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April 10, 2009
Ancient HistoryBy Greyhawk
Previously: al Iskandar to Kandahar
So having finished a novel about his campaigns (and revisiting some other sources along the way) I decided to re-watch Oliver Stone's version of the story of Alexander. I remembered it as awful, but wanted to give it a second chance, partly because historical details were fresh in my mind, and partly in response to an urge to see some of those details brought to life.
The movie was every bit as bad as I remembered. And that's a shame - with one of the greatest known stories in the history of civilization as foundation, Stone failed utterly to to craft a film version worthy of even faint praise. It's not in historical accuracy that the movie disappoints - at least for a viewer who doesn't expect Hollywood versions to sacrifice entertainment value for documentary credibility. It's not the actors - they're first rate - and certainly not the budget, the locations, the costumes, or the musical score where the film falls short. It's the script and the direction that prevent this movie from ever making a top ten list (or top one hundred, for that matter), be it of war movies, historical dramas, biographies, epics, or what have you. And when the credits role, Stone's name is listed for both.
Alexander is one of those films that as you watch you can almost hear the director calling the shots in every scene; "stand this way, look that way, tilt your head, assume this expression... pan left, zoom, bring up the violins..." It's pervasive, and the recognition of technique destroys any hope of being absorbed into the story.
As for the story, it fails utterly to explain how its star could possibly have conquered the world. This fault lies not with Colin Farrell in the title role but has everything to do with a script whose author lacks familiarity with the fundamental qualities of a charismatic leader - one who could inspire tens of thousands to advance across a continent, soldiering on even after their earlier successes brought them riches beyond dream, and with visions of comrades maimed and killed along the way still fresh in their minds. Inspirational leadership is but one element of Alexander the mytho-historical figure, but it's key. It's certainly fodder for one element of an epic film (to say the least) but it's one Stone fails utterly to deliver. "His" Alexander is a character upon whose death the rare viewer who somehow managed to press on to the final frame thinks only "good, this is almost done".
Perhaps it's a masochistic streak, but I can't stop wondering why, or in this case, "what the hell was he thinking? So I turned on the director's commentary and started watching it again. I didn't get far. I didn't need to.
After a quick clip of Alexander on his death bed we cut to Egypt, the city of Alexandria, a few decades after that brief first scene. We are in the Great Library listening to a distinguished elderly gentleman relate his experiences with Alexander. This, Stone informs us in his voiceover, is someone called "Pahtallemy". (Throughout the film the actors repeatedly do pronounce his name correctly.) Stone's mangling is a minor irritant, except that within moments "Pahtallemy" is depicted standing before a map of the known world with place names in English in a "Greek" font (all good, it's a movie) as Stone informs us that modern audiences have difficulty with Greek names. They are "tough for a lot of people."
Within moments we cut to flashback. Stone tells us that originally the captions for these scene changes gave the dates based on our modern system, but he changed them to read "30 years earlier" because American audiences (and he singles out Americans for this distinction) weren't astute enough to understand that a jump from 320 BC to 350 BC was a move back in time. (Stone fails to mention it, but the fact that the younger actor playing "Pahtallemy" looks nothing whatsoever like the older version doesn't help.)
So that's one question partially answered - much of what is wrong with this movie can be traced to Stone's perception of what's wrong with Americans. In short: they are stupid - he reinforces the point repeatedly in the early part of his commentary. (I've never seen the later part, my questions were answered well enough early on and I'm not that much of a masochist.)
Oliver Stone does not like George Bush. He does not support the war in Iraq. This I know and don't care. His politics (unless one argues that a professed belief in the ignorance of one's fellow American's is political) aren't obvious in the film. But I expected him to reference modern events in his commentary, so it didn't surprise me when he did. If anything, the only reference I heard to George Bush and the War on Terror was a bit more circumspect than I anticipated - albeit in a context that was entirely wrong.
Alexander was a superior leader to George Bush, Stone very briefly explains, because he pressed on with just one war rather than starting another while it was in progress. Hell, he could have called George Bush Chimpy McHitlerBurton and I'd have ignored it considering the source - but coming from the guy who wrote and directed a big-budget picture on the life of Alexander the Great this statement was the last I needed to hear to close the book on why the result falls so short of anything approaching justice to the name (and why "the Great" was wisely left off the final title of the film).
Ignoring President Bush, there are compelling reasons why the comparison fails, why Stone is wrong. Alexander split his forces as required to accomplish his goals, fighting "insurgents" in one direction while expanding territory in another. He re-formed for major pushes eastward - each of which could be considered launching a new war without completing another. If that's an inaccurate description of his earliest conquests it's certainly true of everything beyond Ecbatana. Alexander's campaign across Persia into south Asia is the classic example of overreach. It was little more than a raid across a massive amount of territory. His "empire" as we see it on maps today never truly existed, and whatever nascent identification with or loyalty to king or country he left in place faded almost as swiftly as the sound of Bucephalus' hoofbeats in the East.
Even his home nation of Macedon faded almost immediately into historical obscurity (even Stone repeatedly refers to Alexander as "Greek") and any semblance of unity or Empire that existed beyond its borders certainly didn't last beyond his final heart beat. And while his successors carved manageable chunks of personal empire from their previously raided territories they expedited their downfall by promptly declaring war on one another, and their nations vanished from east to west.
This is not to deny the greatness of Alexander or dismiss the lasting influence of Greek culture on much of the conquered regions. But imagine for a moment the resulting history of the world had he stopped at Ecbatana - with the western Persian Empire in hand, Darius dead, and a raiding party dispatched to finish Bessus. What if, at that point, he had been content to abandon his (unobtainable) goal of reaching an Eastern sea that was far beyond the point he believed it to be - both in terms of geography and capability of men to alternately march and make war? Certainly the maps of his "empire" we see today might seem less impressive - but arguably he'd have carved one that could potentially be sustained beyond his brief life (which might not have been so brief were that the case).
That's one of history's great what ifs. Would that empire have weakened enough for Rome to rise to challenge two centuries later? Or might Alexander or a successor turned his eyes westward after consolidating his eastern gains, making Rome another outpost along the way...
And what other great moments in history might we imagine would have been different under the more tolerant rule of the Greeks? Certainly our calendars might reflect a year other than 2009 - perhaps that same date would appear on calendars in Baghdad and Tehran (or Babylon and Susa, or whatever cities may have risen in the intervening centuries) too.
Perhaps those calendars wouldn't have a day designated "Easter"...
Next: Easter, '06
Posted by Greyhawk / April 10, 2009 12:07 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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