Pagan ancient Greece finally gets a movie epic to stand alongside the Judeo-Christian epics of yore in the director’s cut of “Alexander.” Nine minutes shorter than the 175-minute theatrical version, this Alex Redux may not convert many who sneered at the pic on first release. But those who admired it then — and there were plenty, worldwide, contrary to myth — will find this a now almost perfect realization of Oliver Stone’s ambitious vision.
From script to evocative visual design and score — both of the latter sumptuous in the widescreen DVD transfer — Stone’s pic trades on the legacy of classic ’50s and ’60s historical epics while injecting a modern, realist sensibility. As once did Hollywood and the ancient bards, he expects his audience to climb on board for a great, elevating journey, making the pic, by contempo standards, a connoisseur’s epic.
So seamless is this reworked version (the fruit of 10 weeks in the editing room), it’s almost impossible to spot Stone’s excisions. (Eighteen minutes were cut and nine added.) Where the original did have some bumpy moments, the great dramatic arc of Alexander’s journey from ambition through obsession to near-madness now runs in one smooth span, supported by the two great battles (Gaugamela, India) near the beginning and the end.
With Gaugamela now coming fractionally earlier, the pic seems much better balanced. Taking a leaf from classic movie epics, the opening reels now set up the basic themes with greater economy: Alexander’s Oedipal relationship with his parents, Olympias’ ambitions for her son, the boy’s need to surpass his father, and (among the pic’s greatest achievements) the entirely natural way in which myth/religion is shown as integral to the ancients’ behavior.
Thankfully, Stone has held his nerve with the script’s boldest innovation in the second half: flashbacks leading to Philip’s death that provide further justification for Alexander’s descent into near-madness. Contrary to rumors, the pic hasn’t been rejigged into a conventional linear narrative.
The homosexual elements between Alexander and Hephaistion are also virtually intact, apart from the line “Stay with me tonight, Hephaistion.” Their heart-to-heart on a Babylon balcony, their “Ben-Hur”-like “ring scene” prior to Alexander’s marriage night, and Hephaistion’s death scene all survive: Only a Martian could doubt these guys are just good friends. Stone’s unforced portrayal of Ancient Greek sexual attitudes is another of the movie’s pluses.
Like Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence — with whom Alexander shares a similar odyssey and personal demons — Colin Farrell’s moody Macedonian remains a career-defining performance, descending from semi-divine nobility to semi-insane futility with deft strokes. Other perfs also grow on repeated viewing, especially Val Kilmer’s unsettled Philip, Connor Paolo’s confident young Alex, and — yes — Angelina Jolie’s sensual, driven, regal foreigner.
Stone’s “substantial” reworking of the third act, juxtaposing events in India and Greece, now flows better. And Jolie’s Olympias emerges as a genuinely pathetic figure in the whole tragedy — isolated by her own ambition from the one person she loves.
Remaining faults? The precise military strategy at Gaugamela is still not clear enough amid the blood and dust; Alexander’s death strains too hard for a sense of climax; and Ptolemy’s final scene still runs way too long.
In his commentary, Stone talks freely — and occasionally combatively — about changes he made to his original vision for the DVD director’s cut. He says he reworked Alexander’s death scene early in the movie after realizing audiences around the world were confused by it, adding “16 or 17 seconds” to the scene. But he’s less thrilled about excising moments from the scene where Aristotle schools young Alexander on geography, attributing the cuts to “the issue modern audiences” have with teaching.
He also makes it clear he’s deliberately following the epic tradition — heightened drama, grand gestures — maintaining that some might not like the style “but you have license to do it.”
From Stone’s commentary to the three documentaries by his son, Sean, this is a keeper, as well as a movie that will take its place among the great historical epics. Let’s hope Warners also strikes more than one 35mm print for theatrical posterity.