The epic has been a staple of world cinema from its inception. From the time movies went from one reel short films about people arm-wrestling to films that featured complex plots, studios have pulled in audiences with huge stories from times past. For fans of the cinematic epic, the fall movie season of 2003 was a time of plenty. Big screen extravaganzas such as Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, Ed Zwick’s The Last Samurai, and Peter Jackson’s finale to Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King all filled theatres with huge battle scenes, sweeping romance, and fantastic scope. The 2004 lineup provides only one of these grand motion pictures, Oliver Stone’s Alexander.
For those that don’t know, Alexander is the story of Alexander the Great, who was a Macedonian emperor who at age 25 took control of almost the entire known world. Knowing only victory throughout his conquests, Alexander’s armies were an unstoppable force that bowled over everyone from the Persians to the Egyptians. Throughout history, most rulers with such ambition were known as tyrants and dictators. Outside of France, Napoleon was considered the scourge of Europe. Julius Caesar was killed by his own people for fear of him taking too much power. For the most part, this does not seem to be the case with Alexander. Deified by the Egyptians, Alexander was respected for his strength and brilliance on the battlefield. Fighting alongside his men every step of the way, Alexander died a young man’s death, but his legend has always endured.
Helmed by a director whose style is spiraling more and more into chaos, the anticipation over the movie is tinged with uncertainty. In previous years Stone was a bankable director, taking in Oscar glory for his Vietnam opus Platoon and his biopic Born on the Fourth of July. Beginning with his conspiracy film JFK, Stone’s films have threatened to go further and further out of control. Once a Hollywood golden boy, he has fallen out of favor with many studios due to the manic style of his Natural Born Killers and Any Given Sunday. The question remains to whether Alexander will return the director to his former prominence or keep Stone on his path to irrelevance.
Starring Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie, Alexander could prove to be the film that marks the director’s comeback to the mainstream, perhaps mirroring the success of Ridley Scott’s 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator. On the other hand Stone’s vision will undoubtedly be an uncompromising look at the Macedonian ruler. Confirmed scenes of bisexuality in the film have undoubtedly made executives cringe as post-Janet Jackson audiences may not take kindly to images of the picture’s hero laying with other men. Historical accuracy may be the mantra of many filmmakers, but if it makes those in the theatre uncomfortable, box office receipts may not be favorable. At any rate, look for more than just a normal “sword and sandal” epic, like the Richard Burton pictures of old.
Originally a rival film was also being developed by director Baz Luhrman, which was to star Leonardo Dicaprio and Nicole Kidman. The rivalry was apparently short-lived as Stone’s film got the fast track and Luhrman’s film is now on the shelf. But did this have any sort of effect on the film’s outcome? It is not inconceivable that the film may have been rushed to the screen to beat out the competition. With audiences for films getting lower and lower, competition is at an all time high, as studios struggle to get the largest number people into the seats possible.
On the plus side, Alexander‘s cast is a high-quality mix of veteran actors and rising stars. Colin Farrell is fast becoming one of Hollywood’s most popular actors. He seems to be everywhere from small dramas like A Home at the End of the World to perhaps becoming the next Bond. Oscar winner Angelina Jolie is in need of a critical success as she’s put out a steady stream of terrible movies since winning the Best Supporting Academy Award for Girl, Interrupted. While she’s probably in no danger of losing most of her male fan base (there was something about her in that eye patch in Sky Captain), another Tomb Raider-esque bomb could spell trouble for the former Mrs. Billy Bob. Val Kilmer, who hasn’t been in a major blockbuster since Batman Forever, could use a big stepping stone to get back into the mainstream eye. Alexander could be that film if all goes well. Also there are these actors Anthony Hopkins and Christopher Plummer in the film. You may or may not have heard of them. They’re both pretty good. Seriously, there are worse ways to bring credibility to a historical epic than having the stars of Titus and Fall of the Roman Empire in your film.
On the negative side, early reports are not outstanding and the bisexual controversy has reared its head again in the last few weeks. Rumors of the studio urging Stone to take out the scenes ran rampant and then were quickly denied. Early test screenings seemed to feature mixed reactions from audiences and critics alike. These are not the reactions that executives were hoping for going into this all-important Holiday season. Perhaps Stone has bitten off a little more than he can chew this time. Audiences will have to wait till November 24th to find out.
With 2004 not having the biggest graduating class of great films, Alexander is an important litmus test to see if the epic film still has what it takes to make it big with the movie going public. Since the success of the aforementioned Gladiator studios have been quick to green light big screen battle films. However, audience tastes have always been fickle and the “sword and sandals” epic that had been revived by Russell Crowe, could be put to rest if Alexander fails in its attempt to conquer the box office. For those of us that love the Epic, here’s hoping Stone’s film has what it takes to live up to its namesake.