Oliver Stones highly-anticipated film Alexander is based on
the true story of one of historys most luminous and influential
leaders, Alexander the Great a man who had conquered 90%
of the known world by the age of 25. Alexander led his virtually
invincible Greek and Macedonian armies through 22,000 miles of sieges
and conquests in just eight years, and by the time of his death
at the age of 32 had forged an empire unlike any the world had ever
seen, or has seen since. The film chronicles Alexanders path
to becoming a living legend, as he relentlessly pushed his army
across the sands, mountains and jungles of exotic and mysterious
foreign lands, conquering every enemy who dared oppose him. Incredibly,
and possibly unique in the annals of military history, Alexander
was never defeated in battle.
Alexander was perhaps the greatest warrior of all time,
director/screenwriter Oliver Stone. As a film student, I had
frustrated fantasies of going back in time with documentary cameras
and a small crew to actually film Alexanders military campaigns.
So, 32 years after film school, I finally had my one chance to go
back and recreate the period as best I could.
In order to achieve the extreme level of realism that Stone was
looking for, Captain Dale Dye, USMC (Ret.), Stones longtime
collaborator and perhaps the film industrys foremost military
expert, was brought in to train star Colin Farrell and the rest
of the key performers who portray Alexanders comrades in preparation
for the film. (In recent years, military boot camp for
actors preparing to portray soldiers has become commonplace, but
it was an unprecedented undertaking when Captain Dye invented it
for Stones Platoon nearly 20 years ago.) During a
long, hard month of work, the cast gained expertise in such archaic
specialties as sword fighting, wielding shields, bows and arrows,
slings, javelins and sarissas (fearsome lances that measured up
to 18 feet long), as well as mastering cavalry horsemanship, standard
bearing and military formations.
I dont train actors, states Captain Dye unequivocally.
I train people who become soldiers, and hopefully they have
some talent as actors. These kids came in and the first thing they
did was learn that there is something more important than themselves.
They learned to live with other gents who were in a military unit
and support the mission of that unit. My job was to turn them into
credible Macedonian soldiers, with an emphasis on the word soldier.
They had to understand that concept before they could understand
Captain Dye worked us all day, recounts Farrell, who
began his training in the United States and Spain six weeks before
the start of the films official boot camp. Then
every night we would stand down and he would talk to us about Alexanders
tactics and strategies, the history of various battles, and explain
the mind of the warrior. We definitely got stronger physically,
and it got us ready, because the first scene we shot was the battle
which was tough going on everyone.
One of the most significant challenges facing the actors was their
varying degrees of experience on horseback. Macedonian cavalry rode
bareback, without the benefit of saddle or stirrups, which even
for experienced riders is an exceedingly difficult skill to master.
Horse trainer Ricardo Cruz Moral and his team first trained the
actors on saddles before moving them to bareback. Finally, he taught
the cast how to employ weaponry while riding, for battle sequences
in which they had to wield 14-foot-long sarissas while maintaining
their positions in historically accurate formations, often in the
midst of dust storms that seriously restricted their
line of vision.
Key to the training of actors, stuntmen, extras and soldiers was
the re-creation and execution of the phalanx, the strategic
military formation developed by King Philip and later perfected
by his son Alexander. A phalanx consists of 256 men formed 16 by
16 squared, carrying 18-foot-long sarissas, assembled into a nearly
impenetrable formation. (The phalanxs modern-day equivalent
would be a tank.) Philips use of the indomitable phalanx and
concept of maintaining a standing army of paid soldiers ensured
that when Alexander rose to power, he had the tools in place to
conquer the world.
Says Dye, The tactics of the phalanx were so good that it
was the primary infantry formation employed on the battlefield for
150 years. The only ones who finally beat it were the Romans legions.
It was a very strong, rigid yet flexible tactical element on the
ancient battlefield. So this is a tactic that really provided a
field commander like Alexander with an unassailable, unstoppable
The training camp proved to be an historical laboratory of sorts.
By virtue of experience and practical implementation, Dye, his staff
and the filmmakers discovered the truth behind accounts of how wars
were fought in Alexanders time. This intense period of training
and preparation then allowed Stone to stage onscreen battles that
are as true as possible to historical and military reality. We
were learning so we could teach, essentially, says Dye. Oliver
and I worked with the classical scholars, and once we had heard
their opinion, we were able to actually
put that knowledge into practice on the field and see what worked.
In addition to realistically depicting the bearing and deportment
of soldiers who lived thousands of years before their own time,
the films actors had to be readied to enact skirmishes that
occur along the path of Alexanders monumental campaign, and
two of his most monumental and defining battles: the Battle of Gaugamela,
in which he led 47,000 of his Macedonian soldiers to soundly defeat
250,000 Persian warriors; and a forest battle fought
against Indian forces who employed battle elephants, the likes of
which no Macedonian had ever laid eyes on.
