Once upon a time, a director set out to make a movie about Alexander the Great. He cast an up-and-coming young actor as the famous conqueror and surrounded him with a cast that included a superstar as his father Philip, an ingenue in her first real role as his love interest, and a host of major and minor stars and unknowns in supporting roles. Consumed by his vision, the director wrote his own screenplay and insisted on shooting the battle sequences on location, with thousands of extras charging across the screen in lovingly-recreated armor. Compressing time and space, conflating characters and incidents, and employing a voice-over narrator to skip lightly over years of story at a time, the director labored mightily to make what he was convinced would be hailed as a masterpiece - and to convey to an audience that knew next to nothing about the subject what he conceived of as the essential character of the ancient Macedonian genius.
But the best of intentions, slavish attention to detail, and profound dedication to realizing a long-held dream were not enough. The leading man's undeniable magnetism and brooding intensity failed to capture Alexander's character, despite his obvious blond wig, and the film's staginess and talky script left audiences cold. The picture was a box-office bomb. Panned by critics, ignored by theatergoers, and slighted by the Oscars, it did not repay its production cost for years, and only the advent of the home video market eventually pushed it into the black.
The time was 1956. The director was Robert Rossen. His leading man was Richard Burton and the ingenue was a teenaged Claire Bloom.
Flash forward forty-eight years to 2004. Replace Burton with Colin Farrell, Bloom with Rosario Dawson, and Rossen with Oliver Stone. Increase the picture's budget to an amount that literally would have been inconceivable in 1956, even taking into account almost half a century of inflation. Add nearly a half-century of technological advance in special effects - and a distracting, self-important sound track by the always-regrettable Vangelis - and the technical advice of Robin Lane Fox, Lecturer in the Classics at Oxford's New College and one of the world's most respected Alexander scholars, and the bottom-line result, sadly, is exactly the same:
A critically-panned, box-office bomb.
And, although Stone's movie is not without both technical and artistic merit - the costumes, sets, armor and makeup are excellent, and the sequence where the young Alexander tames the famous horse Bucephalus is genuinely moving - it fails for much the same reason that Rossen's film failed. Simply put, the subject is simply too big to fit within the time constraints of the motion picture form.
Not despite, but because of Stone's best efforts to squeeze as many famous incidents as possible into the movie's nearly three hour running time, the narrative almost always feels rushed (although the sequences that feature an aged Ptolemy reminiscing in Alexandria forty years after Alexander's death do tend to drag). The relentless compression and conflation of events and incidents ends up simply confusing, rather than enlightening its audience, and the needlessly-sprawling cast of poorly-defined characters only makes matters worse. (Why, for instance, does Stone have Antigonus Monopthalmus accompany Alexander on his entire campaign, when his presence serves no dramatic purpose other than to allow the theatergoer to think, "Hey, there's that one-eyed guy Whatshisname again," and is ahistorical besides?)
Why did both Stone and Rossen insist on attempting to cram Alexander's entire life story into three hours (according to Hollywood legend, Rossen's original cut - forty minutes of which were edited out at his studio's insistence and have since been lost - ran more than three hours)? Fittingly enough, the Greeks have a word for it: hubris - a term which means arrogance, with overtones of a reckless disregard for consequences, financial, artistic, and historical.
A script that concentrated, for example, only on portraying Alexander's youth, or his love for Hephaistion, or his conquest of the Persian empire, or the final two years of his life could do justice to its subject and still fit within the time constraints of a commercial motion picture. One that insists on trying to compress his whole life into three hours or so is inevitably doomed to failure - and not just failure to include all the famous incidents of a life that was filled to bursting with them, but abject failure to illuminate the character of the character it presumes to delineate.
And that, rather than the conflation of event and character, is the central failing of both films. Neither manages convincingly to portray Alexander as a human being. Both depict him as a brooding presence, a strident voice, and a dashing, indominable figure in armor, but neither goes beyond the cliche to explore or present the personality behind it. Perhaps the greatest general and conqueror of all time remains the filmic equivalent of a lifeless statue, rather than the magnificent sculpture that it ought to be; a decoration fit for a small-town public square, rather than a work of art fit to be the central focus of a great museum or art gallery.
It's a shame, too, because Alexander's life was filled with high drama. Trained for rule and command from his boyhood, he inherited the most powerful and professional army in the ancient world when his father was assassinated before his eyes. Leading a holy war of retribution against a tottering empire, he achieved totally unprecedented heights of power by the time he turned 31 - and, despite his aspirations to set the highest possible standard of nobility and generosity in conduct, he committed crimes of almost unimaginable savagery in the process. He shook off the constraints of his culture's prejudices and aspired to become a god, founded and destroyed cities, and left an indelible stamp on history for millenia to come - and leaving no capable heir, his passing left epic disaster in its wake.
Both Stone's and Rossen's Alexander movies, too, are epic disasters in their own right. And both are products of Hollywood hubris.
(Copyright© 2004 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)