Oliver Stone release Alexander in 2004. It had been more than 10 years since his string of box office hits and around the same length of time (depending on what you count as “his film” and how you feel about Nixon) since he collected awards from his filmmaking. Nevertheless, at that time, I was pretty impressed with Stone’s oeuvre and felt sure that he could make this a good, if not great, movie.
Then I watched it.
The first impressions this one left on critics, professional and amateur, were a bit rough. Alexander’s Northern-European skin and shiny-blonde hair upset many, although one could argue that it is a reasonable portrayal based upon how he’s been described and represented through the ages. Then there is Colin Ferrell’s accent. I recall trying to defend the Irish brogue. Given that Greeks are nearly always portrayed speaking British-accented English, couldn’t it be a deliberate point to have Macedonia’s suns speaking with a slightly-foreign accent? Of course, I’ve also read it all came about based upon Farrell’s inability to completely drop his native accent and deciding it would just be easier to have his generals sound like him.
Then there is the bisexuality. Much was made in the run-up to the release of this picture of Stone’s willingness to openly depict Alexander’s relations with his General, Hephaestion. Many touted this as enlightened and a challenge to the backwards morals of the film-going public. A group of Greek lawyers, on the other hand, threatened to sue for deliberately misrepresenting history. After the film was released, it again came under fire, this time from gay-activist groups, who thought Stone had failed to live up to his promise. Although there is much hinting and Jared Leto does wear a lot of eye-liner in the movie, no actual man-to-man-sex-stuff was shown on film (in the theatrical release, that is). In contrast, Alexander was shown in a steamy sex scene with his wife, Roxana (Rosario Dawson). Stone, meanwhile, blamed prudish morality for torpedoing his film.
But that wasn’t what did the film in for me. It was long, it was a little weird, and it was difficult to follow. I wanted to like it (and had no opinion on the gay thing) but I just couldn’t.
As the years went by, Stone continued to return to Alexander to try to salvage it. Preparing a “Director’s Cut” for the DVD release, he cut 25 minutes from the theatrical version and then added 17 additional minutes from the cutting-room floor. Two years later, he created a “Final Cut” where he added back the 25 minutes taken from the “Director’s Cut” and then an additional 40 minutes of previous-edited-out footage, creating a mind-boggling 214 minute version (don’t try to do the math, there were some other things cut out as well). I think I read about this stuff going on at the time but, for me, Alexander was bad enough when it pushed 3 hours, I really couldn’t see dragging it out to almost 4.
Can’t help myself
Enter, as it does, Netflix and its mighty axe.
I actually narrowly-missed watching this one earlier in the year when it was pulled before. As it happened, I had to get my fix watching a German-language, History-channel style docu-drama. And while, in that earlier piece, I called the removed Alexander version a “Director’s Cut,” it was really Alexander (The Ultimate Cut). Oddly enough, this “Ultimate” version made its way back onto Netflix streaming later in the year only to be removed again as the calendar flipped to 2019. For all the reasons I mentioned back then, I decided I better hunker down at make my way through this one, the 3-and-half hour version that Stone put together in 2014, ten years after the original. He swears this will be it.
Despite my meager expectations, this version really is better. This won’t make the lists of great American cinema masterpieces but this version of the movie really was worth watching. There are moments where Stone’s genius shines through. Then there are others where it does not, such as the decision to dub in lion noises when for Alexander’s cheering army. Or that red filter. Ugh.
One decision Stone made for his extended versions was to reorder the film. Rather than being simply chronological (not including the opening, 40-years-later, narration, which begins all versions), the movie is now ordered more thematically. The narrative begins with Alexander’s triumph at Guagamela, arguably the high-water-mark of his career for him personally. We see him about to take on the impossible, facing Darius III’s numerical superiority on the ground of Darius’ chosing. He delivers a speech which rivals Braveheart‘s cinematically and probably is more effective than the former in establishing Alexander’s character. Stone shows us, in a few opening minutes of film, some of what made Alexander “the Great.” Charisma, military genius, and audacity are all combined in several-minutes and a few dozen lines.
