When it’s on: Tuesday, 12 June (11.00 pm)
There are a couple of flawed instances of epic cinema made in the wake of Gladiator on TV this week. As a lover of this sort of stuff, I’m going to tackle Kingdom of Heaven in time for its Friday screening, but tonight we get Alexander, Oliver Stone’s white elephant from 2004. It cost a truly epic $155m to make, just about clawed back its production costs thanks to the overseas market and remains one of the director’s most derided works.
Stone never appeared to get over the unfavourable reception for Alexander. Like Count von Schlieffen’s infamous plan, he tinkered with it relentlessly, releasing a director’s cut on DVD that basically reordered the theatrical version, later putting out an extended edition that threw in the kitchen sink. Whatever he did, nothing seemed to work, perhaps because, as in the grand German scheme to win a European war on two fronts, it was fatally flawed in the first place.
There’s no doubt Alexander the Great’s adventures deserve a treatment on the big screen. Stone wasn’t the first to tackle the subject. The trouble is that, even with a space of three hours there’s just too much to fit in. A story like his ought to be told over a series of films, perhaps splitting it into the early years, the conquest of Persia and finally the eastern expedition. Alexander was clearly someone who could do in a day what it took most people a month to accomplish, and then there’s his background, his family, the rise of Macedonia and its control of the Greek city states under his father, Philip. There are many themes to explore, event upon event to recount and the whole context of Alexander the Great within the sweep of world history to be covered. Given all this, Stone’s film could do little more than pick and mix from Alexander’s story to produce an incomplete picture. We’re introduced to situations and characters, the latter often played by the most iconic actors available, only to be whisked off onto some other tangent and leaving confused viewers to catch up. My favourite part of the tale is the cutting of the Gordian Knot and the heavy symbolism it implied, but this is excised from the film entirely.
In the meantime, Stone tries to have his cake and eat it, ensuring we know that Alexander is gay, or at least bisexual, yet making his relationship with Hephaistion quite chaste and inoffensive. Maybe he wasn’t allowed to show anything stronger than brotherly embraces and longing looks, especially when sitting on such a hefty budget, but my feeling is that if you’re going to make a historical film that promises a realistic, warts and all perspective, then the worst thing you can do is cop out just to spare the feelings of a demographic. To make matters worse, the male object of Alexander’s affections is played by Jared Leto, certainly a beautiful man yet reduced to a mumbling whisper. Stone proffers Irish accents on the Macedonians to emphasise their lowly background compared with the rest of Greece, and while a powerful and effective move it doesn’t favour actors who can’t master the brogue, like Leto.
Alexander himself is taken on by that most Irish of actors, Colin Farrell. Criticised for being made to ‘blonde up’ he’s actually rather good in the part, not so famous that the film becomes a showcase for his talents but capable of standing tall in such a big production. Val Kilmer plays Philip and nearly runs away with the show, fortunately being assassinated before he can overshadow his son entirely. In a more bizarre casting decision, Angelina Jolie gets the part of Alexandra’s mother, Olympias, sporting a thick Slavic accent (her character is from a region that became modern day Croatia) and cavorting with snakes. The effect is to depict the ambitious Olympias as some kind of Gorgon, in the broadest sense, but it’s a muddled image because Jolie is just too glamorous to make it work. She’s fine in the scenes with Alexander as a child, but when she’s arguing with Farrell later, both going for the full Oedipal effect, the single year’s difference in the actors’ ages makes it look altogether weird.
A further irritation with any Stone movie is his tendency to use imagery so obvious that he might as well appear on the screen in key scenes to explain what he’s trying to pull off. Sometimes, these moments are surprisingly effective – Attulus (Nick Dunning, who’d enjoy the same scenery chewing role in The Tudors) is boasting about his family’s rise in the Macedonian court, and then he fixes Alexander with a look of such open hate that it’s clear our hero’s paranoia is picturing the meaning behind the words. At others, it’s awful. The eagle that glides above Alexander’s route east, only to vanish once he’s advanced too far, is based on his legend, but it’s a point hammered relentlessly. Various things Alexander says and does cuts to shots of Philip’s wall paintings of Greek mythology in order to ram home the comparison. The camera uses a red filter in depicting one battle that’s turned into a field of slaughter. Alexander makes a decision that goes down well with his men and sees, for an instant, his dead father looking on approvingly. Yuck!
But then, Alexander isn’t a complete mess. I confess to having watched it more times than the film probably warrants, once using a day off to see it at the cinema (incidentally, it’s the last time I remember the pleasure of an intermission) and viewing the Director’s Cut DVD periodically. Perhaps it’s because beneath the sludge, there’s something a bit special that got lost amidst the swathes of story flitting almost randomly from one moment in Alexander’s life to another so even the most attentive viewers become disorientated and, worse still, are forced to fill in bits of the saga for themselves.
The recreation of the Battle of Gaugamela – in reality, just one in a string of battles won by Macedonia over the Persian Empire – is incredibly well done. Not only does it depict much of what really happened on the field, it plays perfectly into Stone’s quick cutting hands; all the smoke, cries, stench of gore and confusion are present and correct on the screen. It also features the best of Vangelis’s music, which elsewhere is as overwrought as the melodrama it’s scoring. Stone uses his ’15’ certificate to full effect in depicting severed limbs and speared torsos – even now, the damage done by Darius’s chariot wheels makes me wince.
There’s also a noble attempt to screen the moment the army revolted on the banks of the Hyphasis River in India, Rory McCann getting the actual lines spoken by Alexander’s general, Craterus, as recorded by Roman historians. The widening gulf between the King and his forces is traced cleverly as Alexander abandons his Macedonian roots to take on the trappings of as Persian oligarch. And then there’s the use of that enormous budget. In places, it’s quite possible to see where all the money went – Alexander is a fabulous looking piece of work in terms of set design and costumes, and the shot of Babylon’s fabled Hanging Gardens is gorgeous.
Is it enough? Sadly not. Like Robert Rossen’s 1956 effort, which starred Richard Burton as the Great one, it’s too wide a canvas. Too much is going on behind the scenes. Stone may very well have chosen the best moments in Alexander’s life to commit to celluloid, but his is far from a complete picture and the weight of detail absent from the script is unforgivable. The director tries to get around it by having an aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) narrate the events of Alexander’s life, but like the ramblings of an old man his tale is all over the place and tends toward a pat summary that does nothing to satisfy. The film’s tagline is Fortune Favours the Bold; sadly it doesn’t on this occasion. Fans of the story may wish instead to check out Michael Wood’s In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, the TV historian’s epic 1997 journey into Asia that covers just about everything and does a far better job of explaining the man.