Alexander (4/10)

by Tony Medley

Alexander the Great as Hamlet. At least that’s the way Writer-Director Oliver Stone sees it. His Alexander (the normally brilliant Colin Farrell) cries at the drop of a hat, constantly struggling with some inner dilemma. Here’s a guy who conquered the world in eight years, yet he can’t keep a dry eye. To give Colin credit, he does know how to cry real tears on cue.

His mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie, who gives as good a performance as anyone in the film), sleeps with snakes and urges young Alexander to greatness. His father, one-eyed Philip (Val Kilmer), is drunk most of the time and apparently can’t figure out if he loves Alexander or wants him dead. He clearly doesn’t much like Olympias, to whom, according to this, he wasn’t married, making Alexander a bad word.

There are a lot of bad words in this stinker because Oliver’s script has the players making long-winded speeches that sound as if they were penned by a Shakespeare wannabe. Nobody ever talked like these people. The speeches sound like blank verse without much verse. Even some of their simple declarative sentences are fatuous. Examples:

Philip tells Alexander, “Beware of women. They are more dangerous (than men).”

And, “A king must know how to hurt the ones he loves.”

Worse, Oliver actually steals a line directly from The Bard of Avon when he has Olympias tell Alexander, “Beware of men who think too much.” That sounds suspiciously similar to Julius Caesar telling Mark Antony,

 “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,

He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.”

These lines epitomize one of the worst scripts I’ve ever heard performed in a major movie. Consider:

Alexander has pretty much conquered the known world and is embarking on a big battle in India. He rallies his forces before the battle. For some reason, this new brand of Hollywood filmmakers thinks that just before the battle every leader gives a Knute Rockne-type speech to his army. Alexander does that in the two big battles in this film, Gaugamela, when Alexander’s 40,000 man army and 7,000 man cavalry defeated Persia’s 250,000 man army, and the jungle battle against elephant-mounted natives in India. At the time of Gaugamela, at the beginning of the film and the beginning of Alexander’s triumphant march, he was basically untested. But by the time he reached India, he was the most powerful man the world had ever seen. Yet Stone has him plead with his army to go into battle. But the army argues back. It’s like a democracy. The boss says, go into battle and the privates and corporals and sergeants all say, “Wait a minute, Alex, we’ve followed you this far but we want to go home to our wives and families,” just an avalanche of kvetch. Alexander argues back. Back and forth they go. Really? Some private or sergeant is going to speak up and challenge the most powerful king the world has ever seen just before going into a big battle? In a pig’s eye. It sounded more like Crossfire or Monty Python than history’s greatest leader. This scene is beyond phantasmagoria.

In Platoon (1986), Stone’s anti-American diatribe, he filmed one of the best battle sequences I’ve ever seen when he has an officer call down artillery on his own position. The film just showed chaos. That works once. He does it in both major battles in this film. Although the chaos gets a little tired, the battle of Gaugamela is well done. It goes on for at least 15 minutes, with aerial shots of the great armies maneuvering.

The responsibility for this mess falls directly on the shoulders of writer-director Oliver Stone. Give Forrest Gump a cast of Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Plummer, Angelina Jolie, and Val Kilmer with music by Vangelis and I guarantee you he could come up with something better than this.

Stone blatantly portrays Alexander as more homosexual than bisexual, in that he shows far more interest in his lifelong friend, Hephaistion (Jared Leto), and his horse, Bucephalas, than he does to any of the women around him, including his first wife, Roxane (Rosario Dawson). In fact, Stone perpetuates  Afghanistani stories about Roxane who is described as a good Afghan girl and who, because her people had been invaded by Alexander’s forces, secreted a knife under her pillow and attempted to murder Alexander on their wedding night. Since nobody could possibly know what occurred between the two of them on their wedding night, lending credence to such a bald, unsupported allegation is irresponsible, especially when you’re telling a story of an historical personage that will be accepted as gospel by a substantial part of the audience.

Despite the putrid script, this three hour film is interesting, thanks to Alexander’s amazing story and the exceptional cast who make the best of what they have to work with. One thing I did like is that instead of casting some old man like Tom Hanks as Alexander, Colin Farrell looks like a little boy leading men. And that’s the way it really was because Alexander accomplished his conquests before he was 25 years old.

Farrell is one of the best young actors of his generation. But nobody could make the words the actors are forced to utter sound anything but banal. The real Alexander the Great conquered the world. Oliver Stone’s touchy-feely-weepy Alexander would be lucky to last three rounds against Margaret O’Brien.

November 18, 2004

The End