A vast stretch of the Moroccan desert, eight miles in circumference,
was selected as the site of the epic Battle of Gaugamela. The films
base camp on the Gaugamela location was massive, and included an
actual military encampment for the Royal Moroccan Army, which had
accommodatingly contributed hundreds of personnel (many of them
cavalry) with the full cooperation of His Majesty King Mohammed
Swirling dust, the sounds of men in desperate hand-to-hand combat,
and the thunder of pounding hooves permeated the filming of the
Battle of Gaugamela, in which Alexander achieved the seemingly impossible,
defeating the 250,000-strong Persian army led by King Darius III
with only 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry. His astonishing victory
opened up the east to the Macedonians and crystallizing Alexanders
status as a living legend.
Oliver wanted realism, stresses stunt coordinator Gary
Powell. He didnt want exaggerated fight scenes, like
you see in swashbucklers. If youre going for realism, most
individual fights dont last that long, especially when youve
got the weapons that were using. Its fast and rough,
and for Gaugamela, we had more than a thousand people packed in
very tight using practical weapons.
The second pivotal battle to be filmed was the fierce forest conflict
that takes place while Alexander and company are traveling through
India and clash with the troops of a powerful Indian leader at the
river Jhelum. The soldiers face dramatic weather, a landscape inhospitable
to their military formations, and most incredibly, elephants
the Macedonians had never encountered anything akin to the giant
beasts that the Indian soldiers employed in combat.
Production traveled to Thailand for this leg of filming, and as
in Morocco, the Thai government generously contributed real soldiers
to portray ancient warriors. It was a very interesting cross-cultural
exercise, muses Captain Dye. I had just given up an
entire Moroccan army, and immediately picked up an entire Thai army.
They were great, and very, very quick to learn, despite the fact
that we were teaching them tactics and weaponry that are 2,300 years
old. We were able to quickly form them into phalanxes and teach
them how to break apart and regroup, which was necessary when navigating
the thick foliage of the forest, unlike on the open desert battleground
In the thickly forested landscape, Dye was faced with some of the
same practical challenges that would have confronted Alexander.
The problem that Alexander encountered in India, and in any
restricted or jungle terrain, was that the phalanx was forced to
break up, separate and lose its cohesiveness and unity in order
to navigate around natural obstacles and trees. When Alexander used
a phalanx on flat, maneuverable ground, as he did at Gaugamela and
in several other battles, it had all the strength in the world.
But when a terrain breaks up its unity, then the phalanx is in jeopardy,
which is what we depict in the forest battle.
Miraculously, throughout the two-and-a-half-week-long filming of
the forest battle, no injuries were caused by the elephants, nor
were any animals harmed. They were amazing, enthuses
Stone of his pachyderm thespians. It really seemed as if they
were enjoying themselves, and their discipline was extraordinary.
Needless to say, the mayhem inflicted upon the elephants in the
course of battle was entirely fabricated by the special and visual
departments, along with Steve Painters busy prosthetics division,
which was responsible throughout filming for providing extraordinarily
realistic depictions of the cruel physical effects of war on humans
and animals alike.
While none of the animals were hurt, the ferocity of the forest
battle, however carefully planned and staged, resulted in a fair
share of bruises among the actors and stunt players, including Colin
Farrell. At some points in the battle, it was nearly impossible
to distinguish Farrells real blood from his characters
stage blood. Joining Farrell on the injured list were a few of his
co-stars, none of whom sat out the battle on the sidelines. Like
the warriors they
became on film, the actors sucked it up and hurled themselves back
into the fray when they were needed.
In preparation for the staging of the films massive battles
between clashing armies, armorer Richard Hooper was charged with
producing the vast array of weaponry utilized by the Macedonian,
Persian, Indian and Scythian armies. Because of the intense realism
demanded by Stone in every aspect of the film, and certainly the
crucial battle sequences, Hooper notes that We tried to make
the weapons function exactly as we believe they were used.
Hooper and his crew would sometimes have to equip 1,500 soldiers
per day, necessitating the creation of 12,000
pieces of equipment: approximately 1,000 sarissas, 2,000 shields,
2,000 swords, 750 bows and 9,000 arrows. As with all of the films
creative accomplishments, every weapon was designed and fabricated
especially for the production.
Most of the weapons were tooled by Hooper of actual metal, with
realistic plastic versions created for stunt and horse riding situations,
although the spears and arrows were rubber-tipped for safetys
sake. Hooper did have to make some compromises in the design of
the weaponry for the sake of filming. We slightly cheated
on the length of the sarissas, he says. A 18-foot-long
pike is very difficult to manage, so we shortened the length down
feet. We also had to lengthen swords and make some of the shields
narrower or shorter in diameter to make it easier for the actors
and stuntmen to handle them during the battles.
To outfit the soldiers and animals for the forest battle sequence,
Hooper added 500 shields and the same number of swords, clubs and
axes; 150 bows and 2,000 arrows; and livery for the Macedonian and
Persian cavalry, as well as for the elephants. Art director Stuart
Rose was assigned to create and maintain the elephants elaborate
With tremendous effort and skill on the part of the films
massive cast and behind-the-scenes visionaries, Stone was able to
finally realize his dream of capturing the vivid spectacle of Alexander
the Greats military victories as his army traveled across
a world that he first dominated, and ultimately united.
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