by Kaleem Hasan
To not know what happened before one was born is to always remain a child – Cicero.
I am always happy to see a Hollywood movie emerge on the classical world even if the results are less than one would ideally hope for. The West cannot be understood without the Greek and Roman heritage. At the present monent, our entire globe is, in a way, western. Therefore the world becomes incomprehensible without an adequate engagement with this ancient past. To the extent that when Hollywood movies attempt such subjects there is always the possibility that people will get interested in the subject and look to other avenues for further explorations in this regard. In this way these Hollywood attempts provide a valuable service even if the films in question are considered intrinsically poor.
In recent years we have seen Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy and Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Troy was a reasonably compelling action flick masquerading as Greek epic with Achilles as gym-hero even if Brad Pitt was not entirely inappropriate in the part of the most famous man-child of Western consciousness. The film has its CGI inauthenticities (this is, unfortunately, becoming the norm, as Gladiator, among others had the same problem, that there is an element of fakeness to modern CGI – Rome looked far more real in the older Hollywood epics), it had all the dynamism of a romp through a legendary history and yet it nonetheless introduced viewers, especially younger ones, to the tradition. In an odd way in the services of this pragmatic concern the film’s superficiality was even less welcome as these same viewers would be far less likely to go back to the sources if they didn’t enjoy the film in the first place.
Stone’s Alexander was one of the most reviled films of recent years. The original theatrical release was 175m long before Stone recut the film on DVD down to 167m, but even this didn’t change any minds about the film. Andrew Sarris was in fact the most important gentler voice on the film, suggesting that the film would be nowhere near the top of his list of films for the year, but nowhere near the bottom either. In any case I was sufficiently persuaded by the reviews not to visit the film at the time.
More recently I heard that Stone had eventually come up with another director’s cut (called The Final Cut) which was 214m long. Belonging to a strange human breed that is addicted to the concept of extended cuts, no matter how meaningless these might be and perhaps belonging to an even stranger minority of one that refuse to watch the totally mediocre unless it comes with such length added on (the phallic metaphor will have been revealing and not least because of the supplementary suggestions of the adding on!), I decided to give this Final Cut (hoping this wouldn’t be the unkindest one, but too late to avoid the Bobbitian at this stage!) a chance.
I was quite pleasantly surprised. Stone, in the introduction, speaks of how this was the most freedom he ever had putting a film together without all the studio stresses, audience pressures, et al. In essence, this is the Alexander he wanted to make and screen. Having not seen the theatrical version I have no idea how this version departs specifically from its predecessors but, from the reviews, I am led to believe that the narration is more linear and straightforward in the earlier version and most of the central plot lines are far less nuanced.
The supreme problem with Stone’s film is that Colin Farrell in the title role offers a somewhat singular case of miscasting. He simply does not suggest the figure who is now more mythos than historical personage. Where Pitt suggests the man-child that Achilles is, Alexander in Farrell’s hands simply becomes a child. Confounding this is Stone’s curious introduction of an Oedipal angle into the whole story which, with some other factors, makes this movie into a bit of a psycho-drama.
At the same time the film does not have the kind of inherent drama that this subject calls out for at every turn. Stone has ultimately expended a great deal of thought into this subject and, as the post-history of the release would suggest, has continued to be obsessed with it. A number of the reviewers complained at the historical inaccuracies but Stone’s self-confessed attempt was always to fashion an old-style Hollywood epic. Even otherwise I am not very moved by such criticism unless the film aims to be a totally realistic biopic. I do not believe this was Stone’s primary aim.
The Final Cut relates the story of Alexander by way of Ptolemy’s narration more than four decades after Alexander’s death. The narration has a somewhat didactic quality to it and comes off as stilted at times but has the virtue of framing the history as a narrated tale. The film keeps jumping back and forth in time; Ptolemy keeps filling in the gaps but there is still a sense of disorientation induced in the viewer which mirrors Alexander’s own vertigo as he keeps extending his imperial reach.
For Stone, Alexander offers a mirror into the present. Macedonian Alexander could be American Bush. The film maintains a specificity about this and the analogies throughout are hard to miss. Interestingly, Stone starts the film off with the Virgilian ” fortune favours the bold” and as the movie progresses one realises that Alexander is in fact a kind of Roman and the descent into hell of his overreach has an almost nightmarish quality to it much like the Aeneid. The parallel with the present also works because rather than glorify Alexander in an unthinking way, Stone converts him into the perfect emblem of the imperialist mindset and his journey, which gets darker and darker over time, is a potent symbol of the imperial drive in every one of its historical manifestations. Because Alexander is also so childlike in many ways, so unrestrained and almost oddly untrained in others, he evokes the Commander in Chief of the present even more. This should not be considered flattering to the latter. Nor is it ungenerous on Stone’s part to make Alexander such a flawed human being, because Stone is not attempting a pure biopic. He is intrigued by Alexander as imperialist not as mythologized super-conqueror. In his laconic words, he wanted to show the ‘dark side’ of Alexander.
But there is a Buddhist Alexander who creeps up in the later stages of the film. The Alexander who, from the Oedipal traumas to the wars that drain him mentally and emotionally, is always somewhat close to becomi ng totally unhinged and, in fact, just gets to that point by the end of his life’s journey. The illness that actually kills him becomes the manifestation of an inner rotting that has been ongoing for some years. As Alexander conquers greater parts of his known world, he also keeps suffering a kind of identity crisis that recalls something akin to the protagonists’ dilemma in ‘The Sheltering Sky’ (Bowles). Put differently, the encounter with exotica that is always such a stimulant both for the traveller and the conqueror is one involving great risk, not only for those who fall under the gaze of either, because the gaze is returned. As Nietzsche said in a different register, “when you stare into an abyss, sometimes the abyss stares back at you”. It is second movement that Alexander in Stone’s film cannot quite digest. He never attains Nirvana to any degree but seems constantly tortured and it is perhaps not too hard to imagine him doing an ‘Asoka’ in some ways, had he lived longer. And he is not too far from the land of Asoka when he dies. He has certainly been close to it.
Cinematographically, Stone’s filmis often striking; my own pick is a battlefield shot that occurs in the later portion of the film when the whole screen is bathed in a kind of psychedelic red. At this point, the film increasingly at such moments makes war far less concrete and far more hallucinatory than in the earlier stages. Where earlier there is pomp, ceremony and precision, later there is only the blur of nightmare.
To sum up, I think this Final Cut of the film is well worth revisiting. I did not intend this piece to be a review but more of a reflection on the film that recognizes its weaknesses but at the same time highlights the strengths and ultimately finds the latter winning out over the former. The film has enormous flaws, for sure, but also remarkable strengths related to the conception of the subject and the cinematic language accordingly employed. If this is a misfire, it is a valuable one.