Oliver Stone's Alexander is one of the four films released in 2004-5 which killed the modern sword-and-sandal epic that had risen in the wake of Gladiator. The other three, of course, are Troy, King Arthur, and Kingdom of Heaven. All these films failed with critics and underperformed at the box office. Alexander, however, was by far the greatest flop, earning a measly $34 million in North America on a budget of $155 million. There is also no doubt that of these four epics Alexander is the most ambitious and in its staggering failure the most interesting.
When I say 'staggering failure', I am not referring to the historical inaccuracies, although they irked me. Gladiator is related to history the way The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is based on a true story, but it's nevertheless a good film: a stew of clichés, to be sure, but stirred together well, and bolstered by pretty strong performances. Alexander is far more true to history and still a failure. Historical events are certainly compressed: Philip's subjection of Greece is missed out, and the film skips right on from Alexander in Macedonia to the Battle of Gaugamela (the conquest of the Persian Empire is presented as being decided in a single battle). In the process, events that could have been very interesting dramatically and cinematically - the conquest of Greece, the siege of Tyre, the visit to Egypt, the Persian Gates, the burning of Persepolis, the siege of the Sogdian Rock - are excised completely. This extreme narrative compression almost makes me feel the story could have benefited from the trilogy treatment: almost, because the thought of six or eight hours of this is horrifying.
Alexander suffers from not being one kind of movie. It could have been a sword-and-sandal war movie - but it only features two battles, one near the beginning and one near the end. It's not the sort of exhilarating violence one expects from these films: quite the contrary, for Stone emphasises human suffering above glorious exploits. I, however, wanted to see Macedonian phalanx operating properly; I wanted to see barbarian allies, Thessalian cavalry, peltasts, Companions. This, of course, is because I am an ancient warfare geek. But Oliver Stone decided not to cater to the likes of me; that's not the film he wanted to make. Alexander favours endless dialogue over other films' battlefield carnage. Indeed, the closest parallel to Alexander is not something like Troy, but Stone's own W. (2008), that odd George W. Bush biopic. Both are about sons who, dominated by overbearing parents, never quite reach full and independent adulthood: their entire lives are overshadowed by parents. (Both protagonists also conquer parts of the Middle East, but that may be a coincidence.) So if anything, Alexander is a film about a man seeking to escape his mother's control.
But if that's the point, then the film is just poorly written. Indeed most actors seem entirely unsure about who their characters are, or what to do with them: Farrell is good at playing a wounded boy, but fails to pull off the warlord whom his men followed to the ends of the earth out of personal devotion. Angelina Jolie, by contrast, is confident about the right approach: overact ludicrously and speak in a strange accent (which she unhappily resurrected for Beowulf a few years later). The script, of course, does not help inasmuch as it makes her character into Crazy Snake Lady.
Production values are good. The recreation of Babylon is especially impressive (although far too obviously CGI-enhanced): the city's wealth is shown in all its brightly coloured glory. Some of the landscape photography, particularly that during the crossing of the Hindu Kush, is impressive. The look of the eastern Persian provinces and India (and that of their inhabitants) otherwise owes far too much to western ideas of the Mysterious Orient for comfort. Not that the Asians speak, mind you: they are worryingly silent.
So, where does all that Alexander? Stranded in no-man's land, unfortunately, for the audience for parent-son dramas (which this is - sort of) is not the same as that for ancient carnage (which this decidedly is not). The confusion about what kind of film was being made is quite visible in the performances. Alexander is undone by being simultaneously slow and compressed, bloody and uninterested in battle, stuffed full of events yet boring. It's a fiasco, but an interesting one.