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Alexander the Great Movie: 'Gay' Hero (?) in Oliver Stone Epic Muddle

'Alexander' movie: Colin Farrell as 'gay (or bisexual) hero' in Oliver Stone epic historical mess

Two-time Academy Award winner Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July) is no stranger to controversy. His latest polemic comes courtesy of the director's first historical epic, Alexander, the story of the Macedonian ruler (356-323 BCE) who conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks. The arguments thrown about both for and against Stone's Alexander the Great movie are due to the fact that this (reportedly) $150 million production officially boasts a bisexual protagonist who not only is the supreme commander of a mighty army, but who also slaughters his enemies with the type of superhuman fearlessness that would put to shame the heterosexual-est of movie heroes of past and present.

Will audiences accept a homoerotically inclined hero? Was Alexander the Great really gay or bisexual? Although these are pertinent questions, they rapidly faded into the background as this viewer sat through Oliver Stone's seemingly never-ending three-hour film.

Since Alexander the Great's “gay side” is only hinted at mostly via some embarrassing dialogue and several lovey-dovey looks the megalomaniac conqueror directs at his right-hand man, while watching Stone's movie I spent my time wondering about other matters: I asked myself how many of the historical events depicted in Alexander are actually true (a number of them are condensed or fabricated); I marveled at how CGI has improved since Ridley Scott's 2000 release Gladiator; I admired Angelina Jolie's magnetic star presence; and I puzzled over the casting of a bleached-blond (bewigged?) Colin Farrell as the Macedonian hero.

But for the most part, I looked at my watch, for Alexander is no more than a bloated attempt at mixing epic filmmaking, sociopolitical commentary, and heavy-duty psychological drama. As a result of its own meandering incertitude, Alexander ends up failing on virtually all counts.

Lovable despot

Oliver Stone, who is credited alongside Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis for the Alexander screenplay, tries to show us a complex, multifaceted Alexander the Great – but one we must love and admire no matter what.

Stone's Alexander may be a despot, but he is a despot with good intentions. Like another well-intentioned film despot, the King of Qin of Zhang Yimou's Hero, this Alexander is guided by a lofty goal: to unify all the peoples of his world. Whether or not they want to be unified is irrelevant. The emperor knows best; Stone often sides with him or at least tries to justify his impulses – something that comes as a surprise from a director well known for his liberal views.

So, if Alexander seems much too obsessed with his next conquest, it is because he is the innocent victim of a highly dysfunctional family, and not because he is a ruthless megalomaniac. If he executes those who rebel against his rule, it is for the good of the empire, and not because he is a bloodthirsty tyrant.

Alexander the Great Movie Gay heroAlexander the Great movie: Gay, bisexual or merely confused hero played by Colin Farrell.

Complex vs. Confused

Just in case we find those (and other) deeds and character traits a tad too revolting, Stone tries to soften his hero. Unlike Richard Burton's macho Alexander in Robert Rossen's dreary 1956 movie Alexander the Great, Colin Farrell's Macedonian ruler has no qualms about displaying both his “masculine” and his “feminine” sides: he rules, he cries, he murders, he whines, he has his long blond hair carefully coiffed, and he may enjoy sex with men as well as with women.

Instead of complex, however, Farrell's Alexander comes across as merely confused. Ultimately, this viewer reached the final credits knowing more about Oliver Stone's Alexandrian fetish than about the inner workings of the film's protagonist.

Dysfunctional family to blame

Alexander begins with an homage to Citizen Kane, as we see a ring fall from the hand of the dying emperor. The similarities to Orson Welles' examination of another deeply flawed historical figure end there.

Fast forward several decades to Alexandria, Egypt, where Ptolemy (played by a mechanical Anthony Hopkins), the self-proclaimed king of Egypt and one of Alexander the Great's former generals, recounts the life story of his fallen leader. We then travel back in time to Macedon, a kingdom (located in today's northern Greece) ruled by the vulgar, bullish Philip, played in overreaching fashion by a one-eyed Val Kilmer. (Next to Kilmer's, Fredric March's overripe Philip in Rossen's 1956 film seems like a model of underplaying.)

