Friday, 10 August 2012

Alexander the Great (dir. Robert Rossen, 1956)

Alexander the Great is a difficult character to make a film about. An absolute monarch, he conquered every bit of land he could get to for no particularly good reason beyond power, glory and so on. (He claimed to be avenging the wrongs done to Greece in the Persian War - about a hundred years previously). This is not behaviour of which we in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are taught to approve. We like to think we fight for freedom and democracy, or at the very least to protect ourselves, and we usually consider war-mongers who conquer for the sake of conquering to be positively evil.

There are other historical characters who present this problem as well, of course. But stories about Julius Caesar can present him as a champion of the people as opposed to the snobby, elitist Pompey, and films about Julius Caesar tend to focus on his ultimate bloody comeuppance more than anything else. Films about Octavian usually either paint him as the bad guy or skip ahead to the well-thought-of emperor Augustus. Films about the Roman Empire in general like to portray it as evil, frequently embodied by psychotic emperors. In the 50s and 60s films would look ahead to the time Christians would bring the empire down, while more recent films add extra democracy or focus on 'what the Romans did for us.'

But Alexander presents a problem. He was poisoned, ill or drank himself to death, and the last is probably more likely - hardly the dramatic assassination of Julius Caesar. He wasn't fighting for the people (indeed, he was finishing off the last of Greek democracy) and his empire eventually crumbled in a complicated and prolonged manner until eventually most of it was conquered by the Romans. So, how should a film present him? Is he a hero? An anti-hero? Do we revel in how gleefully, sexily wicked he is, or hold him up as a great military leader? Do we focus on the military glory of his achievements and try to ignore what he's actually doing?

Of course, all this is what makes him such an interesting character, but it presents a tonal problem for film-makers trying to squeeze the story into a couple of hours. One minute Alexander is a hero, the next a war criminal. One minute he approves the ideals of democracy, the next he's a divinely-appointed king. It's not that it's impossible to present a conflicted character in a film (see Shakespeare's Henry V, a famous military leader who commits a war crime during the play, though most productions tend to leave that part out), but it's not done well here. Alexander says a lot of things, some of them mutually contradictory, but we never really feel like we know him. And Aristotle's speech at the beginning about the Greeks' right to conquer and rule everyone else is positively chilling and sounds like the beginning of Joyeux Noel.

All this discomfort and uncertainty culminates in Darius leaving Alexander a letter (he can write impressively neatly while bleeding to death) telling him marry his daughter Roxanne and then, in a truly bizarre bit of intertextual referencing, quoting the future Jesus ('into your hands I commend my spirit'). In reality Roxanne wasn't Darius' daughter, though she was a Persian, and Alexander may have hoped to consolidate his position by marrying her, but in practice it mostly annoyed his Greek and Macedonian supporters. It wouldn't be at all surprising if Alexander claimed Darius had left him such a letter - but showing it actually happening seems to be stretching plausibility a bit.

One solution that has been used since ancient literature on Alexander is to blame the mother. Olympias tends to come in for a lot of flack, her unhappy marriage and excessive ambition for her son portrayed as the overwhelming influence that would spur Alexander on. And so, she is portrayed as being ultimately behind the assassination of Philip, and as being a borderline bonkers, deeply unhappy woman who is convinced her son is favoured by the gods, or possibly is actually a god. From the moment the baby is born, Olympias and her pet Egyptian soothsayer have an obsession with Alexander being a god and the soothsayer reels off a list of omens that occurred at the time of the birth. In real life, this probably came after, as the births and deaths of great men were associated with omens almost certainly collected at a much later date. (I'm reminded of the many stories, according to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, told of the signs accompanying the birth of Zaphod Beeblebrox - all of them, the Guide observes, told by Zaphod Beeblebrox).

Alexander's literary obsessions are also fore-grounded, with the effect of making him seem an almost superhuman character. We can accept behaviour in fictional and mythical characters that we cannot accept in real people (see the current fashion for vampire romances). Alexander's love of Homer is well known, so the film presents his whole life as a parallel with Achilles. Alexander consciously makes the choice of Achilles, deciding to live a short and glorious life (in the confidence that it will, indeed, be glorious). By aligning him with myth and separating him from humanity (or from considering the consequences for others of his own glory-hunting) the film encourages the audience to support and enjoy his military success as a tale of a great hero rather than looking at it too closely as the actions of a human being.

The other problem for films about Alexander is that Greek history is extremely complicated. Films about Rome tend to be set at the very end of the Republic or in the Empire, and a few lines in a prologue can establish that we are in an Empire, and tell us which Emperor is in charge. Classical Greece, however, was a collection of independent city-states identifying as Greek according to a complicated set of criteria, and it's difficult to explain the essential historical context in a brief prologue (one reason the story of the Three Hundred Spartans is so popular - it can be boiled down more simply to Greeks vs Persians). The story of Alexander himself is the story of a man conquering a large amount of territory over a period of ten years, inevitably requiring a lot of montages of battle sequences flowing over a map of the Near East ('let's travel by map!').

And so the first half of the film is devoted to the story of Alexander, Olympias and Philip, who doesn't die until just under halfway through. However, even here the film feels bitty - episodic and made up of very short scenes that just list a series of events until Philips's inevitable death. In fact, it's the second half, which ramps up the battle scenes and, of course, plays up the rivalry between Alexander and Darius, that feels a little more coherent. But neither half really solves the problem of how to cover a long and complicated story encompassing several decades and a lot of territory. In fact, there's something to be said for Oliver Stone's flashback approach in this regard, confusing though that was.

