“Alexander” was Oliver Stone’s (“Platoon”) endeavor to bring an epic biography of Alexander the Great to the big screen. You have to admire his commitment to the project. It could be argued that there was no great demand for this biopic. The box office receipts tended to confirm that. The movie cost a whopping $155 milllion and although it eventually covered them, it was not a box office success. Stone was man enough to admit that the finished product was flawed, so he made three more finished products. First, there was the “Director’s Cut” which amazingly was shorter than the original. Say what?! The second was called “Alexander Revisited: The Final Unrated Cut”. The third is the one I am reviewing here. It is entitled “The Ultimate Cut”. It clocked in at 3:26 as opposed to the original’s 2:55. I assume that for the twentieth anniversary he will issue the “Absolutely Ultimate Final I’m Not Kidding This Is Really the Last Cut Cut”.
The movie opens with a quote from Virgil: “Fortune favors the bold”. If you had to choose a quote to exemplify Alexander (Colin Farrell), that is an appropriate one. Stone chooses to flashback from Alexander’s death (a common biopic opening) so we immediately know that this is going to be a tame Stone movie. Not the gonzo movie maker that he sometimes is. He also uses the narration technique with Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) reminiscing from post-Alexander Alexandria. This is an immediate clue that the movie will not be anti-Alexander. Ptolemy was a friend of Alexander and owed him a lot. The flashing goes back to Alexander’s childhood. Stone establishes the dysfunctionality of Alexander’s family by portraying Philip (Val Kilmer) and Olympias (Angelina Jolie) as two wolverines in a burlap sack. Oh, and the young Alex is in the sack, too. Could this have affected his personality? Stone thinks so.
Stone hops through key moments in Alexander’s life to get to the Battle of Gaugamela. These include his tutoring by Aristotle, his acquisition of his horse Bucephalus, and his contretemps with his father at Philip’s wedding banquet. From that falling out, the movie makes an eight-year leap to his last battle with the Persians. Gaugamela is the movie’s big set piece and it is epic. Alexander and his generals discuss the plan the night before. There is a spirited debate on whether and when to attack. Alexander talks to individual soldiers before the battle and then gives a Braveheartesque speech about free men versus slaves. The battle itself is large scale with graphic violence. The recreation is simplistic, but satisfactory unless you are obsessed with accuracy. Stone uses an eagle eye’s view (literally) to show the battlefield. However, for those unfamiliar with the battle, there is a lot of “the fog of war”.
From Gaugamela, we return to some anecdotal hopping to reach India and the last battle. Some of the scenes are soap operaish as Alexander meets his wife Roxana (Rosario Dawson), but does not completely jilt his longtime BFF Hephaestion (Jared Leto). The film definitely come down on the side of the historical debaters that argue that Alexander was bisexual. Alexander and Roxana reenact what Philip and Olympia’s wedding night must have been like. I guess you could make the case that the movie has three battle scenes. Meanwhile, outside the bedrooms, Alexander has to deal with dissension amongst his men. Alexander is going Persian on them and not everyone is obsessed with seeing what’s on the other side of the next hill. For reasons that defy the otherwise linear nature of the narrative, Stone throws in a flash back to Philip’s death.
Since it’s time for more fighting, the movie suddenly arrives at the Battle of Hydaspes in India. There is not even enough time for the name of the battle or any other background, for that matter. The money shot comes with Alexander and Bucephalus facing off with a war pachyderm. Stone uses a red tinge to the cinematography because a second battle needs to be different. Hymnal music tells the uninformed that the conquering is over. It’s full circle back to the death scene.
“Alexander” deserves a better reputation. It did not become this generation’s “Spartacus”, but it is superior to that film is some ways. No doubt it does not have the charisma of the earlier epic. This may be due to the fact that Stone shows uncharacteristic restraint. The only pizazz is in the red-tinged scene. Stone also does not dig deep into the controversies of Alexander’s career and personality. He is timid on the homosexuality angle, but he does take a firm position backing the bisexuality theory. Stone clearly means for the movie to present the positive Alexander. The movie spends little time on the ruthless Alexander. This is not “Patton” where audience members left the theater arguing over whether the director was pro or con toward his subject. Stone made a decision to come down on the side of most historians.
The movie is epic in its casting. For the most part the actors do a fine job. Jolie is stunt casting, but she probably is the closest to an Olympia as Hollywood has. She does not get to do much. She reminded me of Marlon Brando in the first “Superman”. By the way, she is about the same age as Colin Farrell. Val Kilmer chews scenery as Philip, but you get what you pay for. He gained 50 pounds for the role so kudos for that. Farrell gets the personality right, if not the accent. The character development is commendable and considering the size of the cast an effort was made to develop Alexander’s officers.
The movie is a blend of action, exposition, and battles. The battles are well done. The combat is of the new variety. Frenetic mixed with slo-mo. The CGI is seamless and the elephants are remarkable. Stone also took advantage of many Moroccans to give the Persian army some size. The battles are the highlights and the other scenes are a mixed bag. Most attempt to reenact famous moments in Alexander’s life. These are fun to watch if you are already familiar with the stories. The dialogue does not stand out, but the movie excels in the discussions between Alexander and his generals.
