Alexander the Movie: What a Mad Macedonian Thinks
by Kiril Kundurazieff
What I thought of Oliver Stone's film, Alexander, has nothing to do with that line. It was just too good for one of my sense of humor to pass up.
The first actor to play Alexander the Great in a film may have been George Clancey, in 1916's Lord Loveland Discovers America (Silent). One of the earliest known film bios of Alexander the Great was actually filmed in India by director Sohrab Modi, in 1941. His filmography spans 6 decades from the 30's to the 80's, as actor, director, and producer of Indian films. The actor who played Alexander was Prithviraj Kapoor, whose acting credits span 6 decades from the 1920's to the 70's. The film was called Sikandar.
Being of Macedonian heritage I wanted to see this new film, on principle, when it came out, as a show of support for my ancestral peeps.
I read the negative reviews of the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register, the mixed review of the OC Weekly, and saw the positive blurbs from reviewers I respect such as Sheehan, Ansen, and Travers. While this film is no Gladiator, or Braveheart, it is most certainly NOT the disaster Stone detractors, left, and right, claimed (wished?) it to be. This is Oliver Stone and, given the subject, it is to be expected that there will be folks looking at this film with other than the enjoyment of good film making in mind.
History tells us about Alexander, and a lot written about him that is by all known accounts more or less accurate makes the modern sensibility uncomfortable. As Guy Rogers wrote, in an essay for the Los Angeles Times, no longer online, Alex never lost a battle, ruled an empire that stretched from Macedonia to India, was accepted as the legitimate ruler of Asia, and had the fighting genius, and intellectual, and tactical qualities to dream of, and work for, harmony and fellowship of rule between the Persians and the Macedonians.
He "understood that although he might conquer the world with his sword, to rule it he needed to wield a far more devastating weapon: the revolutionary idea of sharing his empire with his former enemy."
That was then, this is now.
To trash a bio-pic from the perspectives of what you approved, or disapproved, about the subject’s life, and culture, makes little sense to me. (I've felt this way about the various life of Christ films over the years too.) Ol' Alex lived in a harsh world with different religions, and morals than ours, and what went on then shouldn't be judged too harshly by our disapproving standards.
I'd love to go 2000 years into the future and see what THEY will be thinking about US.
Despite everything there is no getting around his greatness. The Greeks STILL have issues with Ol' Alexander, and Macedonians in general. It's all a part of the general squabbling in the region, from Greece to Bulgaria, that has been going on for 2000 years. Getting cranky with Oliver Stone, and his film making styles, and choices, is fair game, though.
So, what did I think?
Oliver Stone had this project on his mind for years, and his intention from the start was to be a bit more conventional than what he's known for, which I think he accomplished. He still touched some controversial subjects, yet presents a respectable contribution to the sword and sandal genre.
While following the conventional biopic formula of loosely blending historical fact, and dramatic embellishment in portraying his subjects life from childhood to death, youthful interactions with the parents to love, war, and politics in adulthood, he does so in a bit of a departure from tradition.
The thing to remember about even the oscar Caliber sword and sandal epics, from The Ten Commandments, all the life of Christ films, to the Roman epics, is that even the best stories, and dialog, steeped in our modern language, and sensibilities as they are, may appear a little corny, and melodramatic compared to the almost unknown, mundane, reality of the actual events as they occurred.
Only the battle scenes, especially in Gladiator, and this film, come truly close to conveying what life was like back then.
After watching the film I found several anecdotes in Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes to be useful references to semi-quote (some are quite lengthy in the original.) when thinking about the film, and its portrayal of events, and people.
The story is told, in flashback, from the perspective of one of Alex's generals, Ptolemy, from the comforts of a wiser old age as a ruler of one of the off shoots of the great ones empire. Anthony Hopkins, has plenty of scenes throughout the movie, along with his narration, that allow him to express, physically, visually, and verbally, not just the story he tells, but the effects of it all on him as well.
You can tell that the life of Alexander, and his part in it, took a heavy toll on Ptolemy, as a person, a general, and a king. One of the nice touches of these scenes was the presence of the slave taking down the old man’s words. I found myself watching this actor, and his little character bits, as much as I was watching Hopkins.
Gossip surrounded the birth of Alexander. Doubt as to whether Philip was really his father later allowed Alexander to declare that he was a god, and the son of Jupiter. His mother preferred to leave the matter obscure. When news was brought to her of Alex's claim to divine paternity, she said, "Please-- I don't want to get into any trouble with Juno."
Angelina Jolie, in my mind, was a good choice for Olympia. She portrays the haughtiness of a woman who KNOWS she is descended from a god, and her portrayal of a woman scheming to protect, promote, and guide the son she loves, scheme against the husband she hates, and raise snakes, accent, and all, is an engrossing performance.
I have no problem with the closeness in age between her and Colin Farell. It's been done before, and was just as believable. In the later scenes, where she is mainly vocalizing the contents of letters written to Alexander, she expresses the obsession of her character quite believably.