In the film, we are being told about Alexander by Ptolemy who attempts to explain to us what made him one of the greatest of men. Within this story-telling format, a new theme becomes obvious*. Stone was criticized for showing a historically-inaccurate version of Alexander. But what is the historical truth? We hear Stone’s Ptolemy’s truth, but that’s just one version, and not necessarily even Ptolemy’s version. The end-titles remind us that Ptolemy’s memoirs were destroyed in the fire that burned the Library of Alexandria, so we can’t really know what was written there. Furthermore, this isn’t necessarily even Stone’s Ptolemy’s version. At one point, Ptolemy orders his scribe to just throw away what he’d said about Alexander and then dictates a different version.
So was Alexander gay? Stone’s Ptolemy says so. Plutarch does not. Whom do we believe?
Those Crazy Nights I Do Remember in my Youth
Watching the Battle of Gaugamela inspired me to get back out my copy of Great Battles of Alexander. Technically, it’s not “my copy” that I played from the CD back in the day. I have repurchased this series from GOG recently.
Like Alexander (The Ultimate Cut), Great Battles of Alexander is even better than I remember. Also, like the film, part of the reason for this is that the game has been changed. Last time I played it, I had the original store-bought CD and was playing on an operating system years beyond that which it was designed for. Some of the edges are rough. I’m now playing the GOG version, which which works very well on the modern machine.
The graphics are obviously from another era. Great Battles of Alexander was released in 1997, which means Windows 95. Even still, these graphics have a certain beauty to their simplicity. As suggested in a review, the art is stylized to resemble the mosaics of antiquity. An occasional confusion about unit facing aside, they are not only attractive but functional.
There are two particular graphical details I really like. First, as shown in the above screenshot, the riderless horses that run from a battle when a mounted unit takes casualties. There is actually an even better animation, which I didn’t manage to capture, where a fleeing chariot drags a dead body behind it. It all combines to allow the rather simple graphics to depict an ongoing battle in a visually-engaging way. A close eye can make out the ebb and flow of the battle and maybe guess, a few seconds ahead of the results dialog, the outcome of a close battle. The second detail is how units that are ordered to advance in a straight line along a hex spine actually do advance in a straight line, rather than wiggling up the staggered hexes.
The modelling of the battles is also simple, yet effective. The game is a computer version of the 1991 GMT board game of the same name (released in 1995 as a Deluxe Version and since then going through various reprints) from creators Mark Herman and Richard Berg**. After Alexander, the series branched out into other Ancient Warfare periods to encompass 15 different games (plus expansions) in the series. Even by the time the computer version was released, five games into the series, the game already had the feel of a boardgaming classic***.
In my mind, the system had two special features. The first is that turns are executed through the activation of leaders. The order is random (although driven by leader quality) so in a given turn, you don’t know which player, or which units of which player, will get to move first. The second innovation was to make phalanx units occupy two hexes. This added a certain physicality to represent the size and bulk of the Macedonian phalanx. I can’t say whether it actual “simulates” the battlefield qualities of the unit better, but it has a visceral impact while playing.
The conversion to a computer game exemplifies a concept I’ve discussed before, where conversion to digital format simplifies what once seemed like a complex game. The board version of Great Battles of Alexander is a meaty game. It’s a big board with lots of units and a rather extensive set or rules to cover a plethora of historical details, although I should point out that newer versions of the game have been released with a simplified ruleset. Upon converting to the computer, the details were generally kept in place but, being automated and managed by the computer, they get abstracted away from the player.
As one example, while a diligent player can still track the combat effectiveness of each unit and count cohesion hits, it is also possible just to get a “feel” for the strength of each unit by looking at its graphic. The units’ graphics tend to be representative of their combat strength and those graphics deteriorate as the cohesion of the unit deteriorates. The actual numerical values can be ignored in favor of just interpreting the visuals.
