Misnamed: 'Alexander' the not-so-hot
History teaches us many painful lessons. Alexander is one of them.
A lot of people put a lot of good work into this screen-filling tale of the young leader who conquered most of the known world in the '20s and '30s of the fourth century B.C., but you have to work even harder to follow it.
Had Alexander lived to be 33, like Jesus Christ and Eva Peron, he might also have been the subject of an Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera; but dying a month before that birthday, he has to settle for an Oliver Stone biopic.
If you know the basic history and geography, you just have to worry about following Stone's spin and identifying dozens of characters and their relationships. (In one scene Alexander addresses about eight men by name as each gets a two-second close-up. Got that? Let's move on.)
Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) is the chief spin doctor, dictating history for the record 40 years after Alexander's death. He tosses out facts, figures, and conflicting theories with equal weightiness. (Everything sounds so important in this movie that you're afraid to blink; there could be a test later.)
Alexander's family is mildly dysfunctional. His father of record, though apparently not in fact, is Philip (Val Kilmer), king of Macedonia. His mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie) plays with snakes. He's more of a mama's boy but spends one long scene with his father discussing the paintings on the wall of a cave, which are full of Greek history and mythology and will be referred to repeatedly later.
Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) teaches the boys to wrestle– Alexander loses to his special friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto)– and lectures them on when it's okay for men to "lie together."
You've heard the rumors. Stone doesn't gloss over Alexander's well-documented bisexuality. In fact, he goes a step further and points out the gay element Wolfgang Petersen left out of Troy earlier this year, as Alexander and Hephaistion frequently compare their love to that of Achilles and Patroclus.
But while they talk about love and exchange longing looks (there are a lot of longing looks in this movie), Stone applies a double standard to avoid grossing out homophobic viewers. The two men never kiss, only embrace– in a manly way– three times. Alexander kisses a male dancer in one scene, there's some male-male hanky-panky going on in the background at some orgies, and there's a big smooch as prelude to an assassination; but we never see the main character kiss the love of his life.
Alexander grows up to be Colin Farrell, who looks more like a surfer than a Macedonian warrior, with blond hair and brunet eyebrows. His native Irish accent frequently spoils his attempts to sound neutral.
Phillip takes a second wife. Olympias fears she'll give him a son who will replace Alexander as his heir. She urges Alexander to marry and produce a son of his own quickly: "You will be 18 this summer, and already the girls say you don't like them."
"Hephaistion loves me as I am," he replies.
Phillip's second marriage unites Macedonia and Greece. When he's murdered, which will be revisited later in more detail, Alexander assumes the throne and sets out to add to their territory. By the time he's 21, he's conquered Western Asia south to Egypt, we're told before the first big battle scene.
This occurs 40-some minutes in and consists of about five minutes of pep talk and ten of chaotic fighting that gives us no clue as to who's winning until the Persians retreat at the end, even though they vastly outnumber the Macedonian-Greek army. It may be because Alexander's troops wear miniskirts that seem more appropriate to the desert than the home team's long pants.
The mammoth battle is less impressive than it would have been when you didn't have to guess how much is real and how much done on a computer.
On the eve of the battle, Alexander and Hephaistion hug and vow that if one of them is killed the other will avenge him, as Achilles did Patroclus.
When Persia is finally defeated, Alexander takes one of their women, Roxane (Rosario Dawson), as his wife. His council gives him a hard time because they want him to have a Macedonian queen. A uniter, not a divider, Alexander thinks the marriage will bring their two peoples together. He's the original one-worlder, but he has trouble imposing Greek culture on Asian people. Men kissing, for instance, doesn't play well in Persia or India, the red states of the day.
Hephaistion gives Alexander an Egyptian ring as a wedding gift, but Roxane catches them hugging and doesn't understand how Alexander can love them both. On their wedding night he tries to rape her, and she tries to cut his throat. Well, that's how his parents made love.
From then on, there's dissension in the ranks, and Alexander's unsure who he can trust. Roxane fails to bear him a child, and they grow more distant as he pushes his army further East "toward the end of the world."
"We must go on," Alexander tells the younger Ptolemy, "until we find an end." This comes around the two-hour mark (with one more to go), when the audience is feeling the same way.
The second big battle takes place in India and involves elephants, none of whom were harmed in the making of this motion picture. Having Alexander leading the army while also being king proves the wisdom of the "Young men fight, old men rule" model that's been followed since.
Monty Python would have had fun with Alexander. I didn't.