Swords, Sandals And Eyeliner
Oliver Stone Loses Alexander's Story
By Cole Smithey
You know from an early scene of tiresome exposition by Anthony Hopkins that Oliver Stone's three-hour sword-and-sandal epic is doomed when a giant scar across the right side Hopkins' forehead mysteriously moves to the left side of his head between shots. Then comes Colin Farrell's Irish accent that wrestles against Angelina Jolie's faux Russian intonation like a cat and a monkey fighting in a burlap bag. For all of its attention to detail in two reasonably good battle scenes Stone's movie fails to tell the complex story of one of the most enigmatic conquerors in history. But more than that Stone doesn't present characters that the audience can believe in, even for one moment, as representative of their historic roles.
There's an undue controversy surrounding Oliver Stone's pre-Christian
depiction of Alexander as a bi-sexual lover that may give the movie mileage with gay audiences who are likely to be disappointed at the soft-peddled relationship between Alexander (Farrell) and his lifelong friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto - "Panic Room"). Apart from both characters wearing matching eyeliner throughout the movie, and sharing hushed conversations and hugs, there isn't enough subtext to hang a horseshoe on. Hephaistion is Alexander's effeminate battle commander whose existence seems to revolve around him being mistreated. We hear Hephaistion and Alexander profess their love for one another but never see the price of their relationship because they never test one another. To his credit, Jared Leto gives the most convincing performance in the film as the wide-eyed paramour.
"Alexander" opens with a clumsy homage to Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane
wherein Alexander's dying hand drops a ring onto the floor in 323 B.C. The clunky backward gazing device is sunk deeper by a segue to 40-years later when Alexander's now-aged military general Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) dictates his version of Alexander's life to a Greek scholar who busily fills endless scrolls in a palatial library.
Angelina Jolie enjoys some early scene chewing with live snakes (she's
seldom shown during the movie without them) as Alexander's domineering mother Olympias. Alexander's battle scarred father King Philip (Val Kilmer) soon appears in her bedroom and attempts to violently extract sexual satisfaction even as young Alexander watches from their same bed.
Our crash course in Alexander's childhood shifts from oedipal mother
worship to homosexual and racist teachings by Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) and onto coveting his father's throne. Connor Paolo gives a confident performance as the young Alexander and shares a remarkable likeness to Collin Farrell that temporarily tips the scales toward some suspension of disbelief.
Although Alexander The Great won more than 70 battles during the 12-years of his reign, Stone dramatizes just two engagements that are meant to show how Alexander and his armies conquered millions of square miles of foreign territory. The first conflict at Gaugamela is a 12-minute war sequence that attempts to exhibit the cleverness of Alexander's military strategy while giving the viewer a taste of the brutality involved in the warfare. However, the painstaking sequence lacks an adequate narrative structure to acquaint the audience with its characters.
The film's payoff finale battle involves Alexander's horse-led army
attacking India's Elephant bound troops in the thick of an India forest. Oliver Stone shifts to an odd red-tinged film treatment that gives a hallucinatory quality and foreshadows Alexander's imminent death. The psychedelic color scheme embellishes the battle's cruel violence in a way that makes it seem more disturbing in its abstraction. When one of Alexander's soldiers slices off the trunk of a giant elephant, you feel empathy for the large animal that goes beyond any sensitivity for the soldiers who compulsively fight of their free will.
A heavy-handed musical score by Vangelis ("Blade Runner") hobbles
"Alexander" with bombastic surges of sonic information that call undesired attention and further remove the audience from the movie. There isn't a single scene in the film that is improved by the Vangelis' music.
The old commander Ptolemy pedantically says of Alexander, "No tyrant ever gave back so much." It's a troubling notion for a leftist filmmaker like to Oliver Stone to endorse. As Ptolemy preaches on and on during the movie about Alexander's place in history, I wonder at Oliver Stone's little seen documentary about Fidel Castro for which he interviewed the Cuban dictator. "Alexander" comes at a time when America is poised as fear-ridden empire that is overreaching its boundaries while neglecting domestic issues. To regard Alexander as a man who achieved amazing military success is not necessarily to view him as a hero. Perhaps Alexander's bi-sexuality is an escape clause that Oliver Stone planted in the film to distance right-wing audiences from associating too freely with the warrior. Either way, the truth is never what it's cracked up to be. It's just too bad that American cinema hasn't improved on the sword-and-sandal epic in the past 40-years.
Rated R, 156 mins. (Two Stars)