Alexander the Great (1956)



Director: Robert Rossen

Starring:  Richard Burton (Alexander), Fredric March (Philip of Macedonia), Claire Bloom (Barsine), Danielle Darricus (Olympias), Barry Jones (Aristotle), Harry Andrews (Darius), Stanley Baker (Attalus), Niall MacGinnis (Parmenio), Peter Cushing (Memnon), Michael Hordern (Demosthenes), Helmut Dantine (Nectenabus).

Pretty good movie about Alexander the Great and his many conquests.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"It is the year 356 B.C.  In a troubled, exhausted, divided, bloody Greece."

Demosthenes warns of Philip of Macedonia who has been at war with Greece ever since he razed the first Greek city to the ground.  The man says he's for peace but then keeps on taking city after city and the Greeks have not stopped him.  A messenger arrives to tell Philip that his wife Olympias has given birth to a boy, who she has named Alexander.  Philip returns home to a cold reception from Olympias.  He goes to see his son.  Olympias and her Egyptian advisor believe that Alexander has been born a god, because there were certain important signs at his birth.  Alexander has been born to rule two worlds says the soothsayer.  Philip is pretty disgusted with the Egyptian.  He tells the Egyptian that he had a dream  -- a dream of death, but he awoke without knowing whose death it was.

Philip thinks of killing the Egyptian.  Parmenio suggests a different course.  He tells Philip to go to his wife and at least make peace with her.  The people must know there will be continuity in the reign of Philip  -- that Philip will be succeeded by Alexander.  Philip goes to Olympias, but only to say to her that the people want to see the prince and the queen. 

Alexander now is a young man.  He returns from a hunt after having killed a mountain lion.  Alexander greets Aristotle, his teacher.  Cleitus has returned from the front and says Philip has won many battles.  They even reached Persian soil.  Philip has sent him to train new troops and send the troops to Philip.  Alexander wants to know if his father has asked for him to come, but Cleitus says no.  This further maddens Alexander towards his father, who Alexander says hoards all the glory for himself.   Alexander wants to be a man of action, not just as a pupil of Aristotle.  Aristotle urges Alexander to have patience, but Alexander tells his teacher that like Achilles, he expects to have a short, but glorious, life.

Philip arrives.  He wants to take Alexander with him, against the wishes of Aristotle.  Philip asks his son if he thinks he can rule in Pella, while he himself continues fighting.  There is a revolt there, in his capital and in his palace.  Alexander responds:  "I can rule."  Philip says he will declare Alexander regent in Macedonia. Before Philip and Alexander leave, Aristotle tells Philip that Alexander himself believes that he is a god. 

Alexander and six of his men ride to the palace.  They pass by many men who have been crucified and still hang on the cross.  Olympias and the Egyptian are having lots of laughs.  His mother is happy to see him, but she warns him almost immediately that Philip has gone mad.  Alexander boots everybody out of the room so he can talk to his mother in private.  She says he accuses everyone of conspiring against him, even her.  Olympias adds that his father wants to get rid of her, so he can marry the niece of Attalus.  She also tells Alexander that when he is regent, then "we" will rule the land.  Alexander responds:  "We?" 

Alexander speaks with his father.  Philip tries to convince Alexander that his mother wants to rule and she can only rule through Alexander.  He says:  "You are her power -- and a pawn."    Alexander says he is no one's pawn.  His father tells him he wants his first act as regent to be to send his mother away.  Philip says he slew his own two brothers to get to power.  Alexander says if he does what his father wants, then he will be his father's pawn.  Dad then says that Aristotle is right.  His son is not ready for power, but only to fight and die as any other Macedonian soldier. Alexander says he chooses his mother and runs out. 

In spite of all of Philip's reservations about his son, he still goes ahead and makes Alexander the regent to rule over Macedonia.  Philip says Alexander will be ruler of all things now in Macedonia.  Philip tells Alexander to trust no one and learn how to be alone.  He then leaves. 

Olympias comes to speak with her son.  Alexander is wary of his mother and seems to keep her at a distance.  He decides to put down a rebellion.  He wins and the city is set afire.  Alexander orders that the conquered rebuild their city and name it Alexandropolis.  Proudly he says:  "No man's pawn." 

