Alexander the Great longed to be like his idol, the legendary Greek warrior Achilles. But filmmaker Oliver Stone longed for Alexander to be like the neurotic Shakespeare nobleman Hamlet, which brings us to Alexander, a two-hour, 55-minute epic that focuses so much on the personal problems of the famed Macedonian king that it barely has time to let him do anything great.
In fact, the film is so busy with the many things troubling Alexander that it only has room for two battle scenes. The first, a 331 B.C. dustup (with billowing yellow dust and lots of it) that had Alexander taking on King Darius III of Persia despite being outnumbered 47,000 to 250,000, is brutal and busy and fairly difficult to follow visually. The second, a face-off in the jungles of India, is notable mostly for the dramatic use of elephants, whose very existence, let alone presence on the battlefield, really wigged out Alexander's men. Or maybe it was the thundering score by Vangelis.
The rest of the movie is a big fat Greek talk-a-thon, punctuated with voiceovers by Anthony Hopkins telling us about all of the events we won't be seeing. Events like the first battle Alexander commanded at his father's side, where his natural creative instincts on the battlefield were clearly established. Or legendary battles at Granicus, Issus and Tyre. Or his conquest of what would later be known as the Holy Lands. Or the cities he founded (which were often named for him). Or when Egyptian priests made him pharaoh.
Truth be told, Oliver Stone would have been wiser to have cut a deal with HBO to do an Alexander miniseries. Sure, he would have had to cut back on some of the spectacle, but that seems a fair trade in order to be afforded the chance to tell the whole story of his hero.
Instead, we get a film that charts Alexander's military career while doting on florid speeches and melodrama. And, amazingly, all the time spent on his personal life fails to reveal much beyond the surface. Yes, Alexander (Colin Farrell, doing the best he can with the material) had issues with his parents: drunken lout King Philip (Val Kilmer, playing Jim Morrison again) and snake-fixated Olympias (Angelina Jolie, just campy enough), who insists that her boy is the son of Zeus (cue the classic country song, "Mamas, Please Don't Claim Your Babies Were Fathered by Deities"). But how did the family politics really play out? More details, please.
I was particularly interested in the bits of information we are given on Alexander's romantic life. We see that Hephaiston (Jared Leto, lurking in the back for much of the film), Alexander's friend since boyhood, is also the love of his life. It is made clear that the king has a presumably sexual relationship with a eunuch dancer. And the only part of his marriage to the fiery Roxane (Rosario Dawson, who never stops seething) we get a look at is a violent sex scene.
So what's up with all that? What were the sexual boundaries of that culture? Were men expected to give up their same-sex lovers when they married? Were eunuchs considered fair game? Did women have the same sexual freedom as men? I realize that Stone didn't spend too much time on these subjects for fear of alienating the Red states, but I suspect they will be spooked by what little he does include.
So I'll read a book on Alexander the Great and learn, which I'm sure would make Stone happy. As for his movie, Alexander is a mess, albeit an intriguing mess with some great scenes and a smattering of great lines (my favorite: Upon receipt of a particularly demanding letter from his mother, Alexander sighs and says, "It's a high rent she charges for nine months in the womb."). I watched the film, but never felt it. The bottom line is that Stone has created an epic that is both too much and not enough.