Alexander (2004) Review: Our Perception of Conquerors

Trying to watch this film was a nightmare. I initially found two cuts of it and those were the theatrical and directors cut. To my surprise, although it added never before seen footage, the directors cut was actually shorter than the theatrical cut by a handful of minutes. So I decided to do some research into what version of the film I should watch to get the best experience, and that led me to a third version: The Final Cut, also referred to as The Ultimate Cut, which was just short of being four hours long. Daunting. The film follows Alexander the Great, his generals and his lovers on their conquest of the eastern world from Persia to India and the change it inflicts upon those present.

What first struck me about the film was how self indulgent it was. But on the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find a four hour film that isn’t self indulgent. Oliver Stone, the director, obviously couldn’t fit Alexander’s entire life into four hours, and thus his first job was to pick the moments of Alexander’s life he wanted to make a film about. A lot of criticism around the film regards the fact that Stone picked poorly in this regard. Many of the IMDB reviews make note of the fact that this story about a conqueror has only two battle scenes to open and close Alexander’s arc, and others make note of the fact that not enough of Alexander’s early life and of his initial journey into the east was put on show, following the death of his father, Philip II. While completely valid, given that Alexander is known as a conqueror, these criticisms do seem to misunderstand the film: Oliver Stone isn’t telling the story of Alexander as he was as a conquer, but the story of Alexander’s ambition and naïve curiosity. Inherently, I think that in of itself is worthy of criticism if that isn’t what you came to this movie expecting, but I do also think that it is a refreshing take on the trope of the conquering hero.

The easiest thing that could have been done in making this film would have been to have shown Alexander’s battles back to back, intercut with scenes of planning, drama and light exploration of his personal life, before ending on a note that highlighted just how epic and amazing Alexander’s achievements were. Instead the film is concerned with criticising Alexander’s ambition and trying to deconstruct our romanticisation of historical figures like him. The depiction of Alexander we are given is in fact of Alexander “the not so great”; A naïve young man still trying to understand himself and get to the core of his passions – those being to reach the very edge of world by walking in the footsteps of fabled heroes such as Hercules and Achilles. In fact because of this I am tempted to refer to this film as a coming of age story; The difference between this coming of age story and the more traditional ones being that the protagonist of this story is getting people killed wherever he goes. I like the fact the film is able to put this on show even with it’s lack of extraordinary battles, as Alexander seemingly dumps important people in random locations he conquers to keep them in order, and they are unable to ever return to their homes in Greece, or to the army they spent their life with.

What I like most about the film is how it explores Alexander’s motivations. At first his conquest is presented as an act of vengeance against the Persians, whom he suspects had a hand in planning the assassination of his father. But as the film continues it becomes less and less likely that this is the case. Flashbacks to Alexander’s childhood with his father gradually turn from ones of admiration to those of wrath and sorrow, and even his people cannot confirm any Persian involvement with his father’s demise. Then Alexander confides in his lover, Hephaestion, of his dreams to unite Asia and Europe under the banner of Greece. He takes a foreign wife and faces the anger of his generals and mother for doing so, all citing she is but a barbarian. He also talks of wanting his men to take foreign women in order to mix the peoples of east and west. But as he marches beyond the limits he had promised that he would, refuses to be attentive to his wife and allows his own agenda to cloud his judgement, it seems as though this isn’t a true motivation either. The film seems to favour the idea that Alexander did it because he both could and wanted to; He wanted to see the end of the world and was willing to do anything to get there. Thus the naïve boy at the start of the film becomes a disillusioned drunk near the end, who sends his oldest friends to govern provinces neither he or they have any investment in beyond the benefit it would provide to his army’s endless advance – a sentence those in his company consider an exile, given how Alexander speaks of the army as a home, and condescendingly of those outside of it. Resultingly Alexander is forced to make the hard decision to execute many of his own soldiers that grow apart from his ambition, as they attempt to poison him and stage a mutiny. And although the film makes a point to say that these were not unexpected actions for a general to take against his men during wartime, it also condemns them. In doing so it not only condemns Alexander, but other conquers akin to him that we romanticise; Hannibal, Caesar and even Alexander’s father, Philip.

