(Oliver Stone, 2004)
Review by Deborah Monroy, (c) 2005
Review by Lunacy, (c) 2004
"Alexander" and the Danger of the Dreamer
After reading many reviews one might think that "Alexander" remains unconquerably mediocre or else is a stunning disappointment, yet the film is neither though perhaps the greatest flaw of this movie is that it asks viewers to go further than they are accustomed. To struggle with new territories of myth and story. And to march on and on and on. Certainly, at three hours in length, it is a long story but then it was a very long march that determined Alexander's career.
The theatrical version of "Alexander" is the basis for the following notes. The "director's cut" version seems to me less impassioned, less nuanced than this first version. On the other hand, the narrative structure of the movie is more straightforward in the director's cut. The narrator is less obtrusive so there is a more streamlined feeling to the movie overall. Yet, there is a dynamic of thoughtfulness important to "Alexander" that is better served in the theatrical version.
The film begins when Alexander is four or five years old. His mother and her charming snakes beguile him. In contemporary time we are well acquainted with the story of that one serpent, in a tree, who mentions the possibility of more knowledge to a woman. The evil twist that this particular story takes renders it a minority tale in the scheme of stories surviving from the ancient Near East. Snakes, generally, were powerful allies and icons in that time. Clearly Olympias, Alexander's mother, was a working sorceress. Snakes were a part of her visionary craft. Unfortunately she was also the quintessential "barbarian" in a country that hated such foreigners. All those who were not Macedonian or at least Greek were "barbarians" then.
Olympias has in fact a bitch of an accent, which hammers home her status as a hated barbarian. Her husband Phillip, the king, who is Alexander's father, hates Olympias no less than she hates him. Yet she is the implied evil reptile of the story. Or she is simply Too Much Mother. But she is also exactly the mother Alexander needs in order to survive and become king. Unfortunately, he becomes king only as a result of his father's death. The king's death is Olympias' doing. Thus Olympias becomes mommy damnedest and Alexander becomes estranged from her. She continues to give him politically astute advice which he continues to ignore.
Most reviewers of this film adore the battle scenes, which feel chaotically accurate. The cinematography sturdily embodies the glory of early victories and then staggers to embody a pale, soiled vision of later decay, as Alexander's army unravels during the long, disastrous march into India. Part of the realism of this film stands out, too, in scene after scene of violence to animals used for war, or sacrifice. Suffering here is painfully epic.
Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, now an old man wandering barefoot in the library of Alexandria, opens this film by telling of Alexander's life and passions. Alexander's empire was not a location, he tells the scribe, but "an empire of the mind." Curiously, for an Oliver Stone film, "Alexander" too is an empire of the mind, for scenes of action are almost peripheral to the characters' musings about life and their devotion to one another.
Or their expressions of hatred, suddenly. "What have I done to make you hate me so much?" Olympias asks Alexander after he has kissed her on the mouth. This ambiguous act, perhaps parallel to that of Judas to Christ, is an act of love and hatred tangled together, passionately.
Do you remember when we were in Babylon? Imagine a city cut-together from cultural elements of Las Vegas, Rome, and New York. Do you remember Jim Morrison's words at the end of the song "Wild Child"? They are: "Remember when we were in Africa?" In "Alexander" Stone has cut together elements from his acid vision of Morrison's life and decline, alongside perhaps elements from Aguirre's film "The Wrath of God." "Alexander," especially during the India campaign, takes on the same hellishly hallucinatory quality of "Aguirre," when that conqueror's campaign also goes awry, and the conquest goes to hell.
Midway through the film Alexander conquers Persia and then enters the capital city of Babylon in triumph. Conquest is his forte however. He cannot remain idle in this idyllic city. Alexander must leave Babylon to penetrate more and more deeply into the east where eventually his expedition is crippled by battle in India. Already his army has been battered by the elements, by sixty days of violent rain. Finally they engage an enemy that possesses the ultimate weapon: elephants that crush and trample massively.
