Oliver Stone set himself a real challenge to try and do a biographical drama meets swords-and-sandals epic on one of histories most famous men. The all too over-rated but still well done “Gladiator” could essentially mold the genre around a fictitious crowd-pleasing Hollywood storyline.
Earlier this year, the problematic “Troy” tried rewriting one of the great myths in a style exactly like the old 50’s bodice-busting epics. Alexander the Great on the other hand was a real man who achieved far more than Maximus and Achilles combined. It was one of the most ‘lived’ lives in history that still has more than a few lingering questions and is near impossible to summarise let alone shrink into movie-length.
Stone at least tries to do it and “Alexander” is nothing if not ambitious, but in the end he fails. The result is far from the disaster that many other critics seem to feel about the film (haven’t they seen those two movies out now with “Christmas” in the title? Now THERE are disasters), but as a film it sadly doesn’t work despite a few great moments and willingness to explore territory (however timidly) that’s rarely seen in the increasingly safe playing mega-budget movie arena.
Unlike many films though there’s no specific problems which sink everything, rather general mistakes all across the board contribute and reinforce each other to bring it down. The resulting film itself, much like “Troy”, will divide audiences with many hating, a few loving, and others feeling indifferent at best. The most jarringly noticable of these is the narrative itself. The movie feels like a six-hour mini-series that’s been cut down to three and reassembled with a clumsy voiceover (in this case an all too bland Anthony Hopkins) to try and make sense. It feels like we’re essentially watching a rushed Cliff Notes version of Alexander’s life, and yet paradoxically it’s all too drawn out and glacially paced.
A biographical pic is supposed to follow a person, the main events in their life that shaped them and get us into their mind to try and understand why they did what they did and why they’ve left such a strong impact on the world. The film never delves deep in its attempts to psychologically profile this man, even if it throws in a variety of juicy and somewhat odd scenes that inexplicably are supposed to explain his persona.
Part of the problem is the sheer jumping about. The first hour is a domestic drama of Alexander being raised by his corrupt parents – a one-eyed libidinous drunk of a father (Val Kilmer) and a cold scheming mother (Angelina Jolie) with a penchant for snakes. The squabbles, the manuevering, etc. is like a simplified “I, Claudius” that’s too talky but you eventually get used to both it and the funky variations of accents ranging from the Irish brogue of the Greeks to Jolie’s Albanian impersonation. The highlights here are interesting such as Alexander’s taming of his horse to a big argument with his father during a feast.
Then all of a sudden we skip ahead several years to the Battle of Gaugamela. It’s the first of several jarring time jumps the movie makes that renders much of what we’ve seen before it utterly useless and makes us as an audience feel like we’ve missed something important. In fact there’s a flashback to Philip’s death later on in the movie that feels like a misfired attempt to shore up pacing. From here on in it revolves around the Persian and Indian battles and assorted long-winded speeches and landscape shots of Alexander pushing on with his campaign as his armies become more and more demotivated.
The battles themselves are fine, but the film is all too filled with long-winded speeches and droning on about Alexander’s potential and/or flaws rather than actually showing us them in action. The dialogue is much like “Troy” with lots of God references and stilted sentences, but it’s the speeches such as the pre-battle motivational bits that seem to drone on forever. So much of this movie talks about things when it should be showing them. Worse still these conversations and moments don’t build on anything except themselves, the screwy editing and Hopkins narration ruining much chance of all this forming a cohesive storyline that audiences will get into. And at three hours, this nonlinear technique is draining.
Performances seem to try hard but have little to work with. Farrell goes all out in various scenes with lots of crying and mad flashes of fury, combined with quieter scenes of introspection which he doesn’t pull off anywhere near as well as his superb job in “A Home at the End of the World” earlier this year. A heavily eyelinered Leto does the forlorn look well even if his chiseled beauty is hidden behind bad hair and a beard. Dawson gets nothing to do, same with the aforementioned Hopkins who is stuck with the film’s dullest role as the dictating Ptolemy (a younger very 70’s porn star meets Heath Ledger-looking version appears throughout the film). Alexander’s assorted advisors blend into each other so much it’s hard to pick any out.