This, and other simplifications for the player, means that it is possible to whip through the computer version in short order. Short especially when compared to the major investment of setting up and playing the same scenario on the board. The computer manual, in fact, warns that the Gaugamela scenario might take more than one gaming session, as it is bigger than the others.
This also implies, if you plan to play Great Battles of Alexander fast and (let’s say) superficially, you need to learn all the subtle differences between units types and how they interact. Pushing cardboard, you’d need to understand all the details just so you could play. On the computer, though, you just let the game engine guide you. For example, I’ve learned through playing that the elephants in Darius’ army are pretty resistant to frontal assaults but can be quickly dispersed through missile attacks. I could have also figured that out by studying the mechanics of the game, but I didn’t bother.
My point in all this, is that a computerized version of this game can either make the game much more casual or be treated as a digital way to play the board game. There are advantages as disadvantages to each. The downside of learning, more or less, through experience is that your concept of the game won’t be comprehensive. There are certain to be rules that you aren’t considering or, even, are misunderstanding. That means that your experience of the game might be lacking. On the other hand, the player that does master all the game’s rules will probably find that the programmed opponent doesn’t present much of a challenge.
Now, I personally didn’t get this game to be played as a board game simulator. My interest is in the battles and being able to very quickly get myself into them. The game serves this purpose adequately. However, this does remind me of the one downside to playing the Battle of Guagamela in this game. It is something that has always bothered me, even when I played Great Battles of Alexander way back when.
The key to Alexander’s victory in this battle was the moment when he perceived, and was able to exploit, a gap in the Persian lines. Despite being significantly outnumbered by the mounted enemy on the Macedonian right flank, Alexander disengaged his elite Companion cavalry and lead a charge against the Persian center where Darius’ was directing the battle surrounded by his royal guard. Darius fled the field and the morale of his army went with him. In all my play-throughs of the Gaugamela battle, the Persians have never given me that opening.
Even without that tactic, the battle is winnable as Alexander. Gut feel is the sides are pretty well balanced although I haven’t really tried to test that theory. It’s not really about winning so much as to question how well one can “re-live” a famous battle when the key aspect of that battle won’t make it into play? But is there an alternative? Would any player controlling the Persians, especially one who knows something about the battle, actually leave themselves open to a decisive, killer move? Could you respect an AI that did the same?
My other frustration with Great Battles of Alexander was the limits built into it. I seem to recall that the CD version I had contained a scenario editor. As far as I can tell, that is not part of the GOG package. In theory, the editor opened the game to a wide range of ancients tactical combat, historical and hypothetical. In practice, I never played anything outside of the campaigns and don’t recall ever coming across too much in the way of user-made libraries. We certainly weren’t headed down, for example. the route that Field of Glory took, presenting both user-made historical options as well as quickly-generated competitive-play scenarios. After once or twice through the campaign, I felt like I’d got all I can out of this title.
Now, 15+ years later, this package is once again fresh to me and, with GOG having solved the compatibility issues****, it is worth another look. I think I’m going to find newer options out there that do what I want done here, and better. Stay tuned.
*Well, sort of obvious. I admit I read this elsewhere rather than having picked it up by simply watching the movie.
**It is only as I am typing this that I realized that Richard Berg and Richard Borg are, in fact, two different game designers. Richard Borg is the developer of the Command and Colors series, another ancients tactical gaming system, subsequent to Great Battles of History. I’d never thought about it too specifically, but part of me always considered these two games to be connected. I’ve also confused both games with the tactical game Ancients (1986) at times. It is probably obvious at this point, but I own none of these board games.
***Arguably the real “classic” which Great Battles of Alexander expanded upon was Avalon Hill’s Alexander the Great, which I also never played. Alexander the Great was designed by none other than Gary Gygax in his pre-Dungeons and Dragons days.
****There are some complaints in the GOG reviews for this game about compatibility. I am running this on Windows 7, so I may be avoiding some of the problems that users of newer operating systems are having, even with the GOG package.