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Reality of movie-making lights up history

New York, Nov. 15: Last year, the Oxford University historian Robin Lane Fox, the author of a much-admired 1973 biography of Alexander the Great, found himself astride a horse, carrying a wooden lance, thundering through the desert dust with scores of mounted companions as Alexander's greatest conquest unfolded.

The setting was an uninhabited stretch of Morocco ' far from the Persian village of Gaugamela in present-day Iraq, where the historic battle occurred in 331 B.C. And the messianic warrior Fox followed wasn't the 25-year-old Alexander but the actor Colin Farrell, who plays the lead in Oliver Stone's Alexander, which premieres on November 24.

Still, as the horses advanced and the cameras rolled, Fox felt epiphanies flow through him. After decades of researching often-incomplete texts on Alexander's time, he was now empirically testing history.

Yes, he sensed, you could charge with a lance without using stirrups. No, his body told him, you can't carry a shield in your other arm while riding. And what of the popular notion that Alexander guided his soldiers with battlefield commands' That, too, felt hollow in the noisy rattle of battle, with dust limiting a cavalryman's vision to the riders on either side. Later, Fox would become convinced that it was physically possible to run a man through with a lance from the back of a horse without losing the weapon.

'A fantastic experience,' said Fox, an experienced horseman who demanded his on-screen riding appearance as a condition of serving as Stone's chief historical consultant. 'As a historian you're always trying in your mind to imagine how things might have been.'

Historical films routinely reinterpret or simply trash history. Indeed, Stone is a pariah in some quarters for his conspiratorial assertions in J.F.K. and Nixon. But the filming of the Battle of Gaugamela appears to have been a more complex experience, one in which there was often no historical consensus, forcing Stone and his consultants to extrapolate their grand movie reality around an earnest synthesis of the authentic and the plausible, with at least a small dollop of the merely cool.

By putting more than 1,000 actors and extras in classic Macedonian battle formations on the Moroccan desert, along with chariots, horses and camels, Stone set in motion scores of questions about what it meant to be a soldier two millenniums ago, ranging from massive to technical to trivial: How did Alexander trick a Persian army four times the size of his 50,000-man force into stretching its flanks till a convenient hole opened' Why didn't the lethal scythe-wheeled chariots of Darius, the Persian king, do more damage' How fast could a syntagma of soldiers (16 rows of 16 men) move while carrying 16-foot-long, steel-tipped spears known as sarissas'

Answering those questions fell largely to two opposites: Fox, 58, an academic (who is also a newspaper gardening correspondent), and Stone's longtime military-battle adviser, Dale Dye, a 60-year-old retired Marine captain who is generally sceptical about historical scholarship.

As Dye had done on many other film sets involving combat ' his credits include The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, Starship Troopers and Stone's Platoon ' he put cast members and extras, including hundreds of Moroccan military men on loan from the government, through a three-week 'boot camp' that included sword fighting and practicing with other archaic weapons.

The battle they sought to recreate had a mythic quality: Alexander had twice clashed with Darius and won. The third victory spelled the defeat of the Persian Empire, gaining Alexander control of Asia en route to his conquest of 90 per cent of the known world ' all before his death at 32.

Dye, who directed some scenes in the battle of Gaugamela, suggested to Fox that insights gained from putting a mock army into the field would be more credible than descriptions of historians. 'You reach a point where it's anybody's guess, so you apply a 'soldier's template.' Our view is soldiers aren't stupid. They do what works. That applies to everything from the Peloponnesian Wars to Star Wars.' Fox agreed there were often not enough hard facts to counter Dye's desire to extrapolate.

Dye inferred ' and the battle scene reflects ' that Alexander's commanders used a system of bugles or drumbeats, visual signs and messengers to communicate marching orders to each group of 16 soldiers during the fog of war. That is one explanation for the coordination required to execute Alexander's battle strategy at Gaugamela: Feinting an attacking manoeuvre with his right flank, drawing Darius' soldiers to the Persian left flank and ultimately causing a gap to open in the Persian centre. That allowed Alexander's troops to pour through and nearly kill Darius, who fled.

What Stone wanted the Gaugamela scene to communicate, he said, was the brilliance of Alexander's strategy (in a scene on tactics and preparation the night before the battle), a leader's sense of destiny (Alexander is said to have believed he descended from Zeus) and the foolishness of youth. Riding in the front line in the film, Alexander is knocked off his horse (another extrapolation) and saved by his men.

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