Stressful relaxation – ‘Alexander’

Hoping to unwind, I went and watched ‘Alexander’, which turned out to be a mistake. I like historical epics. It is true that they are violent, and full of stereotypes, and not usually progressive in their politics. But I like them anyway, mostly I think because I am interested in history and like to see ancient periods shown on film. I watched ‘Troy’, for example, and liked it. But Alexander was really bad.


Hoping to unwind, I went and watched ‘Alexander’, which turned out to be a mistake. I like historical epics. It is true that they are violent, and full of stereotypes, and not usually progressive in their politics. But I like them anyway, mostly I think because I am interested in history and like to see ancient periods shown on film. I watched ‘Troy’, for example, and liked it. But Alexander was really bad.

Any historical film is going to tell you more about the present and the values of the filmmakers than it is about the past. ‘Troy’ was a mythical story though, and written as a story, while Alexander is history, however murky. That means the makers of ‘Alexander’ got to make choices about what to include and what to leave out, how much to change and how hard to try for accuracy, whereas ‘Troy’ could stick to the story (which they did — all the changes they made I thought were sensible).

Which is why I wonder why they changed what they changed and emphasized what they did. Why would they make Alexander (played by Colin Ferrell), who is notorious in history for being ruthless and without any fear or vulnerability, the stereotype of the vulnerable hero? Why would they focus so much on his relationship with his mother (Angelina Jolie), who they went out of their way to present as manipulative and dominating of him? Why would they go out of their way to present women, and the people of ‘the East’, and homosexuality, in the most stereotyped ways?

There’s a really interesting book by a fellow named Frank Snowden called ‘Before Color Prejudice’. It’s about how the ancients viewed differences in skin color. As you can guess from the title, Snowden argues that the ancient world did not have the kind of color-caste racism that the modern era has. I think Snowden may overstate the case a bit – there was certainly a lot of racialistic thinking in ideas the Romans and the Greeks had about bloodlines and hereditary nobility and aristocracy. But the racial notions in ‘Alexander’ seemed entirely modern. You have black slaves waiting on white Anthony Hopkins’s Ptolemy in Egypt. You have white Macedonians conquering West Asian looking Persians. All the imperialist debates are there: how can we civilize these exotic barbarians, Alexander’s white generals ask him? Why do you care more about these Asians than you do us, your (white) Macedonian kin? We want to go home, they demand! But Alexander wants to stay and conquer. Here we have the two poles. The antiwar position (these natives don’t deserve to be colonized by us), versus the benevolent imperialist (we owe it to them to colonize them and make them free). The worst scene in this bad film is when Alexander marries Roxana (played by Rosario Dawson, a black woman). Their wedding night scene, in addition to being on the edge of rape and horrific to watch, doesn’t make any sense. Dawson’s Roxana is, like Jolie’s Olympias, a manipulative woman who controls and dominates the oddly vulnerable world-conqueror.

It’s all too much. Long before ‘The Passion of the Christ’, before I knew much about Mel Gibson but after I had read a few books about Robert Bruce and William Wallace and their wars with the English, I saw in ‘Braveheart’ a movie about resistance to colonial war, and thought it was a powerful story of some of the first people who resisted the imperialism that was to conquer the whole world. I thought Gibson did a great job of playing Wallace, who I had placed in a historical line of anti-colonial heroes. Years later, it turns out that Gibson is a bizarre reactionary (anyone watch the South Park episode lampooning him?) and the historical blockbuster of the season is one with a sensitive, tormented conquering hero (dominated by scheming women) that celebrates, instead of resistance against overwhelming odds (as in Braveheart), aggressive war by white people against large numbers of ‘orientals’. To be fair, the movies are about equally gory. We’ve come a long way though. Either that or 10 years has just hurt my ability to enjoy the movies.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.

2 thoughts on “Stressful relaxation – ‘Alexander’”

  1. I haven’t seen the film (and
    I haven’t seen the film (and don’t really intend to, unlike you I thought Troy was execrable, if not worse, and have no intention of wasting another 2-3 hours of my life in a similar fashion), but I did stumble across this article, which while pretty irrelevant has some interesting things to say about Alexander’s Macedonian (or is it Greek?) heritage: http://film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,4120,1354032,00.html

    If you wanna see a good film, go see the Incredibles. The underlying message is pretty elitist, but it’s a whole lot of fun and very clever.

  2. “Macedonian (or is it
    “Macedonian (or is it Greek?) heritage”

    in modern border terms, it’s greek; that is a good part of why greece is still so angry about the country macedonia taking that name, though it happened at least a decade ago. [bush’s decision this month to recognize their name got a lot of press in non-north-american markets; even al-jazeera’s english-language site mentioned it.] when i was living in greece, often the first thing people would say to me was, “macedonia is greek!”

    regardless, i personally think a film about alexander’s father might have been a more interesting one. there’s no need to rework the father’s personality into a complex one to help the drama/tension — historical record shows that it really was.

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