"Alexander the Ok"

Roger Ebert is a real movie reviewer, I think he got it right..see the rest at:


"I have always admired Oliver Stone's courage in taking on big, challenging films, and his gift for marrying action and ideas. "Alexander" is not a success, but it is ambitious and risky, and incapable of the inanities of "Troy." Fascinated by his subject, he has things he urgently wants to say about Alexander, but his urgency outraces his narrative; he gives us provocative notes and sketches but not a final draft. The film doesn't feel at ease with itself. It says too much, and yet leaves too much unsaid."

I finally got to go out and spend time with Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great movie. To be fair I liked it. I could stop there but, I feel that folks may wish some more in depth response, so I will try to put thoughts to words

Alexander Quest for relevancy
This movie is very ambitious, the story is complex, the events are in a far away places in a relatively obscure times.  The average viewer certainly isn't going to be able to understand the places and personalities involved without some serious background work.  Unlike a melodrama like "Gladiator" it isn't easy to cast the roles into compartmentalized "good" and "evil".  Even Darius, King of Persia is not evil personified, so there is little left for conflict in the story other than Alexander's conflict with himself.   These internal conflicts turn out to be more dicey than overthrowing empires and slaughtering armies.  In the movie, we are only given two of Alexander's many victories on the battlefield, the rest of the time we spend in the boudoir or in company of Alexander's table Companions, the men that he grew up with and followed him as his generals.  The story is tied to together by Anthony Hopkins as an aged Ptolemy recounted his first hand account to a scribe.  I liked this as many of the facts about Alexander's career are included in Ptolemy's account, fragments of which survive in biographies by Plutarch and Arrian. 

The major issue I had with the movie was basically (other than being interested in the historical period) what does this movie about Alexander mean to me? What is relevant to the modern viewer?
Is it relevant that western armies can crush eastern or third world armies? Not really, that seems obvious given a look at the world situation.  Is it relevant that Alexander's dominating mother and father created a sexually ambivalent "world conqueror"?  Not really, I'm not a homophobe so none of the boy dancing caused me any pilo erections.  So to me the only relevance is the struggle of Alexander to relate to who he was after being thrust into the role of king, probably at too early an age, without enough of the old men to guide him.  Some of that struggle is presented as part of the many themes that spin through the movie... old vs. youth.  That is an entirely accurate issue with the Alexander saga.  I actually think that Stone missed the target a little here, as maybe the film could have been more relevant if the changing of the guard could have been more crystal clear as a theme.  Maybe depicting Alexander more as the reckless boy king gone 'wild in the streets' would have been more entertaining.  In the end the story unfolds (as it should) and there are few surprises, ultimately the story goes through idealism of youth, then to the degradations of total power, with the only real glue being Alexander' lifelong devotion to Hephaestion his boyhood bosom buddy.  In short this Alexander movie is about internal conflict, in the same way as Richard Burton's attempt in the 1950's.
Both films hit the highlight scenes. Stone's movie is best in the early years, taming Bucephalus, discussing politics with Aristotle.  Burton's Alexander is really quite nutty, but he is a better actor, and delivers the goofy lines better than Colin Ferrel does with some of his, but this is not about acting, that's for others to judge.  In some ways the Burton charisma delivers better than this film, but then in Burton's movie we aren't subjected to Alexander's pie-eyed struggles with sexuality, and Burton mostly got to drink a lot... a real lot, so one could hardly call that acting. Colin doesn't drink too often in this movie and everytime he does something bad happens.. so that will show you the evils of alcohol right there :)

Alexander the Quest for movie's end
One of the major criticisms of the movie is that it is too long. The answer is yes, and no. For a sit down in a theatre with no intermission I say yes... too  long.. I was able to hold it, but I was going to burst if it didn't end soon.  I always find this criticism humorous with actual historical films as it is difficult to do a historical 'epic' in the 120 minute movie span.  "Band of Brothers" would not be as good as it is if it was only 3 hours long. "I Claudius" would have been a waste if condense into 120 minutes of gut splittings. For this reason I feel that Oliver Stone was limited by his medium. He really needed more canvas to flesh-out the rough edges of the story... but ultimately it is his fault for trying to do so much inside the theatre framework. 

