FORGING AN ANCIENT ARMY
Stone asked that the highest level of historical
accuracy be achieved in every detail of the film, from props to
costumes to the film’s elaborate battle sequences. In order to achieve
the level of realism the director 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. Stone and Dye first started the now commonplace
practice of holding military ‘boot camps’ when they worked together
on 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 14 feet long),
as well as 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."
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 Spanish 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.
Also trained by Cruz Moral was 13-year-old Connor
Paolo, who was cast by Stone to play young Alexander. Paulo had
to master the skills required to effectively portray Alexander’s
fateful first meeting, and subsequent taming and bonding, with the
wild stallion Bucephalas – a catalyzing moment for a young Alexander,
who in achieving what several experienced horsemen had failed to
do, dramatically won his remote father’s approval. Having grown
up in New York City, Paolo had no prior experience on horseback.
Cruz Moral trained him every day for two months, and by the time
the cameras were ready to roll, he rode like a true Macedonian prince.
Key to the training of the film’s actors, stuntmen,
extras and soldiers was the re-creation and execution of the "phalanx,"
the strategic battle formation developed by King Philip and later
perfected by his son Alexander. A phalanx consists of 256 men bearing
sarissas, formed 16 by 16 squared, assembled into a nearly impenetrable
formation. (The phalanx’s modern-day equivalent might well be a
tank.) Philip’s utilization of the indomitable phalanx and his idea
of maintaining a standing army of paid soldiers ensured that when
Alexander rose to power, he had the tools in place to conquer the
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 Roman legions. It provided a field commander like Alexander
with a very strong, rigid yet flexible tactical element on the ancient
The training camp proved to be an historical laboratory
of sorts. By virtue of experience and practical implementation,
Capt. 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 two monumental
"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 training camp. "Then
every night we would stand down and he talked to us about
Alexander’s tactics and strategies, the history of various battles,
and explained 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."
"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
The first time historian Robin Lane Fox caught
a glimpse of an extra mounted on horseback in the full regalia of
a Macedonian Companion Cavalrymen, he wasn’t just a witness to this
recreation – he was a participant. Part of his arrangement with
Stone was that he would play a part in Alexander’s immortal charge
at the Persian center.
"Oliver and his crew took great care to get
people armored with due reference to history from the ancient sources
and to show the main maneuvers," says Lane Fox, "and the
result is a really terrifying battle that has an exceptional degree
of authenticity. In my view, the film’s battle scenes could be circulated
to schools, historians and universities for fruitful discussion.
They give a splendid impression of the units in action, the blood,
the chaos – above all, they give a stunning sense of scale."
Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto shot the
Battle of Gaugamela with two full camera units, utilizing up to
eight cameras to cover the full scope of the action. Prieto notes
that he and Stone "didn’t want something that felt imposed
upon by the modern eye. Oliver wanted the images to enhance the
perception of really being there, of being able to feel and smell
the place and the time, so we approached the cinematography in a
very subjective way. Any decision made in terms of style had to
be incorporated into what Alexander was feeling at that moment in
There was also the matter of volume, as the actual
battle in 331 B.C. was fought by approximately 297,000 soldiers.
Although there were more than 1,000 extras in the field in front
of the cameras, visual effects supervisor John Scheele later worked
for months with the innovative visual effects houses BUF Compagnie
in Paris and the Moving Picture Company in London to create digital
enhancements for Gaugamela and several other sequences. "Our
challenge was to make an entirely believable army fighting in the
bright midday sun," notes Scheele. "Visual effects set
in a dark fantasy world have more tolerance, and the audience will
accept the look. We had to match the dust and grit of the real world."
The film’s second pivotal battle is a fierce forest
conflict in India where Alexander and his 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 armored beasts that the Indian soldiers
employed in combat.
Production traveled to Thailand for this leg of
filming. Appropriately for what Stone was trying to accomplish,
the country has absorbed considerable Indian influences dating from
the 1st century A.D., during which time merchants from
the subcontinent arrived in peninsular Thailand, bringing with them
their country’s art, architecture, religion and government.
Shot at Phu Kae Central Botanical Garden, a leafy
forest some 130 kilometers north of Bangkok, the landscape for the
forest battle had to be temporarily altered by production designer
Jan Roelfs and the art department. "We couldn’t shoot in a
real jungle for practical reasons," explains Roelfs, "so
we had to actually build a jungle inside of the Botanical Garden,
which worked better for lighting and staging purposes. We were filming
during Thailand’s dry season, so we had to water the section of
the forest that we were permitted to use for three months."
Following the completion of filming in Saraburi, the botanical park
was restored exactly as the company found it.
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 the open
desert battleground of Gaugamela."
In the forest landscape, Dye was faced with some
of the same challenges that may 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."
In the film, the Indian forces strikingly employ
battle elephants. Nowhere in the world are elephants better trained
or more loved than in Thailand. (Elephants figure prominently in
Thai folklore and religion, and efforts have been underway for years
to stem the destruction of their forested habitats so that they
may continue to thrive.) To handle the training of the elephants,
production called upon the skills of Sompast Meepan, proprietor
of the popular Ayutthaya Elephant Palace and Royal Kraal. Meepan
brought 30 pachyderms from Ayutthaya to the Phu Kae Central Botanical
The battle, as scripted, called for very specific
actions that the elephants had to be capable of performing. Dale
Dye and stunt coordinator Gary Powell spent two months working on
developing the special skills, including acclimatizing the elephants
to working with the horses, with Sompast and the elephants’ "mahouts,"
trainers who have worked with their elephants since they were calves.
"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. They
were intelligent and extremely well trained." Stone adds, "The
horses were more problematic, except oddly enough for Bucephalas,
Alexander’s great black steed, who was very calm and in one of the
film’s central shots, actually took on an elephant on its two hind
legs, without any semblance of fear. That dramatic shot in the film
is real, it’s not digital by any means. The horse, the stuntman,
and Colin were all amazing."
To assure the safety of the film’s animals, noted
conservationist Richard Lair, co-founder of the Thai Elephant Conservation
Centre, which is 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."
Needless to say, the mayhem inflicted upon the
elephants and horses in the course of battle onscreen was entirely
fabricated by the special and visual effects departments, along
with the prosthetics division, which was responsible throughout
filming for providing extraordinarily realistic depictions of the
cruel physical effects of war on humans and animals alike.
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 Bactrian armies. Hooper and his crew sometimes
had to equip as many as 1,500 soldiers per day, necessitating the
creation of over 12,000 functional pieces of equipment: approximately
1,000 sarissas, 2,000 shields, 2,000 swords, 750 bows and 9,000
arrows. Most of the weapons were tooled by Hooper from actual metal,
with realistic plastic versions created for stunt and horse riding
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.
* * *