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Oliver Stone's Alexander Falls Short of Epic Status

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2004 11 Nov
  • COMMENTS
Oliver Stone's <i>Alexander</i> Falls Short of Epic Status

DVD Release Date:  August 2, 2005 
Theatrical Release Date:  November 24, 2004
Rating:  R (for violence and some sexuality/nudity)
Genre:  Action/Adventure/Epic
Run Time: 2 hr. 45 min.
Director:  Oliver Stone
Actors:  Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Jared Leto

EDITORIAL NOTE:  The following review contains subject matter that may be inappropriate for children and young teens.  Parental supervision is advised. 

Oliver Stone has never been a director to resist the challenge of portraying historic icons.  After all, who will forget Stone's unique versions of history in Malcolm X, JFK, Evita and Nixon, much less his other films like Platoon, Wall Street and Scarface, which have virtually become modern classics.  Unfortunately, despite the greatest of aspirations - not to mention a tremendous budget - Stone's latest project falls short of epic status.

Alexander the Great has been portrayed just once on film, in Robert Rossen's 1956 classic starring Richard Burton, which is considered by many to be an honorable failure.  So it is not surprising that Stone, who was both director and principal screenwriter for Alexander, chose to take on such a massive endeavor.  The difficulty of telling this story in less than three hours is evident, however, so the film necessarily has gaps, some of them significant and quite detrimental to the story.  But far more interesting is what Stone chose to focus on.  For, rather than portraying Alexander as an intellectual and a visionary, triumphant leader, Stone presents us with an uncertain boy who is so riddled by weakness that he never becomes the man history insists he was.

Son of King Phillip II of Macedonia, Alexander had conquered 90 percent of the known world by the age of 25.  At his death at the age of 32, in 323 B.C., he had marched his army for 20,000 miles over eight years and never once seen defeat.  As a result, Alexander Hellenized more than two million square miles, united East and West and created an empire like none the world had ever seen.  Plutarch's Lives describes him as a man who was close to his mother and who longed for his father's blessing, which he never received. He reportedly had a beautiful singing voice that was mocked by Phillip, which caused him to abandon that gift.  As an adult, Alexander was as much known for his sexual peccadillos as his military conquests.  In addition to three wives, mistresses and countless homosexual lovers, he surrounded himself with eunuchs, who existed - and who had been brutally castrated - for the sole purpose of the emperor's sexual pleasure.

Stone's interpretation of Alexander is interesting, but for the most part strays from historical accounts.  Clearly, it's an attempt to demythologize the conqueror by showing us his weaknesses.  After all, even though Alexander was regarded with godlike wonder, leading many to conclude that his father was a god, like Zeus or Dionysus, ultimately Alexander was just a man.  But the man he became is not the one we see onscreen.

To be fair to Colin Farrell, who plays the lead role with puffy blond hair and a less-than-impressive set of muscles for a battle-hardened soldier, the script is as much of a problem as his performance.  The opening act, which goes on for almost an hour, dwells far too long on Alexander's childhood, then leaps forward to his second battle against King Darius of Persia, which came after he had already conquered half the world.  We never see how Alexander became so proficient in battle (alongside his formidable warrior father in earlier skirmishes) and his succession to the throne comes toward the end of the film, in a poorly-placed flashback that should never have been a flashback to begin with. 

Stone wants us to believe that by going on his long march, Alexander was trying to escape the clutches of his cloying mother.  "It's a high ransom she charges for nine months in the womb," he says, in one of the more memorable lines of the film.  Stone's Alexander isn't a man who lusts for power and world domination - he's a mama's boy trying to flee the relationship he has grown to despise.  He's also a man who never wanted the throne.  Even when the golden crown of laurels is thrust upon his head, after his father's death, we see the same indecision and fear that plagued Alexander throughout childhood.