The movie comes off as “Alexander’s Greatest Hits” as it hits almost all the stories a teacher would tell to make a unit on Alexander interesting. And the truth is that, unlike Hannibal for instance, we have a trove of memorable anecdotes about Alexander. It’s cool seeing them acted out. Just covering those high spots took over three hours of screen time. To truly do Alexander’s life justice and not just cover the hits, the movie would have to be mini-series size. As it is, Stone has had to compress time and combine events. Some events and characters are out of place in time. None of this is historical deal breaking. The movie is actually above average in accuracy for a biopic. Better than its closest equivalent “Spartacus”. The reason “Spartacus” is the superior film is partly due to the fact that because we know so little about Spartacus, Dalton Trumbo could construct a thoroughly entertaining epic. Plus he had a cast that makes “Alexander” blush.
Alexander is the most famous figure in Ancient History, so he certainly deserves a movie. In fact, two. Considering that the Richard Burton 1956 movie did not do him justice, Stone was justified in revisiting him. Although his film is not perfect, it is as good as we could expect in our modern cinema that is averse to historical epics. Now let’s move on to “Hannibal” please!
GRADE = B-
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: “Alexander” was based on historian Robin Lane Fox’s biography. His Alexander the Great is considered one of the best. Lane acted as an uncredited advisor on the film and was paid by being allowed to participate in the Companion cavalry charge in the Battle of Gaugamela dressed as a Macedonian officer. Having read extensively on Alexander (I role play him in my Western Civilization course), I feel I can weigh in on the accuracy of the movie. I have decided to take the major scenes and briefly critique them.
1. Olympias was a maenad which means she was a member of the female cult of Dionysus. The cult was associated with snakes so it is appropriate to have her with one.
2. Although the relationship of Philip and Olympias was dysfunctional, it is a stretch to have Philip trying to rape and strangle her.
3. The line “It was said later that Alexander was never defeated, except by Hephaestion’s thighs” is attributed to Diogenes, but it may have been “fake news” from back then. There is no proof that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers. I (and most historians) personally think they were, so the movie is not out on a limb with this depiction of their relationship.
4. The movie has Aristotle discouraging the conquest of Persia which is the opposite of the truth. Alexander’s tutor, in fact, had a grudge against Persia for the sacking of Athens and passed this on to his student.
5. The acquisition of Bucephalus conforms to most versions of the story.
6. The Battle of Gaugamela is a blending of Issus and Gaugamela (with a bit of Granicus thrown in). The numbers are acceptable. The debate between Alexander and his generals is realistic. The battle was a complex one that is adequately reenacted. Some historians propose the mouse trap tactic for dealing with the scythed chariots, but I am of the opinion that the phalanx opened lanes for the chariots to go through and did not try to block their path. The incident where Cleitus severed the arm of an enemy that was about to kill Alexander actually happened in the Battle of Granicus. Alexander did not get off his horse and did not hurl a spear at Darius III. The chariot escape was from Issus. Alexander did get a request for support from Parmenion. Alexander was not wounded in this battle.
7. Darius daughter did mistake Hephaestion for Alexander.
8. Roxana did do a sexy dance that caught Alexander’s attention. Most likely he married her out of lust rather than any political, cultural, or heir reason. Their relationship is not well chronicled so the movie is able to be imaginative. It seems likely that she was jealous of Hephaestion and that Alexander quickly lost interest in her.
9. The Page Plot is blended with the supposed plot by Philotas. Philotas was executed for not revealing a plot and his father Parmenion was murdered to avoid his attempting revenge. Alexander’s resident historian Callisthenes was executed for encouraging the page plot.
10. It is conjecture as to whether Alexander and Bagoas were intimate. It is reasonable for the movie to imply it.
11. The murder of Cleitus comes too late as he was killed before the army reached India. The circumstances and cause is accurate by most accounts.
12. Philip’s death is accurate.
13. The withdrawal from India combines two incidents. Both occurred after the Battle of Hydaspes, not before. Alexander actually backed down when his men mutinied and grudgingly returned home. Weirdly, the movie shows the monsoon, but does not link it to the lowering of morale that contributed to the mutiny. The execution of the mutineers was a separate incident.
14. The Battle of Hypaspes (hey movie, that was the name) is poorly handled. It was not in a forest but along a river on a plain. The enemy was led by King Porus and did use war elephants, but Alexander’s infantry was never in trouble. In fact, the cavalry was troubled by the elephants so Alexander would not have ridden to the rescue. It is debatable if Bucephalus was still alive at this battle. Most likely he was, but too old for Alexander to have ridden him in combat. He certainly was not wounded in the battle and neither was Alexander and certainly not by Porus. That was a low moment in the movie. Then the movie doubles down by implying that the reason for the return home was due to Alexander’s injury.
15. The crossing of the Gedrosian Desert is screwed up. It was not the quickest way home. Alexander choose this extremely difficult route to punish his men for their mutiny.
16. Hephaestion did die of a fever, but Alexander did not blame Roxana.
17. Alexander’s death is accurate. His last words are usually recorded as “to the strongest”.
ACCURACY GRADE = C+