Alexander was puzzled to find Diogenes examining a heap of human bones. "What are you looking for?" he inquired. "I am searching for the bones of your father," replied the philosopher, "but I cannot distinguish them from those of his slaves."
Val Kilmer plays Philip of Macedon with a seriousness, and a relish for the over the topness allowed by the personality, and life, of the character. Philip accomplished much in his life, as warrior, and ruler, and whether he was a monster drunk who loved to party and go wenching far too much is certainly open to interpretation.
I didn't recognize Kilmer in his make-up, but his portrayal of a violent man whose relationship with his son, and wife, was complicated at best is an entertaining performance. With his first appearance the viewer is given license to hate the brute, and then we are guided down the path of, if not loving the man, then at least appreciating that he secretly always wanted to please, and loved his son in his own way, and coveted the adulation of his subjects.
The scenes where father, and son, visit the cave paintings depicting famous warriors from history is a touching vignette.
The first big scenes setting up Alexander as a courageous, daring, young man involves how he got his horse Bucephalus, and this was the best part of the performance of one of the young actors to portray this stage of his life in the film. Showing how no-one, not even Philip, could handle the high spirited animal, the scene sets up its payoff with Alex getting reluctant permission from dear ol' dad to try his hand.
If the prince failed to ride the horse he was to pay his father a forfeit equal to its price. Alex walked quickly to the horse's head and turned it to face into the sun, for he had noticed that the horse's own shadow was upsetting it.
He calmed it, and then mounted it, and the horse obediently showed off his paces.
The crowd went wild!
Pops was overjoyed.
He kissed his son, saying, "Seek another kingdom that may be worthy of your abilities, for Macedonia is too small for you."
On film Stone shows the nervousness of all involved, and the thrill of horse and rider joining as one to the happy relief, and joy of all. A flashback, later in the film, depicting the death of Philip is one of those scenes where you know what's coming, but the setup is so well handled that it's still a bit surprising, and you feel for him.
There are early set ups showing the relationship between Alex and his lover, Hephaistion, as boys, and while Aristotle's rapturous ode to gay love may strike evangelicals, the religious in general, and many non-gays as offensive, or a bit much to swallow, taken in the context of the times of the characters they are perfectly reasonable, and acceptable.
Finally we come to the adulthood of Alexander, and his exploits as a conqueror, and here the film kicks into almost permanent "Gladiator" mode.
Colin Farrell makes for a study in contrasts as Alexander. At once a pretty boy loving, chastely (lots of hugging), his male lover, and lustily, his 2 women, and also the cunning populist, strategist, and ferocious warrior, he straddles the 2 halves of his character very well.
Comparing him to the more muscular sword and sandal stars is not worth the effort because this character was more than just an uncomplicated warrior, and had to be portrayed that way, tears, emotion, and all. He does well showing how one man could have 4 loves, and 3 hates (ma, pa, wifey #2, and his male lover.), and yet manage to be warrior, and statesman as well.
Jared Leto, as his lover, also has to straddle the pretty boy/ warrior line as well, and makes it serviceably believable that this Alex would only be defeated once in his life and that "by Hephaistion's thighs."
After Alexander had conquered Egypt, the Persian king, Darius, sent a letter offering generous terms for peace, and future friendship: 10,000 talents to be paid in ransom for Persian prisoners, all the countries west of the Euphrates to be ceded to Alex, and Darius's daughter to be given him in marriage.
Alex consulted his friends, and General Parmenion said, "If I were Alexander, I would accept these offers." "So would I," retorted Alex, “if I were Parmenion."
The battle scenes are spectacular and comparable with anything from Excalibur, Braveheart, and Gladiator. They are staged with a realism, and attention to detail, and accuracy that film goers have come to expect from their battle scenes.
The big battle with the Persians gets up close and personal with the effects of these weapons on the human body, the chaos, and strategy of such day long fights, and the shocking carnage displayed on a battlefield in the aftermath. Alexander's hollow formations, and the decisive cavalry charge, were true to history, and well executed by Stone and friends.
He also shows, briefly, the closeness, and caring of a general towards his troops in the "hospital" scene. It is here that Oliver Stone begins his allusions to modern day events, and such thoughts stay with you through the end of the film.
Despite the implication that Darius's army was made up of poorly paid mercenaries, the depiction of Babylon as a vast city of wealth hints at the truth of the well-organized empire that Persia was, and its army fought very well in its battles. Beginning with the bearded look of Darius, and moving on to the fact that he regrouped to fight a guerilla war, for a year, against the invader of his country, whose goals included bringing westernized law and culture to a "barbarian" land, the allusions to Osama, Saddam, and their followers is there for those who want to try to connect the dots for whatever reason.
