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Alexander the Great

by Glenn Erickson Apr 02, 2016


Tired of stupid sword ‘n’ sandal costume pictures? Robert Rossen‘s all-star bio-epic of the charter founder of the Masons is a superior analysis of political ambition and the ruthless application of power. Yeah, he’s wearing a blond wig, but Richard Burton captures the force of Alexander without camping up Asia Minor.

Alexander the Great
Twilight Time
Limited Edition
1956 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 136 min. / Ship Date March 15, 2016 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Richard Burton, Fredric March, Claire Bloom, Danielle Darrieux, Barry Jones, Harry Andrews, Stanley Baker, Niall MacGinnis, Peter Cushing.
Cinematography Robert Krasker
Art Direction Andrej Andrejew
Film Editor Ralph Kemplen
Original Music Mario Nascimbene
Produced by Gordon Griffith, Robert Rossen
Written and Directed by Robert Rossen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Critical opinions aren’t supposed to flip-flop with every screening of a film, but I have to admit that my appreciation of Robert Rossen’s 1956 epic Alexander the Great has gone way up with Twilight Time’s new disc. It isn’t just the sharper image, that allows me to read the many faces in Rosson’s CinemaScope wide shots. After decades of lamebrained exploitation movies, gladiator nonsense pretending to greatness and softcore cable TV sex fantasies, the intelligent script and careful performances in this picture knocked me out. Three centuries before Christ, even a king must live in a world without anything we’d call luxuries today. Having lots of servants, decent food (maybe) and the ability to take a bath once and a while were about all one could ask for. The Sean Connery sequence in the comic fantasy Time Bandits states this problem beautifully. Connery’s noble, lonely King Agamemnon is stuck out in an arid desert with no entertainment options, and we wish there was a sequel where the time-traveling kid returns to him.

The political turmoil of Alexander the Great doesn’t necessarily reflect the director’s personal experience, but Rossen endured his share of power politics. Until the freeze on Reds made his career untenable, he put solid and responsible liberal values into the anti-lynching story They Won’t Forget and had solid hits with Out of the Fog, The Sea Wolf, Edge of Darkness, A Walk in the Sun and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Rossen graduated to direction with the noir Johnny O’Clock and continued to make fierce liberal statements on film, especially in the very popular John Garfield picture Body and Soul. Finally, his caustic political exposé All the King’s Men, which he wrote and directed, was nominated for seven Oscars and won three, including Best Picture.

The roof fell in on Rossen when he was called before HUAC, didn’t cooperate, and was summarily blacklisted. Rossen was so active in the Hollywood unions that it’s surprising that he hadn’t been called before. LIke Edward Dmytryk and Elia Kazan, he recanted and named names to recover his livelihood. He had directed four pictures before being blacklisted, but of the six he signed afterwards, only one, The Hustler was a commercial hit.

Alexander the Great makes a powerful statement about ambition and power in a treacherous world, which Robert Rossen definitely knew well. The literate nature of his script ran counter to the norm for the epics of the day, almost all of which emphasized highly sentimental religious themes: Quo Vadis, The Robe. Seen in its proper context, the show has much to say about the nature of great men that carve empires for themselves in the face of political opposition.

I no longer care that Rossen’s epic isn’t particularly well remembered. Its action scenes are certainly big, but they aren’t what we come to see. Rossen puts in as much historical detail as is possible — it’s not like we have volumes of eyewitness accounts of Alexander’s life — and some of the details are unpleasant. The script doesn’t fill in all the unknowns, which leaves us with an ending that some may find a letdown.

I also reject what every critic finds an unforgiveable sin, putting Richard Burton in an appropriate blond wig to match the images recorded on a million Greek coins. Some reviewers can’t see beyond Burton’s golden locks. Rossen’s incisively intelligent, literate critique of empire-building self-proclaimed conquerors still blows away Oliver Stone’s grab bag of historical insights and fashionable male-model posing.

Rossen’s story is basically a tale of tribal aggression when civilization was young. The aging, wound-hobbled Philip of Macedonia (Fredric March) is getting nowhere with his various wars against the Persians and his neighbor Greek states, but when he grants the regency of Parra to his son Alexander (Richard Burton), the eager young man goes into action. Coached from a young age by his mother Olympias (Danielle Darrieux) to believe himself a God, Alexander fulfills his destiny by uniting Greece under his war banner. He attacks the impossibly larger Persian empire, ruled by the proud Darius (Harry Andrews). On the road he debates his destiny with Barsine (Claire Bloom) the daughter of the Athenian turncoat Memnon (Peter Cushing), who has brought a small army of his own to Darius’ side. Alexander’s goals are marginally more noble than those of the next avaricious despot, with the difference that he’s a true believer in his own divinity. His hubris makes possible the major gambles that enable him to conquer most of the known world. But ambition and pride also allows him to betray his own family and compromise his principles along the way.