After this disaster when Alexander is almost fatally wounded, the Macedonians begin the voyage back to Babylon. They return; but even Alexander has been so damaged by battle and endless travail that he must be tied on to his horse lest he fall as he enters his city in pale triumph.
"All men reach and fall, reach and fall," Alexander tells his lover Hephaestion. Ptolemy repeats these words at the end of the film, too, even as he is reaching for words, creating a myth to enhance the story of his friend Alexander. He has never supported Alexander's dream of uniting Europe and Asia. Yet Alexander remains inspiring to him.
It seems Stone's film reaches beyond the parameters of the action film, or even beyond Stone's previous inventive portraits of great men, and struggles to conquer new territory, where history meets myth. Though it occasionally fails to maintain focus, the film tramples its way to glory, nevertheless. The viewer may experience both damage and inspiration during this epic. In addition, Stone is brash enough to bookend this action/adventure movie with the musings of a literate old man.
Colin Farrell is engaging as Alexander. Angelina Jolie is most compelling as his complex mother. Much of the glory of this film is in smaller details: the splendor of script from the ancient world floats and dissolves on-screen during the film's introduction. It is not often, if ever, we see in contemporary movies the handsome impact of Egyptian hieroglyphics, or the concise elegance of Sumerian cuneiform, or the martial precision of Greek, or an older form of Persian, perhaps, a script with which I am not familiar. During the scene of Alexander and Roxane's wedding, a single orange is offered as a gift to Alexander. In its time and place this simple globe is tribute beyond any price.
So much depends upon that orange fruit gleaming on a tray of silver. But who knows these things? It is both a strength and a central flaw of this film that so much screen time is given to elements authentic to the ancient world, and to older stories, much of which we have never known in their original contexts. We hardly know what these things signify. Leaders of his army beseech Alexander to leave India and return home but Alexander berates them: "You have come to love that which destroys men." Clearly the viewer sees that Alexander, without realizing it, is describing himself. Similarly, in this film, Stone has come to love that which destroys North American audiences: attention to details and myth that are meaningless to many, if not most, of us. Who understands these things? They held so much resonance in their time, which so few of us are in tune with today.
We agree to grapple with other films that also portray heroes who unravel in unusual worlds, such as "Daredevil" or the third installment of the "Matrix," yet these fictional worlds are self-referential. Even the "Lord of the Ring" series is self-referential, a universe unto itself. LOTR is lavish with references to a wealth of earlier ring myths yet one can view these films happily enough without knowing other stories. Films like "Alexander," and "King Arthur" and "Troy," astonish us with their spectacle yet we do not comprehend the vitality of their inventiveness in connecting to and resonating with earlier texts. This connection, if we but knew it, makes these films almost more extraordinary than one can imagine. These movies continue our dialog with myth. They are enlightening fiction with astonishing depths of cultural continuity yet we do not know them. And we fall short of the vision offered to us.
Before allowing me to pay for my ticket, the employee staffing the ticket window insisted on informing me that "Alexander" is three hours long. "Is that a bad thing?" I asked impatiently. "Well," he said, "people are complaining about the length." The danger of following the dreamer into his dream is that we may become stupefied by spectacle-or bored-and fail to comprehend what the dreamer revels in at such length. "All men reach and fall." Yet, in reaching, the viewer at least may come nearer to realizing the dream. "And what a beautiful myth it was." Stone has welded together elements of both myth and mundane detail to portray the life of a superstar from Macedonia.
So, here's to the myths. "Alexander" is a challenging film, handsomely realized.
