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

Classic Alexander?

A look at an earlier film biography of the conqueror from the Golden Age of sword-and-sandal epics

Here's a trivia quiz for movie buffs: what Welsh-born actor portrayed a Roman centurion, a Macedonian king, and Marc Antony? The answer, of course, is the late Richard Burton, appearing in starring roles in The Robe (1953), Alexander the Great (1955), and Cleopatra (1963). Film critic David Thomson wrote that Burton "was all too willing to dress up and indulge in a rather hollow, grand manner of acting." Despite Thomson's mixed review of Burton's performances, I have always found his portrayal of Alexander a compelling interpretation of the Macedonian conqueror's character.

From a strictly technical standpoint this is not a good film. The process shots are primitive, the sets are cheap and historically inaccurate, the editing is choppy, the continuity is erratic, it is replete with historical errors, and it seems to have lost its focus as the moody, enigmatic Alexander picked his way across Asia. This film is not even close to the technical quality found in some other sword-and-sandal epics of the period: Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Silver Chalice, and Spartacus, to mention a few. One wonders what drew the distinguished director, Robert Rossen (whose credits include Body and Soul, All the King's Men, and The Hustler), to this project, unless it was the challenge of commanding the 6,000 soldiers from the Spanish army who served as extras. The shoddiness of the film is most evident in the sequences depicting Alexander's conquests in Asia--a hurried compression of events and battle scenes interspersed with a few standard Alexander stories. As we watched the film again recently my wife remarked, "So tedious. How can conquering the world be so tedious?" The second half of the film can be missed without loss.

But the early part of the film, even while suffering from the same condition of shooting-on-the cheap, is a serious study of Macedonian court intrigue, dominated by the powerful performances of Fredric March as Philip of Macedon, and of Burton in the title role. This part of the story is based squarely on Plutarch's Life of Alexander, and it is a faithful rendering of that ancient biographer not only in spirit but also in many details. It accurately captures the mood of court life during Philip's campaigns in Greece and in the Balkan regions along the Macedonian frontier, during which era Prince Alexander grew into young manhood.

The film emphasizes one of the most complex human stories that we know from antiquity, the ambivalent relationship that existed between the warrior-chief Philip and his talented and ambitious son. There were good reasons for the king to be wary of Alexander and his close relationship with his mother Olympias, now cast aside by Philip. Yet Alexander demonstrated enormous military talent and charismatic leadership, traits that not only threatened Philip but also made him confident that he had fostered a competent comrade and successor. Few kings in history have been so fortunate in their sons. To the extent that we know anything about Philip and Alexander's feelings about one another, March and Burton provide a memorable account of it. Given the talents of the director and his major actors one wonders what some expert historical/technical advice and a more generous budget might have yielded.

Originally posted @ Archaeology

Three Profs and a Conqueror

 It was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch a program entitled The True Story of Alexander the Great. My rule of thumb is that anything labeled "true" probably isn't. The program in question was produced by Greystone Films for A&E and was first shown on the History Channel on November 7.

My apprehension, however, soon disappeared. As is customary in such programs, three professorial talking heads soon appeared on the screen--and what talking heads they were! Brian Bosworth and Peter Green are among the greatest living scholars of Alexander, and the third, William Murray, first learned his Alexander as my student many years ago. Thus emboldened by confidence that this was a serious exposition, I relaxed to enjoy a straightforward presentation of the Alexander story. And for good reason, for not only did Bosworth, Green, and Murray provide insightful comments on Alexander's character, abilities, and motivations, but Green and Murray also served as historical consultants for the project.

There is a lesson to be learned here. There are a lot of bad historical documentaries on television, many of which are flawed from the start and beyond redemption. Others are capable of salvation, needing only a few corrections to convert them into sound historical narratives. No one can expect the producers and writers of such programs to be expert in the subjects they choose to explore. But there are experts out there whose teaching and scholarly careers have been devoted to the subjects that interest film makers. Exploiting the talents of these scholars need not jeopardize the dramatic and cinematic qualities of the programs, and, relatively speaking, their services come cheap. It would not take much time or money on the part of producers to enroll the talents of such scholars, not only as talking heads (which has become standard practice), but also as consultants in script development and review, and, I might add, to assist the production team to insure that narrators pronounce correctly all those ancient foreign names. It short, it doesn't take much effort to tweak the product and get it right. Much of the historical strength of this Alexander program is likely results from the producers having listened to their scholar-advisors.

Now, to the usual lot of nit-picking: for example, some Macedonian helmets and shields were not accurately reconstructed; Aristotle did not tutor Alexander in a cave at Mieza (as the film suggests) but rather likely in a stoa built into a rock face; it is not reasonable that the Theban Sacred Band fought naked; the last wife of Philip II did not commit suicide (she was murdered by Alexander's mother, Olympias); and the evidence now very strongly suggests that the great royal tomb at Vergina is not that of Philip II, but of a later king, probably Alexander's half-brother Arrhidaeus, who succeeded the conqueror. But these are, in the long run, details that do not jeopardize the value of the program.

Computer graphics restaging battle scenes are impressive, and, for the most part, accurate, and in a compelling and creative stroke, actors portrayed the ancient authors Arrian, Diodorus, Quintus Curtius Rufus, and Plutarch reciting passages from their works on Alexander.

Finally, I should like to lodge a strong complaint about a matter that is not the fault of producers. The program ran three hours, of which (I would estimate) one hour was devoted to frequent and long History Channel promos and commercial advertisements. Several persons I know simply gave up because of the tedium of the advertising interruptions. One assumes that, if the program is to be made available to the public on tape and DVD, it will be without the advertising. If that is the case, it will be a sensible investment by those who want a serious and lively account of the Macedonian king's career.