If any historical figure needs epic treatment, it's Alexander the Great. Still widely studied by military historians for his incredibly successful tactics and strategies, the complex conqueror united much of Europe with Asia and spread Greek culture throughout the region—all before the age of 30. A ruthless warrior, he could be incredibly brutal to his enemies or could display great compassion towards foes that he respected, as evidenced by his treatment of his vanquished Indian opponent. And if a region regarded him as a "god" like Egypt, he would advance their civilization—witness the great library at Alexandria.
That's why I was hoping that Oliver Stone is able to come close to capturing his character and exploits, especially since Robert Rossen's 1956 Alexander the Great flops so pitifully. It's no wonder it died a quick death and passed into obscurity so soon after its release. From a decade that birthed great epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, Rossen's forgettable film produces only colossal tedium. It can't even approach the deeply flawed Quo Vadis (that at least included hambone humor from Peter Ustinov) nor the dreadful Cleopatra (that integrated extravagant sets with thousands of extras). Unbelievably, Alexander's bloody battles that historically engaged some 100,000 troops are reduced to feebly amateurish theatrical skirmishes involving a couple hundred extras at the most. And the only blood let appears to have been painted on by set designers long before the tin foil covered cardboard sabers are ever drawn.
Lack of budget accounts for the lackluster "action" scenes, but the film mostly suffers from sticking far too close to stage conceits instead of taking advantage of cinematic strengths. As Alexander, Richard Burton plays Richard Burton once again (indistinguishable from his roles other period epics like The Robe and Cleopatra)—bellowing out his lines and woodenly hitting his marks as the camera maintains a respectful distance. Never do we get any intimacy to Alexander's character, as Burton, screenwriter/director Rossen, and cinematographers Robert Krasker and Theodore Pahle all collaborate to ensure that Alexander keeps his distance from the audience. We're not even treated to subtle ambiguities about Alexander's sexuality in this exceptionally dry treatment despite many history's well documented references to Alexander's homoerotic relationship with Hephaestion. Here Alexander's male lover isn't even introduced, only serving as an unnamed minor background character (if you can identify Ricardo Valle, you've located Hephaestion).
About all there is to recommend the paint by numbers film is that it can serve as a thin outline to Alexander's life story for captive 6th graders, but don't expect them to maintain interest since it has all the excitement of a 1950's educational filmstrip presentation. Rossen does hit some well known historical aspects of Alexander the Great, including his birth (with allusions to prophetic visions about his future), early partnership with his father King Philip (Frederic March), tutorials with philosopher/scientist Aristotle (Barry Jones), family fallout between philandering Philip and Alexander's mother, Philip's assassination and Alexander's rise to power, Alexander's decade long campaign to conquer most of the known world from Macedonia to India, and his premature death.
No one ever lived a more eventful 33 years than Alexander the Great, yet Rossen manages to boil down his essence to a generic drama that fails to generate any passion. Little wonder that he has remained an essentially murky historical figure that most Americans are only vaguely familiar with—a few paragraphs in a long forgotten World History textbook. More mythical heroes like Achilles, Jason, and Odysseus have fared far better cinematically over the years. With Stone's upcoming treatment, expect a revival of interest in the "original" Richard Burton vehicle, as evidenced by its October DVD release. That's why I watched Rossen's epic "drama" and that is why I also recently viewed a BBC production that literally retraces Alexander's footsteps, a recent History Channel documentary about the real Alexander, and National Geographic's examination of Alexander's life.
All the documentaries are far more fascinating than the 1956 film. Ironically, it turns out that educational documentaries consisting largely of talking academic heads, Grecian urns and statuary, travelogues, and historical re-enactments are far more compelling than Rossen's lifeless project. Alexander the Great would work better as a stage play for high school theatrical productions than it does as a theatrical film, which shows its commercial hand in the opening credits by heavily promoting the actress who portrays Olympia (Danielle Darrieux) as a "French star." Studio executives blundered if they thought sophisticated French audiences would embrace this generic epic—they would have fared better appealing to Middle Eastern and Indian audiences, who have preserved Alexander's exploits through oral tradition. But then again, the songs and stories that have been passed down are far more entertaining than Rossen's tedious treatment.