I saw Alexander when it was first released in 2004. I did not, and I still don’t, know much about Alexander the Great as history. I was just interested in the movie because Oliver Stone was directing (which stuck me as odd at the time) and Vangelis was providing the music.
I was actually impressed. Of course, being 16 at the time, I’m sure I was impressed by a lot of things. It wasn’t a perfect movie, that was obvious. I went with a couple of friends, hoping that they would also be impressed. I mean, I was a 16 year old cinephile, I was alone in the world and I was hoping that I would attract others into my obsession with movies. But they, like everyone else in the theater, thought that it was “too gay”.
That’s an odd criticism now. And then, as now, that never struck me as a valid critique. Everyone knew that the ancient Greeks were indiscriminate when it came to such matters. But I guess that was George W. Bush’s America….Alexander’s sexual life might have been portrayed accurately (with possibly a few creative liberties), but no one wanted to see that in a year where many states voted to define marriage between a “man and a woman”.
In our same-sex marriage world now, in post Barack Obama’s America, such depictions in the film hardly register. In fact, when recalling the movie, I always thought that the relationship between Alexander and Jared Leto was explicitly romantic. Upon re-watching it, 13 years later, I was disappointed to find that Oliver Stone didn’t pull the trigger on that.
I’ve been meaning to re-visit Alexander for several years now. But through the many cuts and re-cuts, I didn’t really want to take the three hours (or however long it is) to watch the damn thing. I know that that doesn’t make any sense. I mean, I watch two hour movies all the time. Sometimes I watch TWO two-hours movies back to back. But that was my logic for not “revisiting” Alexander Revisited.
Plus I thought that Oliver Stone was trying too hard. Why all the cuts? You’re not fucking Ridley Scott making Blade Runner. Just give it up already.
But I was skimming through Netflix and was annoyed when I saw that Stone made another cut. So I thought I would give it a try.
I believed that the movie would hold up better in our 2017 eyes. I thought that people would be over that whole “gay” thing, and we could finally appreciate Oliver Stone’s masterpiece for what it is.
Then things quickly went south.
The opening monologue by Ptolemy, played by Anthony Hopkins, should have been great. Now I love history. I honestly thought that there was no way to fuck up explaining history. And God bless Anthony Hopkins. I would listen to the man read graffiti off a bathroom stall. But it becomes clear that the dialog sounds good when you read on paper. It becomes impossible to take it seriously when performed on film.
Perhaps such execution would have been perfect for a David Lean epic in the 60s. With our modern sensibilities, however, it just doesn’t work. It leads one to doubt that that’s the way those historical figures ACTUALLY talked. That criticism also sounds ridiculous, but if we wanted to truly grasp how these figures were as REAL people…I just don’t buy it. But perhaps worst of all, the dialog is difficult to ACT.
In our era of Deadwood and Rome, where characters didn’t ACTUALLY talk that way…modernizing dialog goes a long way towards making actors and their characters believable. Maybe we’ve just been spoiled by that.
The biggest victim of this dialog is Colin Farrell. I’m sure playing Alexander the Great for a big-budget film directed by Oliver Stone is quite daunting. No disrespect to Farrell, I know that he’s a really good actor, but there are few that could have pulled off that dialog. Hopkins did alright. Even the great Christopher Plummer as Aristotle didn’t have the chops to do it. Farrell acted his ass off, but the script ultimately failed him.
But it didn’t fail Val Kilmer. In a movie that had both Anthony Hopkins and Christopher Plummer, Kilmer was the best actor. I’m sure that he was probably gunning for a “best supporting actor” nod from the Academy. (Which he should have received)
People forget, that once upon a time, Oliver Stone was hitting balls out of the park. Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, The Doors, Born on the Fourth of July…no matter what he does in life, he still has those films on his resume. By the time Alexander was being produced, there might’ve been some hints that his skills were tapering off. That’s okay, no one bats .1000. But there are some genuine moments of bad directing in Alexander.
The scenes in Babylon are a key example. It’s obvious, and acceptable, that the scenes are filmed on a stage. But Stone seemed to have forgotten how to stage actors. It just felt like it was a gaggle of people wondering around on a stage. The dancing felt completely out of place. And a Persian cat?! That all felt a little too on the nose. But Oliver Stone was definitely out of his comfort zone in directing this period piece.
Another complaint that I hear was that only two battles are shown. But c’mon. Those were some pretty fucking impressive battles. Especially the last one in India. I don’t recall that battle being all that graphic in the theatrical cut….but Stone REALLY lets loose in the cut on Netflix.
Farrell’s facial expressions during the first battle were…shall I say….definitely a choice. It bothered me a little. Not gonna lie. He looked like he was about to orgasm on a few occasions. But that totally makes sense. Alexander the Great was, after all, undefeated in battle. I’m sure the man really did get off on doing that shit.
But whatever shortcomings Stone had as a director, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto bails his ass out. Even when the movie stalls, it’s beautiful to look at.
But I believe the crowning achievement of this film is Vangelis’ score. Clearly he’s a successful musician independent of movies. That being said, he does have an Academy Award. But when he gets involved in a movie, it’s sure to fail at the box office. But that doesn’t take away from the quality of his work. I want to say at one point in the soundtrack, he uses a synthesizer. Why? Because he’s mother fucking Vangelis mother fucker, he can use a synthesizer if he wants to! In fact, I wish more period pieces used synthesizers in their soundtracks!
But should you, reader, revisit Alexander?
I say yes.
Sure, we get epics from time to time. Usually studios use them for quick money grabs which almost never works. Take the recent Ben-Hur for example. But Stone was reaching for something BIGGER here. We can argue whether or not he succeeded, but he was trying to say something. Obviously he felt that he left a lot on the table with his many cuts. But I think that Stone’s film might be the last of its kind….the David Lean epic. His reach might’ve exceeded his grasp, but he did try to make a film that was as ambitious as its subject…Alexander the Great.
And for that alone, and I think it’s time to give this film another shot.