MGM // 1956 // 136 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // December 3rd, 2004
Power was his destiny.
Director Robert Rossen made some truly great films during his career (All the King's Men and The Hustler immediately come to mind), but Alexander the Great doesn't fall into that category. There's nothing epic about this epic; this film has no sweep, and no momentum.
The blame for this film's failure rests on the shoulders of writer-director Rossen, a man more at home with character-driven films. His script is unfocused, his direction uneasy; this film even lacks the visual splendor normally associated with epics and costume dramas. Alexander the Great comes up short in its depiction of its subject's campaigns; history tells us he conquered much of Europe and Asia, but in this film his journeys seem to cover a stretch of land not much larger than Rhode Island. Rossen uses brief montages and snippets of narration to chart Alexander's march across the world, and that's cheating. The few battles the film does recreate are ineptly mounted; instead of untold numbers of soldiers clashing across vast landscapes, we get a few extras slapping at each with rubber swords, men constantly tripping in streams, and archers falling from chariots careening out of frame. The legend of Alexander's cutting of the Gordian Knot is clumsily handled, and the film's final scene, in which a dying Alexander transfers control of his empire, comes across as silly and melodramatic. There's no insight into Alexander's transition from beloved leader to drunken megalomaniac; one minute he has his subjects hanging on his every word, and then next thing you know he's declaring himself a god. (I know absolute power corrupts absolutely, but it would have been nice to see some of the details.) On top of that, the film offers no reason for Alexander's ambition to top his father's conquests. He's portrayed here as nothing more than a momma's boy who gets mad at daddy after daddy slights momma by taking up with a new woman. Come on, there had to be more to it than that.
Rossen did manage to assemble a great cast. Richard Burton (Cleopatra) is wonderful as Alexander, even though at the time he was a good fifteen years too old for the role (he also looks incredibly silly in a strawberry blonde wig); Burton brings an enormous amount of intelligence and gravity to the role. Philip of Macedon could have been portrayed as a stereotypical despot (Rossen's script certainly paints him as such), but Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives) goes to great lengths to transform Philip into something more; he does far more for the film than it does for him. Danielle Darrieux (La Ronde) does fine work as Olympias, Alexander's mother (Darrieux herself was only eight years older than Burton), as does Clair Bloom (Clash of the Titans) in her role as Barsine, one of Alexander's wives. The large supporting cast features Peter Cushing (Top Secret!), Michael Hordern (Barry Lyndon), and Peter Wyngarde (Flash Gordon), and all are in excellent form.
The technical aspects of this release also leave much to be desired. The transfer is riddled with flaws. There's an enormous amount of grain in nearly every shot, and the source print was obviously damaged, as nicks, specks, and scratches are apparent; a handful of scenes, especially in the second half of the film, show evidence of serious fading in the source elements. The soundtrack has been remixed into Dolby Surround, although for the most part the track is monophonic. Sound is thin and tinny, with dated fidelity, which is especially noticeable in Mario Nascimbene's rather grating score. Only two scenes in the film presented any surround activity, and there's no low-end activity whatsoever. The only extra is the film's theatrical trailer.
Alexander the Great is guilty of boring me to tears. I don't mean to sound like a high school English teacher, but if you're looking for the story of Alexander, pick up a book instead. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer