Friday, October 29, 2010

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great was produced, written and directed by Robert Rossen and released on March 28, 1956.  Rossen is best-known for writing and directing The Hustler.  The film stars 29 year-old Richard Burton as Alexander and Frederic March as his father, Philip.
The film begins in 356 BCE with Philip attacking Greece and Alexander's birth and takes us through his entire brief life until 323 BCE.   The film feels long at 136 minutes but Rossen's original cut was over three hours (including an intermission). Frankly, I think it would be difficult to sit through if it were any longer.
The camera barely moves during the film with the exception of the battle sequences. The stationary camera makes an already long, slow story feel even longer and slower.  Rossen went to great pains to make the film as historically accurate as he could.  All the major events of Alexander's life are in the film but sometimes they're presented in such a way as to make it seem like one is reading a history text rather than watching an epic film.
What I mean is that, for me, though the film seems authentic enough in design and detail, it lacks the realism or authenticity of actual emotion.  None of the actors seem to be giving their characters much range, with the possible exception of March as Philip who really anchors and saves the first hour of the film.  The performances are stilted and dry.  That, combined with the stationary camera, makes the film really stagey and dull.
Matters aren't helped by Richard Burton, who, at the age of 29, looks about 40. When he first appears on screen it is to play a teenaged Alexander which is totally unbelievable.  Alexander was only 32 when he died so Burton feels out of place the entire time.  He has an incredible voice that is brilliant for the stage but on camera, he lacks variation and emotion.  Also, his hair looks ridiculous.
The costumes and art direction are both solid, for the most part.  However, there's nothing stellar that we haven't seen before.  The gorgeous 2.55:1 aspect ratio means you can fill the frame with a lot of information and there are some beautiful shots in the film.  Stronger production design would have made the film look really impressive.
Alexander is portrayed as more of a tyrant than he usually is.  Some films tend to glorify him for uniting the world rather than focusing on the massive death tolls. This one is somewhere in the middle.  Again, like a history text book, it seems to be trying to remain unbiased and in the middle.  The result is that the audience doesn't really care what happens to Alexander or most of the other characters.
I would say that this is not a bad film, but it's also not a great film.  It's good.  I wonder if it had been allowed to exist at its original length if there would have been more breathing room for character development.  That might have helped it. Unfortunately, I think the rest of the footage has been lost so we may never know.

The DVD is also nothing to write home about.  It has only the film and the trailer.  I would love to have seen some behind the scenes content or at least interviews with film historians who could have discussed the film and its creator.  If you're looking for a strong historical account of Alexander's life and events then this is a good film to check out.  If you're looking for sheer entertainment, I'd look elsewhere.

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