Unlike his boyhood hero Achilles, Alexander the Great did not have a major poet or dramatist to immortalize his extraordinary story. Although much is known about the Macedonian king who conquered a considerable part of the known world 2,300 years ago before dying at age 32, perhaps this singular historical figure and his epic journey defy definitive characterization. Oliver Stone has taken the challenge of disproving this suspicion very seriously, but his enormous “Alexander” is at best an honorable failure, an intelligent and ambitious picture that crucially lacks dramatic flair and emotional involvement. Dry and academic where “Troy” was vulgar and willfully ahistorical, this Warner Bros. release, the campaign for which doesn’t begin to suggest pic’s scope, will have a tough time at the B.O. domestically, although, like “Troy” and “King Arthur,” should play better overseas.
Far more than most epics, and more than some of Stone’s contemporary films such as “JFK,” “Alexander” endeavors to be historically and culturally correct, as well as to keep its weighty themes in sharp focus. Pic is keen to posit Alexander as a visionary who, instead of punishing and destroying the civilizations he defeated, embraced them in an attempt to unite East and West; in Stone’s view, he may have been the first One World proponent.
Startling visions of antiquity, the likes of which have never before been put on the screen, will surely stay in the mind long after the dramatic vicissitudes have been forgotten: Alexander outwitting a much larger Persian army at Gaugamela, the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, horses panicking at the sight of marauding war elephants in the forests of India.
But much of the nearly three-hour running time is devoted to knotty personal and geopolitical issues that most viewers won’t give a hoot about, a problem not alleviated by the stirring, old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling know-how that used to sweep audiences into all manner of historical material.
Beginning, with a nod to “Citizen Kane,” in 323 B.C. with the great man’s death of fever in Babylon, pic flashes forward 40 years to his lone surviving colleague, the aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), surveying the spectacular harbor of Alexandria. Ptolemy’s admiring remarks provide a primer to untutored viewers as to his old friend’s importance (“No tyrant ever gave back so much,” “In his presence, we were better than ourselves”), but as they persist periodically throughout the film, the commentaries parch the drama with the air of musty school books.
Narrative then jumps back to Alexander’s childhood as the son of the estranged king and queen of Macedonia, Philip (Val Kilmer) and Olympias (Angelina Jolie). The former provides his son with an imposing and intimidating role model via his successful empire building, while the latter fuels the boy with an ever-growing Oedipus complex.
Talk about privilege: Being prince of this realm includes being tutored by Aristotle (Christopher Plummer), who instills Alexander with lofty ideals and a love of learning, as well as with the racially prejudiced belief that the Greeks are a race superior to the “barbarians” of Asia, a widely held idea Alexander came to repudiate over time.
Scenes of the beautiful classmates studying al fresco and wrestling lay in an appropriatehomoerotic subtext, particularly between Alexander and his closest friend, Hephaistion. Even more significant as foreshadowing is a fine scene in which King Philip gives his son a tour of cave paintings depicting gruesome moments in Greek myth and history. Early stretch is greatly boosted by the precocious performance as young Alexander by Connor Paolo, who has graceful self-assurance and a striking resemblance to Colin Farrell.
After a now-grown-up Alexander (Farrell) arrives on the scene just in time to be exiled, along with his mother, from Macedonia, the script by Stone, Christopher Kyle (“K19: The Widowmaker”) and Laeta Kalogridis leapfrogs over gobs of conflict and history to 331 B.C., with Alexander’s army ready to take on the Persian King Darius in a battle that will significantly alter the history of the world.
The detail is impressive; Alexander’s rejection of his generals’ caution, Alexander’s inspiring words to his men about how they are free men fighting an army of slaves, the scrupulous attention to the mechanics of war. The 12-minute battle itself is overwhelming, as logistically clarifying overhead shots mix with fast-moving camerawork through thick sand and sun to convey confusion and the decisive maneuverability of Alexander’s forces at Gaugamela.
