I waited until 2011 to watch Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie Alexander, even though I’m a fan of Stone and a sucker for ancient Greece. Critics and moviegoers alike trashed the film, so I put off seeing it until I was sick last week and needed to kill three hours from the couch. I’m glad I waited, though, because now I can draw a critical storytelling lesson from this failed epic.
Critics slammed Alexander on many levels, but I saw one central problem with the movie: a tragic failure to give us a central character that we’ll want to watch for any length of time—not to mention for nearly three hours.
Stphen Hunter writes:
If you played a word-association game with “Alexander the Great,” you’d probably come up with “conqueror,” “king,” “warrior,” “legend,” “despot,” “wastrel” or “killer.” Unfortunately, Oliver Stone has chosen to build his epic of the Macedonian military genius around a word highly unlikely to make the list: “crybaby.”
It’s almost as if Stone set out to make one of the world’s most storied conquerers as weak and unlikable as possible. With a strong, charismatic Alexander, this film might have turned out fairly well. Without such an Alexander, it’s a disaster.
The first problem I found was that few characters in the movie actually liked Alexander. David Farland once pointed out in one of his free Daily Kicks that in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of the reasons we like Ferris is because everyone else does; he’s incredibly cool. Stone’s Alexander isn’t. His soldiers argue with him. His mom thinks he’s a “boy” even when he’s a grown man. His dad nearly kills him and frequently threatens to do it. His wife doesn’t respect him. Many of the finest men in his army think he’s a royal putz.
And you expect me to care about the guy? Maybe if Alexander seemed like a real victim–just a poor misunderstood guy. But that’s not what we get here.
Compounding this problem is Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Alexander (I liked Farrell in In Bruges, btw). His errors remind us that a protagonist shouldn’t make us want to slap the snot out of him in every scene. Desson Thomson writes:
Farrell puts a lot of energy into his role, but his character’s pulled and tugged in so many directions, we’re not sure what to make of him. He’s tough in the battlefield, anguished over mutiny from his soldiers, torn between lovers, impulsive and fearful, heedlessly brave and fitfully sensitive.
His Alexander, as expressed through the weepy histrionics of Colin Farrell, is more like a desperate housewife than a soldier. He’s always crying, his voice trembles, his eyes fill with tears.
So, few characters in the movie really like Alexander and Alexander himself is a jittery mess. Can we at least feel sorry for him? I didn’t. Sure, he had a complicated childhood. But Stone and Farrell never gave me much to actually like about Alexander.
Alexander says he wants to do good things for the people he conquers, but this feels hollow when he seems to be driven by an ambition that comes out of his Oedipal psychology. Then he actually does some nice things for the conquered, but his men sneer at him for favoring foreigners. Even when he marries a sexy Persian dancer, Alexander gets no dap from his boys.
Our protagonist just wants to be loved, but even after he sexually conquers his tigress of a wife, he whispers something in her sleeping ear (or at least he thought she was sleeping) about her heart being a pale reflection of his mother’s. Meanwhile, Alexander doesn’t have the conviction to give himself to his true love (his boyhood friend and lover Hephaistion) in a passionate way; or, if he does, it happens off stage.
And then he wants his men to cross snowy mountains to die in India, while none of them seem to want to go along with him.
What am I supposed to feel now?
Pity? Meh. How many people has he gotten killed?
Admiration? What’s there to like?
On top of all of this, Alexander just seems bland. Roger Ebert writes:
Farrell is a fine actor, but on a human scale; he’s not cut out for philosopher-king. One needs to sense a certain madness in a colossus; … Farrell seems too reasonable, too much of ordinary scale, to drive men to the ends of the world with his unbending will.
Stone and Farrell gave us plenty of reasons to dislike Alexander and few (either unconvincing or undermined) reasons to like him.
As a writer, telling a good story with an unlikable protagonist takes great skill and creativity. When a story like Alexander’s depends wholly on that central figure then it’s even more important that the character works. When writing about a relatively unlikable figure, at least give us something to like or respect about the character, and at least define him well. Alexander wasn’t likable to begin with, we never quite figure out who he is, and he ultimately meets a tragic end without redemption. So I just watched a movie about someone I want to choke, someone I don’t understand, whom no one else seems to like.
And then he dies.
Note to self and kids: Don’t try this at home.