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Alexander Revisited: Assessing the Director's Cut

Written by Kevin Pearson.

Photo from the article 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 labourer to learn how to read. The cinema, on the other hand, was able to appeal to both the illiterate and the literate, and bring the arts even to someone who lived in the countryside. At the time stage plays still operated mainly in larger cities and were considered a pass time for the only the elites to enjoy. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the information age has given almost everyone the ability to make the arts a part of their daily lives.

The current situation in cinema is that Art Cinema is being shown in fewer theatres and in fewer cities. The great equalizer to this however, has been the DVD market, which means that now any film released on DVD is available to everyone. This new format is becoming an important level on which to release films, and one way to do so has been to release newly re-edited editions of previously released films. One filmmaker, Oliver Stone, has already made a career of doing this and has re-edited a good percentage of the films he has done; he returns again to do so with a new edition of his critically reviled Alexander (2004).

The difference this time is that Stone has done extensive rethinking of the film in question. Before he has merely added footage to an already intact and structured film. Because Alexander was a financial and critical failure, this new version was a legitimate effort by Stone to improve the film. He has restructured and added over forty minutes, meaning the film now stands at a crisp three hours and forty minutes. Stone has said that this cut is the version he imagined in his original screenplay. The differences are significant, and the feeling is that the director has reconstructed an old film into an entirely new one.

When Alexander was released in 2004, it represented 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 one of his primary goal, saying that 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 starring as the famous conqueror. When the project next 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 called veterans of his earlier works like Anthony Hopkins and Val Kilmer to join the new cast.

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, then with his lengthy conquests in foreign lands, and finally with 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, suggesting it 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, and Stone consciously tried to preserve elements of that in the film.

Stone also had a greater idea for Alexander. He knew he couldn’t make another filmed version of Alexander the Great to just outdo the one Robert Rossen made in 1956; the epic formula needed a new approach. One of the things that Stone focused on was the homosexual relationships of Alexander; another was the role of liberator that Alexander assumed with his conquests. Historians took exception to both ideas being truly important to Alexander’s life, and the film was so dense, and tried to cover so much, that many people were confused about what ideas Stone really had in mind.

This was not the first time Oliver Stone made a film that was concerned with painting a confusing or conflicting portrait of a subject. The Doors (1991) hailed the myth of Jim Morrison but showed the absolute worst of him as he descended to an early death. Any Given Sunday (1999) was a look into the corruption of professional footbal,l but looked with reverence at the legacy of the sport. Neither of these films tried to focus on one aspect over another other. Stone detailed the portraits to create more complexity, making the point that a serious look at either subject had to be confusing, and have little clarity. The difference in Alexander was not that there was confusion, but that it seemed to reveal little of what ideas Stone had in mind. For all their confusion, The Doors and Any Given Sunday had clearer ideas and better focus than this.

When Alexander was released it was critically panned. Many critics said that the film was equivalent to the terrible epic Troy (2004): though it was generally acknowledged that Stone was trying to make an Art Film, they still had little trouble 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 version.

When word got out that he had decided to come out with this extended cut, which would not only add over forty minutes of footage, but also would try to successfully re-structure the film, the news was good. It seemed Stone was on a journey to prove that a thought-provoking epic could exist, and not be weighed down by a story that was either too large or had too many ideas. The first task was to rearrange the narrative to better show Alexander’s personality; this meant aligning the main story together into a better structure. In the film Alexander is shown as a softly spoken, shy child who is overprotected and controlled by his mother, Olympias, but scorned by his father, King Philip. The narrative needed to tie these emotional problems he had as a child to the ambition he had later has as ruler and conqueror of the world, since the idea is not to just document a life, but make thought-provoking drama out of it.

Stone shows the intricacies of this dilemma by stretching insightful and detailed moments throughout Alexander’s life. The film begins by portraying King Philip as only a brutal dictator; as a child, Alexander watches him drunkenly rape his mother. This moment stays with Alexander when he conquers new lands, and he acts graciously to those people, wanting 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. The fact that many of his own soldiers had first served under King Philip alone continues to remind Alexander of how he would have carried out this rule.

When Alexander becomes a conqueror, he begins to shed light on the resentment and hatred he has for his mother. One of his ambitions for 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 is pressured to marry to protect his reign by producing 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 his new bride illegitimate for the throne, and thus - in his mind - critical of his plan for worldwide unity. At this point the film flashes back to his father telling him to always be distrustful of women; 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 is as if he is being reduced to a child again. He has little understanding of why his soldiers are turning against him, he displays outbursts of emotion, and begins to lean on the shoulders of his closest allies to try 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. At this moment Alexander sees his father standing on a hill looking proudly at him; Alexander weeps in happiness at the sight.

Alexander was named King at the age of only twenty and conquered the known world before the age of thirty-three. His mother Olympias told of his greatness since he was young, because he was the son of Zeus and therefore destined to rise to the heights of Achilles. Stone’s conception of Alexander is that he was essentially a man-child his entire life - never able to grow up, never truly loved by his parents, 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 this man-child.

The film is not trying to demote Alexander with this portrait - it is trying to deepen his identity and humanize him. The search for love is an intrinsic need we all have, and the tragedy of Alexander is that he wasn’t able to truly find it. The only consistent love Alexander had in his life was his friend Hephaistion, and, though the film does not show the physical evidence of a homosexual relationship, they are clearly 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 finds them together intimately, she is outraged and questions Alexander as 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 that has made people re-think their ideas of a figure’s greatness. When Shaw wrote Caesar and Cleopatra, he made Julius Caesar not a man, but “part brute, part woman, and part god.” The play destroyed myth, yet gave us new ideas as to Caesar’s greatness. Now, during a time when it is controversial to combine masculine bravery with homosexuality, Stone gives us an Alexander the Great who fell in love with the person that stood by him his entire life. The way this story is handled does not suggest historical inaccuracy, but allows for an artistic touch that interprets a relationship in a new way to give it a modern meaning.

The film also manages to give a thorough rendering of Alexander’s life and 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 Stone has tried such an ambitious perspective: with JFK (1991), Stone offered a dissection of the assassination of John F. Kennedy from every angle of conspiracy. The film grasped the unease that the country went through when so many questions were being left unanswered. In Nixon (1995), however, Stone created his largest epic. The controversial President was seen through the lens of tragedy, and his entire political and personal life was the focus. The film was over three hours long, and - although a critical success - left many audiences feeling cold. The film was more engaged with political ideas than the usual biography film; the fine touches of individual detail in the film was so precise it sometimes felt only a scholar could truly appreciate it.

The story of Alexander’s political interests here is better handled for the making of 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’s central concept is that Alexander wanted to bring the world together for the better. It is a nice sentiment, but the film is also rooted in old theory because it also insinuates the world should be ruled by one leader. No one will take this idea seriously now, but the main point is that this story of Alexander meshes better with his political beliefs precisely because they were not rooted in dense political theory - they were rooted in a belief in man and in personal greatness. The personal and the political are thus linked here in a way that makes for more organic drama. Nixon has a hard time accruing all the political decisions that made him the man he was. Here Stone manages perfectly to mesh the personality of Alexander to meet the political.

This isn’t to say Stone has finally made his masterwork - Nixon, despite its perceivable failings as a biopic, is too well made to be dethroned just yet - but he has made an unexpectedly great film in Alexander. I think he underestimated 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 deserves to be seen. The problem is that Stone is asking the public to re-think a film being premiered again on DVD. Seldom has a film had such a re-release and succeeded in being properly acknowledged. Although 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. Regardless of this, however, this re-release is not only a major improvement, but has actually become a major achievement.

This article was published on March 25, 2007.

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