Alexander goes to see his father at his camp.  He returns his regent's ring, as instructed.  Philip is upset with his son because he went against the hill people and then set up statues to himself and named cities after himself.  And how many soldiers did Alexander loose that now Philip needs?  The King now gives his son command of the left wing of his cavalry.  Philip also wants Alexander to make peace with his new woman, the niece of Attalus, named Eurydice.  Alexander speaks with her.  She wants to have some form of bond with him.  He makes her cry by making several references to the many wives of his father.  Philip comes to tell Alexander that Eurydice will become the queen. 

The future of Greece will be decided at the next battle at Chaeronea.  Athenians engage the Macedonians in battle.  Philip is beset by four Athenians and Alexander has to ride to his assistance.  He delays a few seconds, but then starts killing Athenians.  The Macedonians are victorious.  Philip makes a "friend" of Memnon the Athenian.  He also spares Athens itself in an attempt to prove that he is not a barbarian. 

Philip at first refused the Athenians the right to bury their dead.  But after thinking it over, he has the dead Athenians burned and sends Alexander with the ashes to Athens.  There he wants his son to make a peace treaty with Athens.  In Athens, Alexander meets Demosthenes, Memnon's wife Barsine and Stratocles, Athenian Senator and Phokian General, and Charidemus, Commander of the Athenian Fleet.  Alexander seems impressed by Barsine and she with him.  He talks with her in private. 

The terms of the peace treaty are generous, except for the fact that Macedonia wants the Greeks to supply men, arms and ships for the war against Persia until victory be won.  Demosthenes for one does not like the terms, but Alexander says that Greece is now unified and strong and this is what he has brought the Greeks.  Now they can use their unity to spread Greek culture around the world.  Later Alexander signs the peace document.   

Alexander greets his mother the queen, but she informs him that she is no longer the queen.  Eurydice is now the queen.  She tells her son that his father divorced her by royal decree.  Alexander is mad at his father, but Olympias stops him to say that it is better for him to go in peace to his father's wedding and accept what has happened.  At the wedding Alexander bemoans the fact the the divorce decree declared his mother unfaithful, which he feels is a slur on his own name.   Dad says it was a mistake.  Alexander says his father sees him now as a rival, not as a son.  Philip replies that if he did, Alexander wouldn't be alive now. 

Alexander starts fighting with a man who cast aspersions on Alexander's birth.  Philip gets up to stop the fight but falls down.  Alexander stops fighting to say:  "Look at him, Macedonians!  This is the man who is preparing to pass from Europe into Asia but cannot even pass from one couch to another."  Alexander is forcefully removed from the room.  He then goes to his mother to tell her to get dressed for they are leaving Pella tonight. 

Philip has a son by Eurydice and he decrees that all exiles should return home.  Alexander comes back to Pella.  He goes to see his father and a spokesman tells Alexander that they march on Persia before the month is out.  Of the three armies, Alexander will command the one that marches east.  Attalus will march south.  Alexander demands that his father agree that his mother is to be treated with respect in Pella and Philip agrees. 

The spokesman for the King informs Alexander that Philip has decided to ban four of Alexander's close advisors:  Harpalus, Ptolemy, Philotas and Pausanias.  Attalus then goes on to mock Pausanias, who resents it greatly.  Olympias encourages the resentment of Pausanias.  Alexander hears some of this and reproaches his mother for putting thoughts into the head of Pausanias.  She denies this.  Now she puts doubt in Alexander's mind by mentioning his new rival, the son of Eurydice. 

Philip tells Alexander to walk in front of him.  Alexander sees Pausanias in the crowd waiting for Philip and says nothing.  Pausanias stabs Philip in the gut and runs off.  The soldiers grab Pausanias.  Alexander now stabs Pausanias where he stabbed the king.  Alexander goes to speak to his mother.  He throws the bloodied sword at her feet. 

Alexander asks the Macedonian army to decide who will be their King.  He says that men like Demosthenes were behind the assassination of Philip.  The army supports Alexander. He then seeks pledges of loyalty from the Greeks city states.  All but the representative from Athens, Memnon, agree.  So Alexander exiles Memnon (assuming Athens will agree).  Alexander then has several men stoned to death.  Eurydice takes her own life.  Her child was thrown into the fire by others.   

