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movie review out of 4 Movie Review: Alexander

Starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie
Director: Oliver Stone
Rated: R
RunTime: 173 Minutes
Release Date: November 2004
Genres: War, Action, Drama

*Also starring: Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, John Rhys-Davies, Gary Stretch, Ian Beattie, Rory McCann, Erol Sander, Christopher Plummer, Connor Paolo, Joseph Morgan

Review by Harvey Karten
2 stars out of 4

Alexander lived fast, died young, and if he looked anything like Colin Farrell, left a beautiful corpse. We go to this film not only to witness spectacular battle scenes but to find out just what sort of man Alexander was, and to stretch a point, we wonder as watch the story unfold, whether President George W. Bush is driven by similar motives, and whether our fighters, in Iraq for an extended period of time, are becoming terminally frustrated with their time away from home. In that last regard, perhaps the leading way that teachers make history relevant is to compare the past to the present. We teachers regularly state the axiom, "History repeats itself" since, after all, despite the various cultures of the six billion people on our earth, everything that is going on today somehow has a corollary a decade, a century, a millennium ago.

What sort of man, then, was Alexander, here played as an adult by Colin Farrell. and how was he influenced by his own, personal history? According to Oliver Stone, who portrays Alexander as truly a Macedonian hero, he is much influenced by the close nurturing he receives from his mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie). While Olympias may believe in sparing the rod–except for her implied role in the murder of her husband, King Philip (Val Kilmer)–she appears to have intimate relations with her pet snakes and, in a keynote address to the young Alexander insists that he grasp a snake without hesitation lest the creepy, crawly creature bite. She is immoderate in stating that the boy's father is not King Philip, who in one drunken scene carries out a rape of his own wife, but none other than Zeus. Alexander responds in two ways–both ignoring his mother's advice by marrying a Persian woman, Roxane (Rosario Dawson) and by following that counsel through his long string of conquests.

Among the other aspects of the man is his bisexuality, which is strongly hinted in his contact with Hephaistion (Jared Leto), a long-haired, doe-eyed lad, and his implied dalliance with a few other men, particularly those dressed as women. (Bisexuality in Greece's better days was hardly frowned upon but fully accepted, a point that nonetheless has conservative film critics like Michael Medved concerned that some members of a young audience, eager to use Alexander as a role model, would seize upon his sexual proclivities as well.)

The story of Alexander from the age of three until his death at thirty-three is narrated and framed by Alexander's long-time friend, Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), who is dictating his memoirs in the Alexandria Library to a scribe who, wonder of wonders, is able to catch every word of Ptolemy's conversational palaver with pen on parchment. Ptolemy opens his tale on the three- year-old's absorbing his mother's counsel while surrounded by snakes, the lad soon shocked as his drunken father rapes the strong-willed Olympias. The boy's fighting spirit is nurtured in the wrestling matches at age eight presided over by Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). As an adult, Alexander is seen with blond wavy hair styled in a manner that would today cost $500 in the better salons–hair that never gets messed despite the fury of the battles. The army proceeds on its march to conquer Babylon, Persia against the forces of King Darius–who remains seated while giving hand signals to his men as though he were a catcher for the New York Yankees psyching out the weaknesses of the hitters.

After the rout of the Persians, Stone finds Alexander marrying a local woman, Roxane, a dancing girl whom he makes a queen in order to unify his growing empire and to produce a male heir–but in the latter instance he has no more luck than he would find in his relationship with his boyhood chum Hephaistion. Perhaps the problem in producing an heir can be traced to his wedding night with Roxane whose idea of a sexual embrace is in pulling a knife on her would-be lover, placing it dangerously at his throat.

As the years roll on, as the troops, eager to go home after eight years on the road (think of President's Bush's armed forces who are not too pleased about their extended missions), fight a climactic battle with the "monkey tribes" of India, who attack Alexander's forces with elephants. The most spectacular shot in the film is a freeze-frame, Alexander's horse and his opponent's elephant each standing on two hind legs, each hoping for their riders to deal the coup de grace.

The reputation of director Oliver Stone ("Salvador," "Born on the Fourth of July," "JFK," "Nixon") rests on the man's ability to turn complex ideas and problems into crowd-pleasing movies, but he lacks a sense of humor and despite being one of the three scripters, is unable to infuse the dialogue with much short of pretentious speeches. Though he treats us to two spectacularly impressive battle scenes--one at the gates of Babylon where he and his troops note, through the culture's architecture, that the Persians were hardly barbarians and the other fighting the "monkey tribes" on elephants in India's Indus Valley-- the dialogue is devoid of wit. The only laughs generated by the picture has the audience giggling at inappropriate moments, particularly when Alexander, still not content despite conquering well over half of the known world (namely today's Greece, Turkey and Egypt) tells the love of his life that the two will grow old together and continue to march to lands unknown--only to find that Hephaistion has already expired from his wounds.

At 173 minutes, the picture with its repetitive battle scenes, insistent and intrusive music, and hamfisted acting, we come away knowing that while our history teachers may have been bores for the most part, at least the bell rang daily before their commentary became wearying.

Copyright © 2004 Harvey Karten

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