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ALEXANDER

History’s Greatest Conqueror

Oliver Stone’s highly-anticipated film Alexander is based on the true story of one of history’s 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 Alexander’s 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,” says Alexander
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 Alexander’s 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.), Stone’s longtime collaborator and perhaps the film industry’s foremost military expert, was brought in to train star Colin Farrell and the rest of the key performers who portray Alexander’s 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 Stone’s 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 don’t 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 anything else.”

“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 film’s official ‘boot camp.’ “Then every night we would stand down and he would talk to us about Alexander’s 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 of Gaugamela,
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 phalanx’s modern-day equivalent would be a tank.) Philip’s use of the indomitable phalanx and his
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 infantry arm.”

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 Alexander’s 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 film’s actors had to be readied to enact skirmishes that occur along the path of Alexander’s 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 film’s 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 VI.

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 Alexander’s status as a living legend.

“Oliver wanted realism,” stresses stunt coordinator Gary Powell. “He didn’t want exaggerated fight scenes, like you see in swashbucklers. If you’re going for realism, most individual fights don’t last that long, especially when you’ve got the weapons that we’re using. It’s 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 of Gaugamela.”

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.”

The presence of enormous, strikingly costumed war elephants added a dramatic new dimension to the battle scenes. “An elephant is going to do what an elephant is going to do,” notes Dye. “They aren’t interested in hitting marks. But we had an extraordinary bunch of elephants, who were trained by ‘mahouts’ who worked with each of their elephants since they were calves. They were extremely well disciplined.”

To assure the safety of the film’s animals, noted conservationist Richard Lair, co-founder of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, one of the world’s most prominent elephant sanctuaries, and the Thai government’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Preecha Puangkham, were present at all times during the elephants’ training and filming.

    

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 effects
departments, along with Steve Painter’s 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 Farrell’s real blood from his character’s 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 film’s 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 film’s 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 safety’s 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 to 14
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 armor.

With tremendous effort and skill on the part of the film’s massive cast and behind-the-scenes visionaries, Stone was able to finally realize his dream of capturing the vivid spectacle of Alexander the Great’s military victories as his army traveled across a world that he first dominated, and ultimately united.

(Click images for larger versions)

Alexander (Colin Farrell) furiously shouts to his
troops at Gaugamela. .

Captain Dale Dye advises Antigonous (Ian
Beattie)

Alexander (Colin Farrell) rallies his troops at the
battle of Gaugamela.

Captain Dale Dye trains the actors who
portray Alexander’s Macedonian troops.

Alexander (Colin Farrell) explains his battle
plans.

The crew prepares to film Alexander (Colin
Farrell) in combat. .

Persian infantry attack the Macedonian
lines. .

Alexander (Colin Farrell) furiously
battles Persians in an attempt to reach
arch-enemy King Darius III..

The Macedonian encampment in Bactria.

Bessus (Stephane Ferrara), a leader of
Darius’ calvary, stands with his Persian
forces at the ready for combat at
Gaugamela.

Alexander (Colin Farrell) rallies his army.

An Indian war elephant.

In a moment right out of myth, Alexander
(Colin Farrell) on Bucephalas goes head-to-
head with the Indian King on his war
elephant.

 

Alexander will be released on November 24, 2004, and distributed by Warner Bros.
Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company, and Intermedia.

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