Alexander: Director's Cut Review
Good old Oliver Stone. Even if you don’t like his films, you have to give him credit for sheer entertainment value, the director's continually unpredictable behaviour great fun to watch from the sidelines. At a time of life when most film-makers are calming down and reflecting with nostalgic amusement on their wilder days he’s still at it, only this year being arrested for “illegal substances in his car”, something that seems to happen to him perennially, while still caught up in the minor furore his film had caused. The story of the release of Alexander is typical of the man. Greeted with critical apathy by the baying masses, Stone stood up and told everyone they were wrong and it was in fact very good. “No, it’s not!” the crowds roared back. After going away and considering for a bit, he emerged again and said, “Actually, no you’re right, it’s not is it? Tell you what, scrap that one, give me a minute and I’ll have another go.” And so he did, releasing this Director’s Cut onto DVD. And people still don’t like it, but at least he gave it a go and that’s what I like about him. He says what he thinks and does what he likes, and in this day and age that’s a refreshing quality to still have.
In many ways it’s difficult to see why Stone would be that interested in making Alexander’s story. An iconoclast making a film about a tyrant (and he was a tyrant, no matter how much you admire the fellow) who swept away all those who opposed him in his list for further conquest, a civilised barbarian who is a world away from Stone’s little man trying to take on the injustices of the big world in which he finds himself. But watching the final film, it’s easy to see more similarities between the two. Both men found themselves in situations that initially they couldn’t control – Alexander caught up in a maelstrom of court politics with his marauding father which could have endangered his very life, and Stone in Vietnam – and both decided to take hold of the reins as soon as they could and present the world as they saw it before a disbelieving public. They’re both dreamers, both fascinated by the past and what it can teach us, and have a slightly different sense of reality to the rest of us.
Stone’s Alexander is a man obsessed with his place in history, what his legacy will be. The film's narrator, Ptolemy (played by Anthony Hopkins) recalls that he was a dangerous man who was driven by his dreams, but he’s wrong, at least in regards to this film's version of the man. Although he claims to be driven by idealism Alexander's real impetus is his father, his crusade ever-further east a race to escape from his father’s lengthy shadow which has been cast over Greece. Philip of Macedonia managed to unite the entire Grecian peoples who had started to drift apart – it was a race that had once thrived on the twin nourishments of democracy and intellect but which had recently grown flabby and self-indulgent, falling apart back into its own component parts, and becoming more a series of related states rather than one unified whole. Philip had succeeded in bringing them back together, a considerable (if bloody and ruthless) achievement. When Val Kilmer’s father imbues in his son a keen sense of history, teaching him about the great heroes that even then had entered the Greeks’ mythology - the stories of Hercules and his twelve labours, the quest of Jason and the Argonauts and (most importantly to this film) the fire and passion of Achilles - Alexander is already aware that to that list the name of Philip will be added by future generations. Even by his late teens people have started giving Alexander the soubriquet “the Great” (although, in one of the film’s many fundamental flaws, it’s never clear exactly why this should be) but he realises that to better his father’s legacy he has to do something even more extraordinary than the unification of Greece: simply put, the unification of the entire world.
All those legendary heroes earned their revered status by “heading east.” Jason, Perseus, Theseus – all of them earned their iconic place in Grecian society almost by default simply by heading into the dark and dangerous worlds that lay beyond the edge of Greece and Persia. To head that way guaranteed adventure, and adventure guaranteed glory. Colin Farrell’s Alexander is a man who wants future generations to count him as strong as Hercules, as brave as Jason. Does he also believe that it is for the good of the world that it is unified? He says he does, but I’m not sure the film ever addresses whether he really does give it that much thought beyond the surface: conquering is good, it must be, that's how you become remembered. When his generals start challenging him as the distance between them and their homeland becomes thousands rather than hundreds of miles he reacts angrily, but, driven by pure selfishness he doesn’t really give any contemplation to what it all means ultimately. He is obsessed only with the how of conquering, believing the long term justification of the why will become clear, and in a way the film is like that too: it paints its protagonist with many nuances, but doesn’t really get to the rub of the thing. It’s far more interested in his personal conflicts, his inner demons relating to his parents and how they have affected his adult relationships, rather than wondering whether he ever realises his dream could at any moment become a nightmare. Ultimately, his ideals are shattered only when Hephaistion dies – just as Achilles, the man Alexander aspires to be more than anyone else (even his father) collapses as an emotional wreck when his lover Patroclus is lost, so too does Alexander when Hephaistion dies although, unlike Achilles, he never recovers, the film coming to a swift end following his favourite’s demise. But, even though he doesn’t succeed in his world vision, he does enough: in his biography, (the real) Ptolemy asks: “Did such a man as Alexander exist? Of course not! We idolise him, make him better than he was,” and that would have suited this film Alexander down the ground.
