Starring: Anthony Hopkins, David Bedella, Jessie Kamm, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer
I saw this movie at first release, and found myself over the next few weeks appalled at the critical panning going on, primarily by reviewers who found it easy to snigger at an accurate portrayal of ancient Greece. What was even odder, many the critics that panned ALEXANDER approved of TROY – a movie in which not one significant human emotion is shared by any character, and in which Homer’s story is outrageously altered to suit Hollywood values. I’m still shaking my head at some of the criticisms this flawed but fascinating movie has called forth!
I finally decided that the critical pans surrounding the movie were not so much for the flaws of the film – and there ARE flaws – as because your average viewer can’t make an easy connection with either Alexander, his legend, or his pagan world. It’s simply too titanic, and requires too much knowledge and energy, to involve most viewers. Who can relate to a man who may have thought he was a god? I also found myself wondering, given the viciousness of many reviews, if it was simply “payback time” for Oliver Stone.
The biggest problem any director faces with Alexander is one of context – how to make us connect with the greatest conqueror in the world, a bisexual ancient Greek, whose whole conceptions of honor and glory are, in our diminished age, food for chortles and embarrassment. And, of course, trying to make a major film about a bisexual character helped kill the film stone dead in the USA and Europe. Interestingly, its box office farther east – from Persia to VietNam – helped remake most of its investment within months of the opening. There’s a fascinating thought! The very people whom Alexander conquered seemed to have been more tolerant about his sexuality as well as his conquests. What amazed me was not where the movie ALEXANDER failed, but where it succeeds.
It’s over-the-top, crammed with riches cinematographically, full of intrigue, passion, anger, loss, disillusionment, and the simply alien nature, to most of us, of the values of a nearly-invisible pre-Christian past. There are so many scenes that just leap out and grab you – Philip of Macedon (oddly played by Val Kilmer, but with a certain brute pathos) taking the young boy Alexander through a cave filled with the blood and tragedy of the old Greek legends like Medea and the disasters of Troy – the battle at Gaugemela where the King of Kings stoically watches his Persian army fall apart – the moment where the boy Alexander rides Bucephalus for the first time – the entry into Babylon (talk about CGI wonders!) and the look on Colin Farrell’s face where he has found “the sweet fruition of an earthly crown” – then the disintegration of the years-long army traveling ever further west, into more and more alien country (just like Stone tries to take US into alien time and country), the ambitions of the generals, their hostility to granting vanquished Persians rights in what they – but not Alexander – foresee as simply a Macedonian plunder fest, the slow desintegration of Alexander himself . . . the story is waaaaay too big, and way too long, but historically I think it covers every possible aspect of the development and death of this extraordinary man. At the final battle scene, where in India the foe is using war-elephants, monsters to the Greek soldiers, and Alexander’s troops flee from these monsters, only to have Alexander and Bucephalus, in a kind of horrified courage, charge straight at the beasts with tragic consequences . . . is incredible visual filmmaking at its best. The death of Alexander after a despairing and angry drinking bout, delicately treads all the ambiguities about the man and his early death. Stone follows the line of many scholars who suggest that it was Alexander’s disillusionment with the man he had become a significant emotional element in a career the world itself viewed as miraculously successful.
I also disagree with those who down Colin Farrell. I thought Farrell did a fine job as Alexander, and it’s important to remember, Stone directed him to play to the ambiguities of his character, to take no simple solutions for granted.
Stone gave a remarkable interview last winter in which he sketched his concept of the “parallel stories” – Alexander’s past intruding into Alexander’s present – and frankly declared that he felt he’d been too obscure for most audiences and would re-cut the film for video release to emphasize a more chronological approach to Alexander’s incredible career. He also felt he’d asked Farrell to play Alexander perhaps with more emotion than, in hindsight, he should. Both comments made it clear that this film will be a “Director’s Cut,” different in many ways from the theatre version, and I look forward to it highly. I think some of the tactical problems of the film script will be resolved in the DVD, which should make it even more interesting.
In short, this is a film that it’s easy to criticize without knowing anything about Alexander or his world, but I salute Stone for trying to tackle some of the greatest ambiguities and tensions of the story. Historically, it’s probably the most accurate film I’ve ever seen (unlike GLADIATOR, which had most of us loving the movie but chortling at the multiple errors of history it represented). From the historically-accurate ancient clothing and warfare, to over-the-top (and historical!) visions of Alexander’s mother and her bedrooms full of snakes, the film is classic Stone – extreme, exciting, occasionally tottering into ludicrousness, but (for anyone interested in ancient history) an amazing three-dimensional, flawed, fascinating spectacle. Its passion is so much greater than that of a film like TROY, just as its weaknesses are more evident. Stone’s reach exceeds his grasp, but you’ll have a fascinating time watching him try.
Ignore the critics! – make your own decisions, after seeing this film!