Sunday, February 06, 2005


A quarter of a century ago, Michael Cimino directed a film called Heaven's Gate. It was roundly condemned as being the worst film ever made. When I finally got to see it, I wondered if that was fair. It wasn't a great film, but it wasn't that bad. And I feel much the same about Oliver Stone's Alexander. The critics have savaged it, throwing around terms like 'camp classic', 'risible' and 'Stone's worst film'. It's a bit of a surprise, therefore, to enter the cinema and discover that it's all rather ordinary, and not really warranting the invective thrown at it. I would never claim that it was a great film, or even particularly good one, and certainly don't intend applying the term 'flawed masterpiece'. But is it really as bad as everyone says? As Philip French notes in The Observer, it's a better film than Robert Rossen's 1956 Alexander the Great. It is on a whole series of levels a more successful film than Antoine Fuqua's ludicrous King Arthur. And I find it difficult to believe that the mooted rival Alexander the Great, to have been directed by Baz Luhrmann and produced by Dino de Laurentiis, would have been better. A combination like that has 'gross excess' written all over it, in terms of camp Pontin's at Camber Sands to Stone's trailer tent with a Calorgas stove.

That Stone's film has flaws is undeniable. It is, for a start, too long, but that is not an uncommon fault amongst films these days. In fact, it doesn't drag too badly - Rossen's 1956 film seems slower, though it is actually an hour shorter, whilst Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, also an hour shorter, is far more tedious. But Stone's film is undeniably badly, and unevenly, edited, in what seems to have been a rushed effort to bring the film down from its original four hour length. Some points have been completely lost in this. The Irish accents sported by almost all the Macedonians (though Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Cassander evidently comes from that little-known part of Ireland called Swansea, whilst Gary Stretch as Cleitus reckons his native Liverpudlian is good enough) has been the source of much amusement from reviewers, and generally assumed to be to try to make them fit with Colin Farrell's native tones. But in fact Stone is trying to explain the relationship between the sophisticated Greeks and the Macedonians they despise as moronic country bumpkins, by characterizing it as similar to that between the English and the Irish. Except that there are almost no Greeks left in the film, so the point is lost.

Other points are beaten to death - subtlety has never really been Stone's strong point. Stone suggests through Rosario Dawson's appearance, accent and choice of jewellery that one of the reasons Alexander marries the Sogdian princess Roxane is because she reminds him of his mother Olympias. And then he makes the point again by having Olympias dictate a letter to her son telling him not to confuse her and Roxane. And then he makes the point again. Later in the film, he establishes through looks that Alexander's companions have conspired to poison him - and then rams the point home in dialogue five minutes further on.

There are occasional flashes of subtlety. In a single look, a brief moment of shock at an unexpected event, Stone exonerates Olympias of complicity in the murder of her husband Philip of Macedon. But these are rare.

It probably does the film no harm that Colin Farrell coincidentally looks a bit like Brad Pitt in the role of Alexander's idol Achilles. Farrell's blond locks have come in for much mockery, and true enough his Rod Stewart barnet is not too convincing. But it looks better than Richard Burton's blonde Beatle wig in 1956, which I feel is the yardstick against which it should be measured. In fact, overall, Farrell does a better job at conveying some humanity in Alexander than Burton's humourless, overly Shakespearian performance. (I haven't seen William Shatner's 1968 TV performance, but I can't imagine it would be better.)

Some casting is wrong. Angelina Jolie, eleventh months older than Colin Farrell, is too young to be Olympias. Perhaps the fact that you expect them to be a romantic couple in a film underscores the Oedpial elements Stone wants to build up, but it means, like Glenn Close' Gertrude to Mel Gibson's Hamlet, you don't believe in the mother-son relationship. Someone like Rene Russo, or at least of her generation, would have been better. And because Jolie is Stone's most bankable star (though how bankable she is after Tomb Raider 2 is open to question) means that she gets more screen time than Olympias' importance perhaps deserves - nor does it help that she spends much of that screen time fondling snakes as if she is a villain in a Bond movie. On the other hand, those who have followed Val Kilmer's career may be surprised to find that he's not completely rubbish.

Historically, the film tries hard to be as accurate as possible. Respectable classicists like Robin Lane Fox and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones are involved. Lane Fox's 1973 Alexander the Great was my introduction to the subject as well as Stone's, and one of the first works on Classics that I read. Though one of my university lecturers dismissed it as "pretentious", it remains, to my mind, the most readable, if not the most scholarly, book on Alexander.

