Alexander the Underwhelming

Seeds of greatness fail to germinate in this look at the conqueror's life and legacy.

"It's the biggest challenge of my life. It's just a great story, and I hope I can do it some justice." That's what Oliver Stone told the BBC about his film, Alexander, back in September 2003. So, how did he do? In the theater last night, at the moment when Alexander's lifelong companion Hephaestion lay dying, the audience members were laughing. As far as they were concerned, Monty Python couldn't have done the scene with greater comic effect. The audience was reacting to what was on the screen, but also, well over two hours into the film, it was tired and a bit jaded by all of the melodrama.

Undoubtedly Alexander has major flaws, but it would be unfair to write it off entirely, especially since there are sections in it that are well done. Alexander as a child mastering the horse Bucephalus, scenes between Alexander and his father Philip II (and the assassination of the latter), and the battle against the Persians at Guagamela all come to mind.

It might be argued that there are so many complex personalities, plus the dates and geography, involved in the story of Alexander that tackling his life may be impossible in three hours, even if audiences were accustomed to sitting in theaters for that long. But the problems I had with the film weren't with its length or the history (though you could argue about what was included and what was not), they were with other things, such as dialog ("You I kill now" is one memorable line), music (ham fisted), special effects (infra-red jungles), three dance numbers (of varying degrees of silliness), and a random eagle that flaps in and out of scenes portentously. Throughout everything is heavy handed. The real Olympias kept a snake or two out of religious beliefs, but here she has the entire herpetology collection of the Bronx Zoo. Over three hours it's just too much.

Other aspects of the film work. One generally successful ploy is having much of the background information delivered in the form of the recollections of an elderly Ptolemy, who is seen dictating to a scribe in the Library of Alexandria. A boyhood friend of Alexander and later one of his chief officers, Ptolemy claimed Egypt for himself after Alexander's death. He took the title "king" in 305 and ruled until 282. Ptolemy is a legitimate choice for this function in the movie, because he did in fact write a history of Alexander. It is now lost, but the work was one of the main sources for Arrian's biography of Alexander. The Library is a reasonable setting, as Ptolemy started it, though it is heavily strewn with African and Nilotic flotsam and jetsam--elephant bones and tusks, ostrich eggs, and the like--presumably for atmosphere. (Hey, who left the crocodile skull upside down?)

It's amusing to see some familiar archaeological finds used as window dressing for the sets. The walls of the Library of Alexandria, for example, are adorned with what appear to be pebble mosaics like those found at Pella, the Macedonian capital, and a fresco that is based on the famous mosaic from the House of the Faun at Pompeii, itself a copy of a lost painting of Alexander and Darius in battle. Then there's Babylon, tricked out for the movie in the glazed-brick reliefs of men and beasts that appear on the original Ishtar Gate.

But there are some problems. One can point, for example, to the lighthouse at Alexandria which appears in the background during one of the interludes with Ptolemy. It's shown in operation, but in fact it was only completed by his son and successor Ptolemy II (284-246). Much more egregious is the gold-and-lapis Sumerian figure of a ram caught in a thicket that graces Olympias' room in the palace at Pella. Two of these were excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley during his work at Ur from 1927 to 1931. They came from the royal cemetery and pre-date Alexander by two millennia. Olympias also has a bronze figurine of an ivy-leaf crowned man pouring an offering; he might be more at home in a second-century B.C. temple in Italy. The ram and figurine look like replicas out of a museum shop, but there are some statues made for the film that look incompetently carved or even pretty silly.

Commentary in advance of the film has been rife with questions (and complaints) from people concerned about Alexander's sexuality and how it would be treated, from those worried that his relationships with other men (Hephaestion, Bagoas) would be suppressed, to those who deny Alexander was anything but heterosexual, such as a group of 25 Greek lawyers who threatened to sue Stone if the movie has "inappropriate references" and does not clearly indicate that it is "not a true depiction of the life of Alexander." I don't think--acting and dialog aside--either side can object to the way the subject is treated in the film.

And the acting was variable, with Anthony Hopkins as the elder Ptolemy and Val Kilmer as Philip both doing well. Most of the rest are adequate (one could feel sorry for Rosario Dawson, who as Roxane has some wretched lines). There has been a lot of criticism about accents in early reviews and comments based on trailers. For the most part this seems a bit off the mark to me. Is American accented English closer to ancient Greek or Persian than Irish accented English? I didn't find accents to be a serious distraction except in the case of Olympias (Angelina Jolie), whose voice reminded me of Natasha from the Boris and Natasha duo in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. That, plus her lines and overdone part, was unfortunate given her key role in the film. And then there's Kadmos, Ptolemy's Egyptian scribe, who sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger (but fortunately has few spoken lines).

Out of time and money constraints, there are major--and deliberately chosen-- historical omissions and alterations. In places one could debate the selection. For example, Alexander's journey to the Siwa Oasis in 332 is only briefly referred to during an interlude with Ptolemy. At the oasis, Alexander visited the oracle of the god Ammon (seen as the equivalent of the Greek deity Zeus). According to Plutarch, the priest there meant to address Alexander by saying, "Oh, my son." But his faulty Greek was mispronounced or misheard as, "Oh, son of Zeus." Alexander liked the result, a story that might have been used to help lay the foundation for the big question--was he deluded or a dreamer--later in the film. Similarly, the mass wedding of Macedonians to Persian wives at Susa in 324 could have been used to underscore the vision of a unified people that Alexander espouses at the expense of alienating many of the old guard. Instead, this event is conflated with Alexander's marriage to Roxane.

Conflation happens quite often in the film as important moments from deleted portions of history are pasted into later events. Clitus saved Alexander at the battle of Granicus, but since that battle was cut, the episode is transferred to Guagamela. The capture of the Persian royal women, including the princess Stateira, took place after battle of Issus, but since that battle is left out, the scene is shifted to Babylon after Guagamela. Elsewhere, conflation and invention intermingle. The battle in the jungle is presumably the fight against King Porus, but the landscape and course of the battle are altered; Alexander was not grievously wounded in that fight; and Bucephalus died, but of old age at about that time, not arrows, spears, etc.

Most of these alterations are understandable, if not always necessary, but some are puzzling. Why not at least have Ptolemy mention the major engagements at Granicus and Issus that led to Guagamela? Conversely, why reserve major atrocities committed by Alexander, such as the destruction of Thebes and death or enslavement of its population, to a passing comment by Ptolemy?

After Hephaestion's death, Alexander is shown slipping into complete decadence and drinking in Babylon (Olympias makes an appearance as Medusa in the reflection at the bottom of his wine goblet). He becomes ill (his feverish condition indicated by a stream-of-conscious montage of outtakes from earlier scenes). On his death, the struggle for his empire begins. The summing up and recitation of the moral of the film are left to Ptolemy, one of the few who survived that struggle. Dictating to his scribe, he first takes a cynical viewpoint of Alexander's achievement--"we all thought he was crazy"--then retracts that and reclassifies him as a visionary leader. The movie is over, and you are left to ponder Ptolemy's choice of ending, perhaps consoling yourself with the thought that Alexander was better than Troy. Too bad it's not more than that; the parts of this film that work well suggest it could have been great.

Originally posted @ Archaeology

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