BMCR 2006.12.03

The Art of War: Alexander the Great. 51 minutes. VHS and DVD. Films for the Humanities and Sciences

, The Art of War: Alexander the Great. 51 minutes. VHS and DVD. Films for the Humanities and Sciences. : Discovery Channel Production, 2004. $89.95.

Many professional historians recoil at the notion that educational videos are scholarly endeavors. Yet the increasing use of these videos in the classroom and their undeniable power to convey images and impressions of the past creates a need to evaluate their pedagogical value. As Hollywood and cable television adopt more storylines and shows from the ancient world, we might hope for productions that provide teachable moments and insights. The Art of War: Alexander the Great, a product resulting from Oliver Stone’s famously flawed movie, offers a useful example of the possibilities and pitfalls that such endeavors bring.

According to the blurb on the video’s outside cover, The Art of War: Alexander the Great“uses maps, 3-D computer animation, and a colossal in-depth re-creation of the battle [at Gaugamela] to vividly illustrate how Alexander earned the epithet “the Great.”” In brief, this documentary does indeed present some spectacular animation and graphics that illustrate movement on the battlefield; however, it fails to reveal what, if anything, made Alexander deserving of the epithet “great.”

Unlike many educational videos (and some commercial films), The Art of War: Alexander the Great does not fall prey to the mistake of trying to tell the whole story of Alexander’s life. Only a few minutes at the beginning of the video are devoted to the military training of the young Alexander and the persons of Philip and Olympias, with a further few minutes devoted to Alexander’s taking of the throne, his initial attack on Persia, and the story of the Gordian knot. These stories are told through reenactments with actors speaking in Greek (pronunciation ranges from “Erasmian” to Modern Greek) and Persian with subtitles. The scene is vivid and compelling, but also potentially misleading. Seeing a Greek-speaking Alexander plunge his sword through the knot at Gordian makes the story’s point in dramatic fashion without noting any alternative rendering of the story — as Plutarch did by noting that Aristobulus, who was Alexander’s contemporary, reported more prosaically that the king merely pulled the dowel from pole holding the cart’s lashing together ( Alex. 18).

The problem: the complexity surrounding the sources for Alexander is erased and certain stories (possibly or even likely myths) are favored to the exclusion of others. In this case, the “damage,” if one would call it that, is small, but this singleness of vision leads to larger problems in the presentation of the battle at Gaugamela.

Wisely the producers chose to focus on a single battle to provide a picture of Alexander at war. Within the context of the battle, the weapons and tactics of both the Macedonians and the Persians are discussed, as are some of the wider strategic implications. Sweeping views of the battlefield are provided by computer imagery, while actors provide closer scenes of the fighting. Displays of the use of the sarissa, fighting swords, scythed chariots, the armament of the cavalry and the peltasts, and other weapons are provided by reenactors with hard hitting — sometimes literally — narration by Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (ret.), the military trainer for Oliver Stone’s Alexander and other films. Because of the choice to concentrate on a single battle, more depth is possible here than in the usual practice of educational videos that range over far too much and say little as a result.

The use of computer generated scenes to show the battlefield at Gaugamela provides a picture of the enormity of an ancient battle in a way that is seldom otherwise seen or describable. Here The Art of War: Alexander the Great is at its best and worst. Much of the battle itself is narrated vividly by Dye, who uses a model in conjunction with computer imagery for the larger scenes and reenactors for the close-in fighting. Complex matters like the left-echelon formation of the Macedonian army and the deliberately confusing movements of Alexander and his cavalry on the field become immediately and easily discernable to the viewer. In a particularly interesting and useful digression, Dye discusses the critical use of peltasts in the battle, their weapons (javelins, slings, bows) and their tactical effectiveness. He also briefly talks about the problems of ancient battlefield communications, which played a key role at certain points in the fighting.

However, these reconstructions give an utter misrepresentation of Gaugamela’s reality. The computer images and reenactments with actors create an atmosphere in which little blood is shown and appear too much like a video game with lots of fancy fighting moves, including a preposterous duel between Alexander and a Persian at the battle’s climax. Gaugamela was a horrific, bloody nightmare of severed limbs and bodies piled so high that Darius’ chariot became entangled in massed corpses, and the Great King had to flee by horse (Plut. Alex. 33) —the video has it wrong here, with Darius driving his own chariot off the field. More importantly, the Persian side of this catastrophe is sadly missing, with no discussion of the ramifications for the empire’s subjects and the hundreds of thousands killed as a result of Alexander’s campaigns;1 instead we are left with the triumphal version of Alexander, who is declared “great” because of “his clarity of vision.” Stalin and Hitler, too, possessed remarkable clarity of vision, yet few would award them titles of honor. Indeed, the video not only leaves the viewer with a sanitized view of ancient battle, but no full measure is given to the results of Alexander’s achievements at Gaugamela for both sides — an assessment surely necessary if one wants to declare the Macedonian king “great.”

In addition to these failures, the video’s presentation of certain tactical aspects of the battle is sadly lacking. For example, the weapons and men under the command of the Persians are only briefly discussed. Indeed, one of the more glaring omissions here is that Darius’ heavy infantry were probably mercenary Greeks fighting in a hoplite phalanx (Arrian, 3.11.7). It is unclear why the video’s producers could not find any specialists in Near Eastern history to discuss Persia or its military. Instead, the brief discussion of Darius’ famed scythed chariots is left to ‘hoplologist — weapons master’ Julia Dewey Rupkalvis. It is also particularly disappointing that the too brief consideration of the armament and use of the Macedonian cavalry could not have been provided by Robin Lane Fox, who apparently hit upon some new insights as the result of hands-on work as a Macedonian cavalryman in Oliver Stone’s unfortunate Alexander film.2

While some might argue that complexity is not the hallmark of educational videos, documentaries like Michael Woods’ In the Footsteps of Alexander reveal the ability of a sensitive filmmaker to display with remarkable power and simplicity such complexities as the differences in the way that a monumental figure like Alexander is remembered in the popular songs of modern Greece and modern Iran. Unfortunately in The Art of War: Alexander the Great the opportunity is lost to show both sides of the battle, the terrible realities of ancient warfare, and the larger effects that Gaugamela had for both the Macedonian and Persian worlds.


1. Given the mass of scholarship concerning the experience of individual in ancient warfare that has followed since the appearance of V.D. Hanson’s The Western Way of War (New York 1989) and the stated concern of video “to evaluate the soldiers and their weapons,” (from the blurb on the video case), this omission is particularly disappointing.

2. See, for example, Robin Lane Fox’s comments in “Into Battle with Alexander” on the Times Online. A new BBC documentary Charging for Alexander may go some distance in rectifying this.