Saturday, August 06, 2005

Alexander-- the Not so Great Movie

One of the great imponderables for a Biblical scholar is trying to figure out just how Hellenized Jews were during the NT era. Put another way, just how indebted were they to the legacy of Alexander, which caused even Jews to translate their sacred scriptures into Greek and adopt Greek customs and culture? And what can be said about Alexander and his legacy? These were questions I pondered as I went with hope to learn something from the film Alexander.
Directors of late have had a penchant for making more historically oriented films in the wake of the success of “Gladiator”, and the somewhat more modest success of “Troy” (not to mention the recent ABC TV summer min-series on Empire and Caesar), and so it is no surprise that someone would try their hand at Alexander the Great—a large subject which would seem to suit the large screen and multi-million dollar budgets. The results of Oliver Stone’s efforts to create a compelling if overly-lengthy epic (175 long minutes) are decidedly mixed, and frankly the reviews were mostly negative. Now that the DVD has come out in two different formats and we can watch the film in smaller doses it is a good time to ask-- What went wrong?

First there is the problem of casting. Alexander needs to be played by what in the old days would have been called ‘a man’s man’. He was a heroic figure, though he only lived into his 30s, and he decidedly was not a ‘momma’s boy’ to use another hackneyed cliché. What do we get in Stone’s film? We get someone who starts as a momma’s boy ( with snake-loving momma played rather badly by Angelia Jolie. We can be sure that Alexander’s mother was not like an ‘Italian femme tres formidable’ from a much later era), whose relationship with his lifelong friend Hephaestion is portrayed as a homosexual affair, without sufficient historical warrant.
Colin Ferrell does his best to fill out the role of the adult Alexander, but there is little warmth in the portrayal, and even less attempt to reveal the real inner character and source of vision and strength of the man. Ferrell looks the part in a stereotypical kind of blond haired blue eyed way, but he never really wins the heart or admiration of the audience. Nor, at the end of the day do we get sufficient insight into what drove the man to conquer all the way to India, or why he dreamed of creating one world with Greek culture and Greek language--- an oikiomene/ecumenical vision if there ever was one.
In his hurry to get to the battle scenes, Stone gives short shrift to the early Alexander, including Alexander’s all important relationship with his tutor Aristotle, though he does do a serviceable job of dealing with the legendary story about Alexander’s taming of Bucephalus, his incredible horse. The relationship of Alexander with his father Philip (played with drunken lout gusto by Val Kilmer no less) is shown to be troubled, which it was, but the inner workings of the relationship are portrayed as something of a rivalry, though occasionally the king was proud of his son, and his son admired some aspects of his father--- especially his skills as a warrior and his bravery. There is then both a problem with the casting and with the editing and story telling in this film. Even worse there is a problem with the film’s musical score. Vangelis, he of Chariot’s of Fire fame, has composed a syrupy synthesizer score which neither inspires nor is even remotely appropriate for this film as it is so out of character with the ancient subject and theme of the movie. It is rather like going to the opera and a vaudeville routine breaks out. Where is Hans Zimmer, who did the impressive score for Gladiator, when you need him? For a musician such as myself, this was very annoying and distracting. But there are some pluses to the film.
For those of us who have longed to see places like Alexandria with its famous lighthouse and library, or Babylon with its famous palace and hanging gardens, this film has breath-taking CG moments. The colors, the layout of the cities, the ships sailing in Alexandria’s harbor, and above all the incredible library with its thousands of scrolls are lovingly re-created. The palace in Babylon and the street scenes are equally spectacular. But alas, these moments are few and far between and not enough is made of them. Especially sad is the fact that the narrator of the film, Ptolemy of Alexandria, played wonderfully by Anthony Hopkins, gets short shrift. The movie opens with him in Alexandria, promising great things. The movie however fails to deliver thereafter. It would have been far better if Hopkins had played Aristotle to the hilt, and we had learned where Alexander really got his Greek vision from. Though I am a pacificist, I must admit that amidst the gory there are some impressive battle scenes at Gaugamela and then in India as well. But what was it about Alexander that inspired his men to go so far, when they wanted to stop in Babylon and even go home? How did these series of battles get turned into a viable Empire? The movie does not really help us to puzzle these things out. Blood and guts wins out over head and heart.
For me this was a great disappointment. Over thirty years ago I took Greek history with a master teacher Jim McCoy at Carolina. We read great books like “The Harvest of Hellenism” and Peter Green’s “Alexander the Great”. I had hoped for so much more from this movie. Some long time ago I began a poem about Alexander written for a term paper for Jim McCoy, which I have finally finished. Perhaps it will give a better glimpse of the man than this trying and uninspiring movie did.


Fire on ice
Ice on fire,
Unbridled ambition
Unending desire,
Golden hair
Midas Touch
I am Alexander.

Ice on fire
Fire on ice,
Gory glory
Beyond advice
One world vision
Flickering flame
I am Alexander.

Macedonian monarch
Aristotle’s ward,
The great commander
Without reward,
Without peers
Without an heir,
I am Alexander.

All the world’s glory
All the acclaim
The Greek colossus
The mythical name
Builder of Empire
Finder of fame,
I am Alexander.

Child of the gods
Destined from birth
Harvest of Hellas
Spread through the earth
Conquered conqueror
Who knows my worth?
I am Alexander.



R. Mansfield said...

Whenever there is a movie about the ancient world, I am interested. I had high hopes for Alexander, but like you was disappointed. To me the best scenes were the panoramas of the ancient cities as you describe in your review. That's the closest we'll ever get to actually being there, I suppose.

I would be interested to know what you thought of Troy. I didn't have any hopes for it because Brad Pitt had been cast as Achilles, but I watched it anyway and found myself very pleased with his portrayal. Troy seemed to me to be much like a demythologized Illiad. For what it was, I enjoyed it.

The ABC mini-series, Empire, lacked in some places historically, but I found myself getting quite caught up in the story. I was hooked after the second episode, and found it well-done overall.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Rick: I agree with you about Troy, though I have to say that Orlando Bloom didn't really cut the mustard in that movie. I also liked Empire, though of course it played up the angle of Tyrannus being the secret hero too much.


jean said...

You write great poetry

JC Baker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JC Baker said...

I just ran across your blog yesterday for the first time. I'm glad to see you on the net now.

I look forward to seeing you at the Knight Lectures this year at my alma mater, Logsdon Seminary.

Please stop by my blog anytime at

Hypatia said...

Love your biblical scholarship.

Please, for the love of God, don't write any more poetry. Or write it for personal pleasure, but don't post it. Your criticism of *Alexander*'s clumsiness is seriously undermined by including such a clumsy poem in your post.