Most people do not realize that Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” was not the first biopic about Alexander the Great. “Alexander the Great” was released in 1956. The historical epic was written, directed, and produced by Robert Rossen. Rossen, who had been a member of the Communist Party, was caught up in the Red Scare of the 1950s. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and took the 5th. This resulted in his being blacklisted. Later, he changed his mind and named names. “Alexander the Great” was made after the blacklist was lifted. He wanted Charleston Heston for the lead, but Heston was dubious about the potential of an epic biography. The movie was made with the cooperation of the Spanish military which provided 5-6,000 extras. The technical adviser was His Royal Highness Prince Peter of Greece. That credit was the first signal to viewers that there might be problems with the veracity of the film. For this review, I have decided to concentrate on the historical accuracy of the film while critiquing it. I do not think anyone who reads this will watch the movie so I am not going to worry about spoilers. We will treat this as an exercise in examining how Hollywood of the 1950s dealt with a historical biography of one of the most famous men in history. It ain’t pretty.
The movie opens in 356 B.C. with Philip of Macedonia (Frederic March with both eyes – Philip had lost an eye to a slinger) threatening Greece. Demosthenes argues for standing up to him. This is a bit early as Demosthenes did not deliver his first philippic until 352 B.C. Philip is informed of Alexander’s birth and Olympias (Danielle Darrieux) insists he is a god. She did claim Zeus was his father. The movie jumps to Alexander as a teenager with the 29 year old (but looking older) Richard Burton looking ridiculous in an embarrassing training montage. Philip puts Alexander in charge of pacifying a revolt fomented by Olympias. This is basically true except Olympias had no role. Philip remarries to Eurydice and the break with Olympias is complete. Alexander is on the outs with his father over the break, plus gossip that he is illegitimate and possibly out as heir. This is true. Philip and Alexander fight the Battle of Chaeronea against the Greeks. The opposing armies face each other across a river. In the battle, Alexander saves his father’s life. Nothing about this battle is accurate. There was no river and Alexander did not save his father. The reenactment is a simplistic mess. The movie stages a high school play version of the wedding banquet incident where Philip tried to stab his son. The scene is true. Olympias plots with Pausanias to kill Philip. Pausanias stabs the king as he enters a temple and then is killed by Alexander after being captured. Olympias may have been involved in the assassination, but there is no proof of this. The murder was similar to as depicted, but Pausanias was killed while fleeing by Alexander’s friends. The army proclaimed Alexander the new king. True.
Alexander invades the Persian Empire. He throws a spear when he comes ashore in Asia Minor. This was based on a supposed incident. The first battle with the Persians is at the River Granicus. Alexander attacks across a river. His life is saved by Cleitus (Gustavo Rojo). The battle ends with the massacre of Memnon’s Greek mercenaries. Again the battle is ridiculously reenacted, but the basic events are accurate. Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot in an acceptable rendering of the incident. The movie skips the Battle of Issus and moves on to Gaugamela. Alexander refuses to attack at night while Darius III anticipates a surprise attack and keeps his men awake. Alexander handles the scythed chariots by opening lanes for them to pass through. Alexander leads a cavalry charge and spears Darius’ chariot driver. Darius flees. The movie shows no infantry fighting. Most of this is accurate except Darius fled from Issus in a chariot. He was on horseback at Gaugamela. Alexander captures Darius’ family and later marries his daughter Roxanne. Darius is killed by his own men but leaves a will that offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to unite the cultures. Darius’ death is competently handled, but the will is crap. He did marry one of Darius’ daughters, but the movie is obviously confusing her with his first wife Roxana who he met in India.
Barsine (Memnon’s wife) instigates the burning of Persepolis, but Alexander puts a stop to it. The actual instigator of the burning of the Persian capital was a concubine named Thais and Alexander was on board for it due to alcohol. A montage of conquests gets the Macedonians to India. Alexander executes Philotas for plotting, but the movie spends no time giving background on this. This incident actually happened before India. As did the murder of Cleitus. The movie does not clearly explain why Alexander kills him other than it was a dispute over Alexander’s adopting Persian culture. The death scene is fairly accurate except that Alexander did not spear Cleitus in the back. It was in the front. The movie has Alexander turning back from India due to the murder. This is ludicrous because it does not include the Battle of Hydaspes nor cover the actual cause which was a mutiny by his soldiers brought on by low morale and exhaustion. Alexander marries Roxane in a mass wedding involving his men and Persian women. The mass wedding did occur, but Alexander was already married to Roxana. Alexander did marry Darius’ daughter Stateira (and the daughter of the previous Persian ruler) at the mass wedding. The movie concludes with Alexander’s death after he collapses at a banquet. It does not go into the cause(s) of his death. The movie does not show the excessive drinking at the banquet, but does get the famous last words “to the strongest” right.
As you have read, the movie is a mixed bag historically. It manages to hit some of the iconic moments like the cutting of the Gordian Knot. But then it leaves out Bucephalus and Hephaestion. There are definitely some head-scratching decisions about what was included in the script and how some of the battles and events were handled. Some of this may be due to the studio insisting on a shorter cut than what Rossen intended. This may explain why some of the scenes seem truncated and poorly edited. It is not surprising the movie does not even hint at Alexander’s homosexuality. We are talking about 1956 here. But why would the movie not play up Alexander’s charisma and genius? Or even hint at his ruthlessness? His relationship with his soldiers is not covered. His relationships with the various women in his life are totally screwed up. Although Chaeronea is a joke, the Battles of Granicus and Gaugamela are satisfactorily done – for a movie. In sum, the movie has some tutorial value. You would be better off watching any of the excellent documentaries on Alexander. Plus the acting is better in the documentaries.
Nothing about the production is above average. The acting is poor and Burton is terribly miscast. It is distracting watching him play Alexander, especially as a teenager. The sets look fake and the backgrounds are unrealistic. It is painfully clear that you are seeing a painted backdrop on a sound stage. The score is second-rate so it matches the overall vibe. The dialogue is abysmal. But as a war movie, the biggest flaw is the laughable battle scenes. For a supposed epic, the battles are too brief and simplistic. They are also small scale. This is one of the reasons the movie is boring. I hate to imagine what Rossen’s directors cut of over three hours would have been like to sit through. But I still would like to see it.
“Spartacus” came out just four years after “Alexander the Great” so it was possible back then to do an entertaining epic biopic. Rossen’s pic is not even close to Kubrick’s. Both tell the story of charismatic historical figures, but that is the only similarity. Rossen botches the job and has only himself (and possibly the studio to blame). After all, he wrote the screenplay and he chose Richard Burton. “Spartacus” had an advantage of a cleaner slate to write on because Spartacus’ biography is sketchy. But on the other hand, Alexander’s life is well-chronicled and has numerous film-worthy anecdotes. It should have been more entertaining.
GRADE = D