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 long-time 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 catalysing 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 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 Roman legions. It provided a field commander like Alexander with a very strong, rigid yet flexible tactical element on the ancient battlefield."
The training camp proved to be an historical laboratory of sorts. By virtue of experience and practical implementation, Captain 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 battles.
"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."
A vast stretch of the Moroccan desert, eight miles in circumference, was selected as the site on which the Battle of Gaugamela was staged. The film's base camp on the location was massive, and included an actual military encampment for the Royal Moroccan Army, which had contributed several hundred 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 King Darius III's 250,000-strong Persian army with only 40,000 infantry and 7000 cavalry. Darius fled, and the victory opened up the east to the Macedonians and crystallized 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 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 centre.
"Oliver and his crew took great care to get people armoured with due reference to history from the ancient sources and to show the main manoeuvres," 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 the film."
There was also the matter of volume, as the actual battle in 331 BCE 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 armoured beasts that the Indian soldiers employed in combat.
Production travelled 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 CE, 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 kilometres 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 2300 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, manoeuvrable 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 Garden.
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, armourer 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 situations.
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 armour.