Alexander the all too human
One of my other first impressions, is that like any historical personality, if you spend three hours on their life and focus 2 1/2 hours on their problems, sometimes their genius gets overlooked.  The certainly happens with movies about Great Captains as the tearing down and dissecting their inner workings starts to erode the charisma that made them great.  It's the old myth about George Washington's wooden teeth, if too much time is spent on his problems with dental hygiene, well one wonders how anybody followed that guy and made him "Father of the Country."  If Eisenhower wasn't agonizing about his secretary maybe he would have made double sure that the bombers wouldn't miss Omaha Beach.   The same goes for Ferrell, we are shown that he won a great battle against Darius' horde, but not really shown why. The discussion of tactics in the tent does not reveal any of Alexander's military gifts, other than the old guys didn't like the odds, and he had a plan.  Because we jumped from Philip's assassination to this point meant we missed the period where Alexander "the boy" king gained control and the necessary respect of his army, mostly composed of soldiers older than himself.

The Jittery camera works against the presentation here as it makes it hard to follow the events.  I do have to applaud Stone's technical experts for making the stars wear their helmets in battle... usually they must take them off so we can see their perfect features. So Alexander wins a great battle then rolls into Babylon and immediately is back to sulking and fussing with his boyfriends.... I guess this is the part of the movie that left me cold... there just aren't enough scenes where Alexander is decisive enough to make anyone really buy that he is really a gifted commander.  Of course by leaving off a lot of  those instances Stone avoids showing the mass slaughter inflicted on many of his foes, yet another issue with the story, as it is difficult to portray Alexander as the "good guy" if all of it is shown, as he was all too often a very bad man. (Just ask the folks from Thebes, Granicus, Tyre, Gaza, Persepolis, the massacre of Indian mercenaries in the Swat valley, Sangala, the Mallian cities, etc.)

I liked most of the peripheral characters more than Alexander. That is a problem. I think the ultimate downfall of this film at the box office is that Alexander doesn't connect. Some critics have commented how goofy it was to have Olympias covered with snakes... that is their own fault for not knowing the history.

I liked Babylon and Alexandria, as they are very spectacular glimpses.

For the wargamer?
The battles are good... the lining up of the phalanx is cool. The cavalry operate in wedges. Visually the scenes are stunning. Of course all of Alexander's battles against Persia are concentrated into Gaugamela, but that is hardly something to  complain about. The Hydaspes is also combined with other actions, and somehow the battle depicts Alexander rescuing Craterus from Porus, of course in Warhammer AtG this scenario can happen if you play the Hydaspes campaign! (and has!)  I thought the battle scenes were exciting and there was a conscience attempt to be accurate with the look.  Excepting maybe Darius' Camel corps, and a few minor (read anal) glitches.   The good news is there are no fire arrows or fireballs antics at all, something to be applauded.  But Hollywood always wants to make things seem out of control in battles, and that only chaos can reign.  The scythed chariots dutifully run into the gaps, but some soldiers are too slow as are cut to pieces as described by Diodorus Siculus in as grizzly a way that Hollywood can depict.  Cretans archers dart out of the phalanx to shoot and scoot at Persian attackers, that was kind of neat.  The dust clouds are something a movie can show a lot better than a gaming table, I recall how Robin Lane Fox's biography dwells on this. I thought they created a certain claustrophobia with dust that enclosed parts of this large battlefield into segments.

Like I said before, this is where Stone slipped up, he needed to show Alexander in his element and totally in control of the battlefield..at Gaugamela. Instead he shows us Cleitus saving his life (which actually happened at Granicus).. I feel that this battle should have been portrayed like a chess game with total precision, rather than jitter cam confusion.. but that's my own opinion.   I actually liked how the elephant battle was portrayed as total confusion and mayhem, as that was a battle that Alexander did lose control of, and the high casualties did eventually wear his army out. The elephants are terrifying, as they should be, men and pikes seem so puny as they get tossed about like rag dolls exactly as described by Arrian. Of course the towers are an anachronism, but are more visually stunning than bareback, and most likely safer for the Thai crews and wranglers... this is a real cool scene.

