Thursday, December 2, 2004

Alexander's elephants

Alexander was partially shot in the central Thailand province of Saraburi, which stood in for India. The Nation's Ken Ywin wrote about the Thai angle recently.

Along with the Royal Thai Army serving as extras, the cast included actor Bin Bunluerit of Bang Rajan, playing an Indian king and Jaran Ngamdee a prince.

The battle to be filmed in Thailand was the fierce forest conflict that takes place while the Macedonian king and company are traveling through India and clash with the troops of an Indian king at the River Jhelum. The soldiers face dramatic weather, a landscape inhospitable to their military formations and, of course, war elephants. The Macedonians had never encountered anything akin to the giant beasts that the Indian soldiers employed in combat.

Working with the Thai army "was a very interesting cross-cultural exercise,” said retired Marine Corps Capt Dale Dye, who was hired to train the crew. Dye is a long-time cohort of Stone, having served as the military adviser and action director on Platoon. “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 2,300 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 foliage of the forest, unlike on the open desert battleground of Gaugamela.”

In the thickly forested landscape, Dye was faced with the same practical challenges that would have confronted Alexander – the phalanx was forced to break up, separate and lose its cohesiveness and unity in order to navigate around natural obstacles.

The presence of enormous, strikingly costumed war elephants added a dramatic new dimension to the battle scenes.

“An elephant is going to do what an elephant is going to do,” said Dye. “They aren’t interested in hitting marks. But we had an extraordinary bunch of elephants who were trained by mahouts since they were calves. They were extremely well disciplined.”

To assure the safety of the film’s animals, conservationist Richard Lair, co-founder of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, and the Thai government’s chief veterinarian, Dr Preecha Puangkham, were present during the training and filming.

Miraculously, throughout the two-and-a-half-week filming of the forest battle, no injuries were caused by the elephants, nor were any animals harmed.

“They were amazing,” said Oliver Stone of his pachyderm thespians. “It really seemed as if they were enjoying themselves, and their discipline was extraordinary.”

Needless to say, the mayhem inflicted upon the elephants in the course of battle was entirely fabricated by the special and visual effects departments, along with Steve Painter’s busy prosthetics division, which was responsible throughout filming for providing extraordinarily realistic depictions of the cruel physical effects of war on humans and animals alike.

While none of the animals was hurt, the ferocity of the forest battle, however carefully planned and staged, resulted in a fair share of bruises among the actors and stunt players, including Farrell.

Joining Farrell on the injured list were a few of his co-stars, none of whom sat out the battle on the sidelines. Like the warriors they became on film, the actors sucked it up and hurled themselves back into the fray when they were needed.

Around 1,500 soldiers per day had to be equipped for the forest scene with 14,150 pieces of equipment: 1,000 sarissas (five-metre lances), 2,500 shields, 2,500 swords, 900 bows and 11,000 arrows for the Macedonian and Persian cavalry, as well as for the elephants.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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