December 5, 2004 -- “Alexander” is one of those magnificent train wrecks of a movie in which the director's vision drowns in a torrent of his own unbridled excess. It is one of those cases in which the filmmakers succumbed to the philosophy of more is better than enough. Compared to this film, “Apocalypse Now” is an exercise in subtle understatement. It is also filmmaking reminiscent of Hollywood's golden years, where the old motto was “a cast of thousands, a cost of millions.” This film is all of that, and more.
Colin Farrell (“Phone Booth”) stars as the film's title character, a Macedonian king who conquered the known world in the fourth century B.C. Alexander is portrayed as a fearless and brilliant military and civic leader who is emotionally conflicted. His emotional problems stem from a twisted childhood in which his father, Philip (Val Kilmer of “The Saint”) wants to replace him in the order of succession, by marrying a new wife and having more children. His first wife, Olympias, Alexander's mother, is determined that Alexander will become the next king, despite her husband's wishes. The fierce battle of wills between Phillip and Olympias does nothing for Alexander's mental stability.
The other notable thing about director Oliver Stone's portrayal of Alexander is that he is depicted as bisexual. This is a controversial portrayal. Historians are divided on the issue of whether or not Alexander was, indeed, bisexual. One historian who supports the bisexual theory is Oxford scholar Robin Lane Fox, author of “The Search for Alexander” and “Alexander the Great: A Biography.” Fox was the movie's on-site historian, and also appears in the film as a member of Alexander's cavalry (one of his conditions for working as historian for the film). In the film, Alexander is shown to have a deep love for his closest friend, and general in his army, Hephaistion (Jared Leto of “Fight Club”). He also has sexual relations with a eunuch, Bagoas (played by Francisco Bosch), who is a former lover of emperor Darius, King of Persia. The most explicit sex scene in the movie is between Alexander and his first wife, Roxane (played by Rosario Dawson of “The Rundown”). There are precedents for this kind of sexuality in the ancient world. The Greek city-state of Sparta, for instance, had a long tradition of forced homosexuality in its army training practices. Bisexuality was also not unusual in some other ancient civilizations in the ancient world. Regardless of its historical accuracy, you have to admire Stone for sticking with this portrayal, instead of taking the easy way out and avoiding the whole issue, as was the case in “Troy.”
Probably the biggest disappointment in the film are the battle scenes. They are chopped up in such short cuts, and the camera motion is so chaotic, that there is little sense of continuity. There is a lot of blood and gore, but thankfully, not much in the way of body parts being hacked off. There is a memorable battle scene involving elephants in India. A climactic confrontation between Alexander, riding his famed stallion Bucephalas, and an elephant is awesome. For their part, the actors do a good enough job. It is the script that sabotages this film.
The movie is overlong. It seems to last longer than the Punic Wars. Much of the drama seems greatly overwrought, like a bad soap opera. A truly masochistic double feature would be “Alexander” and “Troy.” The film uses flashbacks a few too many times to convey key story elements. The technique finally interrupts the narrative too many times. This movie could have been greatly improved by cutting the film's length by an hour or so. Stone uses the character of Ptolemy (played by Anthony Hopkins) to tell the story. Ptolemy, near the end of his long life, dictates the story of Alexander to a scribe. This is a good way of stringing different elements of the story together.
The soap opera story includes Alexander's troubled youth (with overtones of Oedipus Rex and the Illiad) also includes the usual political intrigue among Alexander's generals, strategic alliances, etc. All of this seems too over-the-top to allow much in the way of nuanced acting, or characters. The movie as a whole seems heavy-handed and ponderous.
Stone managed to offend both the Macedonians (who said the film made Alexander seem too Greek) and the Greeks (who said the movie makes Alexander seem too gay), so he must be doing something right on the historic front. The film works O.K. as a history lesson, but as a story, as drama, it is a train wreck. This film rates a D+.
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