DVD Review of
Alexander, The Director’s Cut
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/11/05
Late last year Alexander, director Oliver Stone’s film version of the life of Alexander the Great, came out to dismal reviews and worse box office. There were controversies over its portrayal of the bisexuality of its protagonist, as well as the poor screenplay, stilted dialogue, and many other things. Apparently, for the DVD version, Stone insisted on issuing only the Director’s Cut, not the theatrical version, for he claimed the theatrical version had been bowdlerized, and made more linear. He even claims such on the DVD commentary track, wherein he claims he had to dumb down the film for American audiences, as well as cut out some of the homoeroticism- due to either a) American homophobia or b) historical accuracy; claiming it’s never been proved Alexander had gay lovers. By that token, and way of assessing history, one could claim he was asexual.
Still, I just point this all out because I’ve only seen the DVD version, and while far from a great film, the film is not nearly as bad as the theatrical version must have been. It’s also a damned sight better film than the same year’s King Arthur was. Still, its major flaws lie mostly with those that infect most biopics- it tries to tell too much, rather than focusing on an important or revelatory moment in the subject’s life. The other biggest flaws are in casting. Anthony Hopkins is good as the narrator- Ptolemy of Alexandria, and Val Kilmer does well as one-eyed Macedonian King Philip- Alexander’s father. Three of the other four leads are woefully miscast- starting with Colin Farrell as Alexander. Perhaps it’s just his inexplicably bad blond dye job for hair, considering he’s a supposedly swarthy Greek, but he just lacks the gravitas as an actor to carry off the role. He’s a shorter, uglier Brad Pitt with less acting talent. Pitt’s current paramour, Angelina Jolie is even worse as Alexander’s mother Olympias- with a bizarre accent that sounds Transylvanian, and makeup that makes her look surprisingly ugly, instead of sexy. Not to mention her obsession with phallic serpents. The worst casting, however, has to be African-American actress Rosario Dawson as Persian Princess Roxane. Hello? There were no Africans in Persia, and certainly not as princesses. Her accent veers all over the place, but we do get to see a sex scene between her and Alexander where her naked mammoth mammaries and killer body almost redeem her lack of acting ability. The lone other good choice in casting is the fey Jared Leto as Alexander’s gay lover Hephaistion.
We get the requisite battles, the CGI armies of huge hordes, but
Stone’s camera work is not what it was a decade or more ago. There is very
little that sets this apart as an Oliver Stone film. It’s a generic
pseudo-epic that makes the great epics, like Spartacus, or Lawrence Of
Arabia, seem that much greater. I guess there’s just a simple lack of
passion in the whole endeavor. What saves the film from being total trash,
however, is Val Kilmer’s relationship with Alexander- mostly as a boy (Connor
Paolo), but also with the older Farrell. Kilmer’s best moment comes when he
demands buying a horse at half price if Alexander can tame it. The son, of
course, tames it, in generic rite of passage form, but the key that makes this
otherwise trite scene work is how Philip will to risk his son’s life merely
for a bargain. It shows why the two men will bond, but never be truly close.
This version of the film is non-linear- unlike the original, and intercuts Alexander’s later triumphs with the assassination of his father, and in a handful of scenes the best of Oliver Stone paranoia and conspiracy resurfaces, especially when the older Alexander holds his dying father and we recall scenes of Philip and the young Alexander speaking of legends and human history. There are also some realistically grim scenes in a field hospital where dying soldiers are mercy killed.
The DVD comes with two trailers, some PC features, the commentary, and three featurettes directed by Stone’s son Sean. None are particularly insightful and although they are broken up into three films to ostensibly highlight the making of the film, the historical aspects of the film, and the special effects, they are so poorly edited that they all bleed into one long featurette that gives very little insight- save in perhaps recapitulating the hectic and hell-mell nature of the film itself. Oh, another lowlight of the film? The absolutely generic scoring done by Vangelis, of Chariots Of Fire fame. It would have been far more daring had Stone used a modern rock score, as he may have done a decade ago. The stale classical tripe only highlights the creative bankruptcy of the enterprise, which wallows in the banal and generic.
The ending has an older Ptolemy telling Alexander’s tale to Egyptian scribes, and possibly revealing his part in a plot to kill Alexander- poisoning. It’s about the only way to stop him, for he never lost a battle, and even survived an encounter with a spear-chucking Indian elephant rider. Alexander’s invincibility works against the outer tale- his conquests. Were I to redo this film I would have left most of the outer history to talk-overs, and concentrated on the inner tale of a son torn between two parents. Also, Stone’s claims, in film and commentary, that Alexander had no choice but to conquer and kill may delight Freudians, but has little real world resonance. His only defeat, we are told, ‘was by the thighs of Hephaistion’. Yet, little erotic passion exists between the two men. Was Stone kowed to show a scene between Farrell and Leto as graphic as that between Farrell and Dawson? When Hephaistion dies, possibly at Roxane’s hand, we feel nothing, because Stone has shown nothing of their true passion. Were two gay actors, unafraid of sex scenes, not available? Not to mention the possible incestuous undertow between Farrell and Jolie, who- at a year older in real life is far too young to be Alexander’s mother, even with her bizarre makeup. And, for all the claims about historical accuracy to try to make Alexander the Great into a latter-day globalist is downright silly. He lusted for power and men. What made him different than despots before was simply his military genius- of which we see precious little of displayed in the film. Instead of tactics Farrell yips on his horse, spurring his men to victory with a generous dollop of clichés.
In short, Alexander fails not for many of the reasons the major critics roasted it (although to be fair, I don’t know just how different the filmic and DVD versions are) but because it has too much breadth, and not enough depth. Accordingly- while not terrible, it’s not great. Flip a coin over whether it’s passable and either way you’re probably right.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 10/05 Hackwriters website.]
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