Alexander the Great (1956)
“Conqueror of conquerors! Spectacle of spectacles! The colossus of motion pictures!”
Director: Robert Rossen
Cast: Richard Burton, Fredric March, Claire Bloom
Synopsis: An epic film that follows the life of Alexander the Great, the macedonian king that united all ancient greek tribes and led them against the vast Persian Empire.
The story of Alexander the Great: the undertaking of an arduous task that calls upon all the resources of a man, that tests his very fibre and self-belief, that appears impossible, and can perhaps only be achieved by the most tenacious and steadfast — yes, watching this colossal clunker is a chore that tests the staying power of even the most determined viewer.
Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Doctor Faustus), who at 32-years-old was nearly the age of Alexander when he died, plays the megalomaniac Macedonian whose world tour left a trail of fear and destruction in its wake. Burton attacks the role with all the intensity you would expect, but struggles with a part for which he is not suited. Alexander is a nasty piece of work, a product of a broken home and torn between two parents who each want to see the other destroyed. You’d think this would be fertile ground then, but director Robert Rossen’s intelligent script only hints at the demons that may have haunted Alexander and offers precious little insight into what made the man tick. The political wrangling and family intrigue that form the first part of the movie is quite interesting, and paradoxically it is when Alexander sets off to conquer the world that things get bogged down. For all the talk in Rossen’s script, many of the most telling and important scenes are brief — little more than a few seconds — and wordless: Alexander embracing his mother, for example, or throwing the dagger with which his father was murdered to her. Out on the battlefield, though, Rossen delivers some sterile scenes: badly staged, lacking excitement, failing to convey much of what a horrific experience fighting in such an intense battle must have been.
Much of the cast appeared together in Helen of Troy the previous year and, having watched the two films back to back, it was a little disconcerting to see actors who were sworn enemies in one film fighting alongside each other in the other. Peter Cushing (I, Monster, Star Wars) makes a rather wimpish Memnon, and struggles to win much sympathy from the audience, while Fredric March (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Bridges at Toko-Ri) tackles with gusto his role as Alexander’s plundering drunkard of a father, Philip (Phil and Alex — hardly names you’d give to a couple of marauding raiders, are they?) and Rossen is to be commended for refusing to make a hero out of either of them. The female roles are badly underwritten, however, dull and one-dimensional and adding little to our understanding of Alexander.
Other reviewers indicate that this film takes liberties with the facts regarding Alexander, which suggests it would make unsatisfying fare for those knowledgeable in such things. Those who, like me, know nothing about the real Alexander (even after watching this) will be disappointed by the leaden pace and wordy screenplay.
(Reviewed 12th October 2005)