Alexander limps along from one fancy set to another.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Fortune favours the bold." --Virgil, "The Aeneid"

The years 2004 and 2005 were big on sword-and-sandals epics from big-name directors. We had Antoine Fuqua's "King Arthur" (2004), Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy" (2004), Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005), and Oliver Stone's "Alexander" (2004). I can't say that any of them--movies or directors--succeeded to any remarkable degree.

First, let it be known that Alexander was technically a Macedonian, a king of ancient Macedonia, which in the 4th century B.C. achieved hegemony over Greece, as the Director's Cut of this 2004 movie rendition of the world conqueror tries to make clear. Present-day Macedonians made such a fuss about this matter during the movie's theatrical run, they practically besieged movie houses worldwide. Now, if only director Oliver Stone had been able to engender as much passion in his movie as the Macedonians did in their denouncement of it, this lengthy, tepid film might have had a chance of entertaining us.

As it is, Stone's Director's Cut is still too long and dragged out to be very effective, even with the removal of what I understand was about eighteen minutes of footage (and the addition of about ten minutes more). The keep case says, "Newly inspired, faster paced, more action packed." The idea was to tighten up the narrative and get to the point quicker, but I'm not sure what the point was supposed to be. In real life, Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) was a king of Macedonia, a ruler of Greek city-states, and a conqueror of the Persian Empire from Asia Minor and Egypt all the way to India. In Stone's portrait of the man, he seems a little less than "Great." How about Alexander the Lukewarm, the Trivial, or perhaps the Eternal Enigma?

I suppose we figure on a lot from the director of "Platoon," "Wall Street," "JFK," "Born on the Fourth of July," "The Doors," and "Salvador." We may forget that he also gave such clunkers as "Nixon" and "Any Given Sunday." Nor does everyone remember the man's excesses. When he does something, he periodically gets carried away with it, leading some critics to believe that the director can become too obsessed with his subject matter. So it is with "Alexander," where Stone wants to do a comprehensive character analysis, a historical documentary, a big battle epic, and possibly even a parable about our own times all rolled into one gigantic, nearly three-hour product. Stone overextends himself. Anyway, let me list a few of the things I liked and a few of the things I didn't like about this extravaganza.

1. I liked the opening credits, which are quite beautiful, artistic, and creative.

2. I liked the settings and set designs, starting with the renowned port of Alexandria, Egypt, and then on to the ancient city of Babylon. This is spectacle on a scale of Cecil B. DeMille and a delight to the eye.

3. I liked the costumes and the pageantry, particularly Alexander's triumphal entrance into Babylon.

4. I liked the musical score by Vangelis. It may not be as memorable as his score for "Chariots of Fire," but it's got some good, subtle, simple tunes working for it, as well as a few instances of big-screen grandeur.

5. I liked Val Kilmer as Philip, Alexander's lustful, boisterous, libertine father. "All your life, beware of women" is the best advice he finds for his son.

6. I liked parts of the battle sequences, especially the CGI and aerial shots, as well as the director's devotion to realism; meaning that the fighting is bloody and riotous in the extreme.

1. I didn't care much for the way the story kept jumping around in time. It begins in 323 B.C. at the death of Alexander, then moves ahead forty years to a scene of old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) as he dictates Alexander's history to a scribe (and to us). After that, the narrative flip-flops around needlessly, going back and forth in Alexander's life from his boyhood to his manhood, back to his childhood, ahead to his teen years, back again to his boyhood, forward again to his adulthood. If there were some purpose to this nonlinear storytelling, I could understand and accept it. If it were being told from multiple points of view, for example, it would have made sense, or if it were a mystery story and we were supposed to be picking up pieces of the puzzle. But no. I simply found the convoluted narrative device distracting.

