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Alexander (2004): Oliver Stone + Colin Farrell

Alexander Colin FarrellAlexander movie with Colin Farrell: Don’t let this hard stare fool you. Possibly because of Oliver Stone’s haphazard, weak-kneed depiction of the Macedonian emperor – gay? questioning? heroic? psychotic? – Farrell looks utterly discomfited in the director’s fetishistic historical epic.
  • Alexander (2004) movie review: Creator of the first “Western” (i.e., European-rooted) empire in history and to this day an inspiration to bloodthirsty megalomaniacs the world over, 4th-century B.C.E. Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great is the subject of Oliver Stone’s bloated, fetishistic, and dramatically jumbled historical epic.
  • Alexander synopsis: The product of a dysfunctional royal family, the Macedonian prince Alexander grows into a restless young king (Colin Farrell) whose aim in life is to unify the peoples of the world – under his rule. When not in battle, he enjoys the company of his right-hand man (Jared Leto) and finds time to wed a Bactrian princess (Rosario Dawson).

Alexander (2004) review: Starring Colin Farrell as the maybe/maybe not gay Macedonian emperor, Oliver Stone’s grandiose yet timid Alexander the Great movie is an epic fail

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

The Oscar-winning director of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone is no stranger to controversy. His latest polemic comes courtesy of the filmmaker’s first historical epic, Alexander, a movie about the life of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E.), the youthful Macedonian ruler who conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks.

The arguments thrown about both for and against Alexander stem from the fact that this (reportedly) $155 million German-British-French-American-etc. production officially boasts a “gay” (bisexual?) protagonist who not only is the supreme commander of a mighty army but who also slaughters his enemies with the kind of superhuman fearlessness that would put to shame the heterosexual-est of movie heroes of past and present.

Now, was Alexander the Great truly gay or bisexual? And no matter the historical accuracy of such a portrayal, will audiences accept a homoerotically inclined hero?

Although these are pertinent questions, they rapidly fade into the background as one sits through Stone’s seemingly endless three-hour film.[1]

Alexander the Great movie Q&A

Since the “gay side” of Alexander the Great is only hinted at mostly via some embarrassing dialogue and several lovey-dovey looks the megalomaniac conqueror directs at his right-hand man Hephaestion (more further below), those watching Alexander will likely spend their time wondering about more significant matters:

  • How much of what is depicted in the film is fact-based?
    A number of events and situations are condensed or fabricated – e.g., elements from the battles of Gaugamela, Issus, and the Granicus are blended together.
  • Isn’t Angelina Jolie a magnetic screen presence?
    So much so, she would be ideal casting in early 21st-century remakes of Gypsy Wildcat and Siren of Atlantis.
  • Why on earth did they cast Colin Farrell as the title character?
    That remains a head-scratching mystery. (Leonardo DiCaprio was to have played Alexander the Great in a Baz Luhrmann project.)

But for the most part viewers will likely ask themselves why a gargantuan $155 million was wasted on a misguided attempt at mixing epic filmmaking, sociopolitical commentary, and heavy-duty psychological drama that, as a consequence of its own meandering incertitude, ends up failing on virtually all counts.

Lovable befuddled despot

In Alexander, Oliver Stone – also credited for the screenplay alongside fellow Americans Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis – aims to show us a complex, multifaceted Alexander the Great. One that we must love and admire unconditionally.

Stone’s Alexander may be a despot, but he is a despot with good intentions. Like another well-intentioned big-screen autocrat, the King of Qin seen in Zhang Yimou’s Hero, this Alexander is guided by a lofty goal: To unify all the peoples of the 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, a somewhat surprising stance from a filmmaker known for his (supposedly) “liberal” views.

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

Just in case we find these (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 sub-epic Alexander the Great,[2] 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 apparently enjoys sex with men as well as with women.

Instead of complex, however, Farrell’s Alexander comes across as hopelessly confused. In fact, one is likely to reach the final credits knowing more about Oliver Stone’s Alexandrian fetish than about the inner workings of the film’s protagonist.

Alexander Angelina Jolie Val Kilmer Colin FarrellAlexander with Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, and Colin Farrell: Every family past and present had/has its problems, but Alexander the Great’s Macedonian clan was undoubtedly more warped than most.

Alexander plot: Family dysfunction breeds power lust

Alexander begins with an homage to Citizen Kane, as we see a ring fall from the hand of the dying Macedonian emperor. Having said that, rest assured that Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great movie is no arthouse effort: The similarities to Orson Welles’ examination of another deeply flawed historical figure end there.

Fast forward several decades to Alexandria, where Ptolemy (played by a mechanical Anthony Hopkins), the self-proclaimed king of Egypt and one of Alexander’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, boorish Philip II, played in overreaching fashion by a one-eyed Val Kilmer. (Next to Kilmer, Fredric March’s overripe performance as King Philip in the 1956 film feels 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 has no concept of the meaning of the word “bath.” When not participating in orgies or battling one fellow Hellenic tribe or another, the king abuses his Russian-accented wife, Olympias (actually, from nearby Epirus).

Campily played by a stunning Angelina Jolie channeling Maria Montez in Cobra Woman, Olympias is no decorative queen. A cunning, manipulative witch with a taste for big, long snakes, and a curious yen for her little boy, Alexander (Jessie Kamm), this ancient Lady Macbeth knows that her son’s allegiance is all-important to her political – and even to her physical – survival. Thus, she is always reminding 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 – as a child, the boy had witnessed Dad trying to rape Mom – it’s 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.

Matters worsen when the king impregnates and marries another woman, Eurydice (Marie Meyer). Both Alexander’s position as heir to the throne and his life are now in danger.

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 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 Mom’s bosom as possible, while proving to himself and to Dad in Hades that he is indeed worthy.

Iraq War analogies + central miscasting

According to Alexander’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-Hellenic) ways.

Obviously, writer-director Oliver Stone and his co-screenwriters are making an analogy to current U.S. policy in that part of the world, as the script is peppered with reminders that history is (to some extent) repeating itself. These include Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) warning, “The East has a way of swallowing men and their dreams,” and Alexander grandly declaring that those barbarians are ready for “change.”

Of course, one key difference between Alexander the Great and today’s chickenhawks is that the Macedonian emperor took active part 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, as Stone and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto offer both panoramic views of the conflict and bloody close-ups of the slaughter.

Although technically well done – and positively disturbing, especially when taking into account how much remains the same in regard to human savagery – the Gaugamela sequence suffers from a crucial miscalculation.

That is the casting of Irish actor 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 formidable enemy, King Darius III’s Achaemenid (Persian) Empire.

Worse yet, Farrell looks conspicuously out of place when his Alexander the Great, wavy blond hairdo and all, is juxtaposed with the Darius of Israeli actor Raz Degan, a good example of a modern-day performer who truly looks the part of an ancient king. (For the record, Darius III is supposed to have been quite a bit older than Degan at the time of the Gaugamela clash.)

Alexander the Great Colin FarrellAlexander the Great movie: Colin Farrell has his Lawrence of Arabia moment. And yet, Oliver Stone’s 2004 epic feels more like a mega-budget version of Dick Powell’s 1956 bomb The Conqueror, starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan and Susan Hayward as his Tartar love interest.

Hollow victories

As Oliver Stone’s epic progresses, Alexander the Great continues to achieve victories (mostly 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 impressively 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 unpleasant to watch, the Indian battle sequence retained this viewer’s attention, which is more than can be said of the inane arguments, soulful speeches, drunken whining, and longing looks found elsewhere in the film.

Was Alexander the Great gay, bisexual, or questioning?

The aforementioned longing looks are exchanged between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion (played by Jared Leto, as Hephaistion) – considered by some historians to have been Alexander’s one true romantic love. (Others dispute the theory; there is no foolproof evidence either way.)

In these moments, Oliver Stone is wink-winking at us that these long-haired dudes actually do it when they’re not on camera. But if that is so, wouldn’t something a little more intimate than a chaste hug have been called for while the cameras were rolling?

Well, yes, except that Alexander is, allow me to remind you, a $155 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 – hardly the type of filmmaking approach one would normally attribute to the guy who directed JFK and Natural Born Killers.

And really, would a kiss between Alexander and Hephaestion disgust bigoted audiences any more than those pathetic “how I love ya, baby” glances?

Alexander Jared Leto HephaestionAlexander with Jared Leto: As the Macedonian nobleman Hephaestion, Leto looks as befuddled as the insipid title character in Oliver Stone’s epic mess.

Misplaced Jared Leto & Rosario Dawson

Not helping matters is Stone and his fellow screenwriters’ failure to create flesh-and-blood characters out of Hephaestion and the Bactrian princess Roxane, Alexander the Great’s other big-screen love interest. (This particular issue may have been the result of some indiscriminate trimming. See further below.)

Less an individual than a hint to the emperor’s sexual orientation, Alexander’s one-dimensional BFF is played by Jared Leto as a smoldering cross between a Malibu surfer and a Valley girl. Lost in time and space, Leto’s performance is so distracting that the narrative might have benefited had Hephaestion been scratched out altogether.

Despite her ludicrous accent – “Doo you luff heem?” an angry Roxane asks Alexander about you-know-who – Rosario Dawson plays her non-role with more gusto than it deserves. Besides, she cuts a striking figure whether clothed or naked, and needless to say, Oliver Stone has no problem showing us the imperial couple’s laughably kinky wedding night.

Even so, it’s unclear why Roxane, of all “Eastern” princesses, is chosen to be the Macedonian’s breeding partner. Or why we should care. (And what on earth is a part-black actress doing in the role of a Central Asian woman?)

Having so much ground to cover in the course of three hours, the filmmakers probably believed they should not spend too much time on these supporting characters. But by failing to present Hephaestion and Roxane as real people, they ended up diluting the psychological essence of their protagonist while robbing their Alexander the Great movie of some much needed emotional depth.

$155 million missed opportunity

With Alexander, Oliver Stone has missed a $155 million opportunity to create a sweeping psychological-historical epic that would resonate in the 21st century.

By remaining undecided on whether Alexander should be unabashed hagiography or demythologizing biopic, Stone will likely leave audiences as bewildered as his blond, bland protagonist – a shadowy nonentity who is neither superhero nor human.

Oddly, several Greek attorneys have threatened to sue the filmmakers and distributor Warner Bros. for the movie’s veiled portrayal of Alexander the Great as a gay or bisexual ruler. If this story is true, these lawyers might want to spend their time doing something more productive than going after a bloated B movie that doesn’t know where it stands or what it stands for.

Alexander (2004) cast & crew

Director.: Oliver Stone.

Screenplay: Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis.

Colin Farrell … Alexander the Great
Angelina Jolie … Queen Olympias
Val Kilmer … King Philip II
Jared Leto … Hephaistion
Rosario Dawson … Princess Roxane
Christopher Plummer … Aristotle
Anthony Hopkins … Old Ptolemy
Jonathan Rhys Meyers … Cassander
Raz Degan … King Darius III
Toby Kebbell … Pausanius
Connor Paolo … Young Alexander
Jessie Kamm … Child Alexander
Patrick Carroll … Young Hephaistion
Tim Pigott-Smith … Omen Reader
Ian Beattie … Antigonus
Brian Blessed … Wrestling Trainer
Gary Stretch … Cleitus
Francisco Bosch … Bagoas
Peter Williamson … Young Nearchus
Morgan Christopher Ferris … Young Cassander
Rob Earley … Young Ptolemy (as Robert Earley)
Aleczander Gordon … Young Perdiccas
John Kavanagh … Parmenion
Nick Dunning … Attalus
Rory McCann … Crateros
Marie Meyer … Eurydice
Elliot Cowan … Ptolemy
Joseph Morgan … Philotas
Denis Conway … Nearchus
Neil Jackson … Perdiccas
Garrett Lombard … Leonnatus
Chris Aberdein … Polyperchon
Fiona O’Shaughnessy … Nurse
Michael Dixon … Campfire Soldier
Erol Sander … Persian Prince
Stéphane Ferrara … Bactrian Commander
Tadhg Murphy … Dying Soldier
Annelise Hesme … Stateira
Laird Macintosh … Greek Officer
Rab Affleck … Attalus’ Henchman
Féodor Atkine … Roxane’s Father
Bin Bunluerit … Indian King
Jaran Ngamdee … Indian Prince

According to online sources, uncredited cast members include:
Oliver Stone … Macedonian Soldier at Zeus Statue

Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto.

