Achilles, Alexander, Jason, Odysseus – the fabulous scrapping, rutting warriors of the Ancient World fulfil every boy’s own fantasy. Now, says Mark Simpson, Oliver Stone’s Alexander and the recent crop of ‘epics’ confirms that Hollywood has abolished heroes – past and present.
(Originally appeared Independent on Sunday, 19 December 2004)
For some, the entry “Double Classics” in their school timetable might have been an ominous omen. For me and my classmates however it meant 80 minutes of bliss listening to a wonderful old gent called Mr Field recount, and frequently re-enact with his walking-stick, fantastic stories of male derring-do from the Ancient World. Spellbound and wide-eyed we listened to the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, Achilles and Odysseus. So great was the pull of the past in the mouth of Mr Field that hardly anyone fidgeted or played with their chunky 1970s LED digital watches.
Of all the epic tales recounted it was that of Alexander the Great that most gripped my pubescent imagination. The story of a scrappy, muscular little blond boy from the provincial Greek state of Macedonia who took on the world and won, carving out an unprecedented empire that stretched from the Adriatic to India. The story of a boy who never quite grew up; who quite probably assassinated his father; who certainly surpassed his extraordinary achievements, establishing himself as the greatest cavalry captain who ever lived, whose tactics are still studied today. A boy who never really cared for any woman except his terrifying mother Olympias (so terrifying that once he left home, Alexander never returned); whose great and constant loves were Bucephalus, his legendary war-horse, and Hephaestion, his legendary comrade in beefy arms. What boy wouldn’t love Alexander? What boy wouldn’t want to be Alexander?
The story of Alexander the Great (356BC -323BC) is the best boy’s own story ever told -the Trojan Wars may never have happened: hence the posters for Oliver Stone’s new movie Alexander announce: “The Greatest Legend Of All Was Real”. Alexander’s is a tale of passion, adventure, really big fisticuffs, masculine camaraderie, and running away from girls. And also, drunkenness, debauchery, mass murder and madness. His 12-year tour of the known (and unknown) world, and his long list of battle honours – Thebes, Heliocarnassus, Issus, Gaugamela, Tyre, Hydaspes, to name but a few – represent dates on the greatest rock ‘n’ roll tour in history.
Alexander is the timeless, ageless hero of boyish psychosis – a romantic disease which affects all men, though admittedly some more than others (well, I was at boarding school). Boys brim with enough energy to change the world, or destroy it – it makes no difference to them. This dangerous, sexy, passionate indifference is the basis of the mixture of fear and envy that causes adults generally to treat them so badly.
Alexander’s ambition was literally global, shaping the Ancient World; his Eastern crusades ended the ancient dynasties of Persia and Egypt. Alexander effectively invented the Western idea of Empire, globalisation and stamped his face on our idea of fame and success. He wanted nothing less than the whole world to be Alexander. For a while he came shockingly close to achieving just that, boldly going where no man had gone before (another boyhood hero of mine, William Shatner, played Alexander in a TV series before landing the role of Captain James Tiberius Kirk – which he played of course, in his wonderfully limited way as Alexander again). In part, his success was due to the way he succeeded in portraying his own ambition and self-interest as being for the benefit of Macedonia, pan-Hellenism or humanity itself.
In this Alexander could be seen as the ancient template for a neo-con America; he even invaded and conquered what is today Iraq and Afghanistan – as well as Iran. But like the neo-cons he could conquer but he couldn’t or wouldn’t administrate: rebellions broke out frequently and his Empire dissolved immediately after his death; Alexander, like contemporary audiences, had a short attention span. Certainly Stone’s epic new biopic could be subtitled: “Operation Persian Freedom”: his Alexander mouths platitudes about liberating Asia; the turbaned, bearded King Darius looks oddly like Bin Laden and, after his decisive defeat at Gaugamela, he is hunted down by Alexander in the mountains.
