Alexander – Revisited Cut
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Screenplay by: Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, Laeta Kalogridis
Produced by: Thomas Schühly, Jon Kilik, Iain Smith, Moritz Borman
Studio: Intermedia Films, Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: 24th November, 2004
Oliver Stone’s Alexander is a fascinating creature of a film; one that I have already a curious liking for yet one I cannot deny its many flaws. It’s a strange film that alternates between being a striking vision of Antiquity and a bizarre acid trip of excess and strange direction choices that makes 300 look tame by comparison. You can tell Oliver Stone poured all his heart and soul into the telling of Alexander’s story and sticking true to the history. For this review, I will look at the ‘Revisited’ cut; it’s the longest (therefore also the most challenging) but also one with perhaps the most to offer as a biopic and an epic recounting the life and exploits of one of history’s greatest conquerors.
In Alexandria, Egypt, 283 BC, Pharaoh Ptolemy I (Anthony Hopkins) recites his memoirs alongside Alexander to his scribe Cadmus, serving as the framing device for the film with Ptolemy as the narrator, alluding to other events off-screen while the film focuses on some of the key moments in the life of Alexander. In this edition, we are introduced to Alexander (Colin Farrell) in 331 BC just before the Battle of Gaugamela against King Darius III of the Persian Empire. Among his loyal generals are Hephaistion (Jared Leto), Antigonus (Ian Beattie), Cleitus (Gary Stretch), Parmenion (John Kavanagh), Philotas (Joseph Morgan), and the younger Ptolemy (Elliot Cowan). The battle commences, and despite the Persians’ overwhelming numbers, Alexander wins the day through superior tactics and claiming Babylon in the name of Macedonia. He confides with Hephaistion of his ambitions to travel to and conquer the far corners of the world.
Between these exploits, we see flashbacks Alexander’s life as a young prince (Connor Paolo) and the strained relationship between his parents. Alexander grows up with his mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) and his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer), where he finds interest in love, honour, music, exploration, poetry and military combat. His already tenuous relationship with his father King Philip II (Val Kilmer) is destroyed when Philip marries Eurydice, the niece of Attalus. After the assassination of Philip, Eurydice’s claim to the throne is destroyed; Alexander becomes king and fulfils his father’s intended campaign to conquer Persia.
The acting has been a subject of debate and ridicule, with many of the key actors attracting criticism for their performances. I myself can enjoy such theatrical performances, having seen a number of Greek plays where this type of acting is commonplace. Farrell looks the part of Alexander and sportingly throws himself into the action scenes, and he does have a fair few scenes that show off his confidence and passionate leadership well, but not enough. Because Farrell has more of an everyman quality to him, he doesn’t nail the enormous charisma you think would be associated with a great leader of men. In other scenes he becomes like a character in a Greek play with over the top expressions and mood swings, the worst of which happen with Jolie’s Olympias. Speaking of which, Jolie is another strange casting as Olympias, overdoing her Albanian accent, eating up the scenery and being very unsettling and not in a fun way. Kilmer has some good scenes with both Alexander actors, and his Irish accent seemed to work well enough, but when he goes into over the top drunken rants it’s almost as bad as Jolie.
Leto gives an okay performance as the calm, assuaging Hephaistion to Farrell’s wildly passionate Alexander; however they don’t have enough chemistry to really believe that they’re lovers. Despite some good scenes in the first half, Hephaistion seldom has much screen time with Alexander in the second half and we mostly get longing stares between the couple. Hopkins provides a solemn, soothing narration to the film and conveys the memory of a man who has seen the world and is thinking of his youth with nostalgia. Rosario Dawson does a good job as the Bactrian princess, Roxana, holding her own despite having very limited screen time. Plummer gives a lot of worldly personality as Aristotle, having a great scene with the young Greeks who would follow Alexander. Cowan (who looks like he could reasonably pass for a young Anthony Hopkins), Kavanagh, Morgan and Stretch all function well as generals to Alexander, but sometimes go for theatrics like some of the A-listers. Familiar faces appearing in surprising early roles include Toby Kebbell as Pausanias, the killer of Philip, Ian Beattie as General Antigonus, Rory McCann as Craterus the soldier. In brief but impressionable roles include Tim Piggot-Smith as the omen reader, and Brian Blessed is a welcome sight as young Alexander’s wrestling tutor.
