Viewfinder Magazine

“Alexander Stoned?”: Irish Masculinity and Violence in Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004)
by Liz Carville

At a Macedonian banquet King Philip celebrates his second marriage amidst a raucous crowd, drink and debauchery. Rather than romance, the wedding symbolizes a national and political alliance between Greece and Macedonia, an alliance that is jeopardized when Philip’s son, Alexander, disrupts the speeches with contempt for the marriage and insults the bride’s father. Despite the ensuing outrage, Alexander refuses orders to apologize. Philip, furious, grabs a sword to attack Alexander, but falls, roaring with drunkenness as his son mocks him in disgust, and leaves the ruined feast.

The above scene is from Alexander (2004): co-written and directed by the doyen filmmaker Oliver Stone. It has been critically analysed for reasons ranging from historiography to spectatorship. But it is referred to here because the role of Alexander is played by an Irish actor, Colin Farrell, who, although noted for credibly performing accents other than his own, speaks with an identifiably Irish accent. The American star playing Philip, Val Kilmer, also dons an Irish accent. The majority of Philip’s generals are played by Irish actors, with the remaining officers supplemented by English actors, all of whom speak with Irish accents in a film that recounts the details of the legendary Macedonian prince, and his ambitions to unite all the known kingdoms beneath a single ruler. Thus Alexander demonstrates the traditional stereotypes afforded to Irish men, such as alcoholism, Oedipal tension, and volatility, and it is discussed here to demonstrate how Hollywood in general, and Oliver Stone in particular, has employed Irishness to communicate violent masculinity in mainstream cinema.

While the described scene would seem more reminiscent of how Hollywood has typically staged an Irish, rather than a Macedonian wedding, such a conscious use of Irishness, even for the allegorical reasons given by Stone, is relatively rare in a film lacking one Irish character. The pairing of Irishness and violence, with, or without, alcohol consumption, is not without precedent nor historical basis. Construing the Irish as violent presented the colonization of Ireland as a “civilising mission” and portrayals “did not emerge newly-born but drew on a reservoir of ideas and images inherited from earlier historical periods” (Hill 148-9). Without an indigenous cinema industry, representations of the Irish emanated from external—predominantly British and American—sources for much of the twentieth century.

Still from Alexander

Amidst political unrest between Britain and Ireland, British films on the Irish “troubles” often presented the violence of Irish characters as hopeless, irrational and uncivilized; an ethnic failing rather than a motivated response against colonial power (McLoone 234). If Hollywood representations of Irishness tended more towards nostalgia due to the continuous emigration of Irish to America, and the numbers of Americans who claim Irish ancestry, portrayals of Irish violence have also surfaced in a different, but equally forceful way. John Hill reminds us that violence has a structural function in Hollywood film where it routinely organizes the development of narrative and character, so that “violence is central to the positivism and dynamism of American cinema” (151).

Harvey O’Brien has described action cinema as a cinema of reaction, or, “the cinema of striking back” and for him, the action film is a delicate amalgamation of form and content whereby the hero becomes “heroic through the act of fighting” (2). The action film rests upon resolution through action, which typically means resolution through violence. The hero proves himself by taking action against a threat to society and “[i]n acting, he dramatizes both the inner struggles of himself and the outer struggles of America on the whole …” (9). Thus, violence is presented positively as a means of resolving crisis and testifies to the hero’s manliness, calling to mind Henry Giroux’s statement that: “violence is sutured to primal masculinity” (17).

In The Irish in U.S. Diane Negra has drawn attention to the heightened popularity of Irishness in America following the terrorist attacks of September 11th where recourse to violence through identity politics became strikingly apparent and particularly gendered across popular culture and political discourse. Responses to 9/11 were marked by aligning victimization with feminization, or what Julie Drew calls, “feminizing fear” (71) whereby media reports, including statements released by military and political personnel, expressed the attacks in terms of penetration implying an open violation of American sovereignty, and a potentially debilitating, loss of national virility. As Drew notes:

[I]f American men—even soldiers at the Pentagon—behave as women victims behave we must either understand ourselves as a nation as more feminine (meaning in this context, more weak and vulnerable and paralyzed in the face of terror) than we had previously believed, or we must question the entire binary of feminine/masculine characteristics and behaviors attributed to sexual difference, and their relative value within our culture (72).

The strikes on New York in 2001 were crucial in the gradual erosion of white American morale (“Irishness, Innocence, and American Identity Politics” 354), and the social trauma of September 11 created a need to bolster America’s citizen body. A retreat to anachronistic consolations of Irishness allowed fire-fighters such as Mike Moran to valorize American masculinity in the midst of national despair, and Negra cites Moran’s public affront on the Saudi Arabian leader blamed for the attacks, Osama Bin Laden, to “kiss my royal Irish ass!” as an example of how it became possible for Moran and others to celebrate whiteness (through Irishness) (“Irishness, Innocence, and American Identity Politics” 362). According to Negra, the incident “speaks forcefully to the emergence of the trope of Irishness as white ethnic legitimacy and empowerment in contemporary American culture,” and Moran’s declaration exemplifies how appeals to Irishness, and particularly to Irish masculinity, were mobilized in post-9/11 America (359-61).