2. I didn't care for the casting of Colin Farrell as the teen and older Alexander. The myths said that Alexander was born of Zeus, a myth that his mother, reputed to be a sorceress, continued to foster. But I found Farrell too old for the part of the teen Alexander and too wimpy and whiney as the adult Alexander. He's supposed to be a puzzling, unsettled character of whom we must ask, how did he manage to conquer half the known world at such a young age? Was he a great strategist, a great leader of men, a great warrior? In Farrell's (and Stone's) hands we never find out. Alexander seems merely a restless, sometimes petulant, ofttimes conflicted individual who has nothing better to do than conquer countries and name new cities after himself. He seems entirely devoted to individual freedom, and he is most generous to his defeated enemies, yet many of his own people see these traits as weaknesses. We see them only as contradictions that are never resolved in a military man. Worse, Farrell never dominates the screen as the hero of a big-screen epic should. Looking back, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Clark Gable, even the stars of "LOTR" were able to hold our attention, no matter how big the production around them. Farrell tends to get lost in the surrounding spectacle.

3. I didn't care for the casting of Angelina Jolie as Olympia, Alexander's mother. Her character is intended to be that of an exotic, scheming temptress, her playthings snakes; and certainly Jolie fits the physical bill. But as Alexander grows and matures, the mother remains the same. By the time Alexander is in his late twenties, he looks older than his mom (in reality Jolie and Farrell are about the same age, Jolie but a few months older). More displeasing, Jolie never convinced me of her character's strength or cunning. I kept seeing Laura Croft, instead. Nor was I persuaded by either Farrell or Jolie to accept their love-hate relationship with one another. I had the feeling that Stone, who cowrote the script, didn't fully understand their relationship, either, and made it purposely ambiguous.

4. I didn't care for the long speeches and endless stretches of dialogue that ensued. Alexander can't even go into battle without a fifteen-minute oration to rouse his troops and deaden the tempo of the film. It's all talk, talk, talk, when it's some action the audience came to see. A little philosophizing goes a long way, and in the case of "Alexander," it goes on forever.

5. I didn't care for the numerous close-up shots during the battle scenes. They're doubtless meant to get the viewer as close to the fighting as possible, duplicating the success the director found in his football flick, "Any Given Sunday," to make the viewer feel personally and intimately involved with the combat. The actual result, however, is to confuse the viewer. We never see Alexander's tactics to the fullest, his strategies that became so famous, his innovative use of cavalry, and whatnot. We only get a barrage of quick edits from one head being lopped off to another's arm being slashed. While it's all very brutal and very graphic, it isn't really very exciting or very enlightening.

6. Moreover, I didn't care for Stone's skipping over so many of Alexander's battles. This is a lengthy movie about one of history's greatest conquerors, yet we are shown only a couple of major engagements: Alexander's defeat of the Persian king, Darius, near the beginning of the movie and several of his encounters in India toward the end of the movie. It isn't enough, given that everything in between feels like filler.

7. I didn't care for Stone's teasing treatment of Alexander's homosexuality in the movie. Homosexuality and bisexuality were common practices in ancient Greece, but Stone never explores the idea for any specific purpose. Nearly every other scene makes some reference to Alexander's love for his boyhood friend and adult lover, Hephaistion (Jared Leto), or his eyes for male dancers and so on. Yet Stone does little with this behavior. The movie barely mentions, skips over really, Alexander's new wife's envy of Hephaistion, an envy that lasts for a couple of minutes in a single scene and is heard of no more. If Stone is going to bring up the subject so often, I kept thinking he should have been taking it somewhere, developing some point. Instead, it's merely there, a kind of recurring titillation, without furthering any significant theme or shedding any new light on the topic.

8. Finally, as if I needed to mention it again, I didn't care for the movie's length. At the halfway point, I was ready to throw in the towel. If cutting out eight minutes of footage was Stone's idea of making the film more attractive, faster paced, and more stirring, he failed with this viewer. Now, understand, I don't mind long movies, per se. I loved the extended cuts of "The Lord of the Rings," and I've always enjoyed epics like "Spartacus" and "Gone With the Wind." But those movies had plots that involved us, characters that attracted us, and action that inspired us. Several months before watching "Alexander," I saw a documentary about the man on the History Channel that was more absorbing and more captivating than this. "Alexander" limps along from one fancy set to another.

