Sometimes the fulfillment of one’s fondest wish can prove a most unfortunate thing. Consider the case of Oliver Stone. He’s reportedly wanted to make a film about Alexander the Great for years, having been fascinated with the Greek conqueror since he was a boy. One can understand Stone’s obsession: the figure of Alexander, with his mixture of idealism and bellicosity, seems a natural fit for the writer-director. But big topics from ancient history have long been unfashionable as subjects for screen treatment; the flowering of toga epics had long since ended in the sixties, and Stone was unable to secure backing for his project until recently, when financiers began showing interest in such massive ventures again–witness “Troy.” Stone found the funding he required, beat rival Baz Luhrmann (who was also interested in telling the Macedonian’s story) to the punch, and mounted his treatment handsomely. But in reaction to the result one can only say: would that he had waited a few years longer, or better yet, left his dream behind. “Alexander” is pretty much a mess, an alternately turgid and florid movie that feels like a drugged-out version of a Cecil B. DeMille epic. It’s long–a full three hours–but despite its length curiously attenuated, with much information and many episodes doled out in narration rather than recreation. It has a starry cast, but for the most part they’re unconvincing in period dress, especially since their babble of accents creates a sort of aural chaos that’s difficult to swallow. Though it’s big-scaled, the largest sets–like those of Babylon–nonetheless lack real grandeur, and when it comes to the major battle scenes–surely where a film about Alexander should excel–Stone achieves what’s little more than a muddle, especially in the concluding clash that pits the Macedonian hoplites and cavalry against Poros’ Indian elephants. And what one would expect Stone’s script to articulate most clearly–the romantic idea often ascribed to Alexander of unifying east and west into one grand, harmonious community–gets surprisingly cursory treatment. It all makes one wonder why the filmmaker was so taken by the subject in the first place.
“Alexander” begins, like so many of the old-style ancient-world epics, with narration, in this case by Anthony Hopkins, whose orotund delivery makes him a fine substitute for Finlay Currie, who often used to do the honors. Here, though, Hopkins actually gets a chance to appear onscreen rather than just intone his lines in a disembodied state, as Currie and his ilk did. He plays the elderly King Ptolemy of Egypt, who had earlier served as one of Alexander’s Macedonian generals and secured the Nile region when the conqueror’s empire was chopped up after his untimely death in 323 B.C. Now in his dotage, Ptolemy is shown periodically puttering about his palace, dictating his memoirs of Alexander and thereby filling in the details of his life and campaigns that Stone and his co-writers choose not to include in the flashbacks that form the bulk of the film. Before long we’re back in Alexander’s youth at the Macedonian capital of Pella, where his crude one-eyed father King Philip (Val Kilmer) battles with his strange, snake-worshiping wife Olympias (Angelina Jolie) while their son (played at this stage by Connor Paolo) gets instruction in wrestling from an unnamed trainer played in a cameo by Brian Blessed, learns about the superiority of the Greeks from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) and makes a lifelong bond with his schoolmate Hephaistion. After a scene in which Alexander impresses Philip by breaking a horse that others deem unridable (it becomes his beloved steed Bucephalus)–a sequence that might have been lifted from any number of Hollywood westerns–and learns about the legendary heroes from his daddy (Achilles becomes his favorite, though Brad Pitt never makes an appearance), the chronology suddenly speeds forward to the moment when Philip infuriates his son (now played by a blond Colin Farrell) by taking a second wife and briefly exiles him from court. But the script then skips over their reconciliation, Philips’ conquest of the Greek city-states, the king’s assassination and Alexander’s assumption in 336 not only of the Macedonian crown but also of Philip’s plan to invade the Persian Empire, and the initial stages of his campaign in Asia (the battles of Granicus and Issus are simply ignored) to plop us into the midst of the decisive battle at Gaugamela in 331, where Alexander, leading the Macedonian cavalry with Hephaistion (now long-haired Jared Leto) at his side, forces King Darius to flee the field and takes control of Babylon. From this point the catalogue of Alexander’s battles as he pushes eastward into India is even further reduced: we see him tracking down Darius, who’s dispatched by his own generals, and then leading his army into ever more treacherous territory, but the only major combat sequence depicted is that at the Hydaspes River in 327 B.C., where his troops faced King Poros’ elephants (and, according to this version, Bucephalus was killed–though the sources tell us the horse actually died of old age). More attention is devoted to private matters, including Alexander’s marriage to the Persian Roxana (Rosario Dawson)–a symbol of his increasing desire to unite the Greeks and the “barbarians”–his touchy relationship with Olympias, whom he’s left back in Pella, and his close friendship–with a suggestion that it might not have been entirely platonic–with Hephaistion. Room is also made for coverage of the conspiracy in which Alexander’s lieutenant Philotas (Joseph Morgan) and his father Parmenion (John Kavanagh) were implicated and executed, and of the famous incident in which Alexander, in a drunken rage, killed his friend and supporter Cleitus (Gary Stretch). And eventually, in a flashback, it gets around to portraying the assassination of Philip of Macedon and suggesting that Olympias might have been behind it as a means of assuring the succession of her son against potential rivals born to the king’s other wives.