But he is not only fighting to escape his father’s legacy, he is also fighting to escape his mother. This is an Alexander caught in a love triangle, a man whose parents tussle for control of his soul. His mother tells him in one of the film’s first scenes that mothers can love and nurture their children but one day those same offspring can turn round and bite them, and this is what he does. Angelina Jolie’s Olympias is a woman struggling for survival: her husband’s many wives mean her status is not assured and she knows that if she falls out of favour, both her and her beloved son would be placed in grave danger. As Philip is taking Alexander and teaching him about his place in society and planting the seeds for Alexander’s future desire of greatness, she is trying to warn him away. He has a real love-hate relationship with her: as she tries to push him away from his father, from the man he must emulate to become great (ironically the very thing she wants for him too), he resists her more and more. All women are tarred by the same brush as his mother and are not to be trusted - they are literally a different species. It is revealed late on that Olympias has a hand in engineering Philip’s assassination, which is the final straw as far as women are concerned for Alexander, but he never resolves his maternal issues: if his virtual battle with Philip is over public prestige, his tussle with Olympias is over private, Alexander being unable to form attachments to women in the same way he does with men - as he tells his sleeping bride on their wedding night, she is but "a pale reflection of my mother's heart." One of the many criticisms the film attracted was showing the Great’s rampant bisexuality but this was a silly, reactionary complaint with no thought behind it: not only is it historically accurate, scenes with both Hephaistion and his eunuch Bagoas reflecting what the accounts of his life we have tell us (although, to be fair, it does ignore the women the historical Alexander is also meant to have been involved with) but it also serves a deeper purpose within the film’s exploration of his character. In a climactic scene, Alexander attacks his wife following the death of his male soul-mate Hephaistion, and as he does so we see a flashback to Philip attacking Olympias, a scene which comes right at the beginning of the film. Alexander has become Philip literally, the one thing his mother didn’t wish him to do, with the suggestion that it is partly Olympias’ fault. She has created in her son the man who was her husband. It's a vaguely unsavoury, misogynistic story to tell, especially as it forms the central part of the movie, the paradoxical emasculation of the son by the mother an odd thing to make so important in a film like this. It finds its ultimate expression in the fact he cannot get his wife pregnant: his literal impotence here reflecting his general difficulties with the fairer sex full stop. Of course, it is also symbolic of his ultimate impotence in regards to fulfilling his dreams: at the end of the film, Ptolemy reveals that all of Alexander’s work faded away almost the second he took his last breath: whereas his father Philip had succeeded in uniting Macedonia and Greece (which at least was theoretically sustainable for the long-term) Alexander’s ideal of uniting the entire known world was not a dream so much as a fantasy, a vision utterly impractical. Instead, the fruits of his conquest are broken up into separate kingdoms amongst his generals. It turns out his mother was right all along, that following in his father's footsteps was not the way to go, but he couldn’t – or wouldn’t, see it. It’s a complex relationship, and the triangle is undoubtedly the film’s highlight. (On a side note, the furore around the film’s sexuality was ignorant twaddle anyway: who one had sex with at that time was not governed by gender but by, if anything, age: youthful beauty was the barometer by which attraction was measured, another reason why Olympias is cast aside by Philip when more youthful propositions come along).
But is it history? No, not really, but then making anything that accurately reflects the times over two and a half millennia ago is a tricky ordeal, especially as ancient history is much akin to great literature in that it’s all open to interpretation – my vision of Ancient Greece might be very different to yours, but there’s plenty of evidence to support both versions. There are a few things in the movie that are plainly wrong: Alexander actually had at least one child before he died (admittedly by a mistress and not his wife Roxana), while his father was actually murdered at the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra (no, not that one). However, these can be excused for the needs of telling a meritous tale. The one incident in his life I was surprised wasn’t included was his untangling of the Gordian knot which always strikes me as a very cinematic moment, although perhaps it might not have fitted with the film’s theme of paternal guilt. (The Gordian Knot was, in essence, a tourist attraction, a piece of rope which, an oracle had predicted, would only be unravelled by the future ruler of Asia). That said, while a lot of the film’s themes, and the exploration of Alexander’s character, is speculative, it’s intelligent speculation based on what we know of the man’s life and looking at his situation from a modern perspective. Most of the fundamentals, though, are pretty accurate, although it doesn’t work as a history lesson at all: the film moves at such a breathtaking pace through Alexander’s life that large chunks are missed out completely, resulting in a rather lopsided telling of the man’s life that at times skips too quickly over important moments to be entirely followable by a general audience.