Stone ensures that there great attention to detail in the uniforms and sets, again mocked by some critics as an overly grand gesture, but frankly I am quite glad that Alexander does not, as he does in the 1956 film, spend half the movie wearing a breastplate celebrating a Roman diplomatic coup of three hundred years later (that of the Prima Porta Augustus, celebrating the return of legionary standards by the Parthians). Stone does conflate (the battle of Gaugamela has elements of the earlier battles of Granicus and Issus), oversimplify (Alexander's Successors did not immediately set about dismantling his empire, but for over a decade fought for pre-eminence within an empire that they viewed as a unity), and re-arrange for better dramatic effect (Cleitus was killed before Alexander's marriage to Roxane, not after, and the Macedonian mutiny and refusal to march further east took place after the entry into India and the battle with Indian troops using elephants at the River Hydaspes). However, and this may surprise those who caricature me as a stuffy historian who resents all distortion of the facts, good history does not always make good movies. For a start, Alexander's biography is full of incidents - Lane Fox's book is 500 pages - and not easy to fit into three or even four hours. This sort of historical narrative often suits better a television mini-series - film needs to indulge in the compressions or distortions of a Gladiator or an Elizabeth to get a truly cinematic story. This is a problem that afflicts the 1956 film just as much - that film skips much of Alexander's time in the far east, partly because the story is already dragging, but partly because they probably could not find anywhere in Spain to stand in for the Indus valley. This doesn't mean that Stone's Alexander is incoherent - though I am so familiar with the story that I find it hard to put myself in the place of someone who knows next to nothing of Alexander's life story, which I think covers a lot of the audience for this film.

However, the further away from history Stone gets, the less sure his touch. My friend Tanya Brown commented on how the battle of Gaugamela works better than that later against the Indians. I think this is perhaps because for Gaugamela Stone sticks pretty closely to the historical script. But for the elephant battle, because he wants to incorporate Alexander's wounding, which happened later, and make more of the impact of the elephants, he departs from what actually happened at the River Hydaspes, where, instead of Stone's chaotic battle that the Macedonians barely survive, Alexander scored another decisive victory. The elephants, who were not unknown to Alexander, caused some distress amongst the phalanx, but soon the Macedonians had shot or skewered the mahouts, and the elephants became, as would often be the case, as much of a hazard to their own troops as to the enemy. Stone ends up using his elephants in a fashion that I suspect is only possible if they are computer generated.

Yet there are many good historical moments. Stone's script does try hard to get across points such as the importance of Darius' person in the war, a point the historical Alexander had probably learnt from Xenophon's Anabasis. We also get Alexander's understanding that he has not just conquered the Persian empire, but has become the new Great Persian King, and he must therefore act as the Great King, and no longer privilege his Macedonians - something his Macedonians, who saw themselves as conquerors and superior to the defeated Asians, never understood. And there is even a pun at the end which you will never get if you know no Greek. On his deathbed, Alexander is asked to whom he leaves his empire, he whispers something. "Did he say 'to the best'?" "I thought he said 'to Craterus.'" The pun is in that last bit. What Alexander is recorded as saying is that he left his empire to 'the strongest', kratistos. That is the superlative of the adjective kratos, 'strong'. The comparative is krateros. Which is also the name of one of Alexander's generals.

So why does everyone hate this film? I think there are a lot of reasons. For a start, the story of Alexander is not one that can be used to convey points about American independence and individualism in the face of oppressive foreign imperialism in the same way that the history of the Roman empire has so often been manipulated.

Then, the right wing in America has never liked Stone, because of films like Salvador, and doubtless they feel that circumstances are right to have a go at him. Some critics clearly resented the attempt to produce an epic that had a modicum of intelligence behind it, both the lowbrow critics that don't like (and can't cope with) their entertainment turning into history lessons, and the more highbrow ones who don't like spectacle, and particularly don't like uppity spectacle that tries to have ideas.

And of course, there's the homoeroticism. Stone doesn't try to hide this (though actually hard evidence on the nature of Alexander and Hephaistion's relationship is thin on the ground), but he doesn't make a fuss of it either. One might contrast this with Troy, which went out of its way in the script and in the publicity surrounding the film to deflect accusations of being a 'gay' film, yet is far more suffused with homoerotic imagery than Alexander. (There's much more to be said about this, but at another time.)

It's a shame that Stone is treated like this. He deserves more respect for the brilliant quintet of the mid to late '80s, Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio and Born on the Fourth of July. Instead, people remember his more recent films (even I've never been able to sit all the way through JFK), and he gets to watch all the awards go to Scorsese's over-rated The Aviator. Let's hope he gets a better reception for the Director's Cut DVD, when he may correct some of the mistakes made in the editing.

It's worth noting that Heaven's Gate now has a much improved reputation, with at least one critic calling it 'a superb achievement'. I doubt that critical opinion will reverse to that degree over Alexander - it's not that good a movie. But I do think it will be better thought of in future. (It is notable that, outside the US and the UK, it has apparently done financially quite well.) And let's hope it's not the end of Stone's career. His films at least show a degree of imagination, and there's not enough of that in Hollywood - when I saw Alexander the coming attractions were two remakes and a sequel to a remake.


austendw said...

This comment comes a long time after your original post, I know, but I'm wondering whether you did get to see the director's cut. I thought that the reshaping of the narrative was a significant improvement, and a propos of your comments above, note that the Indian battle was amplified, making it clear that it turned out to be a victory for Alexander.

I too think that, in time, the film will be reappraised. No masterpiece, for sure, but not the disaster it was unfairly accused of being.

Tony Keen said...

I've had it since last September, but I have to confess that I haven't got round to doing more than checking out the Alexander/Hephaestion scenes for an article I was writing at the time. I will have to sort that out sometime.