Cinematic Flashback: Alexander (2004) Review
Our world is gone now. Smashed by the wars. Now, I am the keeper of his body, embalmed here in the Egyptian ways. I followed him as Pharaoh and have now ruled 40 years. I am the victor. But what does it all mean when there is not one left to remember – the great cavalry charge at Gaugamela, or the mountains of the Hindu Kush when we crossed a 100,000-man army into India? He was a god, Camdos, Or as Close as anything I’ve ever seen as Jason’s Movie Blog’s “cinematic flashback” delves into Oliver Stone’s epic Alexander.
“Fortune Favors the Bold”
Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis
Starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, and Anthony Hopkins
Run Time: Theatrical Release (175 Minutes)
Director’s Cut (167 Minutes)
Final Cut (214 Minutes)
Ultimate Cut (206 Minutes)
Release Date: November 24th, 2004
Fortune favors the bold as the tale of the short, yet adventurous life of Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell), the young Macedonian conqueror, who claimed almost the entire known world of his era, encompassing Greek, Egyptian, and the Persian Empire. From his childhood as the son of King Phillip II of Macedonia (Val Kilmer) and his scheming mother, Queen Olympias (Angelina Jolie), Alexander ascended to the throne when his father was murdered, becoming King of Macedonia at the age of 20. Believing that the Persian ruler Darius III (Raz Degan) was the one behind the assassination of his father, Alexander gathers the bulk of his forces and begins to chase down the Persian king, conquering the known world, including Egypt, where he was proclaimed the son of a god. Gifted with a likeable charm, keen military prowess, and a steely determination, Alexander’s campaign after Darius III pushes him (and his forces) into unknown territory; experiencing new wonders and challenges along the way, for his generals begin to question their young king’s decisions and how far will they venture into the known world.
I’ve been meaning to write this “cinematic flashback” review for quite some time. Despite the low scoring that this movie by many, I’m one of the few who actual likes watching Alexander. Maybe it’s because I’m fan of Ancient History and hearing the epic tale of Alexander the Great being translated into a cinematic feature film sounds amazing, especially with an impressive cast like this movie had. Plus, producing such a project in the ways of a good “old school” Hollywood epic sounds quite intriguing to me. In truth, I actually didn’t get a chance to see this movie when it was originally released in theaters as I first watched it a year later when the Director’s Cut version was released on DVD. I initially liked it and kept on revisiting it every now and again, especially when the other two movie cuts were released. With the death of film composer Vangelis on May 19th, 2022, I decided to rewatch Alexander and give a “cinematic flashback” opinion on this 2004 film. So, without further ado…. let’s begin.
Alexander was directed by Oliver Stone, the man behind such films like Wall Street, Evita, and Any Given Sunday. With the film’s source material being based on the 1973 book titled “Alexander the Great” by University of Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox, Stone is tasked in shaping a theatrical motion picture in the ways of a pivotal blockbuster (scope and grandeur) of the early 2000s, yet also mindful of a large tale of a poignant historical figure of the Ancient World. The result is still a somewhat of a mixed bag, but I felt that Stone pulls it off; making Alexander feel like an old Hollywood epic that is reminiscent of Cleopatra or The Ten Commandants or even Ben-Hur, with large-scale sets, impressive battle sequences, and vast cast that is comprised of principal actors and side supporting ones. The sprawling story of Alexander is told in a mixture of two formats, with Stone spending a large portion of the movie showcasing Alexander’s conquest into the Persian lands and beyond (into India), while another large portion is presented in the past and display’s Alexander’s youth and his relationship with his mother and father. It can be a bit confusing at times as the scenes keep on going back and forth throughout the film, but it’s something that kind of like a necessary to the narrative and helps define who the character of Alexander is. While not perfect, the narrative of Alexander is one that is character driven by depicting the rise and fall of Alexander the Great’s empire and showcasing the radical challenges he faces amongst his most trusted advisors, his lovers, his parental figures, and with his own grips on destiny. It definitely makes for some compelling drama and mixing that with historical references and nuances helps translates the film into something indeed grand. Stone also does a good job in staging the film’s action scenes, with two particular battle sequences presenting a very dynamic movement of the battlefield from different points of view and how to scale these battles were.
The presentation and production quality for Alexander is masterful through and through. That feeling of a large scale film production of a classic Hollywood epic is definitely felt in the film, with the feature visually showcasing a vast and expansive view of the Ancient World that’s full of vibrant color and brilliant majesty. Everything from the wide array of costumes (military outfits, regular clothing, and formal attire) to the production design workings, and to the set decorations layout, the high production value of Alexander is steeped in a stunning visual feast for the eyes. Lastly, as for the entire purpose of myself revisiting Alexander for this “cinematic flashback” review, the score for the film is incredibly beautiful. The musical composition that Greek composer Vangelis produced for Alexander is one that is sweeping and epic, which is filled with grand gesture of emotions and choirs’ suites. Tracks like “Young Alexander”, “Titans”, and “Across the Mountains” are some of the best songs of the feature; encompassing the epic grandeur of what Stone is conveying on-screen. Even if you’re not a fan of the film, there is no denying that the soundtrack score is solid throughout. All in all, while he may be more famous for his work on Chariots of Fire or Blade Runner, Vangelis’s score for Alexander is symphonically beautiful to listen to and a movie soundtrack to cherish for all those cinephiles out there. Rest in peace, Vangelis…. you’ll be missed greatly.