An official descendant of the demigod Heracles (and by extension, of Zeus), King Philip drinks by the gallon, carouses with both males and females, and clearly has no concept of the meaning of the word “bath.” When not participating in orgies or battling one fellow Hellenic tribe or other, the king abuses his Russian-accented wife, Olympias, campily played by a stunning Angelina Jolie.

Alexander movie Colin Farrell Angelina Jolie Val Kilmer'Alexander' movie with Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer.

Angelina Jolie as Olympias: Cunning, incestuous mom

A cunning, manipulative witch with a taste for big, long snakes, and a yen for her little boy Alexander (Jessie Kamm), Olympias is no stupid queen. This ancient Lady Macbeth knows that her son's allegiance is all-important for her political – and even her physical – survival. Thus, she is always reminding the young Alexander that no one loves him as much as she does, adding that his real father is Zeus – not the battle-scarred, one-eyed slob in the palatial room next door.

With parents like these two, it is no wonder that Alexander grows up to be a confused teen (Connor Paolo). He loves his mother, but feels stifled by her; he loves his father, but is revolted by Philip's animalistic behavior. (As a child, he had witnessed Dad trying to rape Mom). Matters worsen when the king impregnates and marries another woman. Both Alexander's position as heir to the throne and his life are now threatened.

Obsessive-compulsive warrior

Fast forward to the Battle of Gaugamela (in today's northern Iraq), where Colin Farrell's adult Alexander the Great is discussing war strategies with his generals and counselors. His father murdered by a traitor (Olympias may have had a hand in Philip's assassination) and all potential rivals to the throne murdered at his command, Alexander has become the supreme ruler of the Macedonian empire, which now stretches all the way to the border with Persia.

Without a Macedonian Freud to help him sort through his Oedipus complex, his father-son complex, his demigod aspirations, and other assorted neuroses, Alexander has become an overachiever compelled to go on conquering whichever land he finds in his path. That will keep him as far from Mother's bosom as possible, while proving to himself and to Father in Hades that he is indeed worthy.

Alexander movie analogy to real-life Bush war

According to Alexander the Great's own reasoning, however, he keeps on expanding his empire because the people of West Asia and elsewhere need a civilizing hand to free them from their barbarian (i.e., non-Greek) ways. Obviously, the screenwriters and director Oliver Stone are making an analogy to current U.S. policy in that part of the world, and the script is peppered with reminders that history is (somewhat) repeating itself.

These include Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) warning, “The East has a way of swallowing men and their dreams,” and Alexander's dreamily affirmation that those barbarians are ready for “change.” Of course, one crucial difference between Alexander the Great and today's chickenhawks, however, is that the Macedonian king actively participated in the battles, chopping off arms and heads right along with his soldiers.

The Battle of Gaugamela – impaled bodies, severed limbs, decapitations – is shot with brutal realism. Stone and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto offer both panoramic views of the conflict and bloody close-ups of the slaughter. Although technically well done – and quite disturbing, when one realizes that much remains the same when it comes to human savagery – the battle sequence suffers from a crucial miscalculation.

Miscast Colin Farrell

That is the casting of Colin Farrell, who lacks the necessary charisma to make one believe that all those men would follow him for thousands of miles to risk life and limb in a fight against a much more powerful enemy, Darius' Persian Empire. Farrell looks particularly out of place when his Alexander the Great, wavy blond hairdo and all, is juxtaposed with the Darius of Israeli-born actor Raz Degan, a good example of a modern-day performer who actually looks the part of an ancient king.

As Oliver Stone's film progresses, Alexander the Great continues to achieve victories (usually off-screen) until he is forced to stop after a disastrous battle in India; Alexander the Movie, however, achieves precious little after Gaugamela.

True, Babylon looks incredibly real, and the second and final on-screen battle (in India) offers some gruesomely realistic moments of elephant trunks being cut off, plus the usual impaled human and equine bodies. Though hardly pleasant to watch, the Indian battle sequence retained this viewer's attention, which is more than can be said for the inane arguments, soulful speeches, drunken whining, and longing looks that take place elsewhere in the film.