This film was made to be analysed as a character study and has a lot to delve into with regards to who Alexander really was. Some criticise the film because Alexander contradicts himself on many occasions, but I feel as though this must have been intentional given how frequently Alexander is spoken about by his peers as a myth. The film even goes out of its way to acknowledge the biases and intentional misinformation that litters ancient sources regarding Alexander, and other great ancient conquers, through Sir Anthony Hopkins’ Pharaoh Ptolemy at the end of the film, all of which makes it hard to paint a truly consistent picture of any of these ancient figures. This, of course, being a real struggle for historians studying the ancient world when trying to accurately differentiate reliable ancient texts from those that were designed to be self serving. Therefore if Alexander was intentionally depicted to be contradictory then, in my opinion, that is excellent because it perfectly captures how hard it can sometimes be to get accurate information on who these individuals were, as people, from ancient sources.

This idea of trying to convey the struggle of analysing history is an excellent one on behalf of the film, but one that is perhaps contradicted (on a filmmaking level, not a historical one) by Stone’s own depiction certain characters in order to make his version of Alexander work on screen. For instance, Philip II gets a very bad wrap in this movie and is depicted as little more than a drunkard and a lout. When he is not these things, his is a distrustful loudmouth. Admittedly I know next to nothing about Alexander’s history, but I do know a LITTLE about Philip II’s: For instance he had to have possessed some measure of diplomatic prowess, as he politically manoeuvred Macedon into a relationship with the Greek City States that would secure the country’s safety when he went off to fight his own war against the Persians. He was also a proven commander in his own right as he did battle with those of the Greeks who sought to undermine his growing power and won quite convincingly. But none of Philip II’s scenes in Alexander align with him being a man capable of running a country as powerful as Macedon given his drunken and often tyrannical way of ruling, much less with him being a man capable of the delicate diplomacy required to get the renowned cities of Thebes, Athens an Sparta to play nice with him for years to come. This does have relevance to the film as a great amount of detail is put into depicting Philip II’s death as accurately as possible, as he dies at a ceremony celebrating the coming together of the Hellenic people. But given that it seems unlikely that Stone’s depiction of Philip would be capable of doing anything tangibly close to that, despite the fact the real Philip did do it, somehow makes a historically accurate scene feel manufactured, false and unbelievable. Either Stone misread history, took his depiction of Philip too far, or fell into the trap of becoming one of the bias historians he criticises in his own film. If he really wanted Philip to be a drunken lout then I’d say that’s fine, but it would have to come at the expense of omitting Philip’s many diplomatic achievements in order to keep his character consistent, which was not done in this film.

It is also hard to talk about this film without acknowledging that it was overwhelmingly panned by critics, and even by most audiences too. In some respects I find it impossible to disagree with many of the criticisms levied at it. For one, a lot of the dialogue, mostly in the first half of the film and particularly in the romantic scenes between Alexander and Hephaestion, is genuinely awful. There were moments between the two where I physically cringed, hearing Hephaestion unironically spout dialogue that would make a fourteen-year-old complimenting his first crush look more competent. The tone of the movie also switches on a dime, most notably in battle scenes, where the music will swing from heroic to daunting without warning within the same instance. Even in the final battle, where Alexander’s actions have been entirely condemned, heroic music will still play over his incredibly stupid decision to charge an elephant in battle single handily, which almost leads to his death. This elephant scene feels as though it should be tragic: Alexander has pushed too far for too long and this monster he has never seen before is blocking his way and knocks him out of the fight entirely. The symbolic significance of the Elephant wounding him cannot be understated, as it is after that fight and suffering that specific wound that Alexander is convinced it is time to return home. And yet there isn’t an ounce of tragedy in the scene – It is heroic as he insanely charges this great beast and then sombre as he is expectedly wounded by it. Despite seeing how hard Alexander fought to continue his eastward march, I never truly felt the pain of him admitting he had to give in and turn around.