Not until Douglas and Kubrick’s Spartacus did a thinking man’s sword ‘n’ sandal epic challenge Alexander the Great. Robert Rossen seems eager to paint a grand-scale picture of how politics have worked since the beginning of recorded history. Raised to be a conqueror, Alexander is set against his father by his own mother, who has no love for her abusive husband. With demands of absolute loyalty from both parents, Alexander basically claims Free Agent status. He allows his father to be assassinated in a cynical maneuver, and uses his mother to help quash a threat to his power from Philip’s second wife Eurydice (Marisa de Leza) and her newborn child. Provocateurs and courtly enemies like the scheming Attalus (Stanley Baker) are dealt with harshly. Alexander’s killings happen mostly offscreen, which is understandable when we learn that his mother has pitched the usurping baby of Eurydice into a fire. The film takes its empire building seriously. Alexander’s Machiavellian maneuvers move him with unerring speed toward his goal of mighty conqueror.

The script frequently refuses to indulge audience expectations. Rossen doesn’t embrace Alexander as an unequivocal hero. There is no real romance between Alex and Claire Bloom’s Barsine, only selfish needs and debate about the issues at hand. Their relationship is ruthlessness distilled. Their eyes spark upon first meeting each other, but she’s married to Memnon (Peter Cushing), a general he’s just defeated. Memnon changes sides, only to be betrayed by Persian generals. The movie doesn’t candy-coat the definition of ‘spolis of victory’ — Alexander’s officers seize and rape all the captured women of Memnon’s command. Barsine is taken to Alex’s tent. She submits, and he says she’ll be shown respect, but she knows she’s no different than the rest of the women that are raped and discarded. Barsine implores Alexander to realize that his self-proclaimed God-hood means that he is Greece, he is the state, much like Spartacus’ Marcus Licinius Crassus. Alexander is in no mood to be indebted to yet another woman.

Alexander overcomes daunting leadership challenges with ease. When his father is killed, the army could easily turn on him. With unflinching self-confidence, he inspires in his generals the perfect challenges, knowing that he can’t stand still, that he must keep pressing forward forever. He handles Darius’ contemptuous threats with aplomb and self-assurance. It’s as if a neon sign reading “WINNER” hovers over this man wherever he goes. Don’t bet against Alex, as he’s on a perpetual roll.

Rossen doesn’t have anyone follow Alexander around, ‘interpreting’ his action for the audience. It is up to us individually to realize the deeper meaning of the legendary Gordian Knot. An entire region will either accept the Greeks or fight them, depending on whether Alexander can untangle an obviously un-untangle-able knot on an oxcart. By local custom, it will magically determine the area’s rightful ruler. It’s like ‘the sword in the stone,’ an arbitrary legal hurdle imposed to intimidate would-be warlords and sundry other pretenders. But Alex doesn’t acknowledge such rules, customs or demands: he seriously believes that he’s a God. Conquerors don’t beg, negotiate or bargain, they just take. He hacks the knot in two with a smug grin and one swipe of his sword. Real power is the kind that can cut through red tape as easily as a bronze age sword can slice through a foot of rotten old rope.

The mostly English cast is superb,. The stylized ‘ancient-speak’ speeches roll off their lips with natural ease. Barry Jones is a wily Aristotle and Nial MacGinnis a Banquo-like General. This is one of Peter Cushing’s better non-horror movies. He has to eat crow before Alexander, but makes a great appeal to Darius. He event gets to flash one of his better ‘Sherlock Holmes’ hand gestures, a swift finger pointing skyward. Michael Hordern is the troublesome Greek politico Demosthenes, railing against Alexander’s arbitrary claim to unlimited power.

Specially-billed Danielle Darrieux (The Earrings of Madame de…, The Young Girls of Rochefort) doesn’t put a lot of life into her scheming queen. The very good Fredric March is sometimes hard to recognize through his thick black beard. But Harry Andrews is a magnificent Darius, weathering a swift fall from Master of Asia to a betrayed man tied to his own litter-wagon by faithless retainers. Nervous Peter Wyngarde (Burn Witch, Burn!) is Darrieux’s pathetic patsy, sort of a Lee Harvey Oswald figure. Frederick Ledebur (Moby Dick‘s Queequeg, Slaughterhouse-Five) is prominent at Philip’s court. We’re told that Helmut Dantine’s seer is dubbed by none other than Christopher Lee. Alexander’s Ill-fated brother is played by Spanish actor Gustavo Rojo, noted by genre fans for his Carlos in The Valley of Gwangi.