Film Editing: Tom Nordberg, Yann Hervé, and Alex Márquez.

Music: Vangelis.

Producers: Thomas Schühly, Jon Kilik, Iain Smith, and Moritz Borman.

Production Design: Jan Roelfs.

Costume Design: Jenny Beavan.

Production Companies: Intermedia Films | Pacifica Film | Egmond Film & Television | France 3 Cinéma | IMF Internationale Medien und Film GmbH & Co. 3. Produktions KG | Pathé Renn Productions | WR Universal Group.

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Running Time: 175 min.

Countries: Germany | United States | France | Italy | The Netherlands | United Kingdom.

Alexander (2004): Oliver Stone + Colin Farrell” notes

Pick your version

[1] To date, Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great biopic has no less than four different versions, the last three released only on DVD/Blu-ray: The original theatrical cut (175 min.), “Alexander: The Director’s Cut” (2005, 167 min.; 17 minutes were excised, nine minutes were added), “Alexander Revisited: The Final Unrated Cut” (2007, 214 min.), and “Alexander: The Ultimate Cut” (2014, 206 min.).

Don’t be too surprised if a “Final Unrated Ultimate Director’s Cut” comes out sometime in the 2020s.

In an introduction to “Alexander Revisited: The Final Unrated Cut,” Stone explains that “this film represents my complete and last version, as it will contain all the essential footage we shot,” adding that “for me, this is the complete Alexander, the clearest interpretation I can offer.”

As per reports, “The Final Unrated Cut” features more footage of Alexander’s interactions with King Philip, Olympias, Hephaestion, Roxane, Ptolemy, and, as further indication of the Macedonian ruler’s sexual orientation, the Persian eunuch Bagoas* (played by the Spanish dancer Francisco Bosch and briefly seen in the theatrical cut).

* Bagoas is the title character/narrator in Mary Renault’s 1972 historical novel The Persian Boy.

Alexander the Great 1956

[2] In addition to Richard Burton as the title character and two-time Oscar winner Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1931–32; The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946) as King Philip II, screenwriter-director-producer Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great also stars Danielle Darrieux as Olympias and Claire Bloom as the hero’s love interest, the part-Persian, part-Greek Rhodian beauty Barsine (not seen in Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie).

Historically, it’s unclear whether Barsine was indeed a mistress of the Macedonian emperor and whether Alexander fathered her out-of-wedlock son, Herakles.

Played, respectively, by Ricardo Valle and Teresa del Río, Hephaestion and Roxane (as Roxana) are minor characters in the 1956 film, which also features Barry Jones as Aristotle, Harry Andrews as King Darius III, Stanley Baker as Attalus, Niall MacGinnis as Parmenion, Peter Cushing as Memnon, Michael Hordern as Demosthenes, Peter Wyngarde as Pausanias, and Helmut Dantine as Nectenabus.

Box office dud

Reportedly a DVD hit – which would help to explain the various versions mentioned further up – Oliver Stone’s Alexander was a box office bomb in the domestic market, grossing a paltry $34.3 million.

The 2004 release fared far better internationally, raking in a solid $133 million. Worldwide total: $167.3 million – a not inconsiderable sum, though hardly enough for this mega-budget epic to recover its production costs and additional marketing and distribution expenses. (In order to break even, Alexander needed to gross at least around $450 million globally.)

As found at, its top international markets were Spain ($14.9 million), Italy ($10.8 million), Germany ($10.1 million), Japan ($11 million), South Korea ($9.1 million), and France ($9.1 million).

Historical advisor & cavalryman Robin Lane Fox

University of Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox, author of the 1973 book Alexander the Great, was credited as the film’s historical advisor.

Fox’s “non-negotiable reward” for his role in the production was “a place on horseback in the front ten of every major cavalry charge by Alexander’s cavalrymen to be filmed by Oliver on location. … To his credit, [Stone] agreed, and we lived up to the deal, as filmgoers can now see.”

Alexander movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.

Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, and Colin Farrell Alexander movie images: Warner Bros.

Alexander (2004): Oliver Stone + Colin Farrell” last updated in September 2023.

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