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Miserably lousy
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 ups.

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 and extras.

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 Stone's 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 Greece 1785-1985), the need to posit Europe and the "white race" as origins of human civilization gave way to a tradition of historical revisionism blindly followed by Stone.

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 worldview.

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, whose 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 superiority, Alexander.

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.

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