This is a very well-polished film, on par with the likes of Gladiator, Troy and Kingdom of Heaven for technical prowess. For the vast majority of the film, the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is fantastic. The hot orange colours of Gaugamela and vibrant colours of Babylon and Bactria capture the exotic look of the eastern countries. The pastoral hills and town of Pellas, Macedonia have a lush pastoral purity to them, and the verdant jungles and temples of India are beautifully shot with a greater level of contrast and colour. He excels in capturing the vastness and insanity of the battles. There is one area where the cinematography jumps the gun badly which I will highlight later.
The realization of the great Babylon through massive sets and CGI is stunning, and surprisingly much of it holds up. In fact, the locations, sets, art direction, sound design, and the overall splendour of its visuals almost make me want to recommend viewing Alexander on that level. A lot of work and detail has gone into the making of the weapons, armour and costumes ranging from the plainer togas and uniforms of the Macedonians to the and rich, opulent, colourful attire of the various eastern cultures. Admittedly, the makeup on Kilmer’s Philip and blond locks of Farrell’s Alexander do leave much to be desired. And the CGI eagle close-ups don’t look at all real, definitely a case of being too ambitious with the VFX.
The Battle of Gaugamela is an incredible achievement in historical battle filmmaking, Stone films as much of the vast Macedonian and Persian armies in-camera as possible, with impressive wide shots of the Macedonian phalanxes, Persian infantry battalions, Persian chariots and the cavalry on both sides. CGI is used to give a sense of scale of both armies, but is primarily used from a bird’s eye view and only when necessary. The fighting is filmed at close quarters and has a frenetic energy and character to it, emulating the chaos of ancient warfare. The action scenes are bloody and shocking to behold, but no less than one should expect considering this period of warfare. Comparing Gaugamela to Hydaspes in India, it’s clear how much worse and bloodier a battle it was as the Greeks find themselves further away from home. The elephants gave me goose-bumps they thundered into view and laid waste to the Greek phalanx, and we see soldiers tossed about, gored and crushed underfoot. I keep wondering “how did they do it?” with the use of very real and very dangerous elephants and hundreds of armed extras in such an enclosed environment. If nothing else, both of these battles deserve far more attention for their prowess of execution. There is no escaping the hellishness of war, and no glorification of its aftermath.
The score by Vangelis is one of his most overlooked and finest I have heard, with a versatile array of atmospheric ethnic instrumentations that invoke the ancient world. The score soars to heroic heights that rival Hans Zimmer’s score for Gladiator at the Battle of Gaugamela, and for the many softer scenes it shows a melancholic, soulful quality that sets it apart from other scores in this genre. The closing credits theme ‘Titans’ has a mythic, inspiring personality to it that fires up the imagination with images of battle and victory.
The film operates on two timelines, one chronicling Alexander’s eastern conquests up until his death in Babylon, and another that follows Alexander from his youth to becoming king of Macedonia. The use of a stylized map of the ancient world, in addition to Ptolemy’s narration, is a useful tool to help the audience keep track of Alexander’s conquests. On a storytelling level, introducing Alexander through the Battle of Gaugamela is an effective hook and allows us to see the Macedonian conqueror at his prime as one would imagine him, before we see more of what he was as a prince. The tone subtly shifts from one of mythic and heroic character to a darker tone, stripped of the glorification of Alexander in the first act. Similarly, the battles become more bloody and hellish to reflect this gradual shift. The Revisited Cut plays up the idea that Darius arranged the assassination of Philip in the first act, giving legitimacy to Alexander’s invasion, and this idea of stripped away over time as a ruse created by Alexander to fire the Greeks up for war. The contrast of scenes allow for a greater contrast of where Alexander came from and how and why he met his end.
However, this structure is not without its problems. Before the Battle of Gaugamela, we’re introduced to Alexander’s generals at a breakneck speed at a rushed pace, and only half of them are forgotten about as the film rolls on. This has a similar problem to Troy in attempting to integrate the Homeric hymns ascribing qualities to the generals that sound pretentious in English. The enemy armies at Gaugamela and Hydaspes are one-dimensional and ultimately function as basic obstacles, so you don’t really root for the Greeks to triumph as much as you would compare to the Spartans and the Persians in 300 or to understand the drama and sometimes shared heroism and ideals on both sides like in Troy. There just isn’t much personality given to the Persians, Bactrians or Indians.
Oddities are aplenty here, some work and others unsurprisingly don’t. The choice to give the Macedonian characters Irish accents, while strange at first, eventually ceased to bother me as it was an effective method of establishing differences between the more civilized Greeks with upper class English accents. Stranger examples that include the use of a lion’s roar overlaid over the cheering Macedonian army at Gaugamela, and the approaching elephants’ footsteps literally make the earth tremble and they themselves sound more monster than animal. Whole sequences are filmed to show off dancing girls and various pleasures of the flesh; beautifully shot to be sure but pretty much exist for their own sake.