The Spanish coproduction provided a pair of interesting-looking actresses. Marisa de Leza’s Eurydice does her best to prove she’s a sincere second wife to Philip, only to run up against the bad-news combo of Alexander’s ambition and Olympias’ jealous wrath. Fans of John Huston’s The Man Who Would be King will like the electric moment when Alexander is introduced to the Persian King’s orphaned, beautiful daughter — Roxane. She’s Teresa del Río, and the part is almost completely non-speaking. Both actresses have long Spanish careers but are unknown here.

The handsome production has excellent sets and costumes. The leather helmets and Alexander’s golden ceremonial dagger look appropriately primitive. And we’re impressed by one authentic detail: this is so early in history that nobody uses saddles — Burton and his cavalrymen all ride into battle bareback. Alexander is smarter and better cast than the same year’s Helen of Troy, but Rossen’s simple staging is not pitched to compete with the ‘instant grandeur’ effects of the Robert Wise epic. The second-unit battles are not bad, but the show is more interested in the character conflict than scoring points as an action thriller. There are signs that the movie was hastily cut down from a much longer initial cut. A few scenes end with abrupt cuts to black, and although the soundtrack isn’t compromised, it’s easy to conclude that material was dropped. A couple of bad optical blow-ups might be evidence of scene-shortening. A short scene at Michael Hordern’s Greek hilltop is made from freeze frames and audio dubbed over long shots where we can’t even see who is speaking. It perhaps was cobbled together to replace a much longer dialogue scene.

Rossen’s script has Alexander’s story ending abruptly just as he turns over a new leaf, disavowing his earlier draconian executions and purges. He weds Roxane while presiding over the marriage of a hundred of his Macedonians to Persian maidens. In so doing he creates a new nation dedicated to a peaceful future, where he can rule ‘over men’s hearts instead of their bodies.’ (spoiler) Alex dies of an unspecified ailment which historians have guessed might have been the result of stomach poisoning, or maybe a concussion. It’s also equally explainable as an assassination by poison. The writer-director leaves it an open mystery, true to history but probably disappointing to epic fans. Dead in his early thirties after conquering a big chunk of the known world, Alexander doesn’t get to consolidate his empire.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Alexander the Great is quite a great-looking disc, with clear and colorful images by ace cinematographer Robert Krasker. The outdoor action scenes are vast and the interiors look lavish. Not particularly caring one way or another how Richard Burton looks, I accepted the blond wig after a moment or two of surprise. He does not look like one of the Children of the Damned grown to adulthood.

The HD images makes it easier to identify faces in group shots, and to read the nasty smirk on the face of that rotter Stanley Baker, who at this time seemed to specialize in sleazy villains. Some close-ups exhibit the CinemaScope mumps, and some shots display a very warped field — every so often we see a distorted, skinnny person on the left or right extreme of the image.

Mario Nascimbene’s music sounds fine. The original trailer notes epic qualities when most ’50s films of this ilk stress sexy actresses lusting after the hero.

No commentary on this title, but Twilight Time has obtained an interview featurette with star Claire Bloom. It’s in dire need of editing. She touches briefly on the movie from time to time, during what is mostly an unmoderated ramble. She drops unorganized thoughts about the blacklist, referencing Charlie Chaplin, not Robert Rossen. It’s fine if she doesn’t remember everybody on the film but she speaks as if she’s been asked to inform viewers about the historical Alexander. Her thoughts keep coming back to the same statement… that he, uh, killed a lot of people, but isn’t that what great men do? We also learn that she’s vacationed in many of the places where the story is meant to take place. She acts apologetic that the film was made mostly in Spain, and not on accurate locations.

In her liner notes Julie Kirgo seems unmoved by this emotionally cold reading of the life of Alexander, and focuses instead on Robert Rossen’s travails in Hollywood. Something about this writer-director has deflected much of the scorn flung at Elia Kazan and Edward Dmytryk. I wonder why that’s so — movies like last year’s Trumbo don’t explain why some name-namers were damned forever and others given a relative free pass. All three of these directors recovered to make at least one good movie, but Rossen never regained his power position and Dmytryk’s pictures were mostly artistic disappointments or pointedly gutless. Kazan never needed peer acclaim and seemed to thrive on being detested.

A tale made in a decade of political struggle, Alexander the Great is a superior epic about the intersection of ruthless ambition and power politics.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Alexander the Great Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English 2.0 DTS-HD MA
Supplements: Isolated Music and Effects track, Claire Bloom interview featurette, original trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 30, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.