Alexander prays alone to Zeus saying he will bring victories as never seen before.  He gets ready to lead his troops to war.  His mother kisses him goodbye. 

"In the spring of 334 BC at the age of twenty,-two, Alexander of Macedonia, with thirty thousand men, arrived at the shores of the Hellespont.  With this army he proposed to conquer a continent."  The Hellespont is the ancient name for the narrow strait now known as the Dardanelles that separate Anatolia from the continent of Europe.  Alexander now claims the whole of Asia. 

The Persians under King Darius II discuss the best strategy of how to deal with Alexander.  The exiled Memnon recommends that they use a policy of scorched earth and then hit Alexander at their place of choosing.  The Persian advisors, however, reject this policy and say they will meet Alexander at Granicus.  Memnon tells his wife that she will go with the others to Miletus to await the news from Granicus.  Barsine says he should not fight against Alexander for the Persian Empire is now old and corrupt.  She feels that Alexander will bring fresh ideas, Greek ideals to Asia.  Memnon accuses her of being infatuated with Alexander.  She says it is for Memnon that she pleads. 

The two armies fight each other.  The Persians are forced to retreat.  This leaves Memnon and his men behind.  Memnon now asks for quarter.  Alexander says that Memnon is a traitor to the Greeks.  Memnon says then let them fight to the death.  Word comes by message to the women heading to Miletus:  "Of all the Greeks who fought at Granicus, no one escaped alive." 

Alexander now faces the legend of the Gordian Knot.  Old King Gordian said that anyone who could unravel the knot on his old cart would become ruler of Asia.  So far, all who have tried have failed.  Alexander just takes his sword and cuts the knot in half with a single blow.  Alexander now takes Ephesus, Sardis, Halicarnassus, as well as other places.  He cuts off the Persian Fleet from every port along the coast of Asia Minor. 

Alexander speaks with the defeated Greeks, including the women.  The Athenians will be kept as hostages for Athens' s fickle favors.  Other Greeks will work in the mines.  The widow Barsine speaks out against Alexander.  Alexander says the women will be used by the men as spoils of war.   Barsine is brought to Alexander.  In the morning Barsine says she will join the other women and will share their shame. So Alexander tells her to go.  Just then his staff comes up to say that the Greeks have betrayed them.  They have gone over to the Persians.  One of the generals advises that they take what little fleet they have and take the spoils back to Macedonia.  They should leave a small army to hold what they have gained in Asia.  The next step would be to attack the Greeks and force them to support them against Persia.  Then with the combined forces they will attack Persia. 

Alexander faints.  Once he recovers fully he orders the fleet to be disbanded and head back to Macedonia.  He says the Greeks and Barsine can go home to Greece.  Alexander has decided to push on.  Barsine stays with Alexander. 

Darius II orders all his troops to assemble on the plains of Babylon.  He sends an insulting message to Alexander and Alexander returns the favor.  The Persians figure that Alexander will attack in the night.  But Alexander says:  "If I am to be destroyed, then let it be by the light of day." 

Alexander tells his men to hold and wait and then when they charge, have only one thought:  Kill Darius!  The Persians start the attack.  The chariots are allowed to proceed through the opening ranks.  Then they are surrounded and the drivers killed.  Now the Macedonians attack.  Alexander throws his spear and hits the King's driver.  Darius starts to ride away.  The Macedonians recover the bow, shield and chariot of Darius and laugh that he has run away. 

Alexander enters the Persian camp.  The King has left his wife and children behind.  The wife cries because she thinks Darius is dead.  Alexander likes the looks of the King's older daughter Roxanne. 

Darius says they will go north to raise another army.  They start on their journey.  A messenger rides up to tell the King that Alexander is only ten leagues away from them.  The men with the King revolt and tie the King up.  Then when the Macedonians are real close, they try to force the King to get onto a horse.  Darius resists so the men stab him and leave him behind.  When Alexander arrives, he finds the King dead.  In a long note, Darius tells Alexander to take his daughter Roxanne for his wife so that their two different worlds may become as one. 

