PROFESSOR Robin Lane Fox is glowing with delight at an early Christmas present. Warner Brothers, producer of Alexander, the new $150 million film starring Colin Farrell as the Macedonian warrior, laid on a gala screening for perhaps the smartest movie audience ever assembled - the Classics department at Oxford University.
The loudest cheer of the night was not for Farrell or Angelina Jolie as Alexander’s mother, Olympias, or even for the end credits after a bum-numbing two hours 49 minutes. Instead, the stalls erupted at the split-second appearance, astride his trusty steed, of an ageing warrior otherwise known as Robin Lane Fox - professor of ancient history at New College, Oxford, and the historical consultant on Alexander.
In return for that work, the academic - the author of the definitive biography of Alexander - won a promise from Oliver Stone, the director, that he could take part in the reconstruction of the epic battle of Gaugamela, when Alexander’s 35,000 Greek warriors defeated 250,000 Persians to claim the vast empire as his own.
And so for six weeks, in late 2003 and early this year, the professor exchanged Oxford’s dreaming spires for the deserts of Morocco and jungles of Thailand, swapped his tweeds for a helmet and armour and left 21st-century Britain for Persia, circa 331BC.
"It was, unquestionably, one of the highlights of my life," says Prof Lane Fox. "To experience a part of the world of Alexander was fantastic."
When his 500-page biography, Alexander The Great, was published in 1973, he was a 27-year-old Oxford graduate. Single-handedly, he rescued Alexander from a generation of historians who argued he was little more than a bloodthirsty dictator. Prof Lane Fox elevated him to an idealist who wanted to emulate his hero Achilles, the great warrior in Homer’s The Iliad, a copy of which Alexander tucked under his pillow each night. In the 32 years of his life, Alexander conquered Persia, and fought through modern-day Afghanistan to reach northern India.
Almost immediately after it came out, the book - which went on to sell a million copies - attracted the interest of Hollywood. It has been repeatedly optioned, with legends such as Gregory Peck, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas expressing an interest in projecting Alexander on to the big screen. So, when Oliver Stone’s producer called and invited him to London for a meeting, Prof Lane Fox was blas about the prospect of seeing his book made into a film. Yet, within a few hours, the professor discovered Stone had been working on the project for a decade. The director was dedicated to making the film - and making it as historically accurate as possible.
This meant tackling the issue that has proved to be the film’s Achilles heel in the United States: Alexander’s sexuality - or bisexuality, to be precise. Earlier historians skirted round the warrior’s sexual appetites, but Prof Lane Fox lifted the bedsheets and detailed in print the warrior’s partners as "at least one man, four mistresses, three wives, a eunuch, and, so gossips believe, an Amazon". As a result, a gay book club promoted his academic tome as the "dashing story of a spellbinding young gay who conquered the world".
The finished film, although not explicit, hints at Alexander’s desire for Hephaestion, his boyhood friend. The reaction in the US has depressed Prof Lane Fox, but he understands it, and says: "The reasons why it is so controversial in America is first, the vocal minority of the evangelical right. Second, a wish, which I think is a denial of reality, that there is an absolutely straight line; it’s light or dark, it’s gay or straight. Third, what the Warner Brothers research showed us was young males aged 18-25 don’t like ambivalence and people don’t like confronting perhaps what is a constant fact about desire in many human beings - that it can be either for males or females.
"Then there is the Oliver Stone factor - people believe, and this is quite wrong, that he wants to make mischief. Absolutely not. He has fastened on it because it was the case and it was part of a wider culture. He’s not trying to make Alexander the Gay."
The irony is the man charged with eyeing up his best male friend and making a move on a eunuch is Colin Farrell, who is arguably the most heterosexual man in Hollywood. On set, the actor sought out the academic and accused him of inducing eye-strain for writing such a long book. "I thought Colin was a great guy," says Prof Lane Fox. "A huge surprise. I know nothing about his films but I was told he drank far too much and was a tearaway. What an excellent example he set everyone on the set.
"I look at him as a tutor might look at a pupil and he was like Alexander in that he was always concerned that everyone else was down-to-earth and having fun; the least stuck-up person at every level. I don’t know which of them would have drank more vodka by the morning, Alexander or him, but I think Colin might have won."
The professor is clearly beguiled by the film, but going to its US premieres taught him about the duplicity of the movie world. People emerged in tears, raving about the film’s power and beauty, but critics were already sharpening their pencils, ready to plunge them into Alexander’s heart. The New York Times talked of "puerile writing, confused plotting, shockingly off-note performances", while the Boston Globe said: "The best thing that can be said is that it’s better than Troy."
Prof Lane Fox admits: "The critics have given it hell. But I can’t judge; I’m far too close to it. I’m concerned with only one thing: will people have a sense, through the splendour of the sets, of the ancient world?"
He admits there are moments in the film that, as a historian, make him uncomfortable. "Oliver insisted on having one man put out of his pain and misery by having a spike being knocked into his head - I don’t know where the spike came from," he says.
There is also the director’s own interpretation of Alexander’s personality, in which he seems to vacillate like Hamlet. "Personally, my idea of Alexander was never of somebody who was dreamy and looks as if he cries at every turn," says Prof Lane Fox. "But Oliver wanted him to be a man who hesitated and had uncertainty. He once said to me, which completely alarmed me, that Alexander was the first modern man because he hesitated between alternatives, which is absolute piffle."
The Making of Alexander by Robin Lane Fox, R&L Publishing, 11.95. Alexander opens in cinemas on Friday, 7 January.