Robin Lane Fox : Into battle with Alexander

May 8, 2004

Oliver Stone is turning the deeds of Alexander the Great into a sword and sandals epic. Historian Robin Lane Fox agreed to advise on period detail — just as long as he could lead the cavalry

Big movies are notorious for trampling on history; I have just given the year’s biggest movie the chance of trampling on a historian. In November, Oliver Stone’s film about Alexander the Great will burst on the world. I have been the film’s historical adviser and in September last year I galloped on my stallion across the Moroccan desert at the head of Oliver’s cavalry charge. We were filming the battle of Gaugamela, Alexander’s greatest victory over the Persians.

Both advising and acting roles came as a result of my book about Alexander and my lifelong study of him. Charging across the desert gave me a unique opportunity for some first-hand historical research. Can we really understand the horse-bound charges which were essential to Alexander’s famous victories if we have never tried to carry one out? It was also a fantasy and spectacularly good fun.

Alexander’s appeal lies in his youth, his feat of overthrowing an ancient empire and the mystery of aims and ideals which were never finally expressed before his death, aged 32. He was the most powerful man in his world at an age when most of us are still being sat on by our elders. He had a strong sense of his close relationship to the gods, encouraging the idea that he was the begotten son of Zeus.

In my view, he set out to reach the eastern edge of the inhabited world. Like his great tutor, Aristotle, he had seriously underestimated its extent. Tutorials back in Greek Macedonia had persuaded him that the world ran out in northwest India. His men refused to go on, but he returned to visit a supposed southern edge of the world at the mouth of the River Indus and probably to aim for a western edge beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. If he had lived, we would have been spared the ghastliness of the next global power, the Romans. The late André Malraux, that beacon of French educated culture, once told me that he admired young Alexander because at least he had the courage to die of his vices.

Stone is not the first director to be attracted to Alexander, or the first to come to me for help. Back in 1974 I found myself in London, at the Ritz, discussing plans for an Alexander movie with Gregory Peck, dressed in one of those famous white suits. He fancied himself as Alexander’s father, Philip, the man who knew how it had all begun. Twentieth Century Fox were willing to finance it, but sadly the great man died first and the torch passed to Time Life films instead.

In autumn 1977 they embarked on their script for a major Alexander series to be broadcast as “docudrama” round the world with a budget of tens of millions of dollars. In their wisdom, they chose a director, unknown in Europe, who was most famous for a film on the prisons of the American South. Our meeting in Oxford was not a great success. It was not just that the Randolph Hotel served him with green-coloured potato chips; it was that his main interests were the drugs supposedly taken by Alexander and the great man’s meeting with the High Priest of the Jews. In fact, there is not a shred of evidence that Alexander took any recreational drug, except quantities of wine. His meeting with the High Priest in Jerusalem is a pure fiction, invented about 200 years after his death.

After spending several million dollars, Time Life scaled down the project and turned it into a superficially scripted, cut-price alternative.

Three years later, just as a tutorial on early Sparta was coming to an inconclusive close in my Oxford college rooms, Steven Spielberg’s producers rang up to tell me with excitement how Alexander had “dreamt his way from the farm” to conquer the world by the age of 25.

“Steven really gets this youth thing in history,” they told me, “and he wants you to do a treatment of the childhood theme.” I took it on only as an escape route from tutorials, but before I could finish Steven struck first and sent me a telegram: “Have decided to get out of youth. Alexander is off. Steven.”

By 2001 three major projects were said to be in the air, but I was half relieved that none of them had given me a workout again. The huge television company HBO was rumoured to be budgeting up to $200 million for a series on Alexander, directed by Mel Gibson, who would play King Philip himself and preside over a script which was believed to be full of sodomy and filthy language. Instead, he filmed Jesus on the Cross with violence and in Aramaic. The elderly Dino Di Laurentiis was talking expansively about his plans for the big movie, casting the effete Leonardo DiCaprio as Alexander. The press were full of him, with only a few allusions to the parallel plans of the controversial Stone.

Two years later, it is Stone who has won and has closed the lid on an extraordinary 16 weeks’ filming. The mood of movies starts from the top and is either hellish or heavenly. I have talked to all the participants and been one of them, and I have to say that for all of us, Alexander has tended to the heavenly end of the scale. It still has to be cut and who knows what the public taste will be after the release of Wolfgang Petersen’s film about Troy? But I have seen the uncut dailies and I promise you, you are all in for a memorable treat.

