Classic Greek history ends with Alexander. He carried the Greek spirit far beyond the borders of Greece but made his own country more of an abstraction than a powerful nation. Alexander is the pivotal figure in the separation of the West from its Asian origins, but soon enough the Romans would absorb Greece into their empire, and into their culture. There were complaints that Richard Burton was too old for the role, but he was only 29 and Alexander died at age 32. The 1956 movie was a flop, but it was an interesting flop. The 2004 film was a bigger flop, but somehow less interesting.
Alexander the Great (1956)
This is not a great film, but it stands as the classic movie treatment on its subject. Certainly, it is informative on the relationships in the dysfunctional family of Philip of Macedonia (Fredric March), his queen, Olympias (Danielle Darrieux), and their son, Alexander (Richard Burton). Beyond the family drama, it is easy to note that Alexander is a paragon of this epoch of the flowering ego; he was an object lesson on the nature of hubris (excessive pride). The stage was set for him as for few others in the history of our species, and he seized the opportunity to elevate himself to the threshold of Olympus. The moviemakers have done a creditable job of following the great conqueror from his boyhood in Macedonia to the end of his career in Persia.
This film opens in Athens with arguments in the agora over what to do about the invasions of King Philip from the north. A message comes to Philip that his wife, Olympias, has borne him a son and called him Alexander. Philip returns to his court to find his wife cold and unwelcoming.
The scene shifts and young Alexander enters with a lion he has killed. Burton looks good in golden hair, the wig needs work. He greets his tutor, Aristotle, who looks very much the part. There is news of Philip’s conquests. Alexander is impatient for his opportunity to take to the field of battle. Aristotle counsels him that the true prize is Persia. It is Aristotle’s opinion that the Greeks are superior to all other peoples, and it is their moral duty to conquer and enslave them. Alexander prepares himself for this mission. Philip returns from the wars and learns from Aristotle that his son is destined for glory.
Philip’s fortunes are going badly in the field, and he wants his son to rule at home. The young man accepts readily. Aristotle tells Philip that Alexander believes himself to be a god. Olympias is out of the picture, and regarded with suspicion. Alexander goes to see her in Pella and finds her steeped in debauchery. She is interested only in enlisting her son to share his power with her when he comes to rule the kingdom. Despite the scheming, Philip makes his son regent. Mother and son continue to wrangle as the young king moves to consolidate his power. Philip returns and angrily accuses his son of empire building. The argument turns to laughter and Philip says, “At least wait until I die.”
There is a great battle between the Macedonians and the Athenians to determine who will be master of Greece. Philip is old and his son must come to his aid on the field. The Macedonians are victorious. The Athenians ask to bury their dead, but Philip declares they should be left to rot. Philip sends his son to Athens to negotiate the peace. The old king has fears of assassination. Alexander meets a beautiful woman and is initiated to the ways of Athenian culture. He requires support for his war against Persia, and speaks of the Greek destiny to bring its culture and civilization to all the world. The treaty is signed and he returns to the north.
Alexander finds his mother distraught that his father has nullified her status as queen and replaced her with his new young paramour. He now mistrusts his father. Philip produces a new son, and Alexander’s position is threatened, spurring him to align with his mother. Divisiveness grows in the kingdom. As Philip mounts the steps of a temple, or theater, he is cut down by an assassin (336 BCE). Alexander slays the assassin. There is some suspicion that Olympias was behind the murder. Alexander employs his military prerogatives to seize the kingship and declare war on Persia. He demands the loyalty of all the city-states, and deals harshly with any who will not comply. The young wife of Philip sacrifices her son and commits suicide. Alexander goes to a temple and dedicates the success of his anticipated conquests to Zeus.
A print legend announces that in 334 BC, at the age of 22, Alexander crossed into Asia and began his march to destiny. The first battle is at Granicus, where the Persians, led by black-bearded Darius III, stand against him. Alexander cannot be stopped. He makes quick work of the Gordian Knot and marches down the coast of Asia Minor, selling entire populations into slavery. Already he is both driven and haunted. He is betrayed by the Athenians, and abandoned by their fleet. He presses on, obsessed with his destiny.
