Swords, sandals and eyeliner 

A review of Alexander

click to enlarge Colin Farrell as the infamous Alexander.
  • Colin Farrell as the infamous Alexander.

Alexander (R)
Warner Brothers

You know from an early scene of tiresome exposition by Anthony Hopkins that Oliver Stone's three-hour sword-and-sandal epic is doomed. A giant scar across the right side Hopkins' forehead mysteriously moves to the left side of his head between shots. Then comes Colin Farrell's Irish accent that wrestles against Angelina Jolie's faux Russian intonation like a cat and a monkey fighting in a burlap bag. For all of its attention to detail in two reasonably good battle scenes, Stone's movie fails to tell the complex story of one of the most enigmatic conquerors in history. But more than that Stone doesn't present characters that the audience can believe in, even for one moment, as representative of their historic roles.

There's an undue controversy surrounding Stone's pre-Christian depiction of Alexander as a bisexual lover that may give the movie mileage with gay audiences who are likely to be disappointed at the soft-peddled relationship between Alexander (Farrell) and his lifelong friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto). Apart from both characters wearing matching eyeliner throughout the movie, and sharing hushed conversations and hugs, there isn't enough subtext to hang a horseshoe on. We hear Hephaistion and Alexander profess their love for one another but never see the price of their relationship because they never test one another. To his credit, Jared Leto gives the most convincing performance in the film as the wide-eyed paramour.

Jolie enjoys some early scene chewing with live snakes (she's seldom shown during the movie without them) as Alexander's domineering mother Olympias. Alexander's battle scarred father King Philip (Val Kilmer) soon appears in her bedroom and attempts to violently extract sexual satisfaction even as young Alexander watches from their same bed.

Although Alexander the Great won more than 70 battles during the 12 years of his reign, Stone dramatizes just two engagements that are meant to show how Alexander and his armies conquered millions of square miles of foreign territory. The first conflict at Gaugamela is a 12-minute war sequence that attempts to exhibit the cleverness of Alexander's military strategy while giving the viewer a taste of the brutality involved in the warfare. However, the painstaking sequence lacks an adequate narrative structure to acquaint the audience with its characters.

The film's payoff finale battle involves Alexander's horse-led army attacking India's elephant-bound troops in the thick of an Indian forest. Stone shifts to an odd red-tinged film treatment that gives a hallucinatory quality and foreshadows Alexander's imminent death. The psychedelic color scheme embellishes the battle's cruel violence in a way that makes it seem more disturbing in its abstraction. When one of Alexander's soldiers slices off the trunk of a giant elephant, you feel empathy for the large animal that goes beyond any sensitivity for the soldiers who compulsively fight of their own free will.

The old commander Ptolemy pedantically says of Alexander, "No tyrant ever gave back so much." It's a troubling notion for a leftist filmmaker like Stone to endorse. As Ptolemy preaches on and on during the movie about Alexander's place in history, I wonder at Stone's little-seen documentary about Fidel Castro for which he interviewed the Cuban dictator. Alexander comes at a time when America is poised as a fear-ridden empire that is overreaching its boundaries while neglecting domestic issues. To regard Alexander as a man who achieved amazing military success is not necessarily to view him as a hero. Perhaps Alexander's bisexuality is an escape clause that Stone planted in the film to distance right-wing audiences from associating too freely with the warrior. Either way, the truth is never what it's cracked up to be. It's just too bad that American cinema hasn't improved on the sword-and-sandal epic in the past 40 years.

-- Cole Smithey

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

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