Being an ancient history buff as I suspect many of us XWP fans are, I was looking forward to the new film ALEXANDER. Needless to say it was disappointing when 20 minutes into the film I had already grown so disillusioned with it that I started looking at my watch. Whoever decided on the structure of this film should be shot - what a waste of what could have been a great movie. As it stands it is essentially a flashy documentary. The film begins with Anthony Hopkins as an old Ptolemy inside what I assume is the Great Library of Alexandria (heart skipped a bit at that :-) recounting the story of his former king. Soon the narration falls behind and the story itself starts with a young Alexander spending time with his snake-charmer of a mom Olympias. Mom is played by Angelina Jolie who does a great job with the role. She is beautiful, ambitious, ruthless, and every bit as controlling as the historical Olympias apparently was herself. Had Macedonian society allowed a female to rule this woman would have probably left as big an impression in the world as her husband and son did. Phillip is played by Val Kilmer who also delivers a good performance as the rough, hard-living, hard-drinking warrior king whose rule and military brilliance paved the way for the empire his son would go on to conquer. The movie spends a bit of time showing Alexander's early days - his taming of the spirited Bucephalus - the legendary horse that would carry him through most of his campaigns (quite a Xena/Argo relationship there ;-), his childhood lessons with the famous philosopher Aristotle, his friendship with Hephaistion who would remain by his side for the next three decades and become the love of his life. Colin Farrell assumes the title role at the point where Phillip is marrying a new wife in hopes of having a true Macedonian heir. Olympias was not a Macedonian so Alexander was not guaranteed the throne. This of course causes tremendous friction in the family. Olympias is forever conspiring to secure her son's (and her own) power. Phillip distrusts them both. Things finally come to a head in the banquet following the wedding when a relative of the new bride insults Olympias and Alexander. Alexander responds angrily - a drunken Phillip demands he apologizes and then exiles him when he does not. It's at this point that for me the film became a disappointment. It jumps back to old Ptolemy in Egypt some 60 yrs. later narrating the story. I'm sitting there waiting anxiously to see what Alexander is going to do in exile - how mom will react - how he'll reconcile with dad - how he'll become king, and how exactly he'll become this great commander of men because to this point we haven't seen that transtition. Instead of SEEING any of this - Ptolemy just explains in a few sentences that it happened while we're left looking at a map of the Ancient World and then good old Ptolemy drops us right into the eve of the Battle of Gaugamela which took place about 6-7 yrs. later well after Alexander had already consolidated his power and was well into his campaign of conquest. For those of you who've seen the LORD OF THE RINGS movies or are familiar with the novels - imagine being introduced to Gandalf and the hobbits in that opening scene in the first movie and then right after this the movie springs you to that huge battle on the fields of Pelennor in the third movie. I must have spent 15 minutes thinking that this was some sort of weird movie technique and we WERE going to go back and SEE Alexander become ALEXANDER. No such luck. The movie goes on from here. The Battle of Gaugamela is appropriately HUGE and violent and grungy - definitely up to those standards Peter Jackson established in LOTR - except...you don't care about anyone because you don't KNOW any of the characters. It was exactly like watching a documentary. I've been doing a lot of that lately because the History Channel and Discovery and the National Geographic Channel have all been running Alexander documentaries lately. In fact - the History Channel documentary makes you feel more for Alexander than this movie does initally because it follows his life chronologically instead of jumping from exciled young prince to fierce Conqueror.
Colin Farrell does a decent job playing Alexander but the script makes it difficult for him to involve the audience emotionally because we don't have much of a chance to get to know him before we're seeing him already as this master commander of men. The script writers and producers of this film would have done well to study movies like BRAVEHEART and GLORY which follow the transition of their characters from common men to uncommon men but bring along the audience for the ride. I got the feeling in this film that the point was to show these HUGE battles - and then throw in some filler in between the fights. There's a slow motion scene toward the end where Alexander on his horse Bucephalus faces off against Indian warriors on an elephant. I think the scene lasts longer than some of those initial scenes where the character SHOULD have been developed. Granted Alexander is a historical figure and most people know that he became king of the Greeks and went off to conquer other lands but I was really expecting to see the whole story - not just see a few scenes of his early life and suddenly be jumped into the middle of his conquests.