The fact that the Irishness of Farrell has been implicated in the portrayal of male characters who display a pathological propensity for violence, then, offers scope for further consideration. Ethnicity is part of the “cumulative cultural product” that is the star, and Farrell’s star persona circulates in popular culture with an identity that is mediated through past and present stereotypes, which, here, relates to a correlation between Irishness and violence. With his “rebelliousness” and “spontaneity,” Farrell’s star identity was consolidated through his physical embodiment of the wild Irish Rover (Barton 213), particularly in the early stages of his career. Irishness was consistently reiterated through his public image as a Hollywood “bad boy” due to the recurring scandals about his excessive drinking and hedonistic “private” life. Farrell has frequently courted media attention with his behaviour (211), so that, in American popular culture, “he is identified by a freewheeling garrulousness that draws on long-existing associations between Irish acting and the oral tradition. The difference is that this is now seen as being sexy” (219). Farrell participates in, and operates under the rubric of Irishness in Hollywood where he is associated with a hardy, physical bravado, and this aspect of Farrell’s stardom has frequently been watermarked into his performance of characters who are required to be tough, spontaneous, energetic, and violent, in films such as Tigerland (2000), Daredevil (2003), S.W.A.T (2003), Alexander (2004), Miami Vice (2006), Shell Shock (2009), Total Recall (2012), or Dead Man Down (2013). Such films show signs of being, what Terrence McSweeney describes as "bound to the decade in which [they] were made” (“Introduction” 7), namely a post-9/11 context that invoked stereotypes of Irish masculinity for regenerative purposes.

Film poster for Alexander

For many reviewers Stone’s choice of Farrell as a lead, alongside a cast of Irish actors was a major failing of Alexander; a decision derived from the director’s conviction that a strand of Celticness linked the Irish and Macedonian peoples. Stone was reportedly made familiar with Farrell’s reputation prior to casting, having personally witnessed the star’s belligerent behaviour when Farrell appeared looking “like a Dublin street thug” at the restaurant for their first meeting (Fierman 27). Defending his decision to afford Irishness a central position in his film, Stone argued that the deliberate selection of Irish accents over the more “parochial” and “ornate” English syntax was intended to replicate the boisterous demeanour of Celtic men: “Irish to me is a beautiful language, it’s got poetry in it and the English would not have been as effective. I think Colin could have easily done English, he has been on British television he could have easily gotten that, but there is something more poetic about Irish … it’s Celtic” (“Commentary by Oliver Stone and Historian Robin Lane Fox”).

Stone’s motivation here operates on a conflation of Irish and Celtic. His confirmation of Farrell’s ability to “do” both Irish and English mistakenly presumes that accent and language are interchangeable. Whether or not Farrell used his native accent does not alter the fact that he is speaking English. Stone’s remark is illustrative of how U.S. popular culture has cannibalized Irish history for popular consumption, and it is this process which similarly regards violence as innate in Irish men.

The film is weighted with exhibitions of Alexander’s aggressiveness, and Stone relied heavily on Farrell’s Irish reputation for their realism. The manslaughter of Cleitus (Gary Stretch), after both had consumed copious amounts of wine is one example. Despite years of friendship and trust, Alexander shows such paranoia at Cleitus’ allegations of his despotism and illegitimacy, that, when also accused of patricide, he loses all reason, seizes a spear and drives the weapon violently into Cleitus. The murder is a powerful expression of how Irishness, alcoholism, violence, and masculinity are conflated by Stone and infused by the use of Irish accents as a marker of Celticness, and these attributes of Irishness are relayed through Farrell’s star persona as a specifically “Irish” actor.

In this regard, Stone’s comments on the film’s climax when Alexander’s army is outnumbered by Indian forces, are similarly telling. The spectacular scene where Alexander spurs his horse into a suicidal impact with an elephant moves the optics into infra-red footage, and accentuates the surrounding carnage. According to the historian employed to advise on Alexander, Robin Lane Fox, this scene was “historical drama” and “not in any sense historical documentary” (“Commentary by Oliver Stone and Historian Robin Lane Fox”). Stone claimed his intention was to dramatize his hero’s “greatest moment.” What is crucial is how the director depends upon Farrell to communicate an urbanized propensity for violence in order to demonstrate Alexander’s ruthless determination to achieve everlasting glory, even by self-immolation: “Colin is riding the horse on those stirrups, he became … he’s an excellent athlete. I can’t tell you everything he picked up on very quick, he’s a scrapper in the Irish tradition of the bar fight. He’s very fast, good with his eyes, and his reflexes, he played soccer” (“Commentary by Oliver Stone and Historian Robin Lane Fox”).

Stone emphasizes how Farrell’s Irishness ethnically armed him with the necessary experience to enact Alexander’s violent and reckless confrontation with the Indian army. Much like the British troubles films, Alexander and Stone’s use of Farrell’s star persona, exemplifies how colonial stereotypes concerning Irishness and violence continue to reverberate in ways that adhere to traditional and localized stereotypes, while also intersecting with paradigms of Hollywood narrative structure.

Regardless of one’s opinion of Alexander, there are two largely irrefutable details: firstly, that Irishness in general, and Farrell’s Irishness in particular, was crucial to Stone’s vision of Alexander’s character: “I love what he [Farrell] did and I think he had the panache and glory—he had that sense of Irish outsiderness and brawniness that the Macedonians did bring to the Greek Empire” (qtd. in Macnab 4). And secondly, his decision to use Irishness in the film was in order to communicate the violence, where, for Lane Fox “the accents and the wildness really come in to their own” (“Commentary by Oliver Stone and Historian Robin Lane Fox”). In this way, with an actor who Stone claimed “had to have enormous balls to do this and bravado” (ibid) Stone’s Alexander aptly responded to “the post-9/11 enthusiasm for old-fashioned masculinity and heroism” (Tickner 342). And, of course, regressive performances of Irish violence.

About the Author:

Liz Carville is a PhD graduate of Maynooth University, Ireland, and an early career researcher in English and Film Studies. Her doctoral thesis concerned the representation of Irish masculinity in Hollywood cinema during the Celtic Tiger period, and considered the currency of Irishness in the careers of three Irish actors working in Hollywood during this time. Her research interests include masculinity studies, Irishness in popular culture, and contemporary cinema. She is currently carrying out research in the area of masculinity and cultural gerontology.


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