I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who liked Alexander – this being Oliver Stone’s 2004 film about the life of Alexander the Great. But it is a film I like. At the start, I should say I am obsessed with history and – as with zombie films – I will overlook a lot of problems in a historical epic.
Conquer your fear, and I promise you, you will conquer death
Alexander had a big cast featuring Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie but the titular character was played by Colin Farrell. Farrell is often a divisive figure and even my own opinion on him is divided – he is undeniably brilliant in In Bruges but he doesn’t always hit those heights. What follows is a combination plot synopsis and sort-of history lesson. Alexander was the son of King Philip of Macedonia and inherits the large kingdom upon his father’s death, eager for revenge and glory Alexander invades the huge Persian empire. Seemingly unstoppable, Alexander marches across the known world, going all the way to India. As well as his military glory he also has childhood companion and lover Hephaiston who accompanied Alexander on his conquests until his own death. Alexander dies young, only thirty-three, and seemingly within hours of his death, his great empire is already breaking apart.
No man or woman can be too powerful or too beautiful without disaster befalling.
Alexander was not a successful film. IMDb rates it at a lowly 5.6, Rotten Tomatoes has a truly damning critic rating of 16% and a slightly better audience rating of 35%. For a director of the stature like Oliver Stone that must hurt. Stone subsequently released two different cuts, perhaps trying to rescue a work he believed in but with little impact with the public. The bad reviews are something to behold – “Stone has made an excruciating disaster for the ages” The AV Club, “emotionally and intellectually incoherent” Newsweek and “Puerile writing, confused plotting and shockingly off-note performances make Oliver Stone’s epic film a disappointment.” The New York Times. The criticisms fall into three main categories:
- It’s boring.
- There isn’t much of a story
- Colin Farrell’s performance
While I don’t find the film boring it’s such a common complaint that it’s hard to argue with, and truly it is a staggering achievement to take the life of one of the most famous people in all of history who lead an amazingly interesting life and bore people.
As for the story…well obviously this stuff really happened so you are sort of stuck with the facts to some degree. Perhaps it’s because Alexander the Great was so successful it’s hard to make an interesting narrative, there are no real setbacks, no defeats. There is no Robert the Bruce watching the spider in the cave moment where he overcomes adversity, just endless success.
Finally Colin Farrell; as I said I have a bit of a soft spot for Farrell but this is not a great performance by any stretch of the imagination. We obviously don’t know what the Macedonian accent was like over 2000 years ago but I doubt it’s the one Farrell and his friends have. It does seem like they realised Farrell was going to struggle with doing an accent and simply told the rest of the cast to mimic him. Perhaps, as some critics suggest, most actors would struggle to capture the gigantic presence and personality Alexander must have had.
“My poor child. You’re like Achilles; cursed by your greatness.”
Okay, so what is good about Alexander? The biggest plus are the battles which look amazing. Tens of thousands of soldiers or at least what looks like tens of thousands, battling it out. The Macedonians fight in a phalanx with their huge spears as cavalry rage back and forth, hundreds of arrows fill the sky, the battles are genuinely epic.
I would agree that Farrell isn’t quite up to playing Alexander the Great but I did enjoy the love story between Alexander and Hephaiston (played by Jared Leto). While Alexander did marry the film portrays his real love as Hephaiston and this was not a secret. The other Greek epic film that came out around the same Troy got some criticism as it removed the Achilles-Patroclus relationship entirely and the only reason that could be, or at least that I can think of, is that they didn’t want to portray a gay relationship.
There are a two enjoyable and slightly over-the-top performances of Alexander’s parents. Philip is played by Val Kilmer and Olympias by Angelina Jolie. Jolie especially seems to have a lot of fun chewing the scenario and plotting against just about everyone else in the film.
My final reason for enjoying Alexander is that I love history and these days you rarely see films like this. It’s lots of fun seeing scenes I’ve read about in history books recreated on a massive scale. Admittedly, if you’re not a history nerd this film may less to offer you.
Was It Really That Bad? No……but it’s not far off.
Also Read: Was It Really That Bad? The Mummy (2017)