But I think the worst of it is the acting. For the entire first half of the movie, all of the acting is as solid as these actors can be, but the second half of the film seemingly becomes a soap opera as everyone on set over-acts as though their lives depend on it, creating an atmosphere that is almost too over dramatic to take entirely seriously. The worst offender is a scene in India where Alexander murders one of his generals who expresses their distain for his decisions. Colin Ferrell, who has otherwise been pretty good in Alexander’s role, suddenly goes so over the top in his performance, of what is supposed to be a dramatic scene, that it becomes borderline comical. Likewise Anthony Hopkins seems bored throughout his narration of the film, and especially so when he’s physically in it. And why wouldn’t he be when he’s confined to a single set – the background of which is likely green screen – talking about events of the film that he as an actor wasn’t present for. His dialogue suggests he is jaded and conflicted on exactly how he should be conveying Alexander to the audience, but his performance leaves little to be desired. Unfortunately these things are constants throughout the film and just something you’re going to have to accept while watching it. There are exceptions, of course – When a mutiny rises against Alexander in India, it is a scene that resonates and doesn’t fall into this trap, but more often than not there will be a lot of melodrama and over or underacting all around.

In terms of film making, what good can be said about this film is that the fight scenes are rather impressive. The film perfectly captures the type of terrifying close quarters, grinding fights that would have made up warfare in this era of history. Through the combined use of CGI and real actors, you get a great look at Macedonian phalanxes, Persian chariots and, most impressively, Indian elephants. The elephants in the final battle are genuinely terrifying and I compliment the film for not only making them visually imposing, but showing the fear on the face of the Macedonians when it comes to fighting them. The fact the film doesn’t shy away from violence of men having the heads caved in with rocks, chests impaled by pikes, and bodies exploded under the weight of an elephant’s hoof serves to show not only how bloody Alexander’s conquest was, but also how far he was willing to push and how many he was willing to kill and allow to be killed so that he could achieve his goals.

In fact the best sequence of the film happens towards the end when the Macedonians cross into India. None of them have seen monkeys before and they first assume the monkeys to be small armies of men who fight from tree tops. A noteworthy scene is of Alexander asking a monkey if it can speak because they’re just so far from the world as they know it, and cannot understand the ecosystem they find themselves in. Then there is the disease, bombardment of poor weather and poisonous creatures that kill much of the army off as it marches through the forest. To them India is like another planet, and I really admire the depiction given of how the army learns to traverse it’s landscape. The entire section of India is just a highlight for me.

Yet I am not sure I can recommend this film based on the fact a lot of the dialogue is undeniably cringe, and that a lot of the acting is way too over, or under, the top. Although I appreciate the fresh take it presents to audience regarding what it means to be a conqueror and how it criticises historical figures akin to Alexander, I don’t think four hours of inconsistency was the best way to go about presenting those ideas. Maybe you should try the theatrical cut? Maybe you should try the directors cut? Maybe the final/ultimate cut? There’s a lot of debate which is the best and the truth is I’ve only seen one of the three. But I will say this: Having seen one of them, I have no desire to see the others. Not because the film was awful – though parts of it were – but because regardless of which version you watch, it’s a very round-about way to getting to the heart of Stone wants to discuss, which is ‘was Alexander really all that great’? Whether or not that intrigues you should inform whether you need to see it.

3 thoughts on “Alexander (2004) Review: Our Perception of Conquerors

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  1. Great write-up. I don’t know if this was Alexander the not-so-great so much as Alexander as Stone wanted to imagine him. Which is what you’d expect as we all re-write history to match-up with our contemporary anxieties. Alexander here is like an idealistic American (maybe a young Oliver Stone) going off to make the world safe for democracy in the jungles of India/Vietnam.
    The different versions and the long running time indicate to me that he really couldn’t give the material any narrative shape.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words!

      It’s very hard to get inside Stone’s head with this movie. Maybe the truth of it lies somewhere between our interpretations, seeing as it never really commits to the idea of Alexander uniting the world or to the one of him being a murderer who took it too far. Both are presented here, but neither taken to a real end? Who knows? Personally, I don’t think Stone knows, based on what was supposed to be the ULTIMATE cut. But even the ambiguity feels accidental aside from one very forced monologue by Anthony Hopkins, which would be hypocritical of Stone to write if he really did want to present Alexander as being one way or the other. As I say, the ambiguity could have been the best thing about it, if only I could buy into it. And regarding the different versions of the film, I’d have to agree with you.

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