This is such a fascinating failure of a film. It’s not the worst film ever made, for sure, but it fails pretty consistently. I think it’s a failure of vision on the part of Oliver Stone. He wanted to tell the definitive story of Alexander the Great, including everything that made his life big, and in stuffing so much in without any real focus, he ends up contradicting himself and keeping things remarkably shallow. On top of that, performances are almost all wrong and it’s mostly filmed in closeup. The battles are really good, though, so it has that going for it.
I’m going to watch all three cuts of Oliver Stone’s fever dream of a historical biopic, and from what I understand one of the biggest things that Stone addressed in the subsequent cuts was the film’s structure. So, let’s start there. The structure of the theatrical cut is stupid and contributes greatly to the film’s lack of focus. It lurches from one major event of Alexander’s life to the next major event on his trek east to India. And, in the film’s most inexplicable choice, just as Alexander is about to head to India, the movie jumps back in time eight years to show Philip’s death in an extended sequence. I think the reason for this is because Cleitus got introduced to Alexander’s spear and died in the previous scene, and the death of Philip sequence begins with Cleitus’ introduction. Because Cleitus makes so little impression throughout the rest of the film, it feels like the placement of the Philip sequence is Stone saying, “See? This guy who died and you didn’t know was important!”
And that feeds into another major problem with the film. Alexander’s entire Macedonian retinue is razor thin. The most robust characters are Parmenion and his son Philotas because they held a grudge from Alexander’s handling of the Battle of Gaugamela and Hephaistion, Alexander’s mopey male lover. From what I can gather, I think the central idea of the movie was the rise and fall of Alexander’s vision for the world, and because the ultimate fall of his vision rested with those that followed him, his generals, they should have been much more deeply drawn than they are here. Ptolemy I is the narrator of the film, filling in a lot of the gaps that pop up from time to time, though, so that’s nice.
In terms of conflicting ideas, I think to Alexander’s speech at the mutiny at Opis where he dangles the image of the Macedonians returning home to their wives before snatching it away with condemnations that they’ve betrayed their Macedonian selves by taking Babylonian wives and having Babylonian children, and yet one of the major ideas running through the film is Alexander’s vision of what is poorly defined but probably a multi-cultural Empire under his rule. I have a feeling that the mutiny of Opis speech was largely taken from primary sources while all of Alexander’s talking of multiculturalism were creations of the screenwriters. I don’t think they gel together.
And, to top it all off, the performances are just wrong, except for Val Kilmer as Philip. He’s awesome. The three main characters of the film are really Alexander and his parents, Philip and Olympias. All three feel like they’re in different movies. Colin Farrell as Alexander feels like he’s in a soap opera, weeping through a shocking amount of the film. Angelina Jolie feels like she’s playing a Russian vampire as Olympias. And then Val Kilmer feels like he’s playing a flawed man and king in a historical epic. Watching them play off of each other is really bizarre.
And, another thing, about 75% of this movie seems to have been filmed in closeup. Okay, I already mentioned that, but I have to dig into it. This is a big expensive movie with large sets and a lot of special effects, and yet it feels really claustrophobic for really long stretches. That’s purely because of how Stone shoots everything except the battles and a handful of establishing shots. Entire conversations from the beginning of the film to the end are shown in extreme closeup, no matter the context. The choice of closeups are usually made with the intention of heightening the emotion of a scene, pushing in closely to bring the audience closer to the character in a moment of feeling (Marty had great use of closeups that did exactly that). But when moments that are supposed to be high emotion as well as those that are about merely exchanging information like battle plans are all filmed in the exact same way, there becomes a flatness to the overall experience that shouldn’t really be there. Stone alternates between these extreme closeups and…medium shots where half the frame is taken up by someone just out of focus in the foreground. Why not show two whole faces in the same shot while taking in some of the great set work that’s going on behind them?
The battles, though, are excellent. The Battle of Gaugamela is a fantastic sequence that keeps the overall action clear, using an eagle flying over the action (probably a manifestation of Zeus) to keep the bigger parts in focus while following specific people and their efforts on the ground. When Alexander completes his complicated feint and digs deep into the Persian lines, we not only had Alexander explain the idea before the battle but we also were able to follow the action easily. The Battle of Hydaspes in India takes a different tact. There is no eagle providing an overarching view of the battle, providing the audience with just the confusion on the ground. After the obvious choices that made Gaugamela so clear and their absence at Hydaspes, it’s obvious to me that that was an intentional choice and we were supposed to feel like there was little more to the action than chaos, lost amidst the violence. It’s the battle that convinces Alexander to go back to Babylon after all.
The movie has other striking images here or there, but they’re really the exception rather than the norm. Alexander standing atop the mountain in the Himalayas is a great image, but it’s gone before we can appreciate it replaced by Alexander in closeup talking to Ptolemy in closeup.
I cannot for the life of me imagine Stone saving this movie with any number of edits. He shot the film wrong. The performances are wrong (save for Kilmer who decided to act like a professional). The story is wildly unfocused and doesn’t really coalesce with the historical Alexander they accidentally leak out occasionally. Re-edits could return the structure and maybe give more focus, but there’s just simply too many other things that are broken to save this film.
I can’t wait to watch the Director’s Cut next.