Alex sent his soldiers out into the countryside to fight the resistance, and bring the various smaller cities, and tribes, under his rule, and it wasn't until Darius was killed by one of his own that order was fully restored. The theme of dissention in the ranks, Imperial over reaching, almost quagmires, and the resulting re-grouping masked as not being so is all there on display.
Ignore Macedonians with Irish accents, and revel in the characters, and scenes, from battle to revelry, from moments of calm to moments of storm. Quit nitpicking over whether this line or that is supposedly cornier, and just enjoy an entertaining, and well told story that, though the acting may not be oscar worthy (Close but no cigar for both Colin, and Anthony.), the special effects, costuming, and cinematography certainly are of high enough caliber to warrant consideration.
I wanted to see more detail of how Alex united the subjects of his new lands by adopting some of their ways, and not just marrying their women, to himself, and his men, and how he dealt with them politically. I especially would have loved seeing this scene from Stone's perspective:
At Gordium in Phrygia (Asia Minor) a chariot was fastened with cords made from the bark of a cornel tree. The knot was so cunningly tied that no ends were visible, and the tradition was that the empire of the world should fall to the man who could untie it. Alex, unable to untie the thing, drew his sword and severed it with one stroke. "Cut the Gordian Knot" is a phrase for finding a quick and drastic solution to a difficult problem.
Or this one about the Greek philosopher Anaximenes, of Lampsacus in Asia Minor: When Alex's forces captured Lampsacus, Mr. A was anxious to save his home town, and so went to the King....
Alex anticipated his plea: "I swear by the Styx I will not grant your request," he said. "My lord," calmly replied Anaximenes, "I merely wanted to ask you to destroy Lampsacus." And so he saved his native city.
The scenes where Alex dealt with mutttering, mutiny, and betrayal are handled in various ways, from serious to almost over the top.
The other main female role, that of one of Alex's wives, Roxanne, is played by the fiery Rosario Dawson, and one look at her gloriously nude had me scratching my head as to why Alex still hankered after Mr. Thunder Thighs. The sexual energy in their bedroom scene was something that the subversive side of the Director held back from depicting in the relationship between Alex and his male lover (too bad, but the MPAA would not have put up with that, I'm sure.), in the interest of catering to the masses sensibilities on this subject.
For the sake of spectacle Stone takes his biggest license with the story of how Alex got the famous spear wound in battle. This wound, from a spear with a 3 inch wide point, apparently occurred in a siege somewhere else, and not in a battle in the jungle, no matter how spectacular, and well-staged.
The climactic scene IS a magnificent screen moment, destined for a poster and, with the immediate aftermath as seen from the perspective of the wounded Alex, is the purest Oliver Stone moment in the film.
Elephants were the tanks of their day, as much as chariots were, and just as deadly when thrown against the ranks of soldiers on foot (see the earlier fight with the Persians.), and this is one hell of a battle.
The film winds down on a note of death, conspiracy, reflection and regret, as old Ptolemy hints that all was not as simple as a death from disease. The Oliver Stone of JFK would have done more justice to all of this instead of just implying and, like the dying Alex when asked who would succeed him, leaving it all up to the interpretation of the listener (Alex's generals), and the viewer of the film.
Fortune favors the bold, so the saying goes, and to fault Oliver Stone for not being bold enough is to miss the point:
This was a pet project of his, something apparently closer to his heart than any of his more controversial films, yet no less bold for that. He planned this out just the way he wanted, inserted moments of controversy, and conspiracy, where they could be used to best advantage, from his point of view, and made a film in the highly popular Hollywood epic tradition that saw its heyday in the 50's and 60's, and rears its profitable head every so often still.
For 2 hours, and 56 minutes, just revel in the spectacle and count yourself fortunate that a director such as Oliver Stone wanted to make a "respectable" film as part of his film legacy.
Critics, from Ebert on down, were busily overanalyzing, nitpicking, and letting their feelings about Stone get in the way of enjoying an entertaining film. Their confusion, and disappointment, isn't the fault of the filmmakers.
On a scale of 1 to 5? I give this film a 4.
Alexander is a great, and entertaining, film.
Buy it, rent it, watch it on cable, just don't skip the chance for an enjoyable time at the movies.
Kiril Kundurazieff is a creative writer and blogger with 10 years of experience in storytelling, poetry, reporting, and photography. Kiril has created more than 4500 blog posts of original content for four blogs (2 still actively published) on the themes of creative writing, hobbies, culture and society, personal journey, and enlightenment (Sneakeasy’s Joint and Musings of a Mad Macedonian), adventures in bicycling (The Cycling Dude), and unique “cat opinions and thoughts” (Meowsings of an Opinionated Pussycat). The hallmark of Kundurazieff’s writing is his wit and peculiar sense of humor.
Kundurazieff relocated to Houston, Texas in September of 2012 after having lived in southern California all his life. Kundurazieff shares his apartment with his cats Nikita and Elvira, who are his source and inspiration for the creative writing that appears on his blog, Meowsings of an Opinionated Pussycat.
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