Alexander: Oliver Stone’s Epic, Starring Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie

Oliver Stone’s 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. American audiences will not go for this trip of excess and bad taste, but foreign viewers, who made Troy a hit, may like it better; it’s the kind of film seldom 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 (Colin Farrell) to the extreme. Stone suggests that Alexander conquered the world not by virtue of military genius, but with the power of his ideas. He sees Alexander as a warrior with the soul of an explorer, who sought to reinvent each of his conquered territory 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’s 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 his domineering mother’s legacy; and above all, a visionary whose dreams and actions have helped shape the modern world.

Considered to be 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, his empire included vast lands that are 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; he also used historical advisor 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 most the known 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 age 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, of soaring ideals, staggering intrigues, and betrayals. The whole 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, innuendos of homosexuality, and colorful pageantry.

Structurally, Alexander is a mess, burdened by too much voice-over from 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 the explanatory emotions in a narration, but he does.

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 distinctive 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 and love 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, and 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. Olympias tells Alexander that he has a destiny equal to Achilles, and that, like Achilles, he would die young. Unfortunately, their scenes together are the worst. Stone stresses the trade-off in Olympia’s speech: fame but premature death, as opposed to long life but no glory.

Endowed with the intense presence to play Olympias, Jolie 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 all 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 huge scar tissue to cover the eye Philip lost in battle, Kilmer plays Philip as a vulgar brute, insatiable lover, and drunk.

Christopher Plummer is cast as Greek philosopher and naturalist Aristotle, Alexander’s boyhood tutor. Aristotle lectures Alexander and the other boys about geography, politics, morality, and sexuality. Alexander tries to deal with the era’s sexual mores naturally, when sharing the bed with one’s friend was supposedly based on purer instincts. Hephaistion was a childhood friend, the only one in who was a real companion, with whom Alexander developed spiritual kinship and brotherhood that transcended normal friendship. But, like other elements in the film, the homoerotic scenes register as a modernist treatment done for sensationalism.

Main problem is that, whether dealing with ancient or modern times, Stone is repeating himself. A Homeric patriot, Stone carries the angry fervor of the 1960s and Vietnam’s political and moral chaos into Alexander’s times. In all of his films, he exhibits the sensibility of a hero-worshipping macho leftist.

Like his earlier screenplays for the charged violent actioners (Midnight Express, Scarface, Year of the Dragon), Alexander is a male personal drama, built upon explorations of violence and self-betrayal. Like Born on the Fourth of July’s misunderstood hero, Rob Kovic, a Viet vet who was paralyzed and had to readjust to civilian life, Alexander is a misunderstood visionary. It would not be a stretch to say that, like The Doors, an uncompelling movie about rock and drug culture of the 1960, Alexander applies a similarly hysterical sensibility to ancient times.

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

Worthier for its effort than for its art, Alexander is one of the worst studio movies of the year.