Meanwhile, in nearby Macedonia…
I’ll start my review of Oliver Stone’s Alexander by stating a simple fact: the story of Alexander III of Macedon is too epic – in both scale and badasssery – for one film to contain. That doesn’t stop Alexander from trying.
The real-life Alexander (356-323 BC) is fascinating, to say the least. Alexander’s mother (played in the film by Angelina Jolie) groomed him from childhood to believe it was his destiny to rule. He began his command at the age of 16, a period when most of us are writing in journals about how much that song reminds us of this boy we’re crushing on, omg. By the age of thirty he had created one of history’s largest empires. At the time of his death at age thirty-three, he was undefeated in battle and today “is considered one of the most successful commanders of all time”.
This film tries to cover all of that in its 175 minute run time, focusing mainly the miscellaneous battles he engaged in as he took over the world, as well as his relationships to his mother (confused), his male lover (tender) and his wife (raw).
A lot of reviews of the film point out how well-received it was outside of the United States, and Stone himself said Americans are too squeamish about homosexual love. But you know what? I think people didn’t like it because it wasn’t gay enough.
The film sets up a contrast between Alexander’s true love Hephaistion (Jared Leto) and his political wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson). Supposedly, Alexander and Hephaistion are as close as two souls can be, having grown up together, and they now remain always at each others’ sides, while Alexander and Roxane marry only for the sake of proving he’s down with people from “barbarian” nations.
Yet the film devotes a significant amount of screen time to an uncomfortable, not-entirely-consensual sex scene between Alexander and Roxane, in which you see her partially nude. The most action poor Hephaistion sees during the entire 2.5 hours is some hugging and a whole lot of wistful gazing. They don’t even kiss.
Agape vs. eros? (Historical documents suggest their relationship was sexual as well as erotic.) Studio meddling? Whatever the case, this handling of their relationship was a mistake so large the film simply couldn’t overcome it.
Aside from the disingenuous handling of the character’s sexual relationships (and did I mention, there seems to be an implied sexual tension between Alexander and his ambitious, scheming mother?) I thought the casting left something to be desired.
I like Colin Farrell a lot and he’s an electric actor, always roiling with a kind of nervous energy. Supposedly the real Alexander had a violent temper and an impulsive nature (attributed, by Plutarch, to his penchant for drink). But he was also a statesman, a general and a man possessing great intelligence and dignity (and, dare I say it, gravitas). For me, Farrell always manages to come off as a lovable rogue, and that just doesn’t work for a character that’s supposed to be the ruler of 90% of the known world.
The film looks great, and it’s a treat to see wonders of the ancient world such as the Library of Alexandria and the gates and palaces of Babylon. But there’s an excess of narration and the battle scenes are cumbersome and blend together.
And there’s also the issue of the portrayal, as in 300, of the Persians as barbarians in need of Occidental civilizing. There’s the usual amount of Hollywood whitewashing, with Alexander appearing as the traditional-but-misinformed Nordic blonde, and barbarian Iranian Roxana as dark-skinned when she would apparently have been from a northern tribe of blue-eyed, blonde nomads.
A lot of this is due, naturally, to drawing from Greek historical sources, which aren’t going to be particularly subtle in their praise or their condemnation. A lot of ink has been spilled over the other historical inaccuracies in this film, and I won’t add any more to it except to say that viewers should keep in mind that the Persians were pretty great at empire-making, themselves.
It’s interesting to note that Stone released an extended final cut of the film in 2007, in which he restores every piece of cut footage and subplot that had been edited out of the original and the 2005 director’s cut. The total running time is 3 hours 40 minutes, with an intermission between the two acts. (Our next entry Ben Hur clocks in at 3 hours 32 minutes.)
Surprisingly, given how we chafed under the length of the original, if I were to ever watch Alexander again, it would be this longer version. There’s a thorough review of the lengthier film here, and while the review says the movie still “doesn’t exactly gel”, it notes the film has been re-edited to help the narrative flow and give a lot more time to the human influences on Alexander’s life. Even if his political and militaristic motivations are made “hopelessly muddy” by the reshuffling, at least there’s this:
While there still isn’t much physical expression of their affection, the relationship between the king and Hephaistion is not shied away from. Their liaison is quite clear. Expanded scenes of Hephaistion counseling Alexander also show their connection is more than physical.
And finally, I can’t wrap up this post without discussing my own first exposure to the myth and legend of Alexander, which came through the animated series Reign: The Conqueror (Alexander Senki). It was designed by Peter Chung, whose Liquid Television series Aeon Flux started me as a child on the path of appreciating animation as an art form, and gave me a taste for shows of the the surreal and mind-bending variety.
Reign follows in the same vein, drawing as much on metaphysics, Euclidian geometry and the Pythagorean cult (believers in a mathematic mysticism, of sorts, and forebearers of hermeticism, gnosticism and alchemy as well as modern physics) as on the actual historical legend of Alexander.
Someone has uploaded the entire show onto YouTube, and it’s well worth a watch to gain an entirely different, still fascinating perspective of the Alexander mythos.