In 1914, Bernard Shaw made a grand statement by saying that the cinema was a more momentous invention than the printing press. The point he made was that the invention of the printing press did not make it a requirement for a manual labor to learn how to read. The cinema was able to appeal to both the illiterate and literate and bring the arts to someone who lived in the countryside. At the time the stage theater still operated mainly in larger cities and was considered a great pass time for the only the elites to enjoy. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the information age has given almost everyone the advantage to make the arts a part of their daily lives.
Now the situation with cinema is that great works are being shown in fewer theaters and in fewer cities. More movie studios exist and they are jam packing theaters every year with more entertainment movies. The great equalizer to this beginning stage of an elite status for art cinema has been the DVD market. Now any film released on DVD is available to everyone. It is allowing for this new format to become an important level on which to release films. One way to do so has been to release newly edited editions of previously released films. One filmmaker, Oliver Stone, has already made a career of doing this. He has edited a good percentage of the films he has done. He returns again to do this with his new edition of Alexander.
The difference this time is that Oliver Stone has done extensive editing to the film in question. Before he would merely add footage to an already in tact and structured film. Because Alexander was a financial and critical failure, the re-done version was a legitimate effort by Stone to improve the film. Stone has restructured and added over forty minutes to this new version. The film now stands at a crisp three hours and forty minutes. Stone now says that this cut is the version he imagined in his original screenplay. The differences are significant, so the feeling is that Oliver Stone has reconstructed an old film into an entirely new one.
When Alexander was released in 2004, it was the completion of a dream project for Oliver Stone. Ever since the early 1990s, Stone has always listed making a filmed version of Alexander the Great as his dream project. He said the great Macedonian ruler had always been a favorite subject of his since childhood. The dream almost became a reality a few times with Tom Cruise headlining as the famous conqueror. When the project became feasible again to be made, Stone had Heath Ledger in mind but when that fell through, had to give the reigns to Colin Farrell. Stone also got veterans of his earlier works like Anthony Hopkins and Val Kilmer to join the new cast. Angelina Jolie and Jared Leto were newcomers who were announced to the epic project.
Stone plotted the film to encompass Alexander’s entire life. It would deal with his childhood and then continue to his beginning days as king and then to his lengthy conquests in foreign lands and finally to his death. Stone didn’t tell the story strictly chronologically. The film had some back and forth between different points of his life, but the structure was simple because Stone wanted to preserve the epic nature of Alexander the Great. In interviews for the film, Stone spoke fondly of the children’s book about Alexander that he read as a child. The book reinvigorated the mythological status that Alexander the Great had acquired over the years. Alexander the Great was not a simple human leader, but a mythical hero as well. Stone tried to preserve elements of that in the film.
Stone also had a greater idea of Alexander. He couldn’t make another filmed version of Alexander the Great to just out due the one Robert Rossen made in 1956. The epic formula needed a facelift. Oliver Stone wanted to give Alexander a context that went beyond the general Hollywood affair. One of the things that Stone focused on was the homosexual relationships Alexander. Another was the role of liberator that Alexander assumed with his conquests. Historians took exception with both ideas being truly important to Alexander’s life, but the film was so dense and tried to cover so much of Alexander’s life that many people were confused about what ideas Stone really had in mind with Alexander. In interviews, Stone tried to clarify a lot, but the film was still confusing.
This was not the first time Oliver Stone made a film that was detailed with a confusing and conflicting portrait. The Doors hailed the myth of Jim Morrison but showed the absolute worst of him as he descended into an early death. Any Given Sunday was a look into the corruption of professional football but looked with reverence at the legacy of the sport. Neither of these films tried to focus on one aspect over the other. Stone detailed the portraits to create more confusion. The point was that only a serious look at either subject had to be confusing with little clarity. The difference in Alexander is not is there confusion, but there is little idea to know what ideas Oliver Stone has in mind. The Doors and Any Given Sunday balanced themselves on clear ideas and better focus.
When Alexander was released it was critically panned. Many critics said that the film was the equivalent of the terrible epic, Troy. It was understood that Stone was trying to make an art film, but they had little reserve with saying that both films were equally bad. Undeterred by the reaction, Stone took Alexander to Europe where it became an international success and he defended the film against his critics. In the United States, a new cut was made for the initial DVD release that trimmed down the story and focused it more on the action. Oliver Stone, still standing by the film, said this new cut, “the director’s cut”, would be his final cut.
When Oliver Stone did decide to come out with an extended cut that not only added over forty minutes of footage, but also would try to successfully re-structure the film, the news was good. Stone began his journey to prove that a thought provoking epic could exist and not be weighted down by a story either too large or with too many ideas. The first thing was to arrange the story to better show his personality. That meant aligning the main story together into a better structure. In the film Alexander is shown as a soft spoken, shy child who is overprotected and controlled by his mother, Olympias, but scorned by his father, King Philip. The film needed to tie the emotional problems he had as a child to the ambition he had has as ruler and conqueror of the world. The idea is not to just document his entire life, but make thought provoking drama out of it.
Stone shows the intricacies of this dilemma by stretching them as examples through out Alexander’s life. The film begins by portraying King Philip as only a brutal dictator. As a child, Alexander watches his mother raped by him in a drunken scene. This moment carries with Alexander when he conquers new lands and acts graciously to those people. He wants to be a beloved ruler instead of a hated one like his father. The film goes back and forth between the present and the past to show disgusting scenes with his father that made him rebel and how his father still followed him as a ghost during his crusade by just his recollections and the fact that many of his own soldiers had first served under King Philip and still remind Alexander of how he would have carried out his rule.
When Alexander becomes conqueror, he begins to shed light on the resentment and hatred he has for his mother. One of his ambitions with taking over the world is to bring the whole world together. As a child he was taught to disrespect Eastern worlds, but since his mother was herself considered a barbarian, he has understanding for other worlds. Thus when Alexander when is pressured to marry to protect his reign with an heir, he marries a princess of a foreign land instead of one closer to home. He feels his mother would understand but she refutes that she was ever a barbarian and actually believes that his new bride really is the barbarian and thus illegitimate for the throne. Being critical of this, Alexander interprets her as critical of his dream to bring the world together. The film does a flashback to his father telling him to be distrustful of women because they are more dangerous. That sentiment now rings true for him.
Towards the end of the film, when Alexander is at the end of the road with his army and realizing that his soldiers will not be able to carry on much longer, it seems that Alexander is beginning to be reduced to a child again. He has little understanding why his soldiers are beginning to turn against him. He shows outbursts of emotion at his soldiers and begins to lean on the shoulders of his closest allies to understand how he could be hated. When he is nearly killed during battle, he realizes the end is finally at hand. Everyone is told that they are finally going home and once again Alexander is beloved by his soldiers. On the way out, Alexander sees his father standing on a hill looking proudly at him. Alexander weeps in happiness at the sight.
The final identity of Alexander is his most telling. He was named King at only the age of twenty and also conquered the known world before the age of thirty-three. His mother Olympias told of his greatness since he was young by being the son of Zeus and destined to rise to the heights of Achilles. Stone’s idea of Alexander is that he essentially was a man-child his entire life. He never was able to grow up or be truly loved by his parents so he clung to searching for their love while rebelling against their hatred. His worst moments forced him to repeat their worst mistakes. Any film about Alexander could have focused on his adulthood as King and conqueror. Stone made the right decision by focusing on his childhood along with his adulthood to dig at the depths of Alexander as a man-child.
Oliver Stone is not trying to demote Alexander with this portrait. He is trying to deepen his identity and humanize him. The search for love is an intrinsic need we all have. The tragedy of Alexander is that he never was able to find it before he was asked to do everything. The only consistent love Alexander had in his life was his friend Hephaistion. Though the film does not show the physical evidence of a homosexual relationship, they were committed to each other as lovers would be. The circumstance of Alexander as ruler and husband for many wives kept them from truly being together. When Princess Roxane fins them both together intimately, she is outraged and questions Alexander to who he truly loves. Alexander replies, “There are many ways in which to love.”
I believe that piece of dialogue also sums up a great deal of the film. Historical figures, especially those larger than life, are not meant to be artistically interpreted. Their mythical stories are meant to be regurgitated. But artists before have taken mythical figures and humanized them in a way to make people re-think their general idea of greatness. When Shaw wrote Caesar and Cleopatra, he made Julius Caesar not to be a man, but “part brute, part woman, and part god.” The play destroyed myth and gave new ideas for Caesar’s greatness. Now during a time when it is controversial to assert masculine bravery with homosexuality, Oliver Stone gives us an Alexander the Great who fell in love with the person that stood by him his entire life. The way it is done does not suggest historical inaccuracy, but allows for artistic touch to interpret a relationship in a new way to give it a modern meaning.
The film encompasses Alexander in the greatest light. It gives a thorough rendering of his personality that ties his most crucial relationships and personality complexes to the political ambitions he had as a ruler. This is not the first time that Stone had tried such an ambitious perspective. With JFK, Stone offered a dissection of the assassination of John F. Kennedy from every idea of conspiracy. The film grasped the unease the country went through when so many questions were left unanswered. In Nixon, Stone made his largest epic. The controversial President was seen through the lens of a tragedy and his entire political and personal life was the focus. The film was over three hours and a critical success, but left many audiences feeling cold. The film was more in debt to political ideas than the usual biography film. The fine touch of detail of the film was so precise it sometimes felt only a scholar could appreciate it.
The story of Alexander to his political interest is a better mesh in making a biographical work. Alexander believed that the world could become whole and that Macedonia was not the center of the world. He believed there were traditions in the Eastern worlds that were far older than theirs and had to be respected. The film platform is that Alexander wanted to bring the world together for the better. It is a good sentiment, but the film is also rooted in old theory because it also insinuates the world should be ruled by one ruler. No one will take this idea serious now, but the main point is that a story about Alexander meshes better with his political ideals because they were not rooted in dense political theory. They were rooted in the beliefs of man and personal greatness. All are attributes to his personal life. It makes for more organic drama. The film Nixon has a hard time accruing all the political decisions he made to the man he was. A film only about his political history couldn’t have been done. It is a very complicated history. But Oliver Stone perfectly meshes the personality of Alexander to meet the political.
This isn’t to say Oliver Stone has finally made his masterwork. Nixon is too well made to be dethroned just yet, but Stone has made an unexpected great film in Alexander. I think he wanted to be kind to the theatrical audience with his first cut and paid dearly because the subject required a much bigger canvas. Alexander Revisited clears up all the mistakes of the previous cuts and should be seen. The problem is that Stone is asking for the public to re-think a film that is being premiered again on DVD. No other film has had such a re-release and succeeded to be acknowledged to its proper dues. Many online sites are already boasting that this version is by far the best version. I don’t know if this film will get across to the public. The subject and the length may just be too much.