When Stone invited me to London two years ago to discuss Alexander with him, perhaps I should have asked for millions of dollars and a film credit for my book. No doubt he would have found somebody else to advise him among the dozens of more prudent historians who also engage with this subject around the world. Before our meeting, however, I had arranged my priorities in case the relationship went well. I decided to ask for two rewards: a place in the first 15 of every major cavalry charge to be filmed in Alexander’s company and the words “and introducing” in front of my name in the credits.

Even Stone was taken aback by this request. He pointed out that “and introducing” would be impossible because there is a professional hierarchy in such matters. My request to ride in the cavalry charge caused him consternation too, until I assured him that I have ridden for 45 years and risked every bone, still unbroken, in my body in the yearly pursuit of English foxes. There would be health and safety problems, he hardly needed to tell me, but, “OK, I’ll tell them to do it, if I possibly can . . . we’ll have a rebel on horseback . . . you’re mad; you’re a cross between Peter Sellers and Ian Fleming.”

Has any cavalryman ever gone off to mock-battle with such a pedigree? “A rebel on horseback…” Only now do I discover the allusion lurking in those words. In the early 1980s Stone made his name with his first great film, Salvador, which ended with an emotional scene of his left-wing guerrilla heroes galloping on horseback against an array of repressive American tanks. It was too much for some of the critics, but now he had his chance to redress the political balance. He could send an Old Etonian on horseback through the dust clouds in pursuit of a mirage of antiquity’s greatest king.

We embarked on what would become a thrice-weekly quiz game late at night. Hollywood and Oxford University are in different time zones, and so after his lunch Stone would ring me in the evening in the Cotswolds and bombard me with questions, not many of which I could answer.

Did Alexander’s men ever eat melons? What did Aristotle really think about the ancient myths? What did the main god of Babylon look like? Alexander’s Macedonia was Greek, but what would his Greek language sound like to other educated ears further south in Athens? Should his star, Colin Farrell, have blond highlights in his hair? Alexander had a sexual nature, but as the film, correctly, was not going to turn him in to a “gay” from a counter-culture, how should his passionate life be handled? My colleagues told me that for historians, Stone was supposed to be like Satan, perhaps because they had seen his film of Nixon and I had not. Like the poet John Milton, I have to say I quickly became very fond of Satan. Anyway, the claim that Stone has no historical sense is completely untrue.

I was stretched, as he was, by constant consultations which were concerned to do as much justice as possible to the little evidence which we have.

Then out in Morocco, in the heat of mid-September, it was time to begin my cavalry career. I won’t give away too much of the BBC Four documentary that recorded the events on set, but I can reveal that my military trainer was the fabled Captain Dale Dye, best known for teaching the two Natural Born Killers Micky and Mallory in Stone’s notorious film. On set, the Captain wears a T-shirt, stating “Pain is weakness leaving the body”. It is a message guaranteed to terrorise a natural-born shirker from Oxford. But it was I, not he, who got on the horse and led the cavalry. He was photographed only on a camel at a slow walk.

Through clouds of dust, out there in the desert, I solved old scholarly questions: whether Alexander’s cavalrymen had shields (they did not), whether they could lance an unprotected enemy through the chest (I experimented and proved it with the willing Ibrahim) and whether they could pull out a lance from a body after death (they could, if they lanced a man in the shoulder, as I lanced a major star who spoke French).

But what the footage shows is only the beginning of an orgy of charging which later took me to Thailand and pitted me with bare legs against Stone’s elephants. In a dust cloud, horses are as stressed as men; it is also impossible for men ten paces behind a leader to see him when he signals a turn to left or right. The key people are the men immediately in front and on either side. Just like the little band of soldiers in Stone’s own masterpiece, Platoon, set in Vietnam.

I have to say that I would have died for Colin Farrell by the end, a loyalty which was widely shared. In Bangkok, in a darkened hotel room, we sat watching uncut dailies of the final emotional scenes of Stone’s film-to-be; the company were all male and muscular, but I could not stop myself from sobbing in the closing moments. Fortunately, another man could be seen in combat trousers sitting on the floor and doing the same and when the lights came on I saw that it was Farrell, equally transported by the evocation of the great Alexander whom he had had to bring to life.

Since then I have been offered a cavalry part in the proposed film of Hannibal. Naturally, I have refused, in disgust. Once you have charged for Alexander, how could you possibly charge for a one-eyed Carthaginian bandit who wandered for seven years around Italy before going to bed with any Italian woman at all — and then she was a tart?

I am happy to continue in my desert mirage of fantasy, but to return to reality I am forcing myself to re-read The Aeneid in Latin, reflecting that if Alexander had lived we would have been spared its existence.

Charging for Alexander, BBC Four, Tuesday, 8.30pm

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