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By Pete Vonder Haar | November 25, 2004

“Alexander” is Oliver Stone’s first directorial effort since Any Given Sunday, where he was only too happy to drive his point that football players are modern-day gladiators into the ground. It would seem that editing all that old Steve Reeves footage got Stone to thinking, and he set about making his own sword and sandals epic.

Stone’s been accused of having a somewhat less than iron-handed grasp on reality before. “JFK” amassed its fair share of criticism following some improbable leaps of logic and free association with existing facts, while Natural Born Killers confounded as many people as it angered. And though the accuracy of “Alexander” will be debated for some time to come in academic and film circles, it doesn’t change the fact that the movie itself is a funereally paced mess.

After a bizarre opening credits sequence, we’re introduced to Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), former advisor to Alexander, who reminisces about the great Macedonian for the benefit of his scribe and the viewing audience. We learn that the future conqueror’s parents, Philip of Macedonia and Olympias, weren’t exactly joined out of mutual love and respect, and that both used the young boy as leverage against the other. Olympias (Angelina Jolie), comes out better in this regard, insisting that Alexander is the son of the gods and screaming things like “In my womb I carried my avenger!” in her odd supposed-to-be-Greek-but-really-sounds-Transylvanian accent. Whereas all Philip (Val Kilmer) can do is warn the boy that all women are evil. As his son grows into adulthood, the drunken Philip realizes he can’t compete with mom’s incessant propaganda, and so fathers a second child with another woman. As you can imagine, this doesn’t go over too well with the strangely ageless Olympias.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, for we also learn of Alexander’s early attachment to his friend Hephaestion. Ptolemy, in his constant voiceover, reminds us of the old saw that Alexander was only defeated once, and then by Hephaestion’s thighs. The boys become adults, in the persons of Colin Farrell and Jared Leto, and are thereafter inseparable. The relationship between the two men drives a good portion of the movie, as Alexander the conqueror becomes more and more obsessed with reaching the eastern sea and Hephaestion counsels him to quit while he’s ahead.

The relationship between Alexander and his historical lover is only one of the ways Stone shortchanges his audience. Make no mistake, “Alexander” is one of the gayest big budget Hollywood epics you’ll ever see, all smoldering stares, stroking hair, and Alexander leering sullenly at his pretty slave boys. But for all the work Stone and crew have obviously done to cram every scene with place names and historical minutiae, they gloss over Alexander’s sexuality, which is one of the more intriguing aspects of his persona. Instead, he chooses to show how cruel and manipulative all the women in his life were (all two of them, apparently). Mom is a Freudian wet dream, all snake-worshipping and assassination plots, while his eventual wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson) is grasping and suspicious, but at least shares mom’s love of serpent iconography.

The historical military epic genre has had its ups and downs in the last decade or so. Braveheart won Oscars out the yin yang, as did Gladiator, while Troy was somewhat less well-received. One thing you could say positively about all of these films, however, was the fact that they contained a hefty amount of combat. Not so “Alexander,” which features perhaps 25 minutes of actual battle footage in its 176 minute running time, and the bulk of that early on during the Battle of Gaugamela. What there is of it is well shot, but it doesn’t really amount to anything we haven’t seen before. The rest of the time, the film drones on and on as each character has to give voice to his long-winded feelings, punctuated by the doddering Ptolemy reminding us of what a Great Man Alexander was. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like a movie celebrating the life of the greatest military conqueror the world has ever known should feature a bit more conquering.

Finally, Stone can’t resist putting on his revisionist history cap once again. And while Alexander may not have been the worst of the warlords who plundered their way across the globe, Stone tries to portray him as the Education King, lifting the unwashed out of their ignorance and leaving no barbarian behind. He either doesn’t think audiences are ready for as flawed a character as Alexander actually was, or he’s too busy using the young king to represent his own annoyance with the trappings of celebrity (how else to read Philip’s admonition to Alexander that those of lower bearing will always be jealous of his fame?). As for Farrell, he has no problem projecting his character’s rage, but even (arguably) gifted actors such as he, Hopkins, and Christopher Plummer (a fleeting role as Aristotle) have difficulty wading through the film’s long dramatic stretches.

“Alexander” is a muddled, self-indulgent, and criminally boring take on one of the most fascinating characters in human history. It’s hard to imagine a more disappointing adaptation of the life of the man who conquered the known world by the time most of us are just deciding on a career. I, for one, will be curious to see what kind of work Stone – once regarded as a possible heir to the likes of Coppola and Scorsese – will manage to get his hands on after “Alexander” tanks.

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