Arresting also is Alexander’s triumphant entry through the giant portals of Babylon, the throbbing heart of the ancient world that is extravagantly evoked by production designer Jan Roelfs and a vast artistic team. As the victors relax, Alexander and Hephaistion (Jared Leto, wearing disconcerting eyeliner throughout) reaffirm their multi-faceted lifelong bond.
One of the vexing dilemmas in dramatizing Alexander’s campaigns is how to give weight to the fact he covered some 10,000 miles and fought roughly 70 battles (never losing) over the course of 12 years, while also trying to distill his political career and aspects of his mysterious inner self.
It’s possibly a no-win challenge (Robert Rossen’s 1956 “Alexander the Great,” the only previous film bio, didn’t manage it too well), and Stone has set himself up as an easy target for those quick to ridicule risky artistic ambition. Still, the filmmaker passes over a section of the story where he might have gotten audiences at least somewhat into Alexander’s head, during the young monarch’s consolidation of power and setting of ambition.
Instead, there is excessive churning on his murky relations with his mother. Matters aren’t greatly helped by a dragon lady performance by Jolie unaccountably enunciated in a Continental accent that sounds like a combination of Mata Hari and Count Dracula.
Taking his cue from Farrell, however, Stone made the inspired decision to give all the Macedonians, including Kilmer’s Philip, light Irish accents, which contrast with the British intonations of the Greeks; the condescending view of the classical Athenians toward their rougher, less distinguished northern rivals perfectly mirrors traditional English attitudes toward the Irish.
As Alexander pushes on, to Northeastern Persia in pursuit of the elusive Darius, to the Hindu Kush in the shadows of the Himalayas and finally into India in search of “the end of the world,” there are intimations of an inchoate Utopianism on the conqueror’s part — his adoption of local modes of dress, marriage to the dark-skinned Eastern woman Roxane (Rosario Dawson in a sexually claws-out perf) — that dismay his inner circle.
There are also political observations with quiet reverberations. “Babylon was a far easier place to enter than it was to leave,” Ptolemy retrospectively opines. Of the Persians, Alexander says, “These people want…NEED change.”
Although vigorous, the film seems oddly anonymous much of the time, as if the project’s ambition and the epic form itself somehow induced Stone to put the brakes on his customary formal experimentation and audacity. Only in the sickening final battle, in the thick of India, is he inspired to employ some of the subjective, altered-state stylization at which he excels, the visceral effect of which suggests the intensity and otherworldly wildness that the film could have used more of.
Decked out in lightened hair and a determined demeanor, Farrell seems set to seize the day, both as an actor and as Alexander. But while his vigorous readings capably register the lines’ meanings and emotions, there is a lack of exalted greatness — the sense of a man apart — that would make the film special and convincing, the sort of fit of thesp to role both necessary and rare, such as Peter O’Toole as Lawrence and George C. Scott as Patton.
Ironically, given the long running time, Alexander’s close colleagues aren’t given enough to do to pop out of the costumed background
; even Hephaistion and young Ptolemy, the latter of whom lives to tell the tale, remain one-dimensional. Dawson’s hellcat wife also seems unduly sidelined.
Enormous effort has gone into imagining the look of Alexander’s ever-expanding empire, from the decor of the buildings to weapons and jewelry design, for which Roelfs and costumer Jenny Beavan and their teams deserve high marks. Careful CGI work usefully amplifies the grandeur of the Gaugamela battle, Babylon and Alexandria, augmenting shooting done in Morocco, northern Thailand and London studios. Lenser Rodrigo Prieto’s images, however, don’t carry the weight and richness one hopes for in large format epic cinema, as they tend toward a slightly overexposed, bleached quality.
At first, Vangelis’ score shows a tendency to smother scenes to anti-dramatic effect, but it gradually builds in character to enhance and ennoble an enterprise that attempts a great deal and, despite the best intentions, falls a good deal short.