But, even if the script is not entirely educative, the look is, and one of the ways the film succeeds is in placing us squarely back in the 320s BC. Every set, every costume, looks spot on, while the use of CGI in such scenes as the old Ptolemy looking out over the dock and the entry into Babylon is excellent. The battles themselves are real blood-and-guts affairs, a proper clash instead of the choreographed ballet we get so often: literally just armies hurling themselves at each other and hacking their way through until one side emerges victorious. Chaotic and visceral, they are a true reflection of what the battles must have been like, the smell of the blood and sweat and filth caked on the soldiers’ face almost permeating through to your living room. This is the ancient world brought vividly to life, and thanks to Alexander’s globe-trotting we get to see lots of it, including, in the film’s climactic half hour, India, complete with a jungle battle filled with tribesmen attacking on the feared “elephant beasts.”
Stone handles it all with a steady hand, and while the film is still too long for its own good, this director’s cut does do a better job of telling the story – a long list of changes would be superfluous, but simply put, the flashbacks stripping away layers of Alexander’s life are placed in more narratively-pleasing places, with a better structure and command of the story Stone is trying to tell. My main problem with it, though, is that, despite all the interesting psychology going on, it’s actually quite hard to care about any of it. Alexander is not a sympathetic character, selfish and narrow-minded, and while there’s some interest to be had in seeing his beliefs being shaped in early life, by the time he gets to be Colin Farrell he’s set in his ways. Farrell is one of the more rawly charismatic actors working in Hollywood today, the modern-day Richard Harris or James Dean who cannot help but focus all attention on himself. The problem is he is magnetic as a person, not as a military leader. While he convinces in the more personal scenes of the film, when Alexander is in effect seducing those around him to be loyal, the scenes of him rousing his men to battle do not, his speeches failing to rile the blood sufficiently. He looks the part, but doesn’t quite convince us he’s a man who will be remembered for millennia to come: he’s just not Great enough. As the central point of the movie, this is a bit of a problem, and makes identification with him difficult, reducing the film to a more clinical exercise, which is hardly what Stone is trying to achieve.
Those around him, too, are by-and-large a disappointing lot. The one real success is Val Kilmer’s Philip, a clever marriage of an actor troubled by personal demons bringing to life a character who lives in a completely different kind of turmoil. His rowdy, arrogant character is surprisingly nuanced, especially in the scenes in the catacombs in which Philip teaches his son life lessons via myth, which are some of the best moments of the film. His wife, meanwhile, played by Angelina Jolie, came in for perhaps the harshest criticisms of all during the original release: mainly for the fact she looked too young and she sported a dreadful cod-Russian accent. The accent is pretty bad (for some reason it reminded me most of the one Lee Meriweather’s Catwoman puts on when she’s trying to fool Bruce Wayne in Batman: the Movie, but as that’s a totally inappropriate reference for a piece such as this I’ll keep it to myself) but Jolie herself is okay, if unexceptional in a pivotal role. Jared Leto as Alexander’s true love is too one-dimensional to trouble much attention, although Rosario Dawson’s fiery princess who Alexander marries has a wildness about her that elevates her performance above the slightly thankless role the script presents her with. In general, though, the actors, while having the look of the exotic about them, are not the film’s greatest strength, which is a shame.
Indeed, the film as a whole is a real mixed bag. It’s not nearly as bad as the vitriol thrown at it on its initial release would have it, but it never quite succeeds in what it’s trying to say. While the screenplay throws up many fascinating ideas about the character and his life, it is satisfactory as neither a history lesson or as a piece of drama on its own, falling instead curiously between the two stools in an uneasy mishmash of styles. The dialogue veers too often towards the prententious, with characters speaking as though they have stepped out of some Elizabethan drama, everything they say laden with portent or trying to sound grand. Perhaps most crucially, though, the film doesn’t get to the heart of what made the man great: ironically, we see too much of the human side of Alexander, and not enough of the myth. We have no idea why he inspires such loyalty amongst his men, and fail to understand why it is his story has lasted so long – surely it can’t be just because he was called the Great? But at the same time it looks good, sounds good, and is far superior to some other recent efforts in the genre, being light years better than the execrable (and deeply disappointing) Troy. Next to that Alexander the film looks like a masterpiece, and Alexander the man looks far more the part than the former Mr Aniston. (I wonder, if this Alexander had seen Brad Pitt mourning his Patroclus, whether he would have felt such a bond between them? Somehow I think not). It’s flawed, it’s not nearly as good as it could be, but it’s not entirely without merit. Alexander the almost Great then.
