, lean more toward the Tarn conception of Alexander than the more deconstructed version of Badian and Bosworth. Harrison uses the Tarn/Badian debate to introduce his own thoughts about Alexander's motives; namely, he uses Arrian's account of the Opis banquet to suggest that "the ideas ascribed to Alexander...derive in large part from Persian royal ideology and from the Greeks' representation of Persia" (p. 225). Stone addresses Harrison's essay in the Afterword by saying of the Tarn-Badian debate, "I don't think it can be answered -- nor need it be" (p. 339) and characterizing Alexander not as an imperialist, but an explorer.
Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, who along with Robin Lane Fox and Fiona Rose Greenland served as advisor for Stone's film, considers the portrayal of Persian women and discusses the movie's larger conception of the East. This essay (with Carney's the most critical in the volume) exposes "hackneyed Orientalist clichés" (p. 247) and "sledgehammer stereotypes" (p. 244) but is careful to remark upon Stone's "enormous respect and passion for the past" (p. 248) and the attention to detail espoused by the production's design team. Llewellyn-Jones argues that "neither set design nor costume design is wholly responsible" (p. 251) for the clichéd look of the Babylon scenes; rather he directs critique to the presentation of the Persian harem. As Llewellyn-Jones demonstrates, Alexander's harem sequence owes more to Hollywood epic -- itself rooted in nineteenth-century Orientalist visual tradition -- than to historical reality. Stone acknowledges both in this volume's Afterword and elsewhere his debt to films like Intolerance, so this is not surprising. Stone himself surprises somewhat by not defending his artistic choices, as he does in the response to Carney; he admits, "I believe I did err fundamentally in my understanding of the Persian harem, allowing a cloud of Hollywood fantasy to obscure my realistic judgment" (p. 338). Llewellyn-Jones' essay further examines current thinking about women in the Persian court; as in the study of the "status" of ancient Greek women, contemporary scholarship questions many traditional assumptions, most notably with regards to the idea/ideal of "seclusion." Stone, Llewellyn-Jones argues, had the opportunity to present Persian royal women more strongly (for example by including Darius' grandmother Sisygambis, planned in the original script then omitted when French actress Jeanne Moreau withdrew from the production) -- an opportunity which, unfortunately, he missed.
The final section of the book is titled "Ways of Viewing Alexander." Verity Platt, an art historian, takes a different approach from nearly every other author in the anthology by focusing on the film's iconography/iconology and considering Alexander on its --and Oliver Stone's -- own terms. Refreshingly by this point, the word "failure" does not appear even once in her contribution, "Viewing the Past: Cinematic Exegesis in the Caverns of Macedon." Stressing the thematic importance of artworks and other visual motifs that appear throughout the movie, Platt uses the (fictional) Vergina cave and its (fictional) wall paintings as an entrée into a discourse on the film's mythic paradigms and contemporary cinematic allusions, e.g. to Godard's Le Mépris. (One could add the parallel to Jim Morrison's desert cave descent in Stone's own The Doors.) This reader found Platt's essay among the most stimulating in the volume, and judging from the enthusiastic response in the Afterword, Stone did too.
John F. Cherry's essay uses Stone's film as a springboard to explore another kind of blockbuster: the big-budget museum exhibition. After tracing the rise of large-scale, large-publicity exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s, Cherry outlines an assortment of Alexander-themed shows, beginning with the landmark "Search for Alexander" that toured North America from 1980 through 1983. As Cherry points out, Alexander the Great -- like van Gogh or King Tut -- has become a big-name draw; Alexander-themed shows can in turn have a modern political subtext, for instance referencing the contemporary controversy over ancient Macedonian identity. Shows like the "Search for Alexander," sponsored at least in part by the Greek government and featuring objects from Greek museums, reassert Greek claim to the conqueror. While allowing that some of these exhibitions have made real contributions to scholarship and public awareness, Cherry characterizes others as opportunistic, concluding that "it is just as difficult, it would seem, to present Alexander satisfactorily in a museum exhibition as in a cinematic epic" (p. 329).
Cherry's discussion of Alexander exhibitions is on the whole informative and insightful, but his somewhat dismissive section on the Alexander the Great exhibition hosted by the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg, FL (1996), needs clarification. "Alexander the Great: The Exhibition" actually comprised two exhibitions: the "Alexander the Great: History and Legend" show organized by the Fondazione Memmo and displayed in Rome as "Alessandro Magno: Storia e Mito" (praised by Cherry elsewhere in his chapter) and a second organized by the Greek Ministry of Culture, "Macedonians: The Northern Greeks." (The latter, also shown in India and omitted from Cherry's text, bolsters his points about underlying political themes.) The "Macedonians" section of the FIM exhibition did include a number of replicas, to which Cherry refers, but otherwise the show featured numerous significant pieces, the culmination being the lion hunt mosaic from Pella.
Responses to Oliver Stone's Alexander achieves its mission of raising important questions about Alexander's life and career as triggered by Stone's film. The editors are to be commended for choosing a variety of scholars representing a variety of disciplines and positions, and certainly for securing an Afterword that reveals Stone's continuing fascination and intellectual engagement with the subject. As a paperback original, this book is affordable enough for course usage and would make fine student reading. The one critique to be offered is the lack of illustrations; a sprinkling of well-chosen film stills would have bolstered the arguments and discussions.
1. Cartledge and Greenland's volume is not, however, the first wave of scholarly responses to the film. Hanna Roisman and Martin Winkler organized an Alexander panel for the 2006 American Philological Association annual meetings, some of whose papers appeared in a subsequent volume of Classical Outlook (vol. 84.3, 2007), others in different journals (e.g. an expansion of Eugene Borza's paper in a 2007 issue of The Journal of the Historical Society and of my own "Dionysian Themes and Imagery in Oliver Stone's Alexander" in the spring 2009 Helios). The APA panel's papers were obviously published too late to be considered by authors in the present volume.