US, 2004, 173 minutes, Colour.
Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto, Brian Blessed, Jonathan Rhys Myers.
Directed by Oliver Stone.
In the wake of Gladiator and Troy comes this spectacular epic of the Macedonian world conqueror who has long been called The Great. Box office and critics have been initially unkind to the film. It is not an easy watch. For the uninitiated and the uninterested in Ancient History, it is a hard slog indeed.
That having been said, there is a great deal to admire about the film as well as to criticise.
All things considered, Alexander gives not only a portrait of the man and his exploits but gives a reasonable overview of the history and ethos of the period. (although when you think the film must be nearing Alexander's death, there is a caption, 8 years earlier, and a long and significant flashback is inserted which would have been better appreciated if it had been included much earlier in its proper chronological place).
The framework of the film is Ptolemy (one of Alexander's generals and his successor in Egypt) dictating his memoirs forty years later. This voiceover carries a lot of the narrative as well as giving explanations of who is who (which may still not be all that clear for audiences unfamiliar with the history). The voiceover also involves quite a bit of mythmaking as well, interpreting Alexander as great and eulogising him. This older Ptolemy is played by an erudite and articulate Anthony Hopkins.
Audiences will be wondering what Colin Farrell is like as Alexander. He is a touch 'diminutive' for a legend of such stature. Nevertheless he has a screen presence and quite skilfully portrays Alexander from 19 to 32, convincingly young, morose, immature but with potential, through the triumphs, especially the battle of Gaugamala, the expeditions beyond Babylon and his ageing and the toll this takes on him. He changes from ambitious boy to successful conqueror of the world (at 25) to a tragic figure whose flaws (his need for his father's approval and his tendency to forget his more democratic hopes for a united world and lapsing into despotic exercises of power and violence) mean that he does not provide for his succession and leaves a divided empire with squabbling generals.
Angelina Jolie suggests a Lady Macbeth figure as she plots, dotes on her son, despises her husband – and she carries this off very well. Val Kilmer (one eye gone and a boisterous lecher, moody with his son) is Philip of Macedon.
Jared Leto is too laid back as Hephaestion, the boyhood friend whom Alexander loves and trusts. Rosario Dawson has to be tempestuous as Roxanne.
The battle sequences, one in the desert with a (CGI) cast of thousands, the other with elephants in the jungles of India are impressively shot and edited with a score by Vangelis.
Since the film was co-written and directed by Oliver Stone, it is not a reticent production. Stone has long been interested in war and in the exercise of power (Platoon, JFK, Nixon). He gives his film an aura of Shakespearean tragedy, the fall of a great man because of his hubris and flaws. This means that Alexander is very ambitious, is crammed with incident and themes, which make it an unwieldy but thoughtful epic.
1.The response to the film, audiences, scholars, critics?
2.The importance of the locations for Macedonia, Persia? Europe, Asia? The Middle East, India? Mountains and jungles? Morocco and Thailand standing in? The re-creation of the period, authentic, the landscapes, the cities, buildings, the travel through the different territories, the re-creation of Babylon? The musical score and its rousing feel?
3.The staging of the battles, the strategies explained, the visuals corresponding to the strategies? The lower key, building up, the violence? The battle in Persia? The battle in India, the horses and the elephants? The image of the rampant horse and elephant? The aftermath of the battles, the wounded and dying?
4.Audience knowledge of Alexander the Great, Greek history, Persian history? Alexander as a character, his impact? The legend? The standards for greatness at that time? Now?
5.Greek mythology, Alexander and his being influenced, trying to measure up to the legendary heroes? Achilles as hero, Patroclus, their friendship, death? Heracles and his feats, labours, his suffering and death? His being a son of Zeus? The frescoes and paintings, the statues of the mythology, his talk with his father, discussions with Hephaestion, his interpretation of his life and the myths?
6.The voice-over, Ptolemy, Anthony Hopkins’ vocal style? Forty years after the events? In the library of Alexandria, dictating the memoirs, the explanations, the maps, the indications of character, the narrative thrust? His own editing of Alexander’s life and exploits? Creating his own mythology? His memories and interpretation, his down-playing the mythology? The final eulogy? Standards of greatness?
7.The structure of the film: the glimpse of Alexander’s death, his boyhood and relationship to his mother, to his father, the harsh training, the meeting with Bucephalus, the friendship with Hephaestion, the lectures from Aristotle, wrestling and training, wanting to please his father, growing up, morose, the domination of his mother, the question of the inheritance, the exile? The transition to Persia, the great battle, entering Babylon, the expeditions? His mother’s letters? The revolt of his soldiers? The importance of the flashback to eight years earlier - appropriate at this time of the drama? The end, his death and the lack of succession? The squabbling of the generals? The final words of Ptolemy?
8.Alexander’s place in Macedon, as a kingdom, his relationship with his father, the father nominating heirs? Philip‘s achievement and ambition, especially for Asia, its influence on Alexander, his father’s death and its effect on him? His being surrounded very advisers, flatterers? The aim for empire?
