“… a wagon is carrying the colossal head of a statue, the head of an emperor in marble, which bumps against the corners of the houses, chipping them.”
Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004, is an easy movie to mock, let alone hate—it’s long, it’s about some king dude who lived, uh, lived a long time ago and like killed a bunch of people or something, and all of the actors talk in funny accents that aren’t American. Oh, and the lead dude, he’s gay. I think. In fact, the whole movie is about gay people. And that loudmouthed liberal Oliver Stone made it. It’s stupid. How do I know? Well, I’ve never actually seen it.
A lot of people in the U.S. never saw it. Before the movie plopped into theaters, rumors had already leaked that it was bad in that special way only bloated self-indulgent Hollywood studio projects can be. There were also plenty of outraged citizens that were upset because Stone was going to portray the mighty Alexander as bisexual, which he was, and then a whole other group was mad because he wasn’t going to be bisexual enough. It was also supposed to be boring, the worst cinematic sin of them all. I’d initially wanted to see it, especially on the big screen, but I chickened out. I’d wait for it to come out on DVD. Also, at that time, I didn’t particularly like Colin Farrell or Angelina Jolie. I still don’t care for La Jolie, although I’ve changed my mind about Farrell after he appeared in Terrence Malick’s The New World. That lad’s got some acting chops after all.
I never did see the theatrical version of Alexander on DVD. I took the leap sometime later when the second version of the film, the “director’s cut,” was released on disc. You can scrupulously check Wikipedia if I’m right, but I think Stone lopped off 20 minutes from the theatrical version then added ten new minutes of footage or so. I wanted to like it and approached it with an open mind, but so much of it felt off. The varying acting styles were jarring, the pacing lead-footed, and the Freudian psychoanalyzing simplistic. I was impressed with its scope, its grandness, and with Stone’s ambition in presenting his subject in such complex, deeply flawed terms. But it just wasn’t very good, was it?
For some reason I checked the movie out again when Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut was released on DVD in 2007. This was the longer, “road show” version of the movie, which added 30 minutes of new footage. But more importantly, the movie was significantly re-edited and restructured. This third, radically altered version was like watching an entirely different movie in many ways. I sort of loved it, albeit the love one has for a crazy friend or ex-lover. It’s not particular healthy, but what can I do? I’m sort of a loose one when it comes to historical epics. I realize that for an otherwise respectable, educated middle-aged American male, that’s akin to admitting you still like heavy metal or the band Rush. Some would argue, that’s it’s just a step up from still living in your parents’ basement or storing your urine in large water cooler bottles and hiding it in your closet. But I can’t take it back now, can I? I dig epics, particularly set in ancient times.
Is there any cinematic genre more stylistically cumbersome or old fashioned than the historical epic? It’s a genre steeped in the past, rooted in images of military might, and even in the best productions, despite grandiose scenes of well-staged battles and carnage, there are moments padded with sometimes excruciating sequences of old white guys standing around pontificating about the death of empire or conspiring to wage war against other nations. That’s a huge generalization, of course, and perhaps unfair since there are a whole lot of movies of this ilk—I’m thinking of the Italian peplum genre from the 1960s, usually focusing on the heroic exploits of Hercules or Machiste or Samson—whose production values were so piss poor they couldn’t even pull off convincing action sequences, although they were still entertaining in many ways. But at its best, the genre could do wonders, cinematically speaking. I’m thinking here of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and El Cid; Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus; Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, and Ran; William Wyler’s Ben-Hur; The 300 Spartans; the Taylor and Burton fiasco Cleopatra, that nevertheless has many extraordinary moments; and on and on. And then there are the neo-epics, like Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, and the like. None of the latter ones are brilliant, but all of them have moments of great emotional power and melodramatic allure.
Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut may be the best of the newer crop. I can feel you running away from your computer, if you haven’t already, but it’s true. It’s still flawed, although many of the missteps of the earlier versions have now been corrected—pacing most of all—and despite its longer running time, it flows much easier, and dare I say, it’s even relaxed. For me, there are always going to be campy excesses that simply don’t appeal—Jolie’s performance, for example. However, a certain level of kitsch and melodrama are simply things one must put up with when watching historical epics of this kind. It’s part of the territory, at least in the productions coming from the West. As a fan, you learn to ignore it or revel in it.
Stone’s aggressively muscular style and penchant for hallucinatory visuals makes him perfectly suited for this genre. I’m surprised it took him so long to embrace it. But he embraced it with his characteristic gusto. And while it’s not great cinema, it is a fascinating and intelligent failure that is far more interesting to me than any number of slick, impersonal Hollywood productions from the last decade. Alexander Revisited may come wrapped in the guise of big budget entertainment, but it’s as personal as any so-called mumblecore toss-off and as politically resonant as any of the many anti-Bush documentaries that came out over the last decade. While it’s certainly debatable whether one should glorify a butcher, however charismatic they perhaps were, as Stone does here, I do appreciate his (along with his fellow co-screenwriters Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis) intricate and sometimes contradictory appraisal of Alexander. The movie is about the myth-making of Alexander as much as it is about the conqueror himself. Also, Stone, quite simply, has the guts to risk playing the fool. And I can’t help but admire that in a filmmaker.
So what’s with all the rambling about a movie much of the American critical establishment didn’t get and that audiences over here rejected outright? Because I’m not alone in my appreciation of the movie. Earlier this week I came across a blog post–written back in March–by Dennis Cozzalio at the nifty Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on Alexander Revisited‘s first theatrical screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Cozzalio also conducted an interview with director Oliver Stone, which offers plenty to ponder. I don’t always link to other blogs here, but it was a nice surprise to see this movie given some proper attention after its initial beat down. It’s a movie worthy of reappraisal and hopefully that theatrical screening won’t be the first and last we see of it.
 It did well overseas and on video, hence the multiple versions released.