Alexander The Great Review
Robert Rossen made his name as a director with the superb study of populism gone mad All The King’s Men and sealed his reputation twelve years later in The Hustler. Between those two beautiful compass points he drifted somewhat aimlessly between small scale American movies and big European co-productions. The latter are generally mediocre but Alexander The Great has some interest in being an attempt at an intelligent, realistic epic. It fails but it’s still more ambitious than Wyler’s inexplicably popular Ben Hur, being a lot closer to Anthony Mann’s epics such as El Cid and that marvellous elegy for a genre, Fall of the Roman Empire.
Alexander, the leader who led a united Greece into Persia in the 4th Century BC, is a figure who was once known to all schoolboys as the King who wept when he had no worlds left to conquer. In these days when such knowledge is considered unnecessary, his flame has dimmed somewhat but there’s no doubt that he’s a vitally important part of the Classical World and the link between the Old and Middle Kingdoms of Egypt and the dominance of the Roman Empire. Alexander (Burton) was born in 356BC to King Philip of Macedonia (March) at a time when Greece was hopelessly divided between Macedonia and Athens, both of which wanted to destroy the other. Philip, a mixture of tyrant and enlightened despot, wanted to become ruler of Greece without sacrificing the culture of Athens which had become an essential part of Greek civilisation. Alexander grew up as the victim of his father’s natural suspicion and his mother’s ambition and inherited his father’s lust for power and, in particular, the desire to unite Greece and exapand the empire into Persia.
If the above seemed like a rather dull history lesson then that reflects the film perfectly. As a plod through Greek history it’s reverent and respectable but there’s not much excitement to be had from endless scenes of actors in wigs delivering plot exposition. Admittedly, the actors are generally good ones - you can’t complain about Niall McGinnis - but some of them, among whom Michael Hordern shall be nameless, seem to have become so frustrated with the script that they begin to ham it up mercilessly. There’s not a lot even good actors can do when reduced to exchanges such as “Greetings, Aristotle ?”, “Greetings Alexander”. In the role of Philip, Fredric March - often a good actor but one prone to hysterics when in trouble with a part - overplays so loudly and obviously that he begins to cancel himself out. This is fortunate because from his first scene you simply want to forget about him. His big scene, after the battle of Chaeronea, when he sings and dances among the bodies of the Athenian dead, is embarrassing to watch because it’s an actor who obviously believes he’s doing something big and memorable when he’s actually just camping it up. Claire Bloom scores points as Barsine by keeping quiet but she doesn't make much of an impact in such a minor role. Stanley Baker - just as much of a hellraiser as Burton but possibly more talented as an all-round actor - manages to capture the attention as Attalus and Peter Cushing shows up the rest of the cast but underplaying and making a real impression as the weak but defiant Memnon.
As for Alexander, he is described in the film thus: “Alexander is many things. He’s logic and he’s dreams. He’s warrior and he’s poet. He’s man and he’s spirit.” As incarnated by Richard Burton, he’s none of these. At a pinch, he’s scrum half and he’s page boy and that’s about it. With all the charisma of a local radio newsreader, Burton is so wooden it’s painful to watch. He has already got the wonderfully mellifluous voice that was to become legendary but it seems to be coming out of the scenery because there's no apparent connection to the person opening his mouth. It doesn't help that he's forced to wear a succession of badly fitting gowns while sporting an absurd blonde wig. Only in the rare quiet moments does Burton show any promise as a screen actor. When he and March get together and begin talking with barely concealed antagonism, the film begins to hint at an interesting subtext which isn't explored. This is the rivalry between fathers and sons in the early civilisations where the ideas of divinity and kingship led to intense familial hatreds as fathers tried to avoid being bumped off in their prime by their over-ambitious children. Robert Graves made the most of this in "I, Claudius" of course but it's a shame that the topic wasn't examined in more depth here as these scenes of political intrigue are by far the most gripping in the film.
The direction veers between more than adequate - the Battle of Chaeronea is well staged and filmed with some style - and, to be kind, plodding. Rossen is good at shady men doing dodgy deals in dark places, which is probably why the scheming between Alexander and Philip comes across so well, but he can't do the silly-costumes-and-crowd-scenes stuff at all. He doesn't seem to have any interest in it, which begs the question of why he chose to make this kind of epic in the first place. He seems to want to make a serious, realistic epic but he doesn't realise that we don't watch epics for their realism but for their ability to transcend mundane facts and capture a piece of our past. When, in Fall Of The Roman Empire, we watch Marcus Aurelius' burial in snow-bound Germania, we feel a vivid, intense sense of something great which is vanishing forever - perhaps the epic genre as well as Rome. There isn't a single moment in Alexander The Great where this complex, moving emotion is even hinted at, and that is the failure of the film. Such a great character deserves more than a passable trudge through pretty Spanish locations. It's these locations which just about salvage the film. The DP, Robert Krasker - the genius behind the lighting on The Third Man - does some stunning work and there are moments which are breathtakingly beautiful.to look at. But behind these images there is no passion, no sense of historical analysis, no epic grandeur. All the things we might want to see in an epic are missing and that makes Alexander The Great a failure.
MGM's Region 1 disc of this film is similar to the Region 2, released in 2003. However, the picture quality on this new DVD seems considerably improved.
As I said in my Region 2 review, Alexander The Great was filmed in Cinemascope at the height of the widescreen boom. The Region 1 DVD features an anamorphic transfer which is framed at roughly 2.35:1. I thought this was a more impressive picture than is present on the UK disc, with considerably less print damage and less of a problem with artifacting - still present but not to the same degree. The colours are superbly rich and the picture looks sharp throughout. This is good transfer and it's worth a look simply the see the film framed in the proper ratio rather than the usual pan/scan print which is shown on television.
The main soundtrack is an English Dolby Stereo mix, as on the R2 disc. To repeat what I said in that review, this reflects the original theatrical soundtrack which was in the stereo format afforded by a Cinemascope presentation and it's not bad at all for the period. Dialogue is separated over the front channels and there are some effective moments during the battle sequences. There is no hiss and it's a clear and crisp track.
The only extra on the disc is the original theatrical trailer which is overlong but quite amusing as a time capsule of how these films were sold back in the 1950s. There are 16 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.
Presumably, MGM have released this as in order to ride the wave of Warner's DVD of Troy and Wolfgang Petersen's maligned epic is, on the whole, a more interesting film. However, Alexander The Great has points of interest and if you like sword and sandal epics then it may be worth a look. The Region 1 DVD seems better than the Region 2 and is probably the one to go for if you're looking to buy a copy of the film. A word of praise too for the splendid cover illustration which beats the UK edition hands down.