When Alexander was twenty-five, he had become king of all Persia. But in the movie that event occurs about a third of the way into the plot. We've still got almost two hours to go! From then on, it's all court intrigues and jealousies, and more and more talk. I couldn't help wondering, though, as I watched Alexander showing mercy to his new subjects, treating the Persians as equals, even taking a foreign woman to wife, if Stone wasn't making a comparison to our present-day conquest of Iraq and indirectly criticizing the way we have handled the current situation in that country. Stone is a political animal, and his movies always have an ulterior motive. Yet this time, it's a pretty vague parallel if it's there at all.

Alexander reached the end of the world, and at age thirty-two with no more worlds left to conquer, he died. Clearly, Stone tried to make more than a simple action adventure from this material. However, if the movie was trying to explain a perplexing historical figure, it didn't make it. Despite all the flashbacks and all the dialogue and all the talk and voice-over narration, we know no more about the man at the end of the movie than when we started.

The video quality can hardly be faulted. The picture is excellent. The movie's original 2.40:1 screen dimensions are largely maintained in an anamorphic ratio that measures over 2.26:1 across my screen, and the colors are preserved via a high bit rate transfer. Indeed, the movie has one of the richest tapestries of hues and tints imaginable, and they are conveyed in all their splendor. Definition is also reasonably good, and grain is practically zero. Maybe things get a tad too dark in some scenes, making facial tones seem a bit unnatural, but the consequences are minor.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 processing reproduces a soundtrack that is more subtle than one might expect in a big blockbuster-type film. There are some wonderfully light, nuanced moments of music and sound as well as big, thunderous ones. However, the music and sound effects can also be overpowering at times, occasionally obscuring the dialogue. For instance, I could make out very little of what Brian Blessed, as the wrestling instructor, was saying to the boys in his charge because the surrounding noise was so loud. Otherwise, things are fine. Count on deep bass, some effective rear-channel information in the battle scenes and in musical ambiance enhancement, along with a reasonably neutral tonal balance.

The Director's Cut of "Alexander" comes in a deluxe two-disc edition, but understandably with a movie of this length, there isn't much room left over on the first disc for many extras. What we get is an audio commentary by director Oliver Stone. In it, among other things, Stone attempts to explain the cuts he made in the present version and why he made them, twenty-seconds here, sixteen seconds there. His commentary is often more interesting than the film, and with his pleasant, smooth, mellow speaking voice he keeps our attention. Most everything he says is of significance, as opposed to some other filmmakers who merely point out the obvious. Stone seems genuinely involved with his work, and if the movie didn't turn out as well as he'd hoped, it would not appear to be for lack of sincere effort. The movie is accompanied by thirty-nine scene selections (but no chapter insert); English as the only spoken language choice; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles

Disc two contains a quite lengthy documentary that Sean Stone, the director's son, filmed, produced, and directed called "Fight Against Time: Oliver Stone's Alexander," a behind-the-scenes look at the making of "Alexander," seventy-six minutes; and three further segments, "Resurrecting Alexander," twenty-six minutes, "Perfect Is the Enemy of Good," twenty-eight minutes, and "The Death of Alexander," thirty-one minutes. These documentaries take us backstage with the director, the actors, and the filmmakers, who discuss the background of the story, the historical Alexander, the costumes, the sets, and pretty much everything else a person would want to know about the production, including why Oliver Stone wanted to make the picture in the first place. In addition, there is a short, four-minute soundtrack featurette, "Vangelis Scores Alexander," in which the composer discusses his work; as well as widescreen teaser and theatrical trailers.

Parting Shots:
Of the four movies I mentioned at the beginning, I thought "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Troy" were the best of the lot, with "Alexander" barely hanging in, and "King Arthur" bringing up the rear. Still, you don't expect an Oliver Stone film to be barely hanging in. You expect Stone to be crafting something a lot better; or at least a lot less conventional and tedious.

Stone could have made a great action movie from his subject matter, or a great historical drama, or a great character study. Instead, he tried to combine all three and wound up being his own worst enemy. Like Alexander, Stone seems to have been a little too ambitious and overextended himself. Trying to make amends in the Director's Cut didn't alleviate the movie's problems.


Film Value