The film includes but rather skips over the conquest of India and ends shortly after the murder of Cleitus (moved to India and depicted as the moment Alexander realises he's gone too far). He drags his army back to Susa, gets anachronistically married in a bizarre ceremony along with about a hundred other people, then keels over for no apparent reason in the middle of his wedding (when did he get the opportunity to impregnate Roxanne? oh, never mind). It's all rather anticlimactic.

Much like Oliver Stone's Alexander, there's some good stuff in here, trying to get out. Burton is charismatic and watchable as ever and there are some nice moments in his relationship with Philip, particularly when Alexander saves Philip's life in battle and the scene in which Philip screams 'Philip the barbarian' over and over again in an echo-y valley. Ptolemy's narrative is in there, briefly, referencing the biography he wrote (sadly lost). Philip has both eyes, which is fair enough, as this film predates the discovery of a tomb some believe to be Philip's, in which the body shows damage to the right eye (except it shows no signs of healing, so probably occurred around the time of death, and might not be Philip anyway). The Persian war chariots have some rather cool blades on them. Goodness knows if they're historically accurate (probably not) but they look cool.

Trouble is, the flaws rather over-shadow the good things, compounded by some odd choices and some of the inherent limitations of 1950s film-making. Although much of the movie was filmed on location in Spain, there are still studio-bound sequences, with the result that Alexander appears to be flirting with his prospective stepmother in Brigadoon. Everyone dies without bleeding, except for a few artful drops on Alexander's hand. And Richard Burton looks no less ridiculous in the blonde wig than any other actor who's played Alexander. Oh, if only Baz Luhrman's planned version with Leonardo DiCaprio had come off...

Even more irritatingly, the language used is persistently anachronistic and Christianising. Alexander keeps calling himself, and being called by others, the 'son of God'. That ought to be the 'son of a god' (or, more accurately, Zeus/Ammon). He also comes out with 'We are all alike under God. God is the Father. He is the Father of all.' Granted, Alexander claimed to be the son of Zeus, who was the chief god and Father figure - but this sounds far too Judaeo-Christian and Zeus is not named once.

A brave effort, but in the end the film that emerges is messy and a bit dull. Too much pomp and speechifying, not enough character depth. Alexander's story, much like that of the Trojan War, would probably be better done as a TV series...

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  1. Indeed so.

    While not as amusing as the TV pilot with William Shatner playing the part of Alexander (one keeps expecting Spock & McCoy to suddenly beam-down and rescue Kirk from the dreaded Planet of Geeks) there is little to recommend this film version of Alexander other than the bits you point out. In fact, the scene of Fredrick March, dancing on the hilltop and singing "Philip the barbarian" almost redeems this film ... almost.

    However, your review cuts to the heart of the problem: Alexander - Too Great for Hollywood?

    Have you read: Responses To Oliver Stone's Alexander - Film, History And Cultural Studies by Paul Cartledge and Fiona Greenland? In contemplating my own review of the Alexander films I poured through this informative little volume after watching all three films and was, frankly, overwhelmed by Alexander.

    I think he is too "Great" for Hollywood, though I do agree, I would love to have seen the Baz Luhrman or Martin Scorsese films (both canceled when Stone's project got into production first). Perhaps one of them might have captured Alexander .... but I doubt it.

  2. Not yet, but it's high on my list of things I need to read asap!

  3. Great blog. Two thirds of the way through I thought HBO needs to do Alexander! So snap. Now I'm off to read Cartledge & Greenland's book. Thanks, Juliette and Narukami!

  4. Definitely another story that would benefit from developing slowly over several weeks I think! And in a medium where totally amoral heroes are a bit more common.

  5. Good point Caroline and quite right about HBO and their limits (or lack there of) Juliette.

    Too often good story ideas fail because they are forced to conform to the traditional 90-120 minute feature film format. Peter jackson is the rare exception of a writer/director who can convince a Studio to let him turn one book into two films and then into three films simply because there is too much story to tell.

    Even though Alexander's life was, relatively speaking, short, he crammed more into those 30+ years than most of us will in 60 or even 90. The limited series format being use to great effect by HBO would serve a project like Alexander very well indeed. Now the question remains: Can HBO attract the necessary talent?

    Given their track record I would say the answer is yes. They have Scorsese executive producing and even directing some episodes of Boardwalk Empire, the director of Centurion helmed an episode of Game Of Thrones, and it appears that A-list actors are no longer opposed to working on quality projects for television. (I would say 'the small screen' but that is a name now dead, given the advent of HD and 55" LCD monitors.)

    So Caroline, when do you think you will have you series outline done, reviewed by Juliette, and ready to pitch at HBO ... ?

  6. Lol! I'll write an episode or two... and Sean Bean should play Philip :)

  7. I have never seen this, despite being a big Richard Burton fan; I suppose I'll have to track it down someday.

    But -- yes, what is it about blond hair and men? It seems female actors can get away with dying their hair blond when the role requires it, but when men do it (or wear a wig) it just looks ridiculous. Has anyone ever gotten away with it? And why does it always look so awful? Very strange ...

  8. I was also thinking "HBO series". And Sean Bean is the obvious choice for Philip.

    The whole thing really is rather problematic. Alexander was in many respects a terrible general. He went charging off without thinking or planning more than once. In fact, he almost got everybody killed on the way back from India just because someone told him it was impossible to cross the southern desert (Gedrosia? Baluchistan?) with an army. It might actually be better to use the Alexander Romance as the source material and make a fantasy.

    IIRC, they now think the one-eyed body in the tomb is Alexander's half-wit half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus. OTOH, the sources do say that Philip II suffered a wound to the eye that disfigured him. Eye injuries seem to have been not uncommon among the Macedonians: Philip, Antigonus, there must be more.


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