Darius is massing a great army at Babylon to oppose the invader. The movie skips over the conquest of Egypt and the founding of Alexandria (332 BC), and goes directly to this pivotal conflict. Though they are outnumbered, the Macedonians win the field and Darius escapes. The Persian king is fleeing to the north on a throne wagon, pursued by Alexander, but his men betray him and kill him. He leaves a letter asking Alexander to marry his daughter, Roxanne, and unite their two worlds. The death of Darius III in 330 BC marks the end of the great Persian Empire. Persepolis burns and the megalomania of Alexander becomes the mindset of the Mediterranean world. But like so many megalomaniacs, he sinks into paranoia.
Alexander sends word to Athens that he wishes to be acknowledged as the son of Zeus-Amun. The conquests of the ultimate Greek are recounted as lines move across a map. Alexander teeters on the edge of madness as Ptolemy narrates the final events of his life. He seesaws between grand visions of world unity and paranoid delusions. In the end, he falls from a wound taken in India, and dies raving of his place among the gods (323 BC). His generals gather around his deathbed and ask, “To whom do you leave your empire?” He replies, “To the strongest.” The narrator ends the film saying, “Wonders are many but none are so wonderful as man himself.” Robert Osborne says Burton was unhappy with this film, feeling that the director made cuts and changes that undermined the final product.
This was I think the first big disappointment in a Hollywood season that would be full of disappointments. It debuted in November 2004 to almost universal disdain from the critics and disappeared quickly from the theaters. In September 2005, we rented this version, touted as “Newly inspired, faster paced, more action-packed!”
The framing of the movie with a narration from Anthony Hopkins, doing his usual masterful job as old Ptolemy I in Alexandria, is probably an intelligent mistake. The idea of distancing the viewer from the hero at the center of the film makes some sense in these non-heroic times but in this case the device turns out to be merely anti-dramatic.
The essence of the problem here seems to be in the choice of Colin Farrell for the title role. Though the agenda of this film is to demonstrate the psychological complexity and sexual ambivalence of the hero, the ironies will only work if the strength and power of Alexander’s presence is established. Farrell lacks the cinematic muscle for the job. Ironically this might have been a perfect role for Brad Pitt if he had played it instead of being miscast as Achilles in Troy. There was some talk of Leonardo DiCaprio doing an Alexander turn but it appears to have been abandoned.
At the center of the film is Alexander’s invasion of Asia (we never see him in Egypt) but the flash-forward to Alexandria at the beginning and end and the flashbacks to his childhood in Pella and elsewhere in Macedonia further rob the film of its momentum. There is a scene where Alexander and his fellow students sit at the feet of Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) and partake of his Greco-centric wisdom. Angelina Jolie plays Olympias, the young man’s mother and took a drubbing for her youth. I felt she brought strength and dignity to her Medea-like role, and that she aged very well in later and less important scenes following the suspicious death of Philip (Val Kilmer) and her son’s departure to the east. The scenes in Babylon are opulently filmed. He has a barely believable nude scene with Roxanne, but only touching moments of intimacy with his beautiful male lover, Hephaestion. As with the earlier movie featuring the less complex heroics of Richard Burton, the film seems to dissipate along with its central character and the ending is only sad.
Oliver Stone has released several revised editions of this film, each attempting to salvage the project from its shipwreck. See A Reappraisal of Oliver Stone’s “Alexander: The Ultimate Cut” by Peter Sobczynski, June 24, 2014 for some hopeful news.
The story of Alexander is a parable on the merging of personal identity with national identity. What we know today of the early culture wars of differentiation between the East and West is expressed most concisely in two movies released in 2004. Oliver Stone’s Alexander appeared in the same year as Troy. These two movies, flawed as they may be, bracket the uniquely formative period of Greek history, beginning in myth and ending on the historical record.