18 January 2012

Film Review: Alexander the Great

This 1956 epic has some promise but ultimately fails as both a historical saga and an entertaining epic. Some top-notch actors head the cast, but the production itself is uneven. The sets look cheap at times but other times sumptious and solidly real. The costumes are mostly attractive and fairly period-appropriate, though the men's mini-skirts and short-shorts are at times distracting and odd, especially on the battlefield. On the plus side, the scenery is lovely, with Spain as a shooting location standing in nicely for both Greece and Asia. The editing is perplexing, at best. And sadly, the battle scenes, which should be the highlight of any epic based around a military leader, seem to be poorly planned and executed.
Fredric March comports himself well as Philip of Macedonia, in that he is virtually unrecognizable behind his beard and appropriately brutish, as would befit a barbaric tribal warlord of 4th century BC. Yes, he's a trifle overblown and hammy, but that's the only logical way to play Philip. French actress Danielle Darrieux is lovely and distantly regal as Olympia, Alexander's mother, but (like Angelina Jolie in a 2004 film about Alexander) she is still far too young to be believable.

Unfortunately, Richard Burton wears an unlikely and unflattering blond wig throughout the whole thing, and Burton himself seems far too old for the eager and impatient teenaged Alexander of the first part of the movie. He fares better as the story moves along, but is strangely subdued when he should be seething with charisma portraying a man who conquered the entire known world by the age of 33. It's stranger still when one considers that this was Richard Burton, a man who didn't lack for charisma in any sense. It must have been a directorial decision, but it was misguided, as it makes the entire film flat.

Claire Bloom glows as Barsine, half-Persian/half-Greek who sees that the Western Greek is the new order of the world, as the corrupt Eastern Persian order will pass away before such vigorous young energy and philosophy. Bloom, of course, has the ability to elevate any scene in any film in which she is present, and so she does here, but her presence in the film (token attractive babe AND voice of wisdom and morality) is odd. It was as if the writers and director tried to pack too much into a sadly underwritten role.
The character of Darius, the emperor of Persia, is particularly disappointing as a counterpoint to Alexander, as he is portrayed with all the royal majesty of a bored bank manager.

Final judgment: Alexander the Great is worth seeing if you have some time to kill, but it falls far short of classic status, all the more sad because of all the wasted potential.

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