Oliver Stone is not a man to let things go. He struggled for years to make a film version of the story of Alexander the Great, which probably made it all the more crushing when Alexander was released in 2004 and became the season's pop cultural whipping boy. The film landed in theatres with a thud, having already been judged in the press and set up as some kind of colossal failure before moviegoers even got a chance to buy a ticket.
I saw the movie back then, and I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Sure, Alexander wasn't that great, but it also wasn't the kind of blunder that deserved the buckets of vitriol being heaped upon it. When the movie first came to DVD the following year, Stone made a new edition, trimming it from 175 to 167 minutes and dubbing it the "Director's Cut." It was promised to be "faster paced, more action packed"--the real words on the box, not mine--but much of the resulting chatter centered around how Stone had toned down the homosexual relationship between Alexander (Colin Farrell) and his friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto). This was one of the major elements cultural pundits attacked the movie for, so toning that plot point down sounded to me like artistic cowardice, like Stone was capitulating to his critics in the worst way. Formerly notorious for sticking to his guns at all costs, an attitude that maybe had led to the lynch mob that circled around Alexander to begin with, it appeared to me that the director had lost his nerve and given in. So, I skipped the "director's cut" and left Alexander on the shelf. I presumed I would give it no second chance. (Read Joshua Zyber's excellent review of the original DVD here for a more detailed comparison of the first two renditions of Alexander.)
Well, that's changed, because now Oliver Stone has created a third edit: Alexander Revisited - The Final Cut. Now running 220 minutes, this is the director's new, definitive version of his troubled historical epic. What was to be gained by going back to the editing bay yet again? What is it about Alexander that is so consuming that Oliver Stone can't get it out of his teeth? I was curious enough this time to find out.
The movie here is broken into two parts, each part on a separate DVD. On the first disc, there is an optional introduction from Stone where he explains that he is modeling his new version on the grand epics of his youth. So, he has put an intermission in at a logical point in the story (about two hours in), where events are taking a major shift. He actually wants his audience to pause and reflect on what has happened, to digest it and prepare themselves for the big finish. This intermission comes as Alexander is starting to stretch himself too thin, pushing on to find the edge of the world even after his resources are dwindling and his own men have tried to assassinate him. A well-timed flashback puts Alexander's split with his father, Philip (Val Kilmer), amongst these events, bringing the past and present together in such a way that was absent from the theatrical cut.
That's actually one of the biggest changes Stone has made, carrying over from something he started with the Director's Cut. While the timeline of Alexander's campaign to take over the known world runs in chronological order, it is now chopped up with the story of Alexander's youth, his growth into manhood, and the war for his allegiance waged between his father and mother (Olympias, played by Angelina Jolie). I found this aspect of the new cut very nicely done, creating a much smoother narrative--even if it doesn't entirely gel.
The strange thing about this ongoing experiment (if you want to call it that) is how Alexander can never come together quite right. I guess it's the biggest indicator of how out of control the project must have gotten for Stone that not all the necessary pieces are there for him to play with. Every time he fixes something, another part of the movie goes awry. In the Final Cut, by shuffling around the flashback sequences more, Alexander no longer comes off as a whiny child with a bad case of an Oedipal complex. Both Kilmer and Jolie get more screen time in this version, with their influence on their son being more fleshed out. This was an element that was severely lacking in the theatrical release, coming off as way too trite as an explanation for why a man would try to become ruler of the whole world. Now the parental powers are felt, but they don't seem to inform Alexander's decisions as heavily. Sure, he's still struggling to get out from under daddy's shadow and mommy's thumb, but Stone let's the apron strings stretch more.
Similarly, the bits about Alexander's crusade for harmony amongst the various peoples of the world were never very believable, smacking more of a tacked-on rendition of Stone's 1960s idealism than a legitimate character trait. While a couple of the king's monologues remain, they don't stand out nearly as much (barring maybe his last speech to Hephaistion back in Babylon). There is a downside to dialing the armchair Freudianism down, however: there now seems to be no drive behind Alexander's quest. The lengths he travels are pretty extreme, but we never understand why. There isn't even a passion for discovery or a relish of victories. The closest we get to understanding is his interest in the myths, with strong emphasis placed on his fascination with the story of Achilles and Patroclus. He not only wants the same glory as Achilles, but Alexander and Hephaistion also envision themselves in the same roles as those doomed lovers.
