Alexander the Tame
Oliver Stone, USA, 2004
Posted: November 26,
Oliver Stone is known as a bold, often contentious director. Whether
supporting a particular view of the Kennedy assassination (JFK) or
sparking debate over the media's role in glorifying violence (Natural
Born Killers), Stone has built a career around provocation and
controversy. The surprising thing about his take on Alexander the Great,
then, is how by-the-numbers rote it is. Stone takes few chances with
material just begging for literary invention. His Alexander, save for
a few quibbling details done in the service of dramatic expediency, rattles
along in mostly chronological, factually accepted order, from the Macedonian
ruler's birth in 323 B.C. to his less-than-glorious death in Babylon. We get
the facts, but with Stone -- a marvelously committed speculator -- no
imaginative fill-in-the-blank scenarios that would have added immensely to
the film's entertainment value.
Entertainment, after all, is the key word here. Even the History Channel
understands how important it is to not only enlighten an audience but dazzle
them as well. And Alexander's tale simply begs for grand theatricality, a
vision that articulates the life of a man who died young enough to become a
myth, never old and weakened but ever-virile and at the height of his
powers. And that's what's so baffling about Stone's conservative approach
here. With JFK, the director was dealing with events that occurred in
the bulk of his audiences' lifetimes. But that hardly stopped him from
wholeheartedly backing one of the least plausible of the innumerable
conspiracy theories regarding President Kennedy's assassination. Regardless
of which side of the argument a viewer fell upon, Stone has to be admired
for going all the way with his material. JFK, although confounding in
its logic, is nonetheless an extremely entertaining yarn.
With Alexander, Stone had the benefit of more than two thousand years
of historical slack to play with. Instead, he tethers himself to the
shortest of ropes. Alexander's early years establish the dominant figures in
his life: Non-pure blood Macedonian Olympias (Angelina Jolie), his mother;
his one-eyed gruff father, King Philip (Val Kilmer); and childhood wrestling
buddy and unequivocal love of his life, Hephaistion (Jared Leto). Olympias
is convinced Alexander was fathered by Zeus (in snake form) and thus wants
only the best for her divinely sired child. Philip is distrustful of
Olympias; he thinks she's a witch plotting behind his back, and so he's
hardly ready to anoint Alexander as his heir.
Stone then does a major chronological jump (with the gaps filled in by
Anthony Hopkins' Ptolemy, speaking decades after Alexander's life and acting
as our "tell don't show" guide), and we're on the dusty fields of Gaugamela
in Persia. Alexander (a dedicated though wildly uneven Colin Farrell)
readies his troops for battle against Darius, King of Persia. The Persians
are routed, Darius flees, and Alexander triumphantly enters Babylon. Of
course, Alexander desires to reach the murkily defined "end of the world,"
and presses his army on to India, where his conquering reach finally exceeds
his ambitious grasp.
From a narrative standpoint, Alexander simply fails to sustain
momentum. The two major battles Stone focuses on, the large-scale Gaugamela
and the more intimately staged Battle at the Hydaspes, in India, are
intense, bloody, jarring encounters, but the majority of the film is spent
watching the Macedonians trudge from one exotic locale to the next, with
Alexander's men growing restless and wanting to return home. There's no
great dramatic arc, and Stone doesn't bother contriving one. Thus, we follow
a strict chronological thread (save for an oddly placed flashback to
Philip's murder), which results in flat inaction interspersed with dramatic
spikes. And that lumbering sense of history taking its inevitable course
simply doesn't work over a grueling three-hour stretch.
Stone shows atypical restraint when it comes to revealing the full picture
of Alexander's sexuality, as well. That men slept together was no great or
dark secret in the ancient world of Alexander's time. But Stone refuses to
show Alexander and his great love, Hephaistion, consummating their feelings
for each other. Rather, we get Ptolemy offering cheekily famous quotes like
"Alexander was only defeated once, and that was by Hephaestion's thighs,"
after the two boys wrestle. Throughout, Farrell and Leto make goo-goo eyes
at one another and endlessly profess their love, but it's all safely and
platonically (i.e., vertically) handled. Of course, Stone has no problem
showing Alexander's animalistically vigorous wedding night with his Asiatic
bride, Roxane (Rosario Dawson), whose voluptuous curves are unblinkingly
lingered upon as the pair act out antiquity's version of the mating scene
from Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" video. Such gender-biased
hypocrisy in the name of inoffensively safe box office is a glaring example
of Stone's creative emasculation throughout the film.
Alexander makes for a fairly accurate take on the established facts
of the Macedonian king's overweening exploits. Stone's vision of Alexander
as a ruthlessly conquering but inclusive multi-culturalist shines through
(and how PC is that?). But any deeper insight into the legendary man has
been compromised and watered down to the point of tepid inconsequentiality.
As a striking artistic achievement, or even campy popcorn fare, Alexander
falls well short of greatness.
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