He made it worse. Somehow, Oliver Stone looked at the incoherent mess that was his theatrical cut of Alexander and he found a way to make it even more incoherent. Not a single problem from the first cut is remotely addressed, and some of the big problems are made even worse. Stone was trying to fix a movie through editing that was completely broken when he filmed it, and he’s groping in the dark looking for a way to salvage the years he put into it and the hundred million dollars sunk into his mess of a vision. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for him, and then I realize he’s probably snorted more cocaine than I’d ever be able to buy in my life and I feel less bad for him.
The biggest changes Stone made were to the structure, and I’ll get to that in a bit. However, I want to start this second review of Alexander writing about how completely amorphous the central character of Alexander actually is. You see, Stone made the mistake that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story lampooned so brilliantly: he attempted to put the entire big life on a complex man on screen. The number of events and influences on Alexander the real man must have been great in number. From his mother to his father to the men he knew to the women he married to the kings he fought to the lands he conquered, Alexander was defined by more than any other man in history, or close enough. Alexander the film tries to capture all of that, and absolutely none of it feels explored with any kind of depth.
If I were to suddenly jump back in time to Stone’s final rewrite of his script and he asked me what I would recommend he do to it, I’d first and foremost recommend that he cut Olympias. Not cut her down, but cut her out completely. The reason for that I find at the end of the film. As the film is wrapping up, as Anthony Hopkins’ old Ptolemy is bringing his telling of the life of Alexander to an end, the movie begins to focus in on the part of Alexander’s life that is supposed to define this telling of him. It’s not his mother, or his father, or Darius, or the battles that defined him, it was his vision of some kind of new world that no one else could see. He describes details of it as Hephaestion dies in his bed in Babylon. Ptolemy talks explicitly of the vision of Alexander in his final words. In what way does Olympias contribute to the idea that Alexander could see a new world that no one else could see? She doesn’t help him see that, she’s actually a distraction to that. Her concern is consolidating power, first by securing Alexander’s place as heir to Philip and then through letters to her son encouraging him to ensure that his position as king is safe. She takes up a lot of screentime especially considering the fact that she doesn’t actually contribute to the movie’s central thesis of Alexander as a man. Cut her and save us from Angelina Jolie’s weird vamp take on the queen of Macedon.
So, Alexander is supposed to be about his vision. I inherently like movies about great men with visions that no one else can see. From Ridley Scott’s 1492 to Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, there’s something about the idea of men who see beyond the normal that appeals to me. I really with Alexander was more focused on this idea instead of splitting up the ideas around him in so many different directions.
So, the structure. Looking ahead slightly, I read a bit about Oliver Stone’s reasoning behind some of the choices he made in his Final Cut of the film. I haven’t seen it yet as of this writing, but what he says is that he felt there were two major things that he wanted to address. The first is that the story’s action is really front loaded, especially with the Battle of Gaugamela. The other is that he felt that Alexander’s past informed his present to the point that in the Final Cut, apparently, we see dual lines of stories as Alexander grows up to succeed Philip after his assassination and Alexander’s conquest of Asia. That being said, I can see that idea beginning to take hold in the Director’s Cut. Unfortunately, whether it works when implemented fully or not, as it appears here, it’s half-cocked and purely a distraction because of the simple fact that the events from Alexander’s youth have little to nothing to do with the events that they get placed between during Alexander’s conquest of Asia. They feel random, especially after we haven’t seen anything from his youth for more than an hour and suddenly we see the action go back a decade, come back to the conquest, go back 9 years, go back to the conquest, and then back 8 years to Philip’s assassination. There seems to be no real logic behind the jumps in time. The connections (like Alexander’s introduction to Cleitus right after he kills him, as is preserved from the theatrical cut) feel razor thin while the meat of the scenes don’t connect. What does Alexander’s killing of Cleitus have to do with the assassination of Philip? I’m open to answers, but it doesn’t feel like if there is one that it’s strong enough to support the structural shifts.
Aside from the structural changes to the narrative, there are other smaller changes here and there. The bull entrails don’t get read before the Battle of Gaugamela anymore. There’s more of Philip showing Alexander around the painted walls underground that tell of Ancient Greek myths. Hephaestion feels slightly less prominent. The build up to Alexander’s speech at the mutiny has been cut completely. However, none of these changes make much of a difference because, as I’ve said before, the movie was made wrong from the get go. It was written wrong, filmed wrong, and that didn’t leave much to be edited together right. Maybe if they had made it a comedy…
I have no positive feelings towards the experience of The Final Cut that is to come. Longer and with a greater commitment to connecting events that have no connection, I’m not terribly excited. I’m gonna watch it though, because this massive failure of a historical epic is just too fascinating to give up on.