9.The film seen as a tragedy, Alexander’s tragic flaw, his success, his hubris, advice, ultimate failure?
10.An exploration of power and authority, the focus on the outstanding individual leader, the great man theory? The people seen more as a herd, needing freedom from their slavery? The concept of leadership – and the possibility of despotism?
11.The military perspective of the film, military might, power, strategic skills, weaponry, resources – and the vast number of people who journeyed with Alexander, the retinues, the supplies, doctors, families…? Military ambition, always more worlds to conquer? Cruelty? Soldiers being expendable?
12.Alexander’s dream for a united world, his ruling the world, the possibility of control, yet seeing people as equal, against the prejudices of the Macedonian and their purity of race, freedom of slaves, giving opportunities for work, for education? His wanting the Asian descendants to have good education like the Macedonians?
13.Alexander and his character as a boy, closeness to his mother, the scenes with the snakes, her talk to him, her continued challenge, putting ideas into his head? His wanting his father’s love? His father considering him weak? His friends, the wrestling lessons, the lessons with Aristotle, his taming Bucephalus to the acclaim of those watching? His wanting his father’s approval, his father explaining the frescoes and the mythology to him?
14.Colin Farrell as Alexander, his screen presence, Alexander at twenty, soft, his height, presence, clothes, hair? His strength of character, decision-making? Seeing his potential? The pressures of his mother, of his father? The mythologies? His pride, clashing with his father, his father taking the second wife, the alternate heir? His confronting his father, the exile and its effect on him? The relationship with Hephaestion, the later information in the flashback about the reconciliation with his father, the assassination, his being present, his clash with his mother and his denunciation of her? Never seeing her again? The letters and her warnings? Going into Persia, the great battle, the explanation of the strategies, his domination of his generals? His leading by example, courage? Darius and his troops, the numbers, Darius standing in the midst of the troops, his finally escaping, the pursuit – and the general’s advice for Alexander not to pursue? To consolidate his victory? His comfort of the dying? His killing the man suffering?
15.Alexander’s entry into Babylon, the cheering crowds, the affluence, the gardens? Going into the harem, the princess and her plea for her family’s life, Alexander treating her with mercy? His troops, wealth, their life in the east, the concubines, the families? Their devotion to Alexander because of his achievement? Personal loyalties?
16.The expeditions, the travels, the different tribes, Alexander always winning his battles? Sometimes cruel and massacring peoples? The continued hardships of the journey, the letters, the political difficulties, conspiracies? His decision to marry, the attraction towards Roxanne, the advice against marrying her and urging a Macedonian, to have an heir of pure race? The marriage ceremony? Hephaestion, his giving Alexander the ring, Roxanne’s reaction, his chasing her, their sexual encounter, their not having children? Her continued journey, her own ambitions?
17.The plan to return by the sea, the Nile? The continued mountains of Asia, the hardships of the jungles, temperatures, rain? The continued rebellions – the men wanting to go home, the rebellion of the young leaders, their being killed? The jungle, Alexander urging them to go further, the battle with the tribes, the elephants? His being wounded, finally deciding to go home?
18.The screenplay and its range of speeches – with the touch of bombast and rhetoric? As elaborating his vision, denunciation of traitors? Philip’s speeches, Olympias’s speeches? Alexander when Hephaestion was dying?
19.Alexander, in his thirties, the decision to return home, the illness and fever? The issues of his heirs? His life in Babylon, the children? His own illness, people surrounding him, his death, trying to get him to name the heir, failure? The divided forces, the divided empire? The consequences – a tragic failure?
20.The character of Philip, warrior, boisterous, lecherous, drunken? Powerful, ambitions? The growing antagonism with Olympias? His changing attitudes towards Alexander, his pride in him, his new wife and son? The assassination?
21.Olympias and her background, the symbolism of the snakes, her doting on her son, contempt for her husband, her continued planning, putting ideas into her son’s head? The new wife, defying Philip? Her participation in his death? The final talks with Alexander – and her not seeing him again? Her outliving him?
22.Hephaestion, boyhood friends, their love for each other, the sequence with Aristotle explaining love, relationships, sexuality? The more modern theories of homosexuality and bisexuality and their not being part of the Greek world? Sexuality of body, of spirit, of soul? The bonds? Trust? The relationship between Hephaestion and Alexander throughout their lives? His grief at Hephaestion’s death?
23.The gallery of officers, the older men, trust, plotting against Alexander? The officer with his long speech, reviewing all that had happened in the expeditions, Alexander killing him? The young officers, companions, advice?
24.The plotters in Macedonia, the alliance with the Greeks, the new wife for Philip, the heir?
25.Roxanne, her background, the arranged marriage, her love for Alexander, ambitious, the suspicions of Hephaestion? Her continuing the travels? Her advice?
26.Themes of power, popular power, despotic power, oppression? Alexander’s achievement? Military, civil, cultural – but always with the potential for destruction?
27.PS: The technique to colour the screen red when Alexander was wounded, his perspective on the battle, the surrounding countryside – how effective? A gimmick?