Unfortunately, Alexander is plagued by several numerous problems that of which many found the film to be a bit underwhelming and a box office failure during its theatrical run. As a whole, the movie itself is too long…..no matter the cut, with many of the added scenes in the subsequent release cuts being most unnecessary dialogue scenes and sequences, with a few dragging the feature down when presented. This, of course, most notably during the second act, with a character dialogue moment that just off on a tangent of sorts and overtake their welcome. This also creates a pacing issue throughout the entire film, with the movie feeling too slow paced, especially during the middle portion, as well as being a bloated project. In contrast, the film’s narrative seems both too long and too short at the same time, overextending certain events a bit too much, while also missing out on a few key parts in Alexander’s journey (his conquest of Egypt is mentioned, but skipped over). Thus, Alexander is bloated and fragmented feature that struggles to find a proper balance amongst its story, runtime, and characters, winding up to be somewhere stuck in the middle of all three.
The cast in Alexander is one that I really liked…. beginning with actor Collin Farrell being casted in the protagonist role of Alexander the Great. Many did criticize Farrell in the role, but I actually liked him and definitely brought his own style and charisma to the proceedings. He has the leading man screen presence and does shine in many of the film’s poignant moments….be it long-winded speeches or more dynamic action ones. Perhaps the only thing I did not like was seeing Farrell play Alexander at the age of 19-20 years old, with the Irish actor looking “too old” in those particular scenes. Everything else, I was perfectly fine with Farrell as Alexander.
Who actually stands out a lot in the movie are the performances made by Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie, who play Alexander’s parents. Kilmer is great in the role of Philip II, a ruler who shares no love for Alexander’s mother and displays the right amount of manly bravado and arrogant drunkenness to make the character his own and memorable. Likewise, Jolie is seductive and cunning as Olympias, chewing through her dialogue lines with great easy and glee in every scene she is in. Even the smaller supporting roles like Jared Leto as Alexander’s lover / companion Hephaestion, Rosario Dawson as Alexander’s wife Roxana, Anthony Hopkins as the older version of Alexander’s general Ptolemy, and Christopher Plummer as the famous Aristotle were delightful treats to be seeing the movie and make-up some great moments in the film. Plus, the movie is littered with a few other recognizable faces of acting talents involved (some before they were a bit famous), so be sure to check them out.
In addition, I always found it a bit interesting (and perplexing) that Alexander received not one, not two, but four different cuts that added, removed, and rearrange particular scenes around throughout the movie. I’ve seeing three out of the four cuts of the film, with the original theatrical cut the only one I did not see, for I own copies of the Director’s Cut, the Final Cut, and the Ultimate Cut. So, which one is the best? To me, it’s hard to make that decision and distinction. Yet, if I have to make a decision one which one is the one I particular like it would be the Ultimate Cut. Of course, it’s a bit more bloated in its runtime, but it adds more layered interest to the feature (as a whole) for better character-built moments. Plus, both the Final Cut and Ultimate Cut alter the opening portion of the film, with the Battle of Gaugamela happening first and then the flashback scene of Alexander’s youth. It had a bit more impact and immediately thrust the viewer into the feature, which I liked.
In the end, Oliver Stone’s Alexander was one of mixture of success and failure. It told a great and sweeping epic tale of Alexander the Great within a grand spectacle of Old Hollywood flair that is reminiscent of the days of Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. The narrative was way too long and fragmented in various points, which creates too much excess, missing plot holes, and a far too great of adventure to be compromised of a theatrical motion picture. This, couple with a few other points of criticism (and the far too many different cuts of the feature), painted the movie in an unfavorable light. Yet, looking beyond that, the film’s presentation is amazing, the score by Vangelis is universally astounding, the cast is solid, and one of the last great Hollywood epics in mainstream cinema. In short, Alexander (the movie) is ambitious project that’s both good and bad; echoing back to who Alexander was and the faults that rested with him as well as closing out this review with last lines of the feature “I’ve lived…. I’ve lived long life, Camdos, but the glory and the memory of men will always belong to the ones who follow their great visions. The greatest of these is the one they now call “Megas Alexandros” …. the greatest Alexander of them all.”
Cinematic Flashback Score: 3.6 Out of 5
FUN FACT: Alexander almost never made it to theaters in Greece. A group of Greek lawyers tried to ban this movie on the grounds that the writer and director (Oliver Stone) was denigrating the figure of Alexander the Great by making references to his bisexuality. The movie ultimately got a theatrical release in Greece, where it premiered at number one at the Greek box office charts.