The film is presented on a two-disk set, the film on one and the extras (aside from the commentary, obviously) on the other. The disks are dual-layered but single-sided, presented in a jewel case with one disk held in a swinging partition. The disks’ menus load quickly, with only the studio logo to get through before getting to the main business, and have a sensible, simple arrangement. The first disk’s menu has a scrolling band of clips running along the top half with the four options – Play Movie, Scene Selection, Special Features and Languages – along the bottom, all accompanied by a piece of music backed by a tribal drum beat in the background. If nothing is selected after a couple of minutes the film begins. The Extras disks is similar, although the main menu has only two options: Special Features (which leads to the appropriate submenu) and Languages again. Although the film is subtitled in several languages, the extras are subtitled only in French for some reason.
There are a fair few differences between this Director’s Cut and the original Theatrical Version. The flashbacks are resequenced somewhat, and, while I haven’t seen the original version since it was in the cinema, they certainly seem to be telling a more coherent story here – there were a couple of times I recall thinking “Why on earth is he showing that now?” in the movies, but I didn’t get it once here. More trivially, there’s a lot less of Ptolemy narration, and a bit more sex with both the wedding night scene and also the scene in which Alexander beckons his eunuch to come to bed with him, so something for everyone there. There’s more of a meal made of Alexander’s death right at the beginning – we see lots of reaction shots of his soldiers now – and we get to the first battle sequence far more quickly in this version. There are a few minor changes too, for example the dates: Stone felt in the theatrical version that audiences would get confused by the fact 320BC is actually later than 350BC, so put lots of “Twenty years earlier” legends, but at some points the dates have been reinserted now.
Very nice indeed. The film has an enormously rich palate, from the opulent colours of the harem found in Babylon through to the dry aridity of the desert in the opening battle and on through the white snowy mountains to the sub-tropical greenery of India, and the transfer does full justice to the colour on display. There's little sign of any digital artefacting or grain, skin tones are natural and there's very little to fault at all. Lovely.
A resonant base helps put the crunch into the battle sequences, while Vangelis' score soars in all the right places. Although a bit of the dialogue sounds a little soft at times, I suspect that's more to do with the delivery than the disk, as in all other regards the audio is fine.
Full length commentary by Stone which is detailed but quite hard work to get through. Stone speaks softly but clearly and always has interesting stuff to say, whether it be about the period itself, the making of the film, the characters or what changes have been made to the Director's Cut, but the level of information is so dense - and the film is so long - it's quite a slog to hear in one go. Worth it though.
Behind the Scenes of Alexander with Sean Stone
Unsurprisingly, this is not your average slick talking-heads documentary that most Hollywood films come with – it’s far more interesting than that. Rather like a Grecian mosaic, these three documentaries are made up of possibly hundreds of little snippets of “roving reporter” footage taken on set that come together to form the picture of the making of the shoot and works very well. Although the piece is divided into three parts, it works best as one continuing film as it builds up its story. All the major actors are interviewed (on the set floor, away from the sterile atmosphere of a press junket, they’re far more revealing: Colin Farrell, for example, relates at one point how he just couldn’t face returning to his depressing hotel after a day’s shoot so slept on set, which didn’t make him feel any better) and we spend a lot of time with Stone who comes across as a prickly sort but one who is working hard to get the film he wants. Expert Robin Lane Fox teaches us (and Anthony Hopkins) some snippets about Alexander’s life, we see a lot of the Indian battle being put together, and the whole thing feels vaguely chaotic, which no doubt accurately reflected what life on set was like. An excellent snap-shot of what it was like to be immersed in the film, this is far more satisfying than an anodyne ten minute featurette (the three parts last just under an hour and a half) telling us how marvellous it was to work with everyone. The three segments are called, respectively, Resurrecting Alexander, Perfect is the Enemy of Good and The Death of Alexander.
Vangelis Scores Alexander
Disappointing four-minute featurette. It’s a bit trivial to say one is a fan of Vangelis, given his work on Blade Runner, but I do like his sound and his score for this film is rather good, if not quite finding the one memorable riff it needed. This, however, is not illuminating, made up mainly of showing clips from the film with his score overlaid, and him popping up to say at length not very much at all.
Both the Teaser and Theatrical Trailer are included, although there isn’t that much difference between them.
The film is better than most critics will tell you, but doesn't come close to what it could have been - for one it needs another couple of drafts of the script (less speeches! more explanation!) and another a couple of the leads recasting. The extras, while not numerous, are satisfying, Sean Stone's roving reporter feature a nice change from the norm.