“The greatest legend of all was real”
Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Rosario Dawson
Synopsis: Alexander, the King of Macedonia and one of the greatest military leaders in the history of warfare, conquers much of the known world.
It’s tempting at times to speculate over a filmmaker’s motivation for making a particular movie, especially one as epic in scope and scale as Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Does the director harbour a genuine desire to educate the masses about an historical figure for whom he personally has great admiration? Or does he see in the subject an irresistible opportunity to prove to the world just what a great filmmaker he is? It’s not difficult to see why the subject of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian warrior who conquered much of the known world while still in his twenties, would appeal to Stone, whose own ambition is outstripped only by his taste for excess and an arguably over-inflated sense of his own importance. Alexander was a dud at the US box office, although it fared better overseas and achieved unexpectedly high DVD sales. Sometimes no good comes of the name behind the camera becoming almost as famous as those in front of it, and while Alexander didn’t deserve to fail at the box office, it has to be said that some of the decisions made by Stone when making the film – including having the Macedonians speak with Irish accents – are highly questionable.
Alexander establishes the arc of his story when he declares that all men reach and fall. We know that he, too, will fall, and so to capture the essence of the man it’s up to Stone to deliver an enthralling and compelling journey, one which allows his audience to share his subject’s frustrations and revel in his glories; we need to get a feel for what it was like to follow him, to love him or to hate him, because if we don’t, then everything before the final act is merely a prelude to the fall. I don’t know enough about the life of the real Alexander the Great to comment on how closely Stone adheres to the facts, and there’s no doubt that Stone had no choice but to cherry-pick key events from a life as full as Alexander’s. And yet, despite a bladder-challenging three-hour-plus running time (depending on which version you watch), it still feels as if we’re missing out on an awful lot. The film seems to drift along, a patchwork quilt of scenes lacking a clearly identifiable focal point in the man’s life around which all other events can revolve.
As a small boy, Alexander witnesses his father, Phillip (Val Kilmer – Heat, The Traveler) preparing to either murder or ravish his wife, Alexander’s mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie, who is only one year older than her screen son). It’s a moment that colours his attitude towards both his parents for the rest of his life, but his relationship with Olympias in particular is a troubled one. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really know what to do with it, and offers few clues as to how his dysfunctional childhood shaped the adult Alexander. Like most young men, he seeks his father’s approval but receives only grudging acknowledgement at best and, upon Phillip’s death, his quest for world domination appears to be fuelled by a desire to prove himself a greater man than his father. But his epic endeavour comes at a huge cost both to him and, ultimately, his empire.
Floundering in the title role is Colin Farrell (London Boulevard, Total Recall), an actor whose career is a succession of poor choices interrupted every now and then by an unexpected hit which keeps him just within sight of the A-list. Bog Irish accent apart, he lacks the charisma and ferocity of a driven man, and has to contend not only with a number of dodgy blonde wigs but a relationship with loyal henchman Hephaistion (Jared Leto – Fight Club, American Psycho) which the script never quite has the nerve to confirm as homosexual, despite numerous painfully impassioned vows of devotion between the two men. Strange that, despite all the equalities the gay community has won for itself, the rest of us aren’t quite ready for an openly gay warrior on screen. Even if the film was made today, I doubt whether Stone would have written the relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion any differently. The way in which he also depicts Alexander as a noble man of high ideals who permits his vanquished foes to continue living in their palaces pretty much flies in the face of history, which paints him as something of a brutal tyrant (by today’s standards, at least, although his behaviour was probably nothing out of the ordinary in his day).
As with all epic pictures of extreme length, Alexander is an uneven watch. Much of the dialogue is dry and dull, but Kilmer delivers a rollicking performance as the loutish Phillip, and the Battle of Gaugamela is worthy of anything Hollywood has produced before or since. It would have been easy for Stone’s handling of Alexander’s bisexuality to have reduced the film to a camp epic but, apart from an ill-advised wrestling session with his new bride (Rosario Dawson – 25th Hour, Trance), he manages to avoid such pitfalls to deliver a watchable but under-achieving movie.
(Reviewed 17th May 2015)