The assassins and others are captured by the Macedonians and brought to Alexander.  Alexander asks that the men who slew Darius to come forward.  He swears on his mother's life that they will be exalted above his troops.  The front two men come forward.  Alexander tells them that he will have the two assassins impaled and then placed upright over his troops.  He tells the men:  ". . . only a king may slay a king."  

The Macedonians set fire to the city.  Seeing this, Barsine decides to start burning the palace where Alexander stays.  She and others throw torches, but Alexander stops them.  He does not want it said of him, that wherever he went he left destruction and ruin behind.  Many of the people expect to be going home, but Alexander is about to reveal his true beliefs and plans.  He says:  "I am not Philip's son.  I am the son of God.  The world is my domain and my mission is to rule it and rebuild it."  He now shouts to all:  "We will march to the end of the world!" 

The Athenians learn that Alexander expects them formally to declare him a god, the son of Zeus-Ammon.    In Athens a speaker says:  "Alexander, who could have conquered for us but now conquers for himself . . ."  Now Alexander has fought 2,000 miles to reach Babylon.  He conquered the cities of Miletus, Sidon and Tyre.  He conquered Egypt, Babylon, Persepolis and Susa.  He conquered Darius and all of Persia.  And now he heads into India. 

Alexander sends Parmenio out to Ecbatana to secure their lines of communication.   He then arrests his son Philotas for high treason.  Under torture, Philotas confesses that he and his father Parmenio plotted against Alexander.  Parmenio is dead out on the plains.    At a dinner Cleitus gets really carried away in his denunciations of the actions of Alexander.  He claims that Alexander has favored the Persians to the detriment of the Macedonians.  He also says that Alexander always turns his back on those who helped him get where he is today.   Cleitus just will not shut up.  Alexander grabs a spear and when Cleitus continues with his rant he kills the man with the spear to his back.  Alexander regrets killing Cleitus and tries to thrust the spear into his own chest, but his men stop him.  Alexander cries over Cleitus which does not impress the Persians at all.   Now Alexander says that he and the Macedonians will go back home. 

Ptolemy bears witness to the terrible return from India to Babylon.  It's been ten years since he began his conquests.  Alexander has a change of heart and his new philosophy is that it is not the lands of men that must be conquered, but the hearts of men.  At Susa, Alexander pledges himself and his troops to this new idea.  Alexander marries Roxanne.  The priest says let the offspring of this union "be of both worlds and live in one."  Alexander has many of his men also marry Persian brides. 

While giving a toast, Alexander faints.  Still alive, Alexander lays on a bed as his troops stream by him. He talks as if he knows he will die.  His generals ask him to whom does he leave his empire?  Alexander says:  "To the strongest."  He promptly dies.   


Good movie dealing with the rise of Alexander the Great.  The film, of course, simplifies the many military moves of Alexander for purposes of brevity.  Nevertheless, one gets the idea that Alexander conquered a huge amount of territory.  But could he have kept all this territory?  It would have proved a great challenge to say the least.  But his early death leaves the question unanswered..  Below is a short summary of Alexander's life.  The critics usually say Richard Burton goes overboard in his acting, but here his style matched the arrogant Alexander who believed himself to be a god.  A god certainly would tend to pontificate a bit.  Anyway, I thought Burton did a good job. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:



The rivalry between Sparta and Athens dominated the late 5th century B.C. and exhausted much of the resources of the Greek city states.  The created a vacuum into which stepped the Balkan kingdom of Macedon.   

Macedonia is the south of Serbia (part of the former Yugoslavia) and is in the the northern area above Greece.  Albania is to the west and Bulgaria is to the east and northeast.

356 BC  -- Alexander born at Pella in Macedonia to Philip II of Macedon, a brilliant ruler, and Olympias, princess of Epirus, daughter of King Neoptolemus.

344  --  at age twelve, he tames the famous wild horse Bucephalus.

His first teacher was Leonidas, who was later replaced with Lysimachus, who taught Prince Alexander to play the lyre, and to appreciate the arts.

343  --  Alexander from age 13 to 16, together with the other boys belonging to the Macedonian aristocracy, is taught by Aristotle.

340  --  While Philip was away on an expedition against Byzantium, Alexander at age 16 manages to subjugate the rebellious Maedi, a Thracian tribe.  (Thrace covered today's southeastern Bulgaria, far northeastern Greece and the part of Turkey on the European continent.) 

