Alexander (2004) ***
Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis. Photography, Rodrigo Prieto. Editing, Tom Nordberg and Yann Herve. Production design, Jan Roelfs.Music by Vangelis. Produced by Thomas Schühly, Jon Kilik, Iain Smith and Moritz Borman; A Warners release 173 minutes. Rated R. Cast: Colin Farrell (Alexander), Angelina Jolie (Olympias), Val Kilmer (Philip), Anthony Hopkins (Ptolemy), Rosario Dawson (Roxane), Jared Leto (Hephaistion), Christopher Plummer (Aristotle) and many others.
“Alexander” is what in earlier movie-days was called a biopic, i.e. a biographical picture. That’s a very tricky genre. No single film, no matter how long, can really, truly, correctly deal with an important person’s biography. Even the very best of the kind are condensations and subject to many bad “s” words: selection, simplification, sketchiness, surface-scratching, superficiality... and others. For that matter, this also applies to TV series of a cultural nature (and free from commercial breaks).
And it definitely applies to the current movie about Alexander of Macedon (356-323 B.C.) even though it goes on for nearly three hours.
Given the restrictions, the nature, the span, the very breadth of the film, it comes out quite well. That, however, is not what most reviewers say in opinions that mostly range from mediocre to negative to poisonous.
The movie’s back-story, so to speak, covers the life and times of a dysfunctional royal family, that of Philip II king of Macedon, a one-eyed brute; his wife Olympias, a beautiful lover of snakes; and their son Alexander in his youth. Still a teen-ager, he wins the admiration of his father as well as everyone else when he rides the “impossible” horse Bucephalus. (I don’t remember hearing that name in the film, but, in any case it means Ox Head.)
In his late teens Alexander inherits the throne when his father is assassinated—and before you know it he is leading an army in Persia (and what is now the Near East) where he takes on the infinitely larger army of King Darius and defeats it, notably in the battle of Gaugamela. That last part is splendidly filmed , but at the same time there were such immensities of warriors and weapons on the screen that, I am sure like many other viewers, kept searching for the digitalized ways that could multiply the armies so smoothly. There is much eye candy in the film as it touches on a host of people, events, situations and actions. And that can be distracting –I am sure in different ways depending on the viewers.
In my case it was not so much the odd accent of Angelina-Olympias and her handling of serpents; or the peculiarly Irish or Scots accents of the Macedonians and the Greeks, as it was my constant wonder at Alexander’s red hair. I am still trying to find out its source, especially since naturally blond or red hair is uncommon from Albania to Crete. And I keep wondering about Anthony Hopkins (Ptolemy), who, in Alexandria (Egypt) relates the life of his friend Alexander many decades after the latter’s death.
Ptolemy is writing the hero’s life, speaking aloud with fast conversational speed and in effect dictating lines to a group of “secretaries” (?) ambulant or seated, that put down everything, on papyrus.
How they keep up with their employer’s recitations is no doubt by far the film’s major mystery.
What was easier to understand is the bisexuality of Alexander, his best friend and no doubt lover Hephaistion (Jared Leto), and some others. Apparently, a bunch of Greek lawyers today, in the year 2004 A.D., were incensed at the screen’s homosexuality (as offensive to Greece) and planned to attack the movie legally. Obviously they would have no leg to stand on since homosexuality was a common, matter-of-fact practice in ancient Greece. I believe that the legal eagles were saved by the bell from becoming ludicrous when they saw the film, with an audience. They decided that the movie was no great guns, that it was unworthy of their attention. Saving face is as common in Greece as in any other Mediterranean land.
Same-sex bits are minimal in the film. “Traditional” sex does heat up the screen when Alexander meets his local wife-to-be Roxane in Babylon--and his athletics with an untraditional, knife-holding, nude Rosario Dawson make the thermometer zoom. (That’s millions of miles distant from the other famous—but fictional-- Roxane in “Cyrano de Bergerac.”) The geographical setting is Mesopotamia (i.e. Iraq) and notably Babylon (which lies some 70 miles from Baghdad)—a city of many artistic wonders over and above its Hanging Gardens. More eye candy, splendidly shown in the film.
It is particularly interesting that this tale of -- for many -- the greatest ever warrior the percentage of wars and battles is relatively small in numbers. It is during his long stay in Babylon that Alexander decides to expand to the north, e.g. the Hindu Kush, and the east. That’s when we get the super-spectacle of armed Indians mounted on fighting elephants attacking Alexander’s men.
The sequence and the fighting are most impressively staged, with unarguable versatility, amazing color, inventive photography, editing and power. It is sheer Oscar stuff.
The movie was shot in Morocco, in Thailand, and studios in the U.K.