ALEXANDER THE GREAT, one of history’s most militant overachievers, left an inerasable mark on nascent geopolitics, like his successive emulators Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Hitler, producing libraries of books, legions of glory-struck wannabes, and mountains of corpses. When it comes to the Movie Art Battlefield, these brilliant bullies have seduced a number of thought-lofty talents but their tendency towards slaughterhouse megalomania and barking at pesky lessers has a way of hamstringing the sales pitch for both audiences and critics: “A lonely, unsympathetic guy burns a lot of places to the ground and eventually goes haywire.” So much for date night.*
Working fitfully in Europe after being ostracized by the blacklist (though he caved/fessed up and named 57 people), Robert Rossen wrote, produced & directed this 141-minute, $4,000,000 1956 go at the brief but packed life of the Macedonian warrior who kicked up so much third-century BC dust. Always intrigued in his films by ambition and its costs (Body And Soul, All The King’s Men, They Came To Cordura, The Hustler), Rossen the writer scores better in the first half of the wordy epic, which does a decent job showing the Oedipal palace intrigues that formed Alexander’s (Richard Burton) personality (tormented) and philosophy (such as it was). Fredric March tears into his role as Philip of Macedon.
The second half, the ‘Great’ part, tries to squeeze in too much and the speechifying (lots of the expected declaiming) piles up, while the action is fast-tracked through maps, matte shots of burning cities and voice-overs (“then we went to India and back”). Claire Bloom lends her regal look but isn’t given much to do, Peter Cushing has one of his more approachable roles and Harry Andrews does a swell restrained job as Persia’s mighty Darius (that would be Darius III, not Darius the Great): he has a catty speech putting Alexander to task as a boy upstart.
Reviewers seem obsessed with trying to get in a one-liner about Burton’s dyed hair (blondish). At 30, the lusty Welshman with the distinctive voice was still finding footing as a leading man (The Robe had been a smash, but Prince of Players and The Rains Of Ranchipur limped). He’s okay, but the uneven script (let alone the basic distancing-from-regular-humanity of the character of Alexander) loads him to a disadvantage.
Sites cite 6,000 extras used in Spanish locales (their handy desert making do for Assyria & Co.) and Rossen does line up some impressive numbers for the two big Alexander-Darius faceoffs—Issus and Gaugamela—but the fight staging is clumsy, dispirited and anti-climactic. That doesn’t propel much in a movie about one of the all-time battle-winners.
Mario Nascimbene’s score is noisy and repetitive, the sets are stagy. Costumes are quite eye-catching in color, well captured by cameraman Robert Krasker, warming up for the wonderful work he would later bestow on El Cid and The Fall Of The Roman Empire. This came in #32 for the year, grossing $7,140,000 worldwide. It’s doubtful whether Rossen’s original cut of over three hours would have helped, as this gets to be a slog the further along it goes.
With Danielle Darrieux, Barry Jones, Stanley Baker, Niall MacGinnis, Michael Hordern, Helmut Dantine, Gustavo Rojo, Jose Nieto, Friedrich von Ledebur and Peter Wyngarde, who later became quite popular in British TV. He’d been considered for the lead in this movie–you can imagine his initial letdown. Read up on him–quite the flash.
* The same year this chariot-load rolled up saw the wooden nag Helen Of Troy (supporting ancients Baker, MacGinnis and Andrews sported beards and speeches in that honker as well), War and Peace (Herbert Lom as Bonaparte) and the sublime The Conqueror (Genghis Khan aka John Wayne). Bet-it-all gamblers like Napoleon or Hitler make for ideal supporting braces to epics set during their eras, but when the whole movie lands on them (the irritable Frenchman done by Brando in Desiree and Steiger in Waterloo, the hate-choked Hitler with Richard Basehart) their gloom & doom burns out a welcome (would that real-life worked that way). Taken in a point-of-impact dose like the superb Downfall, relating one episode, Adolfian rages are fascinating; or as a secondary character—the underrated Max, with a terrific Noah Taylor– but three hours with a humorless maniac asks a lot of an audience, witness Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander, in its various recuts. Of interest, for sure, even applause, but should it be a surprise when they don’t make much money?
Only the nearly-invincible clout of The Duke kept the colossal absurdity of The Conqueror a bread-winner (though he never lived it down: that’s what happens when you sign a script contract while you’re plastered). Other cine-sallies at the Mongolian skull-pile builder, like 1965s Genghis Khan are laugh-worthy not just dramatically in terms of casting, but when they come up against the walk-out-whistling dilemma of making crowds relate to a person who was responsible for forty million deaths—back when the globe wasn’t packed to the rafters with our quarrelsome specie. We ponder. Sartorially, the snazzy uniforms favored by Conquer Boys may have been outmaneuvered by silk suits, considering the havoc being raised by today’s empire enthusiasts, most of them never having had to wipe actual blood off their paws. “Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain….