Alexander: Oliver Stone Director’s Cut

Oliver Stone’s Director’s Cut of Alexander is a futile attempt to rescue the nearly universally panned film, or elevate its artistic prestige among critics. How could he improve a film that’s fatally flawed in conception and execution

Though shorter by 9 minutes, this version is not likely to convert any of those (me included) who dismissed the film when it was released theatrically last year. Spending three months in the editing room, Stone claims to have excised about 18 minutes from the 175-minute theatrical cut, but he added 9 minutes to the new one.

Structurally, the Director’s Cut of “Alexander” is slightly less messy that the original was. There’s still too much voice-over by Pharaoh Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), Alexander’s trusted general and confidant, who’s the film’s storyteller. Ptolemy begins and ends the saga, and periodically fractures it with commentary. You might think that Stone is too hip to add explanatory emotions in a narration, but he does. Moreover, the great battle of Gaugamela, though depicted earlier in this version, still fails to convey what made Alexander’s the military strategy unique and triumphant.

Contrary to rumors that the film’s gay elements would be taken out prove to be wrong, and the homosexual relationship remains intact. Jared Leto’s Hephaistion yearning looks at Colin Farrell get plenty of coverage in reaction shots, and you could still see up close and personal the naked Farrell getting into bed.

Stone provides interesting, occasionally combative commentary. He claims to have reworked Alexander’s death scene, which was too early in the movie thus confusing audiences about chronology.

Stone is understandably less thrilled about deleted moments, such as the scene in which Aristotle schools young Alexander and the other boys. You may recall Christopher Plummer, as Greek philosopher and naturalist Aristotle lecturing about geography, politics, morality, and sexuality.

It was a dull, unnecessary sequence, but Stone attributes the deletion of this scene to the impatience of modern viewers with the whole notion of teaching.

Stone also claims that he decided to follow the Hollywood epic tradition, with heightened and intense melodramatics, grand gestures and speeches. “I have the license to do it,” he says, “even if audiences don’t like it.” And yet, in my view, this tradition is what’s missing from “Alexander.” Take David Lean’s historical epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” about a man of epic scales who suffered from some of the same demons as Alexander. In Lean’s movie, Lawrence is always at the center, whereas in Stone’s, Alexander in the background in at least one third of the movie, which means that the arch of the character’s life gets lost.

In his painstakingly informative commentary, Stone claims that his intent was to restructure “Alexander” so that the hero’s fraught Greek childhood with battling parents runs more clearly in parallel with his later conquests of Babylon. But for all the efforts, the new version is too fractured and remains crippled with inertia

And how could Stone improve on Farrell’s acting, which is not bad, but is not commanding, either. Whatever direction he got from Stone, Farrell doesn’t unify the episodic narrative, in the way that Peter OToole does in “Lawrence of Arabia.” This may be a minor complaint, but whoever was in charge of the actor’s blond hair did a lousy job since it’s inconsistent.

Some of Stone’s commentary is entertaining, as when he says: “Maybe in another time and place well have a fair treatment of eunuchs.” Reportedly, “Perfect is the enemy of good” was a motto on the set, a motto that in hindsight proved to be prophetic.

The Director’s Cut has three documentaries about the making of “Alexander” by Stone’s son, Sean, and a piece about the composer Vangelis.

“Alexander” is a flop of massive proportions. Honorable in intent and ambitious in goal, the $150 million historical epic suffers from a severely flawed execution on any level. Diffuse and incoherent, the movie fails to ignite the screen with the potentially juicy drama of its legendary warrior, and it also fails to involve the viewers emotionally in any aspect of its hero’s short but turbulent life.

As anachronistic and old-fashioned as “Troy” was, the star power of Brad Pitt, and the simplicity of the storytelling, made it accessible to mass audiences. As a piece of filmmaking, “Alexander” is exactly the opposite, an over-the-top, psychedelic experience that treats Alexander’s life as a chaotic rock concert in which everything is out of line. As predicted, American audiences did not go for this trip of excess and bad taste, but foreign viewers, who made “Troy” a hit, liked it better, probably because it’s the kind of film that’s seldom gets made by European filmmakers.

The irony is that “Alexander” is a project Stone has been eager to make for decades. He has repeatedly stated that, “Vietnam was my Iliad, and my life up until the making of Platoon’ was a kind of Odyssey.” With “Alexander,” Stone must have seen an opportunity to go beyond the Iliad and Odyssey.

What went wrong Just about everything: Conception and narrative, casting and acting, visuals and other technical aspects.

Using simplistic Freudian psychology, as most of his films do, Stone mythologizes Alexander to the extreme. Stone suggests that Alexander conquered the world not by virtue of his military genius but with the power of his ideas. He sees Alexander as a warrior with the soul of an explorer, a man who reinvented his conquered territories in the mold of his vision.

However, with the exception of a more intimate and more graphic portrayal of Alexander’s bisexuality than seen in a former Hollywood picture about him, Robert Rossen’s 1956 “Alexander the Great,” this “Alexander” barely begins to suggest the essence of one of history’ most complex heroes, one who left behind him more myths than facts.

As co-written by Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis, this epic is based on the prevailing knowledge that Alexander represented different things to different people: a dashing, ambitious warrior king; an arrogant youth leading his outnumbered forces against massive Persian armies; a son desperately longing for the approval of his stern, battle-scarred father; a mama’s boy shaped by her domineering legacy; and above all, a visionary whose dreams and actions have helped shape the modern world.

An anomaly in military history, Alexander was never defeated in battle, relentlessly pushing his army across vast lands, conquering enemies, and defeating a near-mutiny by his own men. Stone chronicles Alexander’s path to legend, from a youth fueled by mythic dreams and adventures, to his intense bonds with his closest companions, to his lonely, mysterious death as ruler of a vast Empire. In 323 B.C., the year of his death, Alexander’s empire included the vast lands now known as Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Israel, Iraq, Iran, and India.

Stone claims that his “Alexander” is faithful to the facts, taken from various sources, and benefiting from the historical advice of Robin Lane Fox, an Oxford scholar who wrote a biography of Alexander. Perhaps. But it certainly doesn’t make for a good–or even watchable–movie. In this version, Alexander is depicted as history’s most luminous leader who had conquered the world by the age of 25. Alexander led his Greek, Macedonian, and Eastern armies through sieges and conquests in just eight years. By the time of his death, at 32, he had forged an empire unlike any before him.

Set in the pre-Christian world of social customs, “Alexander” explores an era of unmatched brutality, soaring ideals, staggering intrigues, and betrayals. The movie displays kitschy trashiness and over-the-top qualities of a Cecil B. DeMille’s epic, brought up-to-date with new technology, more brutal violence, elements of explicit homosexuality, and colorful pageantry.

For authenticity’s sake, the accent of each actor was specifically chosen to reflect the era’s interconnected languages. Ancient Greece and Macedonia were melting pots, with people constantly moving around, mixing their own dialects with local tongues. To reflect this mlange, the actors who portray the Greeks and Macedonians speak with Irish, Scottish, or Welsh accents, whereas Olympias, as Greek royalty, has her own accent. The end result is a mishmash of accents, dialects, and acting styles.

Stone’s film is by necessity subjective and interpretive, as most historical fiction is. Cramming every incident of Alexander’s extraordinary life into one feature would have been impossible. But the gaps in factual knowledge give Stone too much scope for his imagination. In the press notes, he says: “Alexander acted out the Greek myths in his real life. He had a lot of demon drives that modern people have, and one of my hopes is that the movie will bring back some sense of history, that there were other times and men who were dreamers and visionaries. Everyone, especially young people now, should be given a sense of history and the possibility of idealism– that should never be corrupted.”

The film’s boldest–and most preposterous–strokes depict Alexander’s relationships with his mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie), and his father Philip (Val Kilmer). We also witness Alexander’s divided feelings for his lifelong friend and battle commander Hephaistion (Jared Leto), and Roxane (Rosario Dawson), his ambitious wife.

Central to this version is Alexander’s mother, with her high expectations and strong beliefs. Olympias tells Alexander, “In you lives the light of this world. Your companions will long be shadows in the underworld, when you will be the one, forever young, forever inspiring–never will there be an Alexander like you–Alexander the Great.” Furthermore, it’s Olympias who predicts that Alexander, like Achilles, would die young. Stone stresses the trade-off in Olympais’s speech: fame but premature death, as opposed to long life but no glory. Unfortunately, the scenes between Farrell and Jolie are some of the film’s worst.

Endowed with a strong, intense presence, Jolie’s Olympias comes across as a tough, insane, truly frightening mother. As a worshipper of Dionysus, she might have played with snakes draped around her neck, or writhing at her feet, but watching this onscreen makes up for high camp. Also too prominent in this epos is Alexander’s father and Olympias’ estranged husband, Philip II, the formerly powerful, now dissipated king. Donning a scar tissue to cover the eye Philip had lost in battle, Kilmer plays Philip as a vulgar brute, insatiable lover, and drunk.

“Alexander” tries to convey the era’s sexual mores more “naturally,” when sharing the bed with one’s friend was supposedly based on purer instincts. Hephaistion was a childhood friend and only real companion, with whom Alexander developed spiritual kinship that transcended normal friendship.

The main problem is that, whether dealing with ancient or modern times, Stone is repeating himself as a filmmaker, carrying the angry fervor of the 1960s and Vietnam’s political and moral chaos into Alexander’s times. In all of his films, Stone exhibits a hero-worshipping macho leftist ideology. Like his earlier screenplays for the charged violent actioners (“Midnight Express,” “Scarface,” “Year of the Dragon”), “Alexander” is a personal drama built upon explorations of male violence and self‑betrayal. Like “Born on the Fourth of July”‘s misunderstood hero, Ron Kovic, the paralyzed Vietnam vet who had to readjust to civilian life, Alexander is a misunderstood visionary. It would not be a stretch to say that, like “The Door,” Stone’s uncompelling movie about the 1960s rock and drug culture, “Alexander” applies a similarly hysterical and psychedelic sensibility to ancient times.

For Stone, “Alexander” is personal, feverish passion play aiming at visceral reaction. For the rest of us, however, it’s a picture that leaves us emotionally exhausted and intellectually starved.