Obviously this, in addition to the rediscovered fashionability of sword-and-sandal epics (Gladiator, Troy, King Arthur, The Last Samurai), is why Hollywood has rediscovered this chippy little man and remembered his story as the ultimate road move, the classic story of boundless boyish all-American ambition, lighting out for the territory. In addition to Oliver Stone’s effort, Baz Luhrmann is rumoured to be developing his own version, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role. Even The World’s Only True Catholic, Mel Gibson, is planning to make a 10 episode HBO TV series about this pagan arse-bandit who whipped the world’s butt. Suddenly, Alexander really does appear to be conquering the world again.
There is another reason why the epics are back though: they offer reassuring, if utterly fraudulent, nostrums about masculinity in an uncertain, metrosexual world. The Ancient World was a time when men were men (and boys were nervous). In fact, warrior chic has been the fashion statement of 2004. This is the same year, after all, that a US presidential election was fought largely on the basis of who would make the best warrior president – and won largely on the grounds of who saluted best on camera and looked most fetching in 1960s uniform.
And likewise, what Hollywood is really offering us in these modern epics is not hairy retrosexuality but just more metrosexual pleasures, this time in a rather gorgeous, ancient setting; models playing at being rough boys – metrowarriors. In The Last Samurai, the Tom finally grows facial hair, and renounces the unmanly military machinery of modernity for the harsh-but-tender camaraderie of Samurai life – but only to make him more glamorous; Mr Cruise’s Western otherness actually makes him the female lead of the movie. In Troy pretty boys Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom are the real beauty pageant entrants and Diane Kruger (Helen) – and the audience – sit in judgement. The fields of Ilium become not a backdrop for the glorious feats of ancient warriors, but an expensive pretext for ogling Brad Pitt’s body, and also a half-hearted attempt to make it look practical, purposeful: when in fact his flawless, untested physique is the very definition of look-don’t-touch. In Alexander Irish boy-band actor Colin Farrell, with bottle-blond hair and eyeliner, stands in for charisma and passion.
The main reason for the return to the epics is this: Hollywood is emasculating the past. It isn’t raiding it, but paving it over. Telling us there never were any heroes. What other explanation could there be for foisting Pitt as Achilles and Farrell as Alexander on us in the space of a year? These stars who have risen without a trace are stars because of their bland insubstantiality not despite it. We live in a crowded world which is offended by talent, terrified by genius. The Irish pipsqueak Colin Farrell was destined to become King of the Knowing World, aka Hollywood, because he is so inoffensive. He’s the anti-Alexander. Like Robbie Williams doing an album of Frank Sinatra songs, Farrell as Alexander, or Pitt as Achilles, serves to reassure a generation that might have some dim, uneasy ancestral memory of a time before the mediatisation of everything – relax! – there were no great men and there was no era of greatness. There are just different styles, man. Masculinity is a game of dressy-uppy. Like the CGI armies of modern epics, and the digital wars of Pentagon planners, contemporary masculinity is simulation and number-crunching technology. Shock and Awe without the draft.
Hence Farrell’s Alexander isn’t haunted, or driven, paranoid, or threatening, terrifying or charismatic: his eyes are just too close together. When wearing his giant war helmet in the battle scenes his beady little eyes look blinking out like Marvin the Martian. He is utterly lost in Stone’s movie. Farrell’s face is as blank and thoughtless as the world that has made him a “star”. It’s difficult to believe that anyone would follow him to the corner shop let alone the edge of the world.
Just as I and countless other generations of boys before me worshipped Alexander, Alexander hero-worshipped Achilles. It is said he kept two items under his pillow at all times: a dagger and a copy of the Iliad. He yearned to emulate flame-capped Achilles’ achievements; in fact he far surpassed them (Farrell, by contrast, turns in a performance below even that of Pitt’s Achilles). He was terrified that his father would leave nothing left for him to achieve, and is one of the reasons why he is suspected of a hand in his assassination. Alexander wanted fame – but he wanted it for his worldly achievements not his profile. There was another reason why Alexander was fascinated by Achilles: he was interested in the story of his warrior-lover Patroclus (Homer doesn’t actually say they were lovers, but by the time of Alexander they were widely regarded as such). Patroclus was a year older than Achilles, just as Hephaestion was a year older than Alexander; Alexander must have worried that the world might think him Hephaestion’s boy.
