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Alexander: A Pointless Rant?

Oliver Stone's Alexander hit theaters in 2004. It was not a critical success. I've heard it was something of a bomb. Since it's debut I've heard mixed reviews, but finding the time to sit down and watch this modern day epic has, somehow, eluded me. Until recently. And now that I've seen it I'm not sure what to make of it. I probably wouldn't even comment on the movie, save for the fact Oliver Stone keeps re-releasing new versions of it on DVD.

Am I overreacting? Perhaps. (This is a rant after all.) But, whatever the case may be, Alexander, like every Oliver Stone movie I've seen, is a movie you come away from wanting to say something about. And that can't be all bad. I did like a lot of what Mr. Stone did with Alexander but, in many ways, it also got my hackles up. And, darn it Mr. Stone, sometimes I just want a fun bit of mindless entertainment!

Perhaps I should just start at the beginning. I found time to watch the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Why? Because, despite it's faults, it's Tolkien! Oliver Stone is, well, the kind of director who some feel goes out of his way to make movies intentionally designed to rub an audience wrong. Does that predispose me to not like his work? I enjoyed The Doors so I don't think so. However it's hard to escape the fact the majority of Mr. Stone's movies really don't seem entertainments so much as thinly veiled political allegories.

However Mr. Stone's Alexander is good, but it's also annoying. It fooled me. It had a great start then went poof. Double entendre intended. It is very obvious the director is obsessed with the rumors of Alexander's homosexuality, perhaps too much so.

My guess is the director originally intended to strip the "myth" away from the story to look for the man behind the legend. Alas Mr. Stone seems to have gotten lost in exploring his own indulgent romanticized ideas of ancient homosexuality. Which wouldn't be a problem save for the fact in this three plus hour promethean torture fest Mr. Stone not only skips over key elements in Alexander's life, he ignores key elements in the legend that tell us who Alexander was and how his desire for world conquest was shaped. We do get a lot of explanatory narration. But it's a gloss of events that's a sad substitute for what should have been depicted on screen. (Or, rather, what I would have liked to of seen at any rate.)

Nary mention is made of Alexander's encounter, as a youth, with Persian envoys. Nor do we really get to see Alexander coming into his own as regent of Macedon, though if you know his story it's sort of there, but if you don't you'd not have a clue what was going on as the editing of events occurs at an epileptic pace. Worse, the events leading up to his ascension to the throne after his father's death are grossly glossed over. We see nothing of Alexander's visit to the oracle at the temple of Zeus Ammon and the episode with the Gordian knot is similarly conspicuously absent. We don't see the siege of Tyre or, really, any of the actual historical events that you'd expect to see in a movie about Alexander the Great.

How any self-respecting director can claim to be making a historical movie about Alexander the Great and NOT touch upon such important cornerstone historical details is mind-boggling. What we do get to see is a unique interpretation of the incident with Philoneicus and the horse but the movie proper really starts with a rather abrupt jump to Alexander facing Darius across the field of battle. And lot's of homoerotic imagery. It's as if in the director's mind this was the sum total of what made Alexander 'great' and decided to spend the rest of the movie engaged in mind-numbingly boring explorations of what, the unkind, might call self indulgent fantasizing. The really irate might call this movie a work of character assassination. (I have heard some very nasty remarks about this movie over the years.) But the real sin of this movie, in my opinion, is it's virtually impossible to determine what the point of any of this was.

Is this a character study of the man behind the myth? It's certainly not an examination of ancient historical events, as the overlay of modern mores that continuously seeps into this picture proves, and that's a shame.

But if not that then what?

Could it be this is an examination of the role of "gays in the military" using an historical tale from the ancient world? I really wanted this to be about Alexander the Great, instead Oliver Stone presented his own obsessive fractured fairy tale view of Alexander the Fey entirely stripped from historical or mythic reality and transported into a fantasy world of the director's own fevered imagination.

I know, that sounds unduly harsh, but I expect more of an movie than obvious political pandering. I get that the director finds the whole "homosexual" subtext some read into the legends surrounding Alexander fascinating. But, and here's where I have a problem, if you're going to strip away the myth to get to the man you have to realize something: The "homosexual" interpretations are pure legend!

Yeah, sure, our ancient forebears had some very strange and unusual proclivities that don't mesh with modern sensibilities. I get it. I'm Greek, I've heard the jokes since elementary school and find no humor in them. But all Oliver Stone does in Alexander is dwell on this one theme. There was far more to the culture of the ancient Hellenestic world, much more that could have been explored. For instance did you know that the ancient Macedonians had their own language? Did you know that the Macedonians may not have been considered Hellenes by the ancient Greeks?

Oh yes there is a LOT of social subtext that could have been explored but, no, Oliver Stone's obsessive compulsion was to explore homoerotic subtext and ignore anything of relevance beyond his desire to do a movie about "gays in the miltary". It wasn't very subtle, though it took me a while to realize that's what Mr. Stone was doing. How else to explain his grotesque ignoring of relevant historical events? Once I realized this movie wasn't about Alexander but rather about Mr. Stone wanting to do one of his political message movies by hijacking history to get his message across, well, I was incensed.

And with good reason. A big problem with Alexander is that Mr. Stone deigned the events in the legendary history that explain what led up to Alexander's face off with Darius as unworthy of exploration. Nor do we really learn why Alexander chases Darius, instead Mr. Stone tries to make it all seem enigmatic. But it's rooted in the mores of the time. More than that though I wanted to see the confusion in the priest's eye when Alexander of Macedon, whose native language was not Greek anymore than was the priest's of Zeus Ammon, is greeted in broken pigeon Greek with that now famous line that set him off on what he believed to be his destiny. I wanted to see the shocked looks on everyone's face when Alexander cut the Gordian knot. I wanted to see his interaction with the Greek city-states and how he helped reshape the Hellenistic world.

Those were some of the things that made Alexander great. Instead we got homosexual subtext hiding a political message about "gays in the military". It's as if, in Mr. Stone's mind, the Hellenistic city-states and the ' known world' of the time were of such little importance he can just ignore them. How dare Mr. Stone write off an entire culture in such a flippant manner! Alas, the sad truth is most probably don't know much about that era of history anyway.

So, to wrap this semi-entertaining yet totally pointless rant about a movie from years and years ago up here's my parting volley: That any director could so coldly brush established elements of a story aside is very telling. It's also very sad. But, if nothing else, it also shows Oliver Stone has a great future as a director of Sci-Fi channel original movies. Centuries old established facts of myth and legend, coherent well developed stories, and making entertaining movies that actually interest the viewer don't matter to the Sci-Fi channel either. Well, okay, Alexander is absorbing and that Sci-Fi remark is a low blow; though I do think Oliver Stone would make a great version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. He does know how to make a damn good looking movie. I'll cede Mr. Stone that but no more!

[Rant originally posted 9/17/2007 here.]