338  --  At the battle of Chaeronea Philip defeats the allied Greek states of the Sacred Band of Thebes. At age 18 Alexander performs marvelously in command of the left wing of Philip's cavalry.  Sparta remains the only Greek state not under Macedonian control.

338  --  Artaxerxes III of Persia dies; brief reign by Arses; then comes Darius II, a weak replacement.

337 --  Philip divorces Olympias. Alexander and his mother leave Macedonia. They reconcile several months later.

336  --  Philip declares war on Persia. He prepares a campaign to liberate the Greek coastal cities, but he is assassinated before he can depart by his officer Pausanias.  20 year-old Alexander becomes the new king of Macedon and immediately executes all alleged to be behind Philip's murder along with all possible rivals.

Alexander pacifies Thessaly and is proclaimed the supreme commander of all Greeks for the expected invasion of the Persian Empire.  He conducts blitz campaigns against the Triballiand Ilyrians, which takes him across the Danube.

335  --  marches into Thrace and crushes the Triballi, crosses the Danube to subjugate the Getae and Celtic tribes and shatters a coalition of Illyrians who had invaded Macedonia. Returns and crushes the rebellious Thebans.

334 --  at the Battle of Granicus he defeats his first Persian army.  This freed the conquered Greek city states. Alexander takes the city of Miletus. In Caria, he destroys Halicarnassus.

334-333, winter --  Alexander conquers the western part of Asia Minor

333 --  at Gordium in Phrygia, tradition records his cutting of the Gordian knot, which could only be loosed by the man who was to rule Asia. Wins the Battle of Issus against Darius II and demands unconditional surrender of his enemy.  

332  -- the storming of Tyre, his greatest military achievement; massacres the men and sells the women and children into slavery.

332 --  Egyptians welcome him as their liberator from the Persians.  He founds the city of Alexandria.

331 --  prepares to advance into Mesopotamia, toward Babylon. Darius sends his general Mazaeus who marches up the Tigris to stop Alexander.  The Battle of Gaugamela opens up Babylon to Alexander, who is now Lord of Asia.

330 --  Alexander marches north into Media and occupies its capital Ecbatana. Meanwhile, he comes to the idea of  the Macedonians and Persians ruling together, but this was to create problems between Alexander and the Macedonians.

330 --  Alexander chases Darius for 12 days.  Darius had moved to Bactria and to Bessus - the satrap of Bactria.  Bessus stages a coup d'etat and imprisons Darius and the usurper Bessus stabs king Darius III leaving him to die in agony. Alexander later captures Bessus and has him executed.  

328  --  Alexander murders one of his most trusted commanders which further drives a wedge between Alexander and many Macedonians. Marches towards India through Afghanistan; defeats Oxyartes, who becomes friends with Alexander.  Alexander marries his sister Roxanne.

327  -- crosses into India.

326  --  Alexander wins his last great battle on the left bank of the Hydaspes against Porus, one of the most powerful Indian kings. Porus becomes his friend and ally.

Alexander wanted to reach the Ganges River, but his exhausted troops would not go any farther. So he turns back.

326-324 --  over a third of his governors ( i.e. satraps) are replaced and six are executed.

325  --  Alexander controls both arms of the Indus River.

324   --  back in Susa, administrative center of the Persian Empire, where Alexander and 80 of his officers and 10,000 Macedonian soldiers take Persian wives.  This action really maddens the folks back home in Macedonia.

324  -- confrontation time; at Opis Alexander's decision to send home Macedonian veterans under Craterus was interpreted as a move toward transferring the seat of power to Asia; open insurrection; Alexander discharges his whole army and enrolls Persians instead; opposition over, followed by reconciliation.

Suddenly, in Babylon, Alexander becomes ill after drinking way too much unmixed wine. Soon afterwards he dies. No heir had been appointed.

Eventually Alexander's generals parcel out the empire:

Ptolemy Lagus, Alexander's half bother (Egypt and Palestine);

Seleucus Nicator (Mesopotamia and Syria);

Cassander (Macedonia and Greece);

Antigonus (Asia Minor); and

Lysimachus (Thrace).


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)