2004; directed by Oliver Stone; adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, Christopher Kyle and Oliver Stone; 167 mins
Another go round* with Oliver Stone’s ballsed-up but unfairly shat upon historical biopic. This time, the 167 minute “director’s cut” that got released instead of the 175 minute cinema cut that bored us all shitless. Trimmed and tuct after the deadly reception it got and also in the wake of Stone’s open criticism of Warners’ treatment of the film in post-production, how does it stack up in-between the two longer behemoths?
Well, first to say, one of the great strengths of the longer cuts was the constant decision-making process with Alexander‘s generals and peers. Whilst that is still very much in evidence, certain characters get oddly sidelined. Whilst the film makes a big deal of his conflict with the old guard among his men (those still loyal to his father like Parmenion and Cleitus), which marries up nice and smoothly with his perennial parent issues, others such as Crateros and Hephaestion don’t make the impact that they need to.
When the army mutinies just before they get to India, Crateros is meant to be this great leavening voice of reason. He is the one to whom Alexander will listen and not drop a bollock if he lays down some home truths but if you hadn’t seen the longer cuts, you’d be forgiven for thinking; “Well, who the bloody hell’s this?” We’ve seen him but not by any name.
With Hephaestion, it’s a simple issue of Jared Leto being miscast. He’s not interesting or charismatic enough an actor to shoulder this vitally important character (see: Suicide Squad). Hephaestion, as Alexander’s lifelong friend, confidante and lover, is omnipresent in the narrative and yet when you consider Rosario Dawson, as controversial bride, Roxane, who has much less screen time, you remember her far more, even as “the girl of no political significance”.
Anthony Hopkins‘ bits as Ptolemy really don’t need to be there. Whilst he typically acquits himself very well and you can see, through his performance, that the echoes of Ptolemy’s time with Alexander are still very palpable, his role is expositionary and almost nothing else. His monologues spell out the themes in BIG TEXT for the audience. Now, whilst many critics of Stone have complained that his messages are shoved down your throat like a snooker table, I’d argue that they roll along with the rest of the story. They’re big and loud but only as much as the best of the rest of his big, loud, ballsy films, rollicking along at fifty to the dozen. Here, the film actually stops so Stone and his writers can, rather like Martin Scorsese’s recent Silence, bald-facedly deliver a thesis. This coupled with captions merely repeating dialogue, sometimes you end up thinking; “Oh, for Chrissakes, I know!”
The dialogue is still up and down for me. It’s not the worst historical dialogue but for me, the only writer/director who has ever really nailed it is Mike Leigh in his period pieces, Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner. With those films, however, Leigh had certain historical and cultural benefits. It’s a tough call for writers and a bit of “by Zeus” and “by Hera” isn’t a problem. Stone apparently talked with historian Robin Lane Fox about which curses to use or not. Sayings like “to the crows”, Stone reasoned, were too archaic and wouldn’t flow easily out of the actor’s mouthes (don’t forget “you sack of wine” from Troy). Funnily enough, the most sore-thumb moment is when Parmenion refers to himself as “an old sod”.
The biggest problem that sticks out this time is it’s deference to Alexander (which I’ve covered in the previous review). One character says to him; “Those who love too much, lose everything. Those who love with irony… last!” This would seem to be a comment to which Alexander should take heed but ultimately doesn’t. Perhaps it’s saying, had he loved with irony, he could’ve been even greater. The film itself should’ve, though. It doesn’t have enough disengagement from the man to critique him much beyond going; “Daww! You cheeky tyrant!” Obviously, this is a film about greatness and the achievements of one man that have rarely been matched but still it could’ve done with that more critical eye that Stone brought to Richard Nixon.
For all this! For all of this! I still like this movie! There’s a reason I keep coming back to it because it is an interesting and admirable work. It’s much more beautiful and alternative in the way it’s put together than most other historical epics. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is ripe and appropriately Dionysian whenever Philip and Olympias are around but also has the necessarily colourful scope and grandeur in the biggest scenes. Stone’s penchant for what he calls “vertical cutting” is still there where one scene is going on but he momentarily cuts to subtextual/emotional imagery or flashbacks whilst the parent scene plays out.
The Battle of Gaugamela is rightly praised but watching it this time time round, the film’s second great triumph is the Battle of Hydaspes in India. Amidst this messy epic is a battle that is an epic mess but deliberately so and all the stronger for it. Amidst the ungovernable jungle treeline, great elephants charge against the terrified Macedonians and you have several shots of them running roughshod through rows of spears and infantrymen that create a sense of terror no CGI can match. It successfully brings together certain thematic and emotional strands aswell, as the invading force finally finds themselves out of their depth and routed by the native Indians. Plus, it reaches a great emotional peak in Alexander’s charge against the elephant. So desperate is he to keep conquering and now knowing his men have their limits he leaves them behind to face this terrible beast. To prove himself and to them that he is ‘The Great’ only to face mortality and humiliation.
There’s loads wrong with it but it tried to do something different with a stale genre and I’d much rather see that than meaningless talk of “destiny” and “honour”.
*I haven’t written a synopsis this time round because of the previous review but you’ll notice I’ve repeated myself in places but only in an attempt to broaden previous points.