An ancient battle is one of the hardest things to depict on screen. How does one show the deployment of troops over vast areas of ground? How to convey the interplay between this Big Picture and the intimate details of hand-to-hand combat? How did the leader communicate to his men in the days before walkie-talkies or megaphones? Some of the greatest filmmakers, including Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, have grappled with this challenge.
Whatever one's opinion of the artistic success or failure of Oliver Stone's films, one aspect of his work is beyond doubt. When it comes to tackling phenomena that are difficult to depict – like war or sport – he comes up with a definite approach, a cinematic concept that binds style and meaning.
One of the best scenes in the almost three-hour long cinema-release version of Alexander is its first major battle, set in Western Asia. As Alexander (Colin Farrell) rides along the line of his assembled soldiers, the wind carries indistinct but menacing traces of his motivational speech to the opposing side. Meanwhile, a mystical eagle flies above, providing both a panoramic view of the mobile masses and allowing sudden, digitally-created zooms into the fine detail of the bloody battle that quickly ensues.
This scene is the whole film in a microcosm. Stone balances realistic detail (never have movie soldiers looked so scarred and battered, even between fights) against an unashamedly grandiose idea of his central character. This Alexander is, as the historian Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) frequently describes him in retrospect, "a visionary", inspired by the mythic tales of Achilles and other heroes. Yet he is also a dangerous "dreamer", whose single-minded and violent attachment to an ideal renders him a sometimes sad, solitary, even misguided figure.
Once again, you have to hand it to Stone: he does not shirk the fact that making a film about Alexander the Great probably requires a massive investment of the director's own ego. Time and again, Alexander's banter with his troops resembles a blockbuster director instructing a mass of devoted extras (Sergei Eisenstein used the very same crowd-control technique dramatised here – no doubt derived from his reading of military strategy histories); and the incessant back-biting, conniving and seduction that occurs in Alexander's inner circle recalls the precarious career of any Visionary who chooses to work within the treacherous Hollywood system.
Ultimately, it is Stone's strenuous attempt to canvas every documented opinion about his ambiguous hero – just as he did in his dreadful biopic Nixon (1995) – that cripples the film dramatically. Think of it as the there-is-no-single-truth-to-a-man's-life posture, aka Citizen Kane syndrome, endemic in contemporary cinema. And this is further complicated by Stone's obsession with simultaneously constructing historical myths (seen as necessary, ennobling inspirations for us all) and debunking them (as lies, cover-ups, and unreal, corrosive fantasies) – a tension caught in the memorable line imputed to Alexander that "man is never more alone than when he is with the myths", raised up but also possibly crushed by the compulsion to honour them.
So: was Alexander's main problem his unloving Dad, Philip (Val Kilmer), his too-loving Mum, Olympias (Angelina Jolie), his queer eye for the guys, or the JFK-style conspiracy brewing around him? Unwilling to settle on a single explanation, Stone bogs this chronicle down in an interminable Second Act, repetitively "spinning the wheels" (as Buck Henry once said) of Alexander's eight-year imperial campaign. After a decent first hour, the film simply runs out of steam.
Such a messy soup ("dialectic" would be far too kind a description) of identification and critique tends to make Stone's politics all but unreadable – as is usually the case in his work. On the one hand, Alexander – with his disturbingly malevolent dream of one man to liberate and rule the entire civilised world – offers a disquieting shadow-image of George W. Bush, and surely consciously so. On the other hand, Stone's overflowing sympathy for Great Men and their dilemmas-at-the-top leads to an excessive, all-forgiving bathos (as in his fawning, star-struck documentaries on Fidel Castro).
In many respects, Alexander would make for an overlong but illuminating double-bill with Joel Schumacher's contemporaneous screen adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera (2004). Both films wallow in that strange middlebrow marriage of stereotypical high art (paintings, sculpture, architecture) with unashamed kitsch (signalled here by Vangelis' overwrought score). Adding to this over-ripeness, Stone piles on the animal symbolism (men are eagles, women are snakes, children are monkeys), creating an effect that is both cornball and somehow admirably nutty.
Where Stone trumps Schumacher is in the melodrama department. Scenes such as Alexander's tense wedding night with the jealous Roxane (Rosario Dawson) – with no pets in the bedroom, they take to producing their own animal grunts and growls – exhibit a delirious abandon that suggest what this film could have been. The Big Question: is there more or less of this abandon in the DVD Director's Cut?
© Adrian Martin January 2005