2004 (2007); directed by Oliver Stone; adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, Christopher Kyle and Oliver Stone; 214 mins
It’s hard being an Oliver Stone fan and in recent years he hasn’t helped us out much but if you’re a real fan of anyone or anything, it’s fair to say you will accept the failures. Bottom three?
U Turn is an intensely irritating film where every single scene outstays it’s welcome, W. was just a massive, anonymous disappointment and The Doors is a good film hampered by the fact that Stone clearly loves Jim Morrison – who was a twat. Generally, however, his most widely hated film is 2004’s Alexander and we all disliked that fuck-boring 175 minute theatrical cut*. We’ll come to the issues with that later because they are somewhat odd in hindsight. Upon seeing the 2007 “Revisited“, 214 minute cut, there was a difference: it was better and thus this review will be about that version.
So, plot! The movie follows the life of Alexander from a childhood dominated by his warring parents Philip and Olympias, to an adulthood dominated by thoughts of subjugating the known world. He dragged his armies through the Middle East into India, conquering and conquering, only stopping when his own men forced him to return to Greece. In between the empire-building, we see his tumultuous relationships with his parents, his closest advisors and also his lovers and wives.
Do not think this is going to be an ‘Underrated Classics’ review, though. There are still many, many problems in the film but in the interim, between seeing the initial release, missing out the 2005 Director’s Cut and then catching the “Cecil B. DeMille, three-hour-45-minute thing”, two events happened to influence my thinking on this film: Firstly, I did Classics in year 13 at High School and one of the subjects we touched on was Alexander the Great and secondly, I read Robin Lane Fox‘s excellent book, ‘The Making of Alexander’. The key thing that came away from both of these is that Alexander’s short life was so epic and packed with incident and intrigue and politics and relationships and empire building, that – at least – you’d have to have two two-and-a-half hour films to cover it. Robin Lane Fox’s book also, for once, had a historian actually being mature enough to see that the process of filmmaking and dramatising a huge historical figure like Alexander means that fact becomes, by necessity, relative and malleable. As Roger Ebert said in his review of JFK; “As a general principle, I believe films are the wrong medium for fact. Fact belongs in print. Films are about emotion”. Now, that’s a discussion I will have elsewhere but what comes out of those ideas is that Alexander Revisited is in fact the best stand alone movie you’ll ever get about his life. It is an honourable failure – let’s move on with our lives!
So, let’s assess the bad and the thing that jumps out above all else is:
⁃ Angelina Jolie. Her mutated, mediterranean clusterfuck of an accent is unsalvageable, sadly and that coupled with her age proximity to Colin Farrell, it cannot be got past that she is not right for the part.
⁃ The relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion doesn’t work and may never do; mostly because Jared Leto is just a very bland actor and the sub-Merchant-Ivory, longing-looks-across-a-room nature of it all. That said, it did at least make a big thing of it rather than just ignoring it altogether which few to no historical epics had done or are doing even today, really. You can say 300 is homoerotic but that would suggest Zack Snyder put some subtext into the damn thing.
⁃ Also, the film has the problem of so many historical movies where the screenwriters never quite get the handle on ancient dialogue (may be another discussion elsewhere).
What is better than everyone thinks? Well, Revisited’s more straightforward structure helps a lot and I think it has to do with taking the mighty Battle of Gaugamela sequence and putting it much nearer the beginning. Stone wows us with this one bit that almost everyone agrees is great and then we get to settle in to the story and more importantly – the politics – which is where Oliver Stone shines. Rather than breaking it all up with a non-linear narrative, we get a more cohesive, much more interesting tale of the rise and rise of Alexander before his personal decline.
Colin Farrell gets over the wig issue and does his best with taking on a monumental figure like Alexander (name me someone else who could’ve done it) and Val Kilmer is better than anyone gives him credit for as the slobbish King Philip. The film to which this must be compared is Stone’s Nixon starring Anthony Hopkins (here playing the older Ptolemy) and the two ways this film stacks up against it. Firstly, where it goes right is to show the constant decision making processes with his peers (Hephaestion, Cassander, Ptolemy), constantly discussing the political implications of any venture just as Nixon has Haldeman & Ehrlichman, Kissinger and Mitchell. This really is Stone’s forte, he loves to see the way a leader is compromised and the ways governing bodies decide everything for the rest of us.
Where it fails, however, is it’s much less nuanced depiction of this ruthless dictator. Stone hated Nixon but still created a portrait which tried to understand this monster and came up showing how even the most powerful man in the world was at the behest of “The Beast”: the machine of politics and war. Here, Stone is saying “Alexander? Yeah, he was pretty… great.” Rather than starting from the megalomania, the innate hierarchical misanthropy and the hideous genocides and massacres perpetrated by the man and trying to eke out the humanity from that, here, Alexander is presented as AMAZING but he did get a bit up himself towards the end. This leaves an odd note in the filmography of a defiantly leftist filmmaker that he should present such a largely swooning portrait of this damaged yet inherently immoral totalitarian.
All in all, Revisited is a better movie than the stagnant three hour cut and if nothing else, should be rated as an infinitely more interesting film than either Troy of 300 or any other of those facile, meaningless Sword and Sandal knockoffs with bugger all to say apart from; “Grr”.
One final note: a bugbear for most people was the decision to have the Macedonians speaking with Irish accents but it is a bloody savvy one. People get sniffy when an American accent shows up in a story of ancient deeds but it’s only as valid as having posh English accents be the accepted cadence of the classical world. The Greeks saw the Macedonians as uncultured barbarians and so it makes absolute sense that, within this filmic conceit, snotty English Greeks should be contrasted with earthy Macedonian Irishmen. So get over it.
*Link here to a follow-up review of the 167-min director’s cut.