Oliver Stone's "Alexander"
November 23, 2004
I simply don't know where to begin. I must admit that the original purpose
of my writing a review of Oliver Stone's movie "Alexander" was
to point out the film's historical inaccuracies. While these errors were
abundant, never did I expect to leave the cinema feeling sorry for the director
I was about to critique. Fortunately for Stone, every aspect of this movie is
so miserably lousy that one can't but forgive him for his historical slip
I will resist the temptation of spelling out the horrific acting that left the
audience yearning for Alexander's death and the pre-mature end of the movie,
or explain why Alexander's mother Olympias (Angela Jolie) spoke in a painfully
fake Greek accent while Alexander himself (Colin Farrell) was saved from such
a ghastly fate, or how Stone's pitiable effort to portray Alexander's
human side through his love affair with Hephaistion (Jared Leto) left the audience
in laughter rather than tears.
I will leave the film-reviewing to the film-reviewers. After all, having suffered
through this movie, I have a gained a deep respect for their courageous profession.
Instead, I will discuss the historical revisionisms that so often leave the blood
of Iranians boiling.
In proud Hollywood tradition, Stone uses blond Scandinavians to depict heroic
ancient Greeks, while modern-day Greeks are left to portray slaves
At first glance, such a casting policy may appear to be of little importance,
but it belies a deeper, racist mindset that is brought to the surface through
portrayal of the Greek view of Persia and the East.
Early in the movie, we see Aristotle teaching Alexander and his
peers about the "racial superiority" of the Macedonians and the inferiority
of the Persians. The "goat herders of Macedonia," despised by the
Greeks of the time as unsophisticated brutes, discuss European ability
to control emotions and needs, and the Oriental inability to resist
becoming slaves to their impulses, in manners that quite correctly remind us
of Nazi philosophy.
The problem is, however, that the ancient Greeks weren't racist. Their obsession
with the East was driven by their fascination for Eastern civilization, philosophy
and science. The Greeks learned from the Egyptians, admired the Babylonians and
studied Zoroaster. They believed that their civilization had come to spring
through interaction with the East, not in isolation from it.
But as early European racism was beginning to fold in the 18th century, as
so aptly described in Martin Bernal's Black
Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (The Fabrication of Ancient
need to posit Europe and the "white race" as origins of human
civilization gave way to a tradition of historical revisionism blindly followed
The problem facing racist Europeans was that for the Nordic race to be superior,
civilization must have begun with them. Thus, either everything began with the
Greek Europeans, or the Egyptians and Babylonians had to be white as well. (This
gave birth to theories which read that originally, the Egyptians were white,
but as their civilization decayed, their skin turned dark. The dark features
of modern day Greeks were explained accordingly...)
The outcome was a combination of denying the Egyptian and Eastern roots of much
of what we know today as Greek knowledge (such as Pythagoras' Theorem - Pythagoras
spent 34 years in Egypt and simply conveyed the Egyptian theorem to his Greek
kin, he never discovered it, nor did he ever claim that he did), as well as denying
the non-Caucasian origin of many of the Orientals.
In essence, in order to come to grip with the discovery of their historical inferiority
at a time when the belief of racial superiority was central to their worldview,
the European colonialists had to deny the realities of history and impose on
the ancient Greeks racist beliefs that ran counter to the very core of the Greek
The racist connotation of the word barbarian in the English language is a case
in point. The Greeks referred to all non-Greek languages as "barbar," simply
meaning incomprehensible. The Berber tribes of Morocco and Algeria, whom the
Greek encountered when settling North Africa, carry this name till today. There
was no racist implication to this word in Greek, but the English version has
lost its innocent meaning and taken on the implication of uncivilized, inferior.
In Alexander, Stone's characters frequently use the term barbarian when
describing Persians, but not with its original Greek meaning, but rather
with its European racist implication. This is particularly offensive since Greeks
had deep respect for the people's of the East, particularly the Persians,
customs Alexander adopted.
Throughout the movie Stone portrays Persians not from the eyes of the ancient
Greeks, but from the perspective of 18th century Europeans. Persian warriors
are swarmed with flies as they await battles, they are oppressed, inferior,
and secretly yearning to be liberated by the personification of Western
The most embarrassing scene in the film is when Alexander, in a moment of bizarre
Rumsfeldian inspiration, reveals that his warmongering and endless appetite for
violence actually is driven by a deep human love for freedom and liberty, and
that his real motive is to make all men free. Little did we
know that Stone's Alexander was the world's first neo-con. Like others
after him, he too "liberated" Babylon.
Stone's deliberate description of Alexander as
a liberator of the East who brings Western values of freedom and liberty to the
oppressed masses of the
Orient, and who understands the needs and wants of Eastern nations better
than they do themselves, may either be an attempt at political correctness reflective
of our neo-colonial times, or an innocent revelation of Stone's ignorance.
Either way, it makes an already lousy movie even worse.
Trita Parsi is a PhD candidate in International Relations at
Johns Hopkins University SAIS, Washington DC, focusing on US-Iran
and Iranian-Israeli relations.