So it doesn't seem like it liked it all?
That's not really true. I liked it in parts but overall it is flawed.  I liked the scenes of boyhood Alexander. I liked Philip showing the frescoes of the myths. I liked how they did the scene where Alexander kills Cleitus. I liked the visuals of battles and the costuming. I liked the rough sex scene with Rosario Dawson, kind of reminded me of when the girl bites Sean Connery on the nose in "The Man Who Would Be King" (probably the best movie to see after watching Stone's movie!).  The problem is that we as modern folk are so distanced from that time, we can understand the problems of a young king tormented by his mother's ambitions and his father's domineering, but then we could get enough of that by listening to Pearl Jam or the Henry Rollins Band. I think the movie also missed the mark since many of his personal companions were not really as loyal as they seem, especially Cassander (haunted by Alexander even after he died, he stilled feared benign yelled at by him), the bickering between Craterus and Hephaestion, Antigonos was actually sent back to Phrygia (again a wimpy complaint as there must be some characters that stick around!)  Other situations like Mazaeus kind of lingering around were kind of half baked.  Alexander's kissing Bagoas is not really about proskynesis (prostration before the king), so Cleitus's death is really kind of a weird anti-hetero bashing thing... I would have preferred the actual history here rather than this mish-mash. However, the Bagoas character is true, unless one wishes to dismiss Curtius as Roman anti-Greek defamation, which many Greeks would like to believe!

Ultimately this movie missed the mark, it didn't show me why Alexander was Great, and it was his greatness that allowed the west to deify him as a god amongst men to carry his story forward, to inspire other great men such as Julius Caesar, or Augustus that shaped the world that became our own.  Without the sparkle, Alexander's  story could have been told as being as corrupt as Caligula. Alexander was complex, and maybe became a megalomaniac, but still there must be that spark, something that raises men to do such extraordinary deeds. It tried to go the "Band of Companions" route, but it had too much to story to tell, too much background to give out.  We don't need to know anything about Operation Market Garden to understand Easy Company's battles at the dikes (it helps, but isn't key). There are too many things to tie together to make this story work. Maybe more legend and less dirty bedsheets, and we need to like Alexander enough to overlook the dark side. This movie wasn't bad, but it could have been great, I bet the DVD will be better!  Men followed Alexander, and Napoleon, and Bobby Lee, and Captain Winters (of Band of Brothers) because in the extraordinary pressure cooker of battle, their leadership makes their men feel that victory was a given, not a risk.  Great leaders have a skill to pull this extraordinary effort from their men, you get this form Maximus in
"Gladiator". Alexander the movie is flawed because the greatness part is overlooked to get at the dirty laundry, too soon and too often. I don't mind the dirt as long as I get enough of the inspirational side, in this case I didn't get enough, as I said, I think the DVD will be better as I can edit what I watch.

Jeff Jonas 12/2004



The army in the movie... an awesome phalanx!

This is one place where Olvier Stone's movie is very good.. there is an attention to detail that shows a lot of care went into the production, it's is a real shame the rest of the movie is so flawed... where else am I ever going to get to see a syntagma in action?  After the commerciall flop of Alexander, I doubt ever??? The troops in AtG the movie look so great, even in the composite scenes, Stone presents units of troops, and does not fill the screen with ants from end to end.. the phalanx is arrayed in battalions, the cavalry in wedges.   Oliver Stone's Gaugamela gets a ten out of ten in my book for accuracy, even if it is a bit too jumpy! I do hope that Alexander does better in foreign markets, so the DVD will come out sooner rather than later, and when  it does I hope Oliver Stone adds many more minutes to the battle scenes, as they are the centerpeice of the movie.... again the bottom line, if they had a script and a charisamtic male lead it could have been very good.....

Here's some more pictures I swooped:


Hephaistion's Companions battle Indians. Note the Bactrian auxilliaries are shown as participants as well as Macedonians, a factual tidbit that shows Oliver Stone's attention to detail.


The front ranks present sarissas in the dust of Gaugamela's plain..... very cool stuff!


Ok, Indian war elephants were ridden bareback at this time, but the armor and equipment is so cool... the elephants are so terrifying, a real cool battle scene...