"Alexander's failures tower over most men's successes", muses the narrator Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) in Oliver Stone's mammoth biopic of the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great. That statement could also apply to the film. Like its hero, it's glorious in its ambitions even when it can't quite follow through. As a personal take on a historical figure, Alexander is bold and thought-provoking. As a widescreen epic, it's one of the most handsome and visually striking films of recent years. As drama, it's fascinating and occasionally brilliant, yet also episodic and poorly structured, skipping over important events in its subject's life to allow time for trivial subplots. Ultimately it can't overcome the stumbling block of all biopics: that no movie, even a three hour epic, can do justice to the complexity of a human life, particularly that of a man such as Alexander the Great. A trilogy of Lord Of The Rings proportions would be required to scratch the surface.
Alexander (Colin Farrell) was born in Macedonia in 356 BC, the son of King Philip II (Val Kilmer) and Queen Olympias (Angelina Jolie). His childhood was a turbulent one. Philip looked down on his foreign wife and Olympias in turn despised her husband and tried at every opportunity to turn her son against him. Despite her efforts, Alexander admired Philip, a military genius who had conquered the Greek states and drawn up plans to expand his empire into the Middle East. The boy, his anointed successor, learned all he could from him. But when the king took a new Macedonian wife who produced a pure-blooded male heir, the tension between Philip and Olympias came to a head. The queen feared she and Alexander were now expendable and would be put to death but, as fate would have it, it was the king who was murdered and Alexander took the throne (a turn of events which is awkwardly glossed over in the script and then returned to later in a flashback).
The new ruler was immediately faced with a revolt by Greek states who were afraid of Philip but not his 20-year-old son. Failing to find a peaceful solution, he was forced to put the rebellion down brutally. This significant event has unfortunately been left out of the film and, along with the liberation of Egypt and Alexander's appointment as Pharaoh, it's referred to only in Ptolemy's narration. Indeed, far too much of Alexander's story has been clumsily consigned to narration. While Oliver Stone and his co-writers obviously had to leave out a lot of material to keep the running time manageable, it's a shame that the Greek rebellion and the events in Egypt have been dumped because these two episodes best demonstrate the extremes of Alexander's kingship: his ruthlessness when defied - he burned the Greek city of Thebes to the ground and slaughtered its population as an example to others - and his generosity to those who accepted his rule - in Egypt, he founded the city of Alexandria, which would become a cultural centre of the world for centuries. As a conqueror, Alexander was remarkably magnanimous. Unwilling to enslave or exploit the peoples he conquered, he insisted all races under his control were treated as equals, a philosophy that offended many of his soldiers and advisors.
The main body of the film is concerned with the campaigns in Persia and India. Putting into operation his father's plans to overthrow the Persian Empire, Alexander fought and defeated King Darius III and made the legendary city of Babylon his new seat of power. He then led his army on an epic trek through Parthia, across the Himalayas and into India, expanding his empire as he travelled. To make a point of his desire to unify all nations and races, Alexander took a Persian wife named Roxane (Rosario Dawson), although the true love of his life was his male friend and companion Hephaistion (Jared Leto). It was only when he entered India that cracks began to appear in Alexander's masterplan. The people there proved unwilling to be part of his empire and his own army, tired from endless battles and demoralised after years away from their familes, began to grow mutinous.
It's brave of Oliver Stone to make a film saluting an empire builder at a time when imperialism has never been more unpopular. Stone tries to deflect criticisms of the movie's politics by throwing in lines unsubtly designed to differentiate Alexander from alleged modern day imperialist George W Bush, such as military guru Brian Blessed's advice to the young king that a true leader does everything he asks of his men. However, the director does clearly admire Alexander and sympathise with his impossible ambition to unite the civilised world under one king, a viewpoint which makes the film more interesting and provocative than a more critical and politically correct telling might have been. Many berate Stone as a film-maker but I'm grateful for his ambition, his unique way of looking at the world and his fearlessness in the face of controversy. I've rarely been bored watching an Oliver Stone film.
The most interesting aspect of Alexander is Stone's curiosity about leadership and power, a theme which has run through many of his films, from Platoon (young man is torn between two opposing leaders) to JFK (leader is slain by treacherous subordinates) to Nixon (leader is tortured by the knowledge that he isn't cut out to be one). Stone shares Shakespeare's fascination with people of power, the sense of what it must be like to rule a nation or an empire, the qualities and sacrifices required to lead and the necessity of great leaders to the advance of civilisation. It would be interesting to see what Stone would do with one of Shakespeare's many plays about these issues. I suppose it could be argued that he's already filmed Richard III twice, as Scarface and Nixon.
The theme that has gotten people talking is not power but bisexuality. Some outraged Greek lawyers tried to sue the producers for insulting Alexander by portraying him sleeping with men. The Greeks have been slow to accept that their national hero had a gay side and apparently even slower to accept that he was Macedonian and not Greek. Still, they needn't have worried. Although there is dialogue explaining that gay sex was not frowned upon at the time and further dialogue making it clear that Alexander and Hephaistion were lovers, nothing physical is shown beyond a hug and a friendly kiss. A foreigner watching the movie without subtitles would probably assume the characters were brothers. While some have attacked Stone for being afraid to show gay love scenes, I'd argue that the subplot should have been dropped entirely. Leaving aside matters of sexuality, Hephaistion is a one-dimensional character who has little effect on the story and Jared Leto's performance consists mostly of gazing adoringly at Colin Farrell. In a film that struggles to find room for the major events of its subject's life, too much time is wasted on their dull romance. The fiery Rosario Dawson proves a far better love interest.
As Philip and Olympias, the characters who initially give the story its dramatic conflict, Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie ham it up most entertainingly. Kilmer is especially good, suggesting a man possessing great wisdom underneath his loud, brutish personality while Jolie gets to scream wonderful lines like, "In my womb I bore my avenger". Anthony Hopkins on the other hand underplays as the elderly Ptolemy, who looks back at his time as one of Alexander's advisors and ponders the lessons of his life. Those advisors, who make up the rest of the major supporting cast, are not sufficiently well developed that we can tell them apart and I'm not sure what is achieved by having the Macedonian characters speak with Irish accents.
Although more directors are using the widescreen frame than ever, few can fill it like Oliver Stone. Together with Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Frida, Stone gives the movie a stunning look. CGI is used effectively to create impossible shots, some of which take your breath away, like a horse and an elephant rearing up as their masters face each other in combat and a hawk flying over the battle lines of two vast armies. The computer effects are deployed sparingly however and as much as possible, the battles are recreated using large numbers of extras rather than the digital figures of Troy and Lord Of The Rings. There are two major battle scenes, one against the Persian army in the desert and another against Indian soldiers riding armoured elephants in the jungle. These are well done, if firmly in the tradition of Braveheart and Gladiator - all chaotic action, quick cuts and spurting blood.
And what of Colin Farrell's performance? A brilliant actor (Intermission, A Home At The End Of The World) and a charismatic star (Tigerland, Daredevil), Farrell is impressive as Alexander the leader. Rallying his men before a battle, arguing strategy with his generals or showing mercy to a captured princess, he's confident and convincing. Unfortunately he's a lot less convincing, playing Alexander the human being. He's sabotaged by the deficiencies of the script which does a poor job of imagining how one of the world's greatest rulers might have been behind the scenes. In his scenes with Angelina Jolie and Jared Leto, Farrell frequently looks lost. Perhaps he found it as hard to believe in an Alexander the Great who was dominated by his mother and besotted with his boyfriend as I did.