Laura CliffordAlexander the Great (Colin Farrell) lived from 356 to 323 B.C. and, in that brief span of almost 33 years, the Macedonian king conquered most of the then-known world against incredible odds. Helmer Oliver Stone brings the life of the first world conqueror to the big screen with the near-three hour long epic, Alexander.”
Oliver Stone’s grand opus has all the elements of a great, larger-than-life story about the man who was the first to unite the world. But, the script, by Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, falls short of the lofty expectations and becomes a film long on talking and far too short on conquering. This is a major problem in a film about a man whose battlefield prowess is a large portion of his legend.
The film starts off with Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) telling a group of scribes (read: historians) the story of Alexander the Great – his coming to power, his battles with the Persians, the expansion of his incredible empire and tragic end. Instead of a brief segue leading into the live action of Alexander’s life, the narrative goes on for some minutes and began to feel like the movie should be called “Ptolemy Talks About Alexander.” Then, things shift to a young Alexander (Jesse Kamm) and his beautiful mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) as she advises the boy to “never hesitate” in his actions.
When the boy’s father, one-eyed King Philip II (Val Kilmer), drunkenly barges into their quarters to have his way with his unwilling wife, Alexander defends his mother. The child’s feisty nature is apparent and Alexander grows into a strong, confident teen. Philip is presented with an untamed horse, at one point, and the animal attacks the king, who demands it be put to death. Alexander intervenes and asks that the horse’s life be spared and she be given to him. The youngster dispels his father’s criticism when he gentles and rides the wild beast. All, especially his politically ambitious mother, sees the first glimmer of Alexander’s commanding presence. Eventually, despite political machinations, Alexander succeeds to the throne and expands Philips dream of conquest.
By age 25, Alexander was ready to take on Macedonia’s greatest enemy – King Darius of Persia (Raz Degan). The young ruler had bested the Persians before at the battles of Granicus (334 BC) and Issus (333 BC) but wanted a more decisive victory against his foe. The two forces meet again at Gaugamela in what is now northern Iraq with Alexander’s army outnumbered by as much as 10 to one. The warrior king uses his smaller, yet more mobile, army to dupe Darius and brings his cavalry dangerously close to the Persian ruler. Only a call for help from his general prevents Alexander from finishing Darius off. The victory, still, is decisive and in the Macedonians’ favor. The battle, as depicted by helmer Stone, is not very different from such scenes from other historical epics as “Braveheart.”
This is where “Alexander” falters. Once the Battle of Gaugamela is won it is nearly 1.5 hours before the next battle sequence occurs. During this lengthy interlude, there is a lot of talking with political intrigue, power struggles and bi-sexual allusions made about the young king and his boyhood friend and comrade-in-arms, Hephaistion (Jared Leto). Alexander and his powerful army fought many battles during the years leading up to his untimely death but Stone and company do little to show the toll constant warfare takes on men. The film culminates in the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC against Indian King Poros where that ruler deployed some two hundred battle armored elephants against the stunned Macedonian troops. Wounded by an arrow, Alexander was brandished off of the battlefield on a shield. The young ruler survived his wounds but died not long afterward – some say because of infection while others claim he was murdered. Stone leans toward the later but without his trademark conspiracy theories.
A long film (“Alexander” runs to nearly 3 hours) does not necessarily make a great film and, while Stone’s work is certainly ambitious and heartfelt, it is too long and lacks the action needed to sustain the attention required. Oliver Stone does produce quality work and his “Alexander” is no exception. He elicits solid, if not outstanding, performances from his large cast of character actors and even pulls off having Angelina Jolie play Alexander’s mum, Olympias (there is only a year difference between the actor and actress. Jolie makes an Oedipal complex seem like a really good thing, although I wonder why Stone had her play Olympias with an outrageous Romanian accent – especially since everyone else utilizes Irish and English accents.
Colin Farrell gives his performance a serious air that has little, if any, humor. He is a stalwart, ambitious leader who drives his men, and himself, to the brink during their eight long years of campaigning across some 22000 miles. The actor is required to play his young leader with far too much cliché as he gives not one but two of what I call, in the films where it is used, “The St. Crispen’s Day Speech” – the one delivered by Shakespeare’s Henry V to his outnumbered men just before that historic battle. Mel Gibson used it in “Braveheart” and Stone carries forth the cliché here.
The rest of the large supporting cast doesn’t get any real chance to put dimension into their characters. Jared Leto is doe-eyed as he looks upon his king with untempered love and respect. (On a side note: Alexander” gets the Max Factor award for most lavish use of eye makeup on most the principle actors). Val Kilmer lets it hang out as bloated King Philip who is reluctant to relinquish his throne to Alexander, giving Olympias a major power play boost. Rosario Dawson, as the legendary Roxane, Alexander’s first wife, is both comely and feisty. It’s a handsome cast but one that has little of note.
Production values for this big budget, sprawling epic are on par with the scope of Oliver Stone’s vision and strive for as much accuracy to the legend of Alexander as Hollywood can muster. The scrupulous attention to details, from costume to bareback horse riding skills to the amazing final battle against Poros and his imposing herd of armored elephants, puts the budget up on the screen but are not enough to make up for the shortfalls of the screenplay.