The film does go back after about an hour and a half of Conqueror Alexander and shows in a flashback how Phillip was assassinated and Alexander was declared king but at that point I didn't care. I already knew this had happened. You see some of the Alexander's commanders in that flashback but you never see them join forces with the new king - you don't see them developed as characters either. VERY different from films like BRAVEHEART and GLORY where the lieutenants had stories of their own which grabbed you and made you care about these characters.
To its credit the movie does something which I frankly didn't expect - it portrays Alexander's sexuality fairly accurately. Hephaiston, who is played by this BEAUTIFUL actor anyone would lust after, is depicted not only as Alexander's friend but indeed as his lover and the love of his life. We don't see them having sex on screen. Alexander's one sex scene in the whole thing is him having hot, "politically correct" ;-) sex with the young woman he eventually takes as a wife to have an heir but it is clear that he remains very much attached to Hephaiston. He takes off the ring Hephaiston has given him before sex with the wife...then puts that ring right back on ;-) The Macedonian army is followed around not only by female prostitues but boys who dance for them and partake in their many wine parties.
One of the most interesting aspects of Alexander's conquest of Persia was his pursuit of the elusive King Darius. Darius had at one point been the most powerful ruler in that part of the world. The movie tends to gloss over this clash of the two most powerful men of their time. Darius is depicted as this caricature (beady eyed Middle Eastern dude) who never talks. He just stares at everyone fighting in the battle of Gaugamela - then turns and runs. Next time we see him he is dead. There's no sense of an empire crumbling and another taking its place. When Alexander arrives in Babylon he is welcomed as a god. You wonder exactly why these people are doing that considering that he and his men have massacred thousands of their sons and husbands and brothers.
On a side note - I found it...interesting...to hear Alexander trying to motivate his men before the various battles by claiming they were fighting so Greece could remain "free". Mind you they were at this point thousands of miles away from Greece killing people who had not gone anywhere near Greece but I guess that particular appeal is...timeless ;-) Plundering the lands and resources of others is apparently a necessity to remain - free.
Going back to the movie...or documentary really - it eventually shows Alexander's death (which we saw in the first few minutes but now is allowed to play out a little longer) and then jumps back to old Ptolemy who has finished telling his story and is now staring at a statue of Alexander and noting how great he was. I found myself thinking about those Xena episodes that would refer to how "great" the Warrior Princess has once been...yet we never actually saw that in the TV series. The movie never shows Alexander entering Egypt or founding any of the cities. It doesn't show one of the most interesting victories Alexander won which was against the city of Tyros on an island he besieged for months first trying to build a hill from the mainland to the island and eventually attacking both by land and sea with a fleet of ships from the various people he had conquered. Understandibly a film could never show everything that happened in Alexander's life because the man just kept going from one battle, one city to the next but the film bases all of Alexander's greatness on the battle of Gaugamela. We see that fight and then we're TOLD that they went here or they went there but we don't see another major confrontation until the final one with the Indians. A note here for fellow animal lovers - this is NOT a film for animal lovers. Yes it's all make-believe but it makes you think about all those animals that humans took into battle in all those wars for so many eons and it's disgusting really. Considering that this film really didn't develop the human characters much - I found myself caring a lot more from Bacephalus and the elephants and the camels in those fights than Alexander and his generals.
Overall - not the Alexander film I was hoping for. Acting was fine but the story structure was more appropriate for a documentary than a movie. Big battles are cool but you need character-building scenes in between those battles. If you're going to depict a "great" individual you need to not only show him being great but show how he got there. Ike Eisenhower in high school and then spearheading D-Day is a documentary. Ike going on to the military, meeting his wife, getting other combat experience, learning from his experiences, finding mentors, making mistakes and learning from those and then EVENTUALLY spearheading D-Day - that's a movie.
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