Then there are some flat out goofy scenes like Alexander and his men interacting with monkeys in India as though they were a tribe of their own, even Hopkins’ venerable narration can’t save it. Strange edits, such as jarring alternating shots between characters and scene transitions such as the Battle of Hydaspes take even me out of the movie. The strangest of all is the Battle of Hydaspes in which the whole battle turns to a horrific magenta red netherworld of insanity when Bucephalus is killed in battle. Stone really should not have gone for this visual decision as it makes the battle more difficult to perceive and falls into melodrama. The writing between Alexander and Olympias is dripping with oedipal and Freudian scenes, and yes it’s as gross as you would expect, and the fact that Jolie hardly ages while Alexander lives into his thirties doesn’t help matters. In the many scenes where tempers flare and fight break out amongst the characters, helped with alcohol, this is where the film’s melodrama really becomes its undoing. Tempers flare again when a ragged and exhausted Alexander is forced to quell a mutiny in his army, and it’s difficult to watch because of how needlessly over the top it is.
Perhaps one of the most unexpected problems with Alexander is Alexander himself for one key reason. What Gladiator had is a relatable, underdog hero like Russell Crowe’s Maximus. Kingdom of Heaven had a stunning ensemble cast to compensate for the shortcomings in its main lead. The Alexander of Alexander is more like Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured Prince Commodus: a young man born into privilege and haunted by ruling class family dysfunction and neurosis, and most of the people he’s surrounded with don’t have the charm or likability to hold the film together. Most people just aren’t going to find as much to root for in this kind of character. Had Ptolemy been the main character and been a witness to the highs and lows of Alexander’s career, maybe the film would have had more of a stable foundation from a main character standpoint.
There are three prominent animal symbols in the film. The eagle, which is a symbol of Zeus, is a frequent companion of Alexander’s conquests as an omen for victory, and is seen when Alexander first rides Bucephalus. Eagle heraldry appears in Babylon, and one last time an eagle hallucination appears just before he dies, as though Zeus himself had descended to take him. Snakes are another recurring motif, as extensions of Olympias’ sensualized treatment of her young son, just as a snake wraps its coils around its human bearer. They are symbols of the cult of Dionysus, whom Olympias was a part of. Living snakes and snake symbols are presented whenever Alexander feels vulnerability or sickness, and manifest as a hallucination of Olympias as a Gorgon. Roxana wears snake arm braces, establishing parallels between Alexander and Roxana and his parents, indicating a repetition of history. While it is very blatant, the image of the snake killing the eagle as it flies is an obvious indication that Olympias’ manipulations and toxic attitude ultimately killed her son. With hardly any dialogue, Alexander and his horse Bucephalus becomes a legitimate highlight of the film. Bucephalus also plays a similar role to these animal symbols, as a symbol of his virility, health and passion for conquest. When Bucephalus is killed in battle, Alexander’s resolve to conquer is destroyed as well.
The life of Alexander echoes many of the Greek mythic heroes, and Stone seems to indicate that Alexander was the last of these men to rise and fall in such a fashion. The theme of mythology appears first as a series of speeches about heroes from Philip to young Alexander, but this becomes integral to the core of the film. We see Alexander atop Bucephalus charge a rampaging elephant, and the two animals rear on their hind legs and in an image that looks like something out of high fantasy. The way Stone shoots Alexander’s triumphs in which there is something almost divine about them, the animal motifs, and the exotic locales seem even more wondrous to the audience. That’s where it occurred to me; Alexander is about myth-making, and how myths are born and how the pursuit of greatness and eternal glory will always invoke a great cost. Using Ptolemy’s account as a framing device, as he struggles to reconcile Alexander’s towering legacy with the man he was in life, we understand why the film indulges in such theatrical excess – because it is an extension of Ptolemy’s mythmaking. That no matter his failings in life or the manner in which he died, Alexander still created left a legacy that endures more than any story so that he himself has become mythicized by history. Just as Achilles lived fast and died gloriously, so does Alexander.
While the Revisited cut of Alexander provided a better film than I dared to expect, it is hampered by many of the same flaws that plague the theatrical cut, namely its many bizarre apparitions of style, flawed writing and many excessively over the top performances. I don’t take any shame in saying it’s a better movie than the reputation that preceded it and that I enjoyed it enough to see it again and study it properly. While I don’t expect my analysis of the film to go over well with everyone, I hope I have encouraged a few curious people to investigate for themselves. Fortune favours the bold.