His sexual perversions are virtually ignored in the film.  Instead of a man filled with lust who tortured innocent slaves for sexual gratification, we see a homosexual who married just once, for an heir, but who loved his best friend - despite an occasional dalliance with servants.  That Stone does not overtly portray homosexual sex (we see kissing and hugging between men throughout the film), probably has far more to do with what audiences are willing to witness than any hesitation on Stone's part to do so.  Farrell's lone heterosexual scene is extremely graphic and further highlights his character's revulsion for women.  It begins as a rape on his wedding night and ends as an animalistic mating ritual, complete with growls.

History buffs will also be concerned with the way Stone portrays Alexander's mind.  Instead of an intellectual who dreams of bringing Greek culture to the world through assimilation, Stone's Alexander is a whimsical, if not mentally ill warrior who cares nothing about those around him, save his beloved Hephaistion (Jared Leto), his lifelong companion and lover.  Although we see the scrolls of The Iliad, his favorite book, at the foot of Alexander's bed, which he carried with him wherever he went, we never hear the man quote from it, as he often did.  Nor do we ever see him reading, listening to music or speaking about anything that might indicate he was a brilliant man - which, by all accounts, he was.  We do witness Alexander's education under Aristotle (Christopher Plummer), but that never translates into his character or personality.  Stone even has Alexander return again and again to a cave, a bit like a barbarian, where he studies the painted walls at the urging of his father (Val Kilmer, in a noteworthy performance), who is also portrayed as a drunken savage.

These fatal flaws are further hindered by Farrell's acting, which is filled with boy-like screams and hesitant lines that translate into a melodramatic, unconvincing show.  Stone tries to balance our opinion of the commander by having Anthony Hopkins, as his retired general and, later, historian over the great Library of Alexander, pontificate in annoying, exalted voiceovers scattered throughout the film.  That dialogue, like Ptolemy's insistence that Alexander was "the freest man I've ever known" whose failures "towered over other men's successes," is so clichéd that even Hopkins can't overcome it.

By far, the best actor in the film is Angelina Jolie.  As the embittered, estranged wife of Phillip and mother to Alexander, she resorts to conniving to protect herself from Phillip's ambitions, hissing advice to her son even as her pet snakes slither around her ankles.  We don't even mind that she appears to be the same age as her son (she's just one year older than Farrell), because she's so bewitching.  Watching her, one can't help but recall Bette Davis.

As he did in JFK, Stone once again explores a conspiracy theory about Alexander's death.  We are led to believe that both he and Hephaistion were poisoned, and that Ptolemy covered it up by dictating revisionist history to the scribes.  Unlike the death of Kennedy, however, which was shrouded in mystery, this historical hypothesis has little evidence.  According to Plutarch's account, Alexander died from the effects of putrid water.  But then again, his men had grown battle-weary, having witnessed a 75 percent casualty rate and been gone from home for a decade, so Stone's guess is as good as any.

"In his presence, in the light of Apollo, we were better than ourselves," states Hopkins, in one of his many narrations.  Sadly, however, this Alexander isn't nearly as good, or remotely as interesting, as the real one.  A disappointment, to be sure.
 
CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:    Heavy.  Characters drink wine and become drunk in several scenes.
  • Language/Profanity:   Average.  Characters use words like "bastard," "balls" and "bitch" in crude ways and swear allegiance to pagan gods ("in the name of Zeus").
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Extreme.  Two would-be rape scenes, one of which turns into a sexual encounter with full frontal & rear female nudity (including lingering shots of breasts) and partial male nudity.  Man refers to "the taste of a new woman." Multiple portrayals of homosexuality where men embrace and kiss on lips, including several between main characters. In one scene, main character climbs into a bath and beckons his male slave to join him (although no overt sexuality between men is shown onscreen).
  • Violence:   Extreme.  Most of the violence is war violence, but it is bloody and includes much hand-to-hand sword combat, stabbings and death. Multiple shots of dead bodies on battlefield; several executions by sword; an attempted rape between husband and wife; bull is slaughtered and blood spurts onto face while priests handles bloody organs.