Alexander: The Ultimate Cut (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Gary Crowdus
Produced by Thomas Schühly, Jon Kilik, Iain Smith and Moritz Borman; directed by Oliver Stone; screenplay by Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis;cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Tom Nordberg, Yann Herve and Alex Marquez; production design by Jan Roelfs; music by Vangelis. A two-disc Blu-ray edition, including The Ultimate Cut (2014), 206 min. and the Theatrical Cut (2004), 175 min. A Warner Home Video release, www.wbshop.com.
Oliver Stone suffered the worst critical drubbing of his career in 2004 with the theatrical release of Alexander, his three-hour epic on the celebrated exploits of the Macedonian warrior king who led a Greek army on a Panhellenic invasion of the East in the fourth century B.C. and who, by the age of twenty-five, had conquered and controlled ninety percent of the then-known world. While Stone is a filmmaker who has never been afraid of controversy—e.g., Salvador, JFK, Nixon, Natural Born Killers—he had never experienced such an overwhelming critical repudiation. Alexander was widely excoriated for being ponderously paced, overly talkative, dramatically unsatisfying, and biographically unenlightening. Many critics also singled out pet peeves, from the miscasting of Colin Farrell and over-the-top melodrama to the risible nature of some performers’ accents and the frank but gauche portrayal of the eponymous protagonist’s bisexuality. Based on more than two hundred reviews, Alexander garnered a dismal sixteen percent rating on the Rotten Tomatoes Website.1
Cineaste took Stone’s historical epic more seriously in a generally appreciative but not uncritical assessment in “Dramatic Issues that Historians Don’t Address: An Interview with Oliver Stone,” in Cineaste, Vol. XXX, No. 2 (Spring 2005), a detailed examination that we won’t reprise here, but which, considering the mainstream critical onslaught against the film, we felt necessary to describe on the cover as “Oliver Stone defends Alexander.” This twelve-page feature is available in a limited edition “Rare Bird” back issue on our Website or via digital download from JSTOR or ProQuest.
Following the film’s financially disappointing theatrical run, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment released a two-disc special edition DVD of the film’s 175-minute theatrical version, followed shortly thereafter by a “Director’s Cut” edition, for which Stone used some new footage while eliminating or tightening other scenes, to yield a 167-minute version that was billed as “Newly inspired, faster paced, more action-packed!” It’s unlikely that either of those DVD releases changed any minds within the critical community, but they certainly won many new viewers for the film, since each edition sold extraordinarily well, totaling some 3.5 million sales in the United States alone, according to Videobusiness.com.
Stone soon went on to direct or prepare other feature films—including World Trade Center (2006) and W. (2008)—but, as he readily acknowledged, the failure of Alexander continued to haunt him and he just couldn’t get the film out of his system. His artistic and emotional investment in a lifelong dream project that had become what the French call a film maudit, or cursed film, compelled him to rescreen Alexander numerous times, to re-examine the editing and structure, and to learn from watching it with audiences. After having let his thoughts on the film “marinate” over a period of time, as he explained, in 2007 Warner Bros. released Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, his third version of the film on DVD and Blu-ray, in which Stone said he finally achieved the narrative he wanted.
Alexander Revisited incorporated nearly forty minutes of then previously unseen footage to make for an expanded 214-minute version, with intermission, that offered a significant restructuring of the film, largely abandoning the previous versions’ chronological approach, thereby more successfully realizing Stone’s intentions with the film as a character-driven drama. As we wrote in our review (Cineaste, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, Spring 2007), the new scenes in this longer and rearranged narrative “better illuminate the film’s personality clashes, political debates, court intrigue, romantic relationships, conspiracy theories, and the protagonist’s character flaws, improve the film’s narrative pacing and ideational development, and give us a clearer sense of the filmmaker’s particular take on this controversial historical figure.” As Stone explained at the time, this was “the complete Alexander, the clearest interpretation I can offer.”
Apparently, however, it wasn’t.
Following the release of Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, Stone continued an impressive production schedule of directing new feature films (including a sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps  and Savages ), several feature-length documentaries (South of the Border  and Castro in Winter ), as well as the monumental, five-years-in-the-making, ten-part documentary series for Showtime, The Untold History of the United States [2012–2013]), but, given his understandable obsession with Alexander, that cursed film still gnawed at his artistic conscience.
It appears that the Blu-ray edition of Alexander: The Ultimate Cut, released in June 2014, which represents the fourth version of the film, grew out of a confluence of commercial and artistic interests. Warner Bros. was eager to market a tenth-anniversary edition of the film, especially since Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut had been one of their best-selling catalog items, with nearly one million copies sold. For his part, Stone’s perceptions of the film had just a few years earlier been whetted and refined by the publication in 2010 of Responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander: Film, History, and Cultural Studies (see review in Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Fall 2010), a 370-page volume edited by Paul Cartledge and Fiona Rose Greenland. The book includes a dozen lengthy essays on various aspects of Alexander—e.g., “Oliver Stone’s Alexander and the Cinematic Epic Tradition,” “The Popular Reception of Alexander,” “Alexander and Ancient Greek Sexuality,” “Olympias and Oliver: Sex, Sexual Stereotyping, and Women in Oliver Stone’s Alexander,” and “Fortune Favors the Blond: Colin Farrell in Alexander”—written by cinema and classics scholars, historians, biographers, and archaeologists, concluding with an Afterword by Stone in which he responds to their authoritative criticisms, in some cases humbly accepting their critiques and at other times offering his own debating points. As has always been the case whenever Stone is attacked or criticized, he gives as good as he gets.
Having seriously considered these scholarly criticisms, and having with Alexander Revisited thoroughly reconceived the film’s narrative structure—one that historically flashes back and forth and back again, often each time by decades, but that nevertheless created a more thematically coherent narrative—Stone was obviously delighted, thanks to Warner Bros., with the opportunity to make a fourth editorial pass on the film. As he explains his ongoing effort, “I’ve tried throughout this process to achieve what I believe is the appropriate balance between the inner and outer journeys undertaken by this extraordinary man. Free from earlier constraints, I’ve continued to pursue this great story, and I think I have at last achieved a film that tells a story as it has never been told.”
Alexander: The Ultimate Cut is a two-disc Blu-ray edition that includes both the original theatrical version and the new 207-minute “ultimate” cut that has entirely eliminated some scenes, trimmed others, but also added new footage. This, Stone guarantees, is his last, best effort to wrestle this project to the ground. “No more versions, I assure you.”
I was disappointed to see some scenes eliminated—such as Alexander’s battlefield-model illustration for his officers of the daring military tactic he devised to overcome the dangerously disproportionate size of Darius’s army at Gaugamela (a battlefield victory that sealed Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire) in order to strike directly at the Persian King and his bodyguard. Portions of Alexander’s inspirational rhetoric to his troops before that battle, as well as his passionate arguments against a later army mutiny, have also been shortened. One of the strengths of Alexander has always been its vivid illustration of the virtually impregnable infantry formations (the Macedonian phalanx of troops armed with eighteen-foot spears) and imaginative military tactics used by Alexander. The film’s two major battle scenes, at Gaugamela and in India, occasionally use CGI and other special effects to graphically portray the butchery of close quarters, hand-to-hand combat of that era better, in my estimation, than any other film on ancient warfare.
The new footage extends the scene of Alexander’s death (he reportedly lingered for about two weeks) and the political infighting of the Greek officers surrounding his deathbed, and includes more explicitly sexual representations of Alexander’s infatuation with the Persian eunuch Bagoas. Otherwise, the changes are fairly minor, and largely involve a streamlining of the structure of Alexander Revisited. This author, a self-confessed sucker for historical films, would argue that Alexander: The Ultimate Cut can now be considered the definitive version of the film. It certainly makes it easier now to recommend Alexander to those who haven’t seen it, since I had previously always been asked, “Which version should I see?”2
In addition to the superior visual and audio quality of the new Blu-ray disc (with a good home-theater setup, the film will look and sound as good, if not better, than any theatrical screening), the new supplementary features on The Ultimate Cut Blu-ray are outstanding. They include a half-hour documentary, The Real Alexander and the World He Made, that features an impressive array of scholars, historians, and biographers; Fight Against Time: Oliver Stone’s Alexander, a seventy-six minute documentary by Sean Stone, the director’s son, that is a revealing “making of” documentary about the nitty-gritty trials and tribulations involved in making a big-budget spectacle on numerous international locations on an abbreviated shooting schedule, and which eventually segues into a biographical film on the director; and a fascinating and informative commentary track by Stone that, far from the rambling anecdotes that often characterize such commentaries, reveals Stone’s impressive command of the primary and secondary historical sources (he comes off as an authority in his own right on Alexander scholarship). He also discusses the challenges in structuring the complex story, the dialogue style of Greek plays he tried to emulate in his script, the dramatist’s need to blend speculative dialogue and invented scenes with actual history, the necessary conflation or compression of historical events, his response to criticisms of his filmmaking style here as “operatic” or heavy-handed, and his psychological and political interpretation of Alexander’s actions and behavior.
At one point, Stone concedes that much of the audience and critical dissatisfaction with Alexander could be attributed to the fact that the film presented a too psychologically complex portrait of its protagonist, that the film didn’t offer a “typical Hollywood story” that neatly fit a genre (à la Gladiator) and that, rather than ending gratifyingly with a sense of triumph, it concludes on an ambiguous note with unanswered questions. But if the film ends by asking, “Who was Alexander the Great,” that, Stone argues, is “a grand question well worth asking.”
There are any number of problems or flaws with any version of Alexander, depending on the individual viewer, but I would argue that it’s also a film that has received an undeserved, often uncomprehending and jejune, critical disparagement, and that this Ultimate Cut is therefore well worth a re-evaluation or a first-time screening by those who have to date been dissuaded because of the film’s notorious critical reputation. After all, more than one film mauditdismissed or unappreciated on its initial release (e.g., Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate) has, with the passage of time, been significantly reappraised and eventually recognized for qualities not perceived on its original release. Given the evident improvement in Alexander on its tenth anniversary, as noted by a number of reviewers besides myself, I wouldn’t bet against a long-term improved reputation for Stone’s “cursed” film.
- A related issue that warrants its own investigation is the unwillingness or inability of most film critics to tackle some of the thornier historiographical aspects of cinematic portrayals of history, a task challenging enough when dealing with more recent historical figures and events (e.g., the American Civil War, World War II, etc.) but one even more demanding when dealing with ancient history, where the historical record is largely fragmentary, ambiguous, or conflicting, and the socioeconomic and moral worldviews are alien to contemporary experience. This failure often manifests itself, once the mainstream critical attitude of dismissal has been established, in a sort of bandwagon effect where critics, in lieu of a serious engagement with a historical film’s ambitions, achievements, or failures, resort to competing with one another for the cleverest put-down phrases. Just as, decades ago, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, an ambitious but severely truncated (by studio boss Darryl Zanuck) historical film was snarkily savaged by many critics—“A monumental mouse,” “A dried piece of camel dung”—similar reviews of Alexander usually revealed far more about the limitations of the critics than the film—“A lavishly turgid toga fest,” “A lunk-headed train wreck that looks like a tag sale in a 323 B.C. supermarket in old Peking,” or “It’s all Greek to me.”
This sort of commentary may make for amusing reading, but it’s not responsible film criticism. As Jon Solomon, a professor of classics and cinema studies, states in Responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander, “As a classicist who has spent thirty years studying films set in antiquity, I am dissatisfied reading the essays of film critics who review these films without understanding the genre of ancient historical films (except as overly lengthy epics, shallow spectacles, and inaccurate biopics), and I am equally dissatisfied with classicists and classical historians who approach these films without respecting the differences between cinematic and historical narratives or the particular demands of filmmaking.”
- On the other hand, this sort of proliferation of various DVD versions of films, including original theatrical cuts, international theatrical cuts, director’s cuts, final cuts, and even work print versions—while gratifying to the filmmakers, who can prepare expanded versions whose running times would make them untenable for theatrical release, and lucrative for the studio distributors who can cash in on multiple versions—plays havoc with film scholarship. Any scholar or critic “revisiting” Alexander today, for example, would either have to qualify which edition of the film one is writing about or to confront the unenviable task of somehow encompassing all of them in one’s critique.
Gary Crowdus is the Editor-in-Chief of Cineaste.
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