This started to nag at me when I fired up disc 2. Watching Alexander entering India and the suffering his troops endure in the unknown terrain, I started to ask what they were doing it all for. The intermission came as Ptolemy (Elliot Cowan) advised his king to turn back, and it's hard to understand why Alexander didn't listen. The first part of the Final Cut is all about how Alexander amasses his power. It begins with his conquering of the Persian army, and it emphasizes his strength as a leader. The second half shows that all going to pieces. The rising and falling arc of his empire is obvious, but the psychology is hopelessly muddy.
Part of the problem is Colin Farrell. He's definitely a weak link. I like that Stone has tried to divest the historical genre of some of its gravitas, and instead of having everyone walk with perfect posture and speak pristinely, he has made the soldiers into real men, a mishmash of personalities and body types. You have the overly posh Jonathan Rhys Meyers and the more gutter-punk Jared Leto as part of Alexander's inner circle, and it makes the experience come off as more authentic. Likewise, the warriors don't remain clean and well-groomed as the campaign pushes further and further on. In the snow, they are frostbitten and sunburned; in the jungle, they are dirty and gross, needing haircuts and baths. Stone has stripped his epic of any false austerity and tried to bring it back down to earth.
Unfortunately, Farrell plays it too normal, remaining too much of a blank slate and not really imbuing his portrayal of Alexander with anything deeper than what is there on the surface. The role seems like too much for him to chew. When he does go for the big moments, the histrionics are strained. His Alexander is often a big baby, not a brave leader expanding the boundaries of the world.
While it's a big problem that the central character of Alexander Revisited ends up being a liability, the overall story has benefited from Stone's putting more footage back into the movie. Specifically, the romantic liaisons in Alexander's life. While there still isn't much physical expression of their affection, the relationship between the king and Hephaistion is not shied away from. Their liaison is quite clear. Expanded scenes of Hephaistion counseling Alexander also show their connection is more than physical.
Further along those lines, there is much more in the Final Cut about Alexander's relationship with the eunuch Bagoas, including an unambiguous erotic scene near the end of part I. This brings an added tension to the love triangle that comes to a head during Bagoas' dance scene in India, as Hephaistion watches and Alexander's first wife, Roxanne (Rosario Dawson), finally loses her cool. While we may question why the king is compelled to keep moving across the map, the personal drama behind closed doors is now fully drawn.
The other remaining element--and the one Stone always had right--is the action. The battle sequences have always been intense, and the clash with the Persian army and the Indian forces have both been extended and made all the more harrowing. The fight in the Indian forest is particularly brutal, with Alexander's foot soldiers and cavalry going up against archers and men riding elephants. It's a gory massacre with extreme consequences, and Stone's choice to render the world in overly saturated, impressionistic colors after Alexander is wounded creates breathtaking results, reminding one of the work of Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle. While other aspects of the conqueror's decline lack impact due to the watery build-up, the forcefulness of these scenes will shake you to your very core.
All in all, I have mixed feelings about Alexander Revisited - The Final Cut. While Oliver Stone's third pass at his troubled blockbuster gets closer to achieving solid results than his initial go-around, I think the fact that it's still far from perfect suggests that there are fundamental problems that will never be fixed. If you're going to see any version of the movie, I personally think this is the way to go, as it has the most reward as a complete package, but don't raise your hopes too high. The final half-hour in particular is a bit of a chore to get through. Anthony Hopkins provides narration for the movie, playing Ptolemy as an older man, and when Alexander is departing from India, he says that's where the story would have stopped had the teller wanted his tale to take on a mythic hue. Stone might have done well to listen to his character's advice. The rest of the film is one long, awkward denouement. Then again, that also pretty much sums up the entire Alexander experience. For Stone's sake, I hope he sticks to his claim that this is his last time going back into the picture. It's a decent movie and one he should stand behind, flaws and all, but if he hasn't learned that enough is enough, he may recreate the folly of his subject, burying himself under his own ambition.