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Swords, Sandals and Eyeliner 

by Cole Smithey

You know from an early scene of tiresome exposition by Anthony Hopkins that Oliver Stone's three-hour sword-and-sandal epic is doomed when a giant scar across the right side of Hopkins' forehead mysteriously moves to the left side of his head between shots. Then comes Colin Farrell's Irish accent that wrestles against Angelina Jolie's faux Russian intonation like a cat and a monkey fighting in a burlap bag. For all of its attention to detail in two reasonably good battle scenes, Stone's movie fails to tell the complex story of one of the most enigmatic conquerors in history. But more than that, Stone doesn't present characters whom the audience can believe in, even for one moment, as representative of their historic roles.

There's an undue controversy surrounding Oliver Stone's pre-Christian depiction of Alexander as bisexual. Hephaistion (Jared Leto) is Alexander's (Farrell) effeminate battle commander whose existence seems to revolve around him being mistreated. We hear Hephaistion and Alexander profess their love for one another but never see the price of their relationship because they never test one another. Apart from both characters wearing matching eyeliner throughout the movie, and sharing hushed conversations and hugs, there isn't enough subtext to hang a horseshoe on.

Alexander opens with a clumsy homage to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane wherein Alexander's dying hand drops a ring onto the floor in 323 B.C. The clunky backward gazing device is sunk deeper by a segue to 40 years later when Alexander's now-aged military general Ptolemy (Hopkins) dictates his version of Alexander's life to a Greek scholar who busily fills endless scrolls in a palatial library.

Although Alexander the Great won more than 70 battles during the 12 years of his reign, Stone dramatizes just two engagements that are meant to show how Alexander and his armies conquered millions of square miles of foreign territory. The first conflict at Gaugamela is a 12-minute war sequence that attempts to exhibit the cleverness of Alexander's military strategy while giving the viewer a taste of the brutality involved in the warfare. The film's payoff final battle involves Alexander's horse-led army attacking India's elephant-bound troops in the thick of an India forest. Oliver Stone shifts to an odd red-tinged film treatment that gives a hallucinatory quality and embellishes the battle's cruel violence in a way that makes it seem more disturbing in its abstraction.

A heavy-handed musical score by Vangelis (Chariots of Fire) hobbles Alexander with bombastic surges of sonic information that call undesired attention to themselves, further distancing the audience from the movie. There isn't a single scene in the film that is improved by Vangelis' music.

The old commander Ptolemy pedantically says of Alexander, "No tyrant ever gave back so much." It's a troubling notion for a leftist filmmaker like to Oliver Stone to endorse. Alexander comes at a time when America is poised as fear-ridden empire that is overreaching its boundaries while neglecting domestic issues. To regard Alexander as a man who achieved amazing military success is not necessarily to view him as a hero. The truth is never what it's cracked up to be. It's just too bad that American cinema hasn't improved on the sword-and-sandal epic in the past 40 years.

Publication date: 12/02/04

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