Looking back on the life of the greatest conqueror of ancient times,
Alexander, King of Macedon, one should expect great grandeur, sweeping
battles, royal intrigues, valiant heroes and vast, colorful landscapes.
Director Oliver Stone ("JFK") gives it all to us in his movie version, with
enough devotion to historical detail to muddle the mind.
While this epic that deals with the scale of conquest takes place in ancient
Greece (recounted for us by Anthony Hopkins as elder historian Ptolemy long
after the battles) the difference between it and other classic dramas is that
it's based on an historical account and not on Homeric poetry and exalted
And, while stories of Achilles, the Trojan War, Odysseus and gods and
goddesses of the Pantheon have been well treated in movie re-creations,
little has been done with this terror of the battlefield. If there ever was a
figure in history deserving study for what he accomplished against great
armies, in changing governments and political geography, it would be this
For a man to have been able to expand his empire to the extent Axexander did,
he had to have at least two essential qualities: thoroughly inspiring
leadership and uncanny skills of battle strategy. Such a record of conquest
would be unthinkable without them. A dream of glory, by itself, is hardly
the basis of triumph. Director Oliver Stone's dream is to convince us of his
hero's skills and magnetism but his strategy proves less than triumphant.
Young Alexander (Connor Paolo), born sometime around 356 BC, son of King
Philip (Val Kilmer) and Queen Olympias (Angelina Jolie), sopped up wisdom
first from his mother's uncle Leonidas, then the scholar, Lysimaho. In his
teens he was tutored by the legendary philosopher, Aristotle (Christopher
Plummer) and proved to be a good pupil, loving knowledge and the epic poetry
of Homer. He became close friends with Hephaestion (Jared Leto) who remained
his most trusted ally throughout their brief lives. Their homosexual scenes
might be bothersome to some, erotic to others, but won't be disregarded in
Alexander's early physical prowess is demonstrated when he wins his
magnificent black stallion Bucephalas by proving himself able to manage the
ornery beast when no other horseman could, inspiring Philip to tutor him in
the ways of power by way of conquest. But all is not serene or stable in the
royal household between the king and his estranged wife. She showers her son
with affection and visions of his great destiny despite the coldness
in Philip's regard for her.
Philip finally divorces Olympias, who is not Macedonian, and remarries, this
time to a local girl. When this produces a son and possible heir, the girl's
uncle starts a campaign to belittle Alexander as pretender to the throne
since he's only half Macedonian and the son of a divorced wife. Olympia's
sensors are ignited by this change in the political winds and she inspires
Alexander to attack Attalus. His father is greatly offended.
The family breach is eventually mended but without Phillip's complete
forgiveness. When Philip is murdered before his new son grows to a
satisfactory age, Alexander succeeds him as king.
Jumping now to the full-fledged warrior some years later Alexander (Colin
Farrell) plans his march on the armies of Persia and King Darius of Babylon.
Disagreeing with his generals' aversion to risk, he establishes his
battlefield preference for daring, unexpected thrusts of combat. The battle is
fierce and played out in dust storm rage until it becomes a melange of
competitive butchery in the swirling desert dust. Aerial shots attempt to
keep us up on its progress but the course of the battle doesn't become clear
until Alexander emerges from the fog and sand and confronts Darius himself.
When the shocked Darius gallops off the field of battle, the win goes to
Alexander. Soon thereafter, the victor and his army enter the magnificence
of the Babylonian capital where he begins to re-invent the society before
continuing his 22,000 mile march.
Having Farrell play this role is a welcome respite from the usual suspects in
sword and sandal roles, like Brad Pitt (who was up for the role of
Hephaistion but turned it down on the advice of his wife, Jennifer Anniston).
Farrell's acquital of the role of action hero is all right, but he might have
been better advised to remain in his "Phone Booth." At the head of an army, he doesn't come
close to conveying the kind of natural leadership that Russell Crowe carried
off so easily last year in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" as Capt.
Kilmer fills Philip's royal robes with a looseness and borderline dissolution
while asserting the power of his bloodline. I was glad to see him not
depicted as a simple bully. In a matchup against Jolie, however, her
presence is dominant.
While one might expect this Greek mother who charms snakes and has a capacity
to plan venomously to be, herself, a cliched villain hissing in the ear of a
son who will bring her wealth and power. But she's given more dimension here
by Jolie, with a more complex fascination, and an exotic accent. She
balances her character's astute political analysis and intrigue with a style
and cunning that takes the role into creative territory. After the awe of
the battles and the majesty of the landscapes, the most fascinating element
of this movie is the way Jolie rules the screen. That confident allure is
evident in much of her work ("The Bone Collector," "Sky Captain and the World of
Tomorrow") but she only improves and advances it. The beauty is one
thing -- this woman's star power shoots comets and demands attention.
In another engaging role, Rosario Dawson is as spirited as a colt in her
portrayal of Roxane, the exotic queen of a far Asian territory whom Alexander
takes as his first wife. What a good choice she is with sculpted features
and skin like polished obsidian.
Stone and his writing collaborators, Christopher Kyle ("The Widowmaker") and
Laeta Kalogridis try, in their 173 minute movie, to tell it all: ascendance
to the throne, royal politics, accuracy of ancient combat, geo-political
expansion, homoerotic customs, sexual intrigue, etc. But this devotion to
the totality of the history weigh down the drama with a tiring, confusing
Stone makes the point that Alexander's drive to conquer had something to do
with a compulsion to explore, to march eastward in a search for the end of
the world or to witness for himself the source of great stories and myths
about surrounding kingdoms and territories. He is a zealot in the pursuit of
geographical truth who won't let his army return home after years of war
until he sates his questioning nature or dies in the attempt.
Oliver Stone's drive to tell the story with integrity to history defeats him,
though, along with the choice to go with the hot actor rather than the right
one. Perhaps his greatest miscalculation was to let history be his guide
when the lesson of successful Greek and Roman historical movies is to take
all the dramatic license necessary to keep the blood boiling, including
fictional characters ("Gladiator") and selective scope ("Troy.") Integrity to historical
totality may well be admired on an academic level, but it can undo the drama
we come for. Stone will be the last person to agree that even a great story
can and should be told in two hours.
But, I salute his effort and thereby give it a few points. Others have
called it an honorable failure, with which I can't disagree. The overall
accomplishment is great enough for me to urge people to see it and to make me
feel guilty about harping about its debilitating drift.
"Alexander," the movie, is not as great as its subject, though it serves the
good purpose of bringing the amazing story to our attention. Alexander's
record of conquest and expansion, however, is not likely to fulfill any
visions the filmmaker may be harboring about Oscar glory.
~~ Jules Brenner
(aka, The Filmiliar Cineaste)