30 November 2004

Alexander: The Movie

Before I discuss Oliver Stone's new movie Alexander, I must confess a personal bias--I have a soft heart for any attempt to make a grand historical or sci-fi epic. I was therefore able to overlook Brad Pitt's narrow range of emotion and the clumsy Hollywood flourishes of Pertersen's Troy and I wasn't one of the those who walked out of the third Matrix movie. For this reason, I was one of the rare movie-goers who didn't demand my money back after watching Alexander. In spite of the movie's obvious failings, I took pleasure in the vast battle scenes and the seductive yet spiteful Angelina Jolie. But in the end, even I must admit that if someone is handed $155 million and given four years to make a movie, it's hard to see how they could do much worse that Stone did with Alexander.

Oddly enough, Anthony Hopkins (usually a great actor) plays one of the dullest and most artificial parts in the movie as an older Ptolemy giving away each part of the movie before we watch it. When I'd heard that Hopkins was in the movie, I had automatically assumed that he must be playing the part of Aristotle. Which brings up another point: Why was the meeting with Aristotle played down? It is true that historians, while convinced that Aristotle tutored the young Alexander, generally feel that he didn't have a great influence on the child. Even so, it seems to me that this meeting between the world's greatest thinker with its greatest military figure surely deserves more than a dull scene (with a very mundane Aristotle as the clumsy lecturer).

One gets the feeling that this movie was really beyond the intellectual ken of the director. Stone wastes invaluable minutes of the movie's beginning with scenes of Angelina Jolie nuzzling snakes and mundane shots of Alexander wrestling--time that could have been used providing some background for Alexander's ambitions (the amazing unification of the Greek states, traditional stories of Greek mercenaries returning through Persia).

The early battle scenes on the Persian plains are not all that interesting--although the general feel of the battle is probably the most realistic element of the entire movie. Countless chariots and foot soldiers move confusedly through large clouds of dust in chaos. The movie viewers find it almost impossible to distinguish between the two sides (a problem the two sides may have actually had at the time!) The problem with the scene is that the director seems to have had some other point (beyond the chaos of war) in mind. After this one battle, Alexander is instantly transported to greatness with his band of Irish uhm . . . I mean Macedonian soldiers (I have a hard time hearing the Irish or Scottish accents of the actors and thinking of the person as Greek).

The idea of Alexander as the first great multiculturalist is interesting--I'll leave the more historically proficient bloggers to debate its historical accuracy. But I must say that I had the uncontrollable urge to guffaw loudly when I heard Alexander claim that he was fighting "for freedom." Are we to assume that any ancient leader of one of the most heavily slave-owning states in history, where entire tribes and populations were enslaved and where masculine virtues implied an absolute overpowering of one's opponents' will, was somehow inspired by the idea of freedom! Of course, if Bush can say the Iraqi War is for "freedom" perhaps anything is possible--I guess I have sentimental hopes that the conquerers of the past were a bit less hypocritical.

The gay sexuality in the movie was its most daring feature. I heard some gasps and ah-hems in the movie from some of the more right-wing viewers who had been enjoying, up until the gay scenes, the unadultered idolization of war. Indeed, the open acceptance of gay sex is one of the only aspects of the movie that gave viewers the sense that they were looking at a foreign culture. As with so many Hollywood films, many clips were simply fight scenes from other war movies with the addition of a few Greek looking shields and armor, the swagger and bravado all looking like it came out of a Western or a WWII movie.

In the end, we must appreciate the movie's ambitions. It tried to provide a unifying theme (Alexander's attempt to create a large multicultural Hellenic empire) with laudable disregard for America's Puritan sensibilities. Yet it failed in some very basic ways.

Still, I recommend that you all go see the movie. Regard it as a donation to those who make historical dramas. It's alway fun to see large groups of horses and chariots shuffle around a desert or elephants attacking through the jungle--anything is to be preferred over another Hollywood movie filled with siliconed-plated blondes and slo-mo car crashes.

    Other blogments on the movie:
  • A Perfectly Cromulent Blog: "The historians Plutarch, Curtius, and Diodorus all agree that, at the very least, Alexander preferred men to women. So does Peter Green, author of Alexander of Macedon, and the majority of modern-day Alexander scholars."
  • Feministing:
  • Beautiful Atrocities
  • Belmont Club (an excellent post and discussion of the film's historicity)
  • Roger Simon: "The only interest in this obvious yawner of a movie has been dredged up by the minor controversy over its protagonist's sexuality."
  • Pothos (academic discussion of Alexander's sexuality)
  • The Bad Hair Blog: "Alexander's a dud."
You might also check out the reviews of Bruce Kirkland, Gary Arnold, Roger Ebert, Jessica Su (discussing the Greek suit), Victor Hanson, Terry Lawson, L J Worldand, Shawn Levy, and The Arizona Republic. I'm now tempted to go find the 1956 Movie "Alexander" to see its take on the mad Macedonian.


The Continental Op said...

I haven't seen the movie yet, and yours is only the latest in an unbroken series of negative reviews that lead to me conclude I'll give it a miss. The thing that really bugs me about this picture is the timing: Maria and I decided years ago that when we had a kid, we'd name it Alexander. Now, when our bundle of joy arrives in January, everyone will assume we called him after a crappy movie! With any luck, the movie will soon be forgotten.

Karlo said...

I'd still go see the movie. It is nice, after all, to see an epic with giant battle scenes and exotic scenes of what Babylon or other ancient cities may have looked like.

Cubicle said...

as far as recent epics go (which i have no seen alexander, though proably will rent it at some point in time), i really like last samuri with tom crusie