Alexander the Great gay Colin FarrellAlexander the Great 'gay' or 'bisexual'? Colin Farrell plays Macedonian conqueror.

Alexander the Great: Gay or bisexual hero sadly ineffectual

The aforementioned longing looks are exchanged between Alexander the Great and his right-hand man Hephaistion (Jared Leto), considered by many historians to have been the Emperor's one true romantic love. (Others dispute the theory; there is no full-proof evidence either way.)

In those moments, Oliver Stone is wink-winking at us that those long-haired dudes actually do it when they are not on camera. But if that is so, wouldn't something a little more intimate than a chaste hug be called for while the cameras are rolling? Well, yes, except that Alexander is, let me remind you, a $150 million production, and Stone and his backers would rather not offend all those ticket buyers who also happen to be anti-gay bigots.

The problem with this reticence is that it comes across as wishy-washiness, which is hardly the type of filmmaking approach one would normally attribute to Oliver Stone, the guy who directed JFK and Natural Born Killers. And really, would a kiss between Alexander and Hephaistion disgust bigoted audiences any more than those pathetic “baby, I love you so” glances?

Jared Leto and Rosario Dawson wasted

Not helping matters is the screenwriters' failure to create flesh-and-blood characters out of Hephaistion and Roxane, Alexander the Great's other love interest. The former is less an individual than a hint to Alexander's sexual orientation. As Alexander's one-dimensional BFF, Jared Leto – lost in time and space, all mascara and no role – looks like a smoldering cross between a Malibu surfer and a Valley girl.

As for Alexander's potential heir-provider, the Bactrian princess Roxane, Rosario Dawson cuts a striking figure whether clothed or naked, but I could never figure out why she, of all Asian princesses, is chosen to be the emperor's breeding partner. (And what is a part-black actress doing in the role of a Central Asian woman?)

A bizarre Hispano-Finnish accent notwithstanding – “Do you luff heem?” an angry Roxane asks Alexander about you-know-who – Dawson plays the non-role with more gusto than it deserves. And needless to say, Stone has no problem whatsoever showing us Alexander and Roxane's laughably kinky wedding night.

Having so much ground to cover, Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis probably believed they should not spend too much time on those supporting characters. But by failing to turn Hephaistion and Roxane into real people the filmmakers ended up diluting the psychological essence of their protagonist while robbing their Alexander the Great movie of some much needed emotional depth.

Alexander the Great Colin Farrell Lawrence of ArabiaAlexander the Great movie: Colin Farrell has 'Lawrence of Arabia' moment.

'Alexander' movie: A $150 million missed opportunity

With Alexander, Oliver Stone has missed a $150 million opportunity to create a sweeping psychological-historical epic that would resonate in the 21st century. By not knowing whether his Alexander the Great movie should be hagiography or demythologizing biopic, Stone left this viewer as befuddled as his blond hero – a shadowy nonentity that is neither superhero nor human.

Curiously, several Greek attorneys have reportedly threatened to sue Stone and Warner Bros. for the film's (veiled) portrayal of Alexander the Great as a gay or bisexual ruler. If true, those lawyers might want to spend their time doing something more productive than going after a pretentious B movie that doesn't quite know where it stands or what it stands for.

Alexander (2004).
Dir.: Oliver Stone.
Scr.: Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis.
Cast: Colin Farrell. Angelina Jolie. Val Kilmer. Jared Leto. Anthony Hopkins. Rosario Dawson. Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Christopher Plummer. Gary Stretch. Neil Jackson. Raz Degan. Rory McCann. Ian Beattie. John Kavanagh. Connor Paolo. Jessie Kamm. Toby Kebbell. Brian Blessed. Tim Pigott-Smith.

 

Alexander movie cast info via the IMDb.

Images of Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, and Colin Farrell in Oliver Stone's Alexander: Warner Bros.


         
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