The problem with all of this is twofold. On the one hand, the script skims over a good deal of material that’s integral to the career of Alexander the Great; there’s a potted, Classics Comic Book feel to what remains, and as a result the picture, despite its length, never gets much beneath the surface of its subject. But at the same time Stone, who’s apparently immersed himself in the details of Alexander’s life, seems reluctant to let anything he can salvage pass by unmentioned. That explains the regular appearances by Hopkins’ doddering Ptolemy, who fills in many of the blanks while adding his own encomia about the often-misunderstood monarch. But the effect of those gabby intrusions is to turn the picture into a sort of lecture by a chatty old duffer, and viewers unfamiliar with the history of Alexander are likely to find the stream of information confusing and the pared-down dramatization bewildering. The only previous effort to tell the conqueror’s story–the 1956 version by Robert Rosen, starring Richard Burton–wasn’t much more successful in its shorter (141-minute) span. Perhaps only a mini-series could do the story real justice from the historical perspective.
But Stone’s film fails on the dramatic side, too. It largely avoids the sort of flashy, hyperkinetic approach that Stone has employed in his more contemporary stories, opting instead for an almost stately style that recalls the pomposity of old Hollywood epics (including Rosen’s); and on the rare occasions when the director does go for something that’s visually arresting, the effect is more campy or weird than effective. Thus the “party” scenes all come across as almost ludicrous copies of the orgies familiar from old C.B. DeMille pictures, but all the material featuring Jolie, who vamps it up like Theda Bara reborn and sports an accent as grotesque as the one her father John Voight did in “Anaconda,” is bizarre in the worst sense, and the choppy editing and oddball use of color, “Hero”-style, in the Hydaspes River sequence renders it an impressionistic monstrosity. At such moments the movie goes for baroque, you might say, with hideously unfortunate results. (A possible explanation for the style used in Hydaspes River battle may be that, according to some reports, a good deal of the film shot for it was damaged, and Stone might have had to resort to unusual methods to salvage it. But the outcome is still unsatisfactory.)
Cast members, meanwhile, are either pushed front and center to often embarrassing effect, or shunted so far to the background that they practically disappear. Farrell manages to strike an authoritative figure as Alexander, but without ever fully capturing the character’s charismatic center; it’s not a bad performance, but neither is it the sort of overwhelming one the role cries out for. (Paolo does a nice job as his younger self.) Jolie, as already mentioned, comes across as a slightly absurd Halloween figure, and Kilmer, doing a broad take on an uncouth fellow, never convinces either, though he seems to be having a good time blustering about. Leto brings a slightly feminine touch to Hephaistion that’s nicely suggestive, given the script’s reticence about him, but Dawson invests Roxane with little beyond a generalized fierceness and a body that’s quite lovely when undraped. None of the lesser character make much of an impression, with even Plummer and Blessed seeming anonymous in their brief turns. One of the oddities of the film is that for the most part the Macedonian characters follow Farrell’s lead in speaking with a slight Celtic accent (though Hopkins makes no effort at this), while the others sound either British or American (though more esoteric-sounding intonations pop up from time to time, too). It’s an interesting idea, but it really doesn’t work; by the close one might think that the Tower of Babel is among the structures located in Babylon’s hanging gardens.
“Alexander” is, of course, a big production–nearly two hundred million dollars, we’re told–and at some points it’s visually impressive. The Gaugamela sequence may not be ideally clear in terms of strategy or tactics, for instance, but it looks enormous (plenty of CGI-added soldiers, one presumes) and carries a certain visceral, blood-drenched power for which cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto deserves a good deal of credit. The Babylon set, another obvious example of CGI enhancement, has a certain exotic flair, too, although here the images look a bit washed-out, curiously enough. The costumes and armor, moreover, have obviously been very carefully contrived to appear authentic. For the most part, though, the picture isn’t terribly attractive to the eye. Nor to the ears, which have to contend not only with the clashing accents but with a score by Vangelis, complete with throbbing chorus, that, like the film it’s attached to, produces more bombast than beauty.
In “Alexander,” Stone might have dreamt of siring a Macedonian lion, but all he delivers is a Hollywood mouse.