Film Review: Alexander (2004)

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(source: tmdb.org)

Comparing grand figures of history is a thankless task, but some can be called "greatest" with relative ease. One such prime candidate for that lofty title is Alexander the Great, arguably the most important person to have lived in the Classic World, if not in the entire history. While many can argue whether his impact on future events was net positive or net negative, it is without doubt that his relatively brief life resulted in far-reaching political and economic changes, as well as plenty of action, drama, adventure, and spectacle, often in exotic locations on three different continents.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the larger-than-life figure of Alexander has captured the imagination of filmmakers, just as he has done with artists, writers, and political leaders over the past 23 centuries. It is also not very surprising that most of those filmmakers have failed in their task of capturing the greatness of Alexander, even when equipped with modern technology and huge financial resources. One such failure is the 2004 biopic Alexander, directed by Oliver Stone, although this also happens to be one of the more interesting failures of 21st Century Hollywood.

The film is broadly based on Alexander the Great, a 1973 book by British historian Robin Lane Fox, who also served as the film's technical advisor and even appeared as an extra playing one of Alexander's famed cavalrymen. The plot is framed with the prologue set in 285 BC in Alexandria, the newly built capital of Egypt, which is ruled by Ptolemy (played by Anthony Hopkins), one of the last surviving Alexander's generals who dictates his memoirs and serves as the film's narrator. The plot then switches back decades earlier, showing first Alexander as a teenager (played by Connor Paolo), the son of Philip II of Macedonia (played by Val Kilmer), an ambitious ruler of the mountain kingdom on the fringes of the ancient Greek world, who dreams of uniting all city-states under a single rule and leading a campaign of conquest against the mighty Persian Empire to the east. Philip recognizes talent in his son and has him educated by the famed scholar Aristotle (played by Christopher Plummer), but also feels endangered, especially since Alexander (played as an adult by Colin Farrell) has to switch loyalty between his father and his estranged mother Olympias (played by Angelina Jolie). Dynastic intrigues end with the murder of Philip, after which Alexander puts his father's plan into practice. He succeeds beyond anyone's expectations, crushes the Persians, conquers the entire Middle East, and, much to the increasing displeasure of his generals and followers, continues further into India, hoping to reach the end of the world. After a bloody campaign in India, he finally turns back and returns to Babylon, the new capital of his empire, where he would die at 323 BC, at the age of 33.

Oliver Stone can be criticized for a lot of things in Alexander, but not for the lack of ambition. A 155 million US dollar budget is clearly visible in the film, which includes careful reconstruction of the ancient world with costumes, props, and magnificent sets, as well as spectacular scenes that feature not only hundreds of extras but also rather effective use of CGI that make the whole affair look more epic. Especially impressive is the reconstruction of the Battle of Gaugamela, arguably the most important military showdown of the Classic Age, which later won praise by many historians for the great care of authenticity.

The film also features excellent cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, as well as a powerful musical score by Vangelis, which represents one of the last notable works of the great Greek composer. Unfortunately, all this great work was, in many ways, compromised by certain questionable creative choices and conceptual flaws. Stone has, to his credit, correctly assumed that the entirety of Alexander's life, including his historic campaign, couldn't have fit the format of a three-hour epic film, so he had to leave many things out, resulting in an episodic nature of the plot, held together by Ptolemy's narration that was supposed to give all those episodes some sort of deeper meaning and general theme.

However, what the audience instead got was often messy, confusing, and incomprehensible, with the plot switching forward and back in time. Dialogues were awful, and some casting choices rather unfortunate. Colin Farrell, although a talented actor, couldn't lift the role, often looking ridiculous in a blonde wig. Angelina Jolie simply went over the top as a near-psychotic witch-like Olympias. Val Kilmer in the role of Philip was the best part of the cast, but once his character is out of the picture, the film simply wasn't that interesting.

Another issue with Alexander was the producers' emphasis on making Alexander more approachable for a young audience at the start of the 21st century. That meant that, in the absence of proper Classical education in most of today's curricula, characters have to spend large amounts of time explaining certain things through exposition. Even more explicit was the attempt to make Alexander "hip" and "politically correct" by giving emphasis on Alexander's "unconventional" sexuality. Much of the time is spent on the close relationship between Alexander and his favorite companion Hephaestion, played by Jared Leto, which is shown as the great love of Alexander's life. Even Aristotle explicitly praises gay lifestyle, in line with modern interpretations of ancient Greece as a place more tolerant and progressive in sexual issues than the modern world. However, Oliver Stone, to a degree, compromised this vision of Alexander as some sort of grand gay hero by having the most explicit sex scene feature Alexander and Bactrian princess Roxanne, played by Rosario Dawson.

Oliver Stone later blamed the failure of his film on poor results in North America and the influence of right-wing homophobic Christian fundamentalists. However, the real reason why Alexander flopped so hard was in its general theme being somewhat too close to home for large segments of the audience not only in America but also in other parts of the world. Namely, Alexander's grand campaign to bring the Middle East under the rule of the West, embodied by Macedonia and its Greek city-states allies, looked too much like the Global War on Terror in which the United States and its Western allies did exactly the same under the rule of George W. Bush. The parallels between ancient past and troubled present were simply too much for the audience.

But most importantly, Stone himself failed to properly recognize this or wasn't sure whether to show ancient conquest in a positive or negative light. The closest he came was near the ending, when Alexander's grand battle in ancient India looks inspired by Stone's own nightmarish jungle experience during the Vietnam War.

In conclusion, Alexander is predictably a failed film, but, despite failure, had a lot of promise and featured a lot of interesting ideas, and, as such, deserves a recommendation for something like a starting point to all those who want to learn something about one of the greatest persons in history.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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