At Ilium, Alexander and Hephaestion laid wreaths on Achilles’ tomb, stripped naked, anointed themselves with oil and ran races around the grave. Strangely, this scene didn’t make Oliver Stone’s movie. We do however hear Aristotle lecture the young Alexander on how Achilles and Patroclus were lovers and how such a friendship between men “produces virtue” and is “the basis of the city state”. But this dry history lesson on Greek patriarchy isn’t quite what the teasing tagline “Alexander was conquered only once: by Hephaestion’s thighs” might lead you to expect. In fact, we never really see Hephaestion’s thighs let alone Alexander between them. Stone hints heavily they were lovers, and uses Alexander’s life-long devotion to Hephaestion – Alexander was besides himself with grief when Hephaestion died and lay on his corpse for a day and a night – to make him more sympathetic, but can’t quite bring himself to show sex, kissing or even very much affection. By contrast, the on-screen romance between Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Ringpiece is positively pornographic.
There is only one sex scene in the film – but it is a wedding-night tryst with Roxanna, a wife that Alexander took after invading Persia (but didn’t get around to impregnating until years later, and only after Hephaestion’s demise). Alexander, by the way, was not “bisexual” in the way that publicity for the movie has carefully suggested. Stone’s Alexander is bisexual in the way that Elton John was “bisexual” in the Seventies: Stone is worried about losing his mainstream, American audience and wants to give them at least half of Alexander to identify with/desire. Of course, terms such as “heterosexual”, “homosexual” and especially “bisexual”, with its sixties ‘free love’ associations, are anachronistic and misleading in an Ancient context where the gender of a male’s partner was of much less importance than the public observance of certain rules of engagement based on age and rank (adult male citizens, for instance, were officially forbidden sexual relations with one another but encouraged to have them with unbearded teenaged youths).
Nevertheless, according to many accounts Alexander’s preference was for the same sex; and there is evidence that in regard to Hephaestion at least he disregarded the ban on sexual relations between adult males.
His mother and father were so frantically worried about the teenage Alexander’s lack of interest in ladies and what this augured for the royal line that they hired a beautiful and famously talented courtesan. The fact that his mother is recorded as pleading with him repeatedly to sleep with the courtesan suggests that this approach wasn’t very successful (and a mother’s pleading, let alone Olympias’, was likely to have been slightly counterproductive). He was to marry, more than once, but mostly for political reasons, or to satisfy demands for an heir. For most of Alexander’s life, boys were for pleasure; Hephaestion was for love; women were for heirs and alliances – and effeminates like Paris. Though, perhaps to confound our modern interpretations, or at least mine, there is evidence he took a mistress towards the end of his life.
Alexander disdained a chance to inspect Paris’ famous lyre, dismissing it as having been used for “adulterous ditties such as captivate and bewitch the hearts of women.” But, he added, “I would gladly see that of Achilles, which he used to sing the glorious deeds of brave men.” This early example of the public school mentality seems to us now like a kind of queeny misogyny, and perhaps it was, but the fearsome queeniness of hyper-masculinity, a queeniness that literally subjected the world (arguably not once, but three times: under Alexander, under the Romans and under the Brits). Alexander’s father Philip may have invented the modern state with his innovation of a standing army, but it was his Empire homo son who proved to be his most potent martial innovation of all.