Arguably the strongest work comes from Kilmer’s short performance as Phillip – combining dangerous anger and contempt for his wife with a few attempts to impart the wisdom of being a king to his son yields a volatile and interesting role. Jolie hams it up admittedly with the snakes and bile, but lets slip her mothering qualities in her body language quite effectively making her a smidgeon more than a ‘Livia’ rip-off.
The action, when it happens, is both good and bad. Stone’s battle scenes are powerful, blood-filled and in your face rough. Yet they’re admittedly confusing and fail to really show off the scale and more importantly the brilliant military strategy tactics that Alexander became famous for – especially his piercing of the hole in the Persian lines at Gaugamela. Each one though has some inventive stuff whether it be the use of the elephants in the second battle or the eagle eye view of the armies in the sand, but that’s offset by some stupidity as well like the text labelling of different parts of the army to the red chroma key haze of the second battle’s last half.
Then of course comes the gay element. Alexander to this day remains history’s most famous lover of men and women, a man who had wives but whose lifelong love and devotion was for his boyhood male friend Hephaestion. Of course this was ancient Greece, the time long before organised religion pushed its moral agenda on the world and turned good old-fashioned man love into something forbidden. Even though the church’s influence is near gone these days, sexuality is still very much a difficult thing for many people to handle or even contemplate that there was a time when there literally was ‘free love with everyone’.
Stone’s film therefore tries to cover it in a way that satisfies all but funnily enough will hardly please any. The gay element of the film is broched upon but never too overtly displayed. Various background characters sit among and occasionally snuggle young toga-clad men, Phillip attempts to rape a male servant (though it’s brief and hard to see), and Alexander very briefly pecks a eunuch in drag on the lips and later hops naked into bed whilst looking forlonly at him. It’s all implied and hinted at but all in a tame PG-style way. It does at least mention several times the Achilles/Patroclus gay love affair so distinctly absent from “Troy” and in part makes up for that biggest of blunders in Wolfgang Petersen’s flick.
The only upfrontness is the almost Mills & Boone style conversations declaring love for each other that Alexander and Hephaestion have on a night time balcony and during the latter’s death scene, the pair throw looks at each other and hug a lot but that’s it – despite their words they act more like two school buddies than one of histories greatest love matches. Homophobes will snigger or cry out “eeww!!” over these mild moments of implied gaydom, the rest of us will be left befuddled as to why we’re left with these endless talks of their love when twenty seconds of french kissing and a quick sex scene in bed would’ve sufficied.
Even more confusing is the heterosexual elements of this movie. Jolie gets nearly raped at the start, Dawson essentially is portrayed as an animal and the Alexander/Roxanne love scene involves more violence than actual sex. Skin fans should be somewhat satiated by Dawson getting some rather bulbous breasts out and Farrell shows off not only a very well-toned ass but a brief dark flash of his balls.
Production values though are strong with a few glaring exceptions. The city of Babylon and its Hanging Gardens, along with some brief shots of Alexandria’s harbour are stunning CG background work. The sets although a little stageish, are lavishly decorated and the costumes exquisitely detailled. Cinematography gets somewhat fuddled in the battle but has some beautiful shots of the Central Asian and Hindu Kush regions. Vangelis’ score is all too overbearing and drowns out some already muddled dialogue.
Considering the talent and money he had on hand, this is a big fumble. As a studio movie its a dud, but some great moments and admittedly brave attempts to push into new territory make one wonder why it’s getting all the venom it is. There was rumour the rough cut was an hour longer, maybe if that footage were restored and the film underwent a big re-edit it might have worked (esp. in mini-series format) but as a big screen piece it sadly fails to click. “Alexander” was a great man and there’s many a fascinating book study of the legend, but on film even a master like Stone can’t quite bring him to life.