Where the recent (and successful) “Troy” didn’t try to be truthful and provided a piece of entertaining bubble gum filmmaking, “Alexander” is ponderous in its correctness – with the exception of the controversy when Alexander declares his conquests for the glory of Greece and not, as some say he should, for Macedonia. Groups have risen up calling for the film to be boycotted. My complaint? It is unnecessarily nearly three hours long and did not need be. It will be interesting to see if Leonardo DiCaprio does it better – if “Alexander the Great” gets made.
I give Stone’s “Alexander “ a B-.
In all of history, only one man was great enough to have conquered ninety percent of the known world by traveling 22,000 miles and fighting 70 battles undefeated - "Alexander."
Ironically, there is little in Oliver Stone's ("Any Given Sunday") dream project that marks it as an Oliver Stone film. Sure, he gives Alexander an animal spirit and a hallucinogenic trip on 'strong wine,' but the enormity of his subject's life overwhelms the constraints of a three hour film. "Alexander" has some striking moments, but too much of it barely skims the surface.
After a brief flashback to Alexander's death bed, we're whisked away to the stunningly realized port of Alexandria, where an aging Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins, "The Human Stain," "Nixon") is recounting Alexander's exploits to a scribe (English on papyrus! A poor choice - it's just plain wrong). Ptolemy describes how Alexander changed the world by attempting to unite it, then admits that idolization is perhaps gilding the truth.
The young Alexander (Connor Paolo, "Mystic River") is torn between his doting mother, the Greek Olympias (Angelina Jolie, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," vamping it up and rolling her r's like an Eastern European when the rest of the Greeks speak with English accents), and his Macedonian father, King Philip (Val Kilmer, "Spartan," "The Doors"), who doesn't think much of the boy until he proves himself by calming and riding Bucephalus, a wild black stallion. Alexander's life long friendship with Hephaistion (played by Jared Leto, "Panic Room," as an adult) is established and given homoerotic subtext in wrestling lessons and the teachings of Aristotle (Christopher Plummer, "National Treasure"), who cautions that men should not lie together only for lust.
Olympias, whose constant live snake adornments make them seem like her familiars, begins to push Alexander (Colin Farrell, "A Home at the End of the World") to make his claim on the throne when Philip takes a Macedonian wife, Eurydice (Marie Meyer), who also bears him a son. When Philip is murdered, Alexander vows revenge on the Persians and begins his worldwide conquest by defeating King Darius (Raz Degan, "Titus") at the Battle of Gaugamela, even though Alexander's army is greatly outnumbered. Alexander continues to move Eastward for the next eight years, taking a hill chief's daughter, Roxane (Rosario Dawson, "The 25th Hour"), as his wife against the counsel of his generals and even facing mutiny as he pushes into India. After one last, brutally bloody battle where he loses his beloved Bucephalus followed by the death of Hephaistion, Alexander agrees to return home, but like his hero, Achilles, he dies at a young age - thirty-two - without making it back to his birthplace.
Alexander only sparks intermittently during its first two hours. Jolie's campy performance is entertaining, if confusing, and is countered by Dawson's hellcat wedding night behavior (Alexander removes her snake bracelet before sex, perhaps in denial over his bride's resemblance to his mother). Philip shows the boy cave drawings of Greek myths which presage Alexander's life. The young Alexander calms Bucephalus by linking their shadows. An eagle's eye view at Gaugamela gives us the vast scope of the battle, if not the strategy. Babylon is stunningly realized by production designer Jan Roelf ("Orlando"). A quiet conversation between Alexander and Hephaistion the first evening in Babylon allows Farrell and Leto to define their relationship. Aside from these moments, however, there's too much empty talk and too little action. Alexander fought seventy battles, but we're only shown two - Stone would have us believe the Great conquered the known world by merely traveling through it. The film feels like it was assembled for time and lost its cohesiveness and stylistic flow in the editing room. There are too many intertitles jumping us forward and backward in time.
The film's final third is more cohesive and shows more of Stone's hand, beginning with the crossing of the Hindu Kush, where Alexander sees the face of Zeus in a snowy mountaintop. The spectacular battle which pits Alexander's men against elephants, animals which they are seeing for the first time, is tinted red by director of photography Rodrigo Prieto ("21 Grams," "Frida"), giving it the surreal edge Stone is known for and features the film's most stunning shot, Alexander on his rearing horse made diminutive by a standing elephant, like St. George against the dragon.
Colin Farrell is better than expected in the title role, but he lacks the majesty necessary to put over the greatness of the man. Farrell's Alexander is more a lover than a fighter. While his physical achievements on horseback must be lauded, Farrell doesn't project the graceful power Brad Pitt gave to Achilles in "Troy."
Stone, who had such passion for this project, fails to deliver a fully formed "Alexander." Perhaps the mini-series is the only method for a story made up of such mind-boggling statistics.
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