According to some, possibly mischievous accounts, Macedonia – even by Greek standards – sounds like a giant, jumping, open all hours Ancient leather bar. In fact, the Greeks were scandalised by the “barbaric” and “beastly” behaviour of the Macedonians. Sniffy Greek sources complain that the members of Philip’s court were selected for their prowess at drinking, gambling, or sexual debauchery. “Some of them used to shave their bodies and make them smooth although they were men, and others actually practised lewdness with each other although bearded… Nearly every man in the Greek or barbarian world of a lecherous, loathsome, or ruffianly character flocked to Macedonia.” Actually, Macedonia was the kind of place that most leather queens would be terrified by.
Needless to say, it scares the bejesus out of Hollywood. In Stone’s film (financed mostly by German money), we get occasional, almost subliminal flashes of the real, raucous nature of Macedonian masculinity, with warriors and their boys glimpsed in the background almost necking each other. But despite these hints, the pre-Christian, barracks erotics of Macedonia ultimately defeats Stone precisely because it is too masculine, too pagan. Stone is a liberal Judeo-Christian pussy. Stone the macho director of films about macho men in which women are very thin on the ground wimps out in Alexander. Macedonian masculinity is just too… masculine. But then, this is the contradiction of all these metrowarrior epics: the Ancient World is just too rough and real and beastly and male – and, well, Ancient – for contemporary America.
So the warrior sodomy of Alexander is turned into something modern and harmless, something simulated: Queer Eye for the Macedonian Guy, as one critic dubbed it. In addition to the creepily spayed relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion, which is presented as a kind of contemporary gay marriage (sexless, boring, respectable), there’s a strong smell of Sixties unisex androgyny, like rancid jossticks: Stone has Hephaestion portrayed by the spoilt-girlish Jared Leto, complete with hippy-chick wig, plastered in eyeliner applied by Dusty Springfield. The masculine side of male love is as taboo today as the effeminate side is popular.
There is a strange kind of poetic irony here: after all, in JFK Stone told us that his virile Irish Catholic hero Kennedy was punked by the hissing conspiracies of New Orleans fags. Here Alexander and its director are punked by Stone’s own fear of masculine homosexuality.
But there is, admittedly, a lot to be afraid of. An entire season of Jerry Springer couldn’t come close to one evening’s male jealousies, passions and intrigues in Macedonia. Although Stone makes much of Philip’s assassination he draws a veil over the details. The assassin, one of his bodyguards, was a spurned lover called Pausanias. Noted for his youthful beauty, he had been usurped in the royal bedchamber by another attractive young soldier. Pausanias denounced Philip’s new lover as a male tart and “whore”. The boy then proved his virility and virtue by saving Philip’s life in battle, at the cost of his own. His brother and friends then, as you do, drugged Pausanias and gang raped him before handing him on to their grooms and muleteers who also raped him and then gave him a good beating as thanks. For political reasons Philip refused to punish the wrongdoers and restore Pausanias’s honour. Olympias and Alexander probably then used Pausanias’ fury as an instrument for removing daddy and gaining power. Alexander became king and Emperor of the World because his father was murdered by a neglected male lover. Warrior sodomy is a terrifying, fearsome-fearless thing – don’t mess!
It’s tempting to see this current obsession with the Ancient World as a function of our search for new pagan lights in a chaotic, darkened, post-Christian, post-ideological world in which Posh and Becks have replaced the Holy Family. Tempting, but probably mistaken. None of these films have any gods – except the pathetically democratic, earthbound ones: the celebs that star in them. Real worship, whether of heroes or gods is definitely not on offer. It’s just too messy and dangerous for our safe, sterile, simulated modern lives. Boys today don’t worship or want to be Alexander or Achilles, who both regarded themselves as sons of gods. They want to be Colin or Brad. Or their stylist. Although it is difficult for someone like me to accept, maybe this isn’t all bad. After all, as we’ve seen in present-day Mesopotamia, there really isn’t much room in the world for Empire building these days.
Besides, we’re all too busy playing with our digital watches to care about warrior virtues.
Copyright Mark Simpson 2008