The DVD has a three-minute introduction by Oliver Stone himself, who talks about the radical restructuring that he had overseen for the new three-and-a-half hour version. He says that this is the third cut and is for DVD only. I never saw either of the other earlier two editions of this film, so my review is blind as to how better or worse is this reconstruction. He says that he has had full freedom to do as he pleased, uncensored, and unhampered by the pressures of a cinema release or studio executives. "Those of you who loved the first Alexander will love it more, and those of you who hated it will hate it more. ... [It was] always a difficult film to understand, difficult to do." Alas there is no commentary to help us understand why this was the case and there are no extras.
Being a fan of other Oliver Stone movies (JFK and Nixon) I was at first unsure about his credentials to attack a non-American historical subject, and I feared his Alexander would be just another biopic made according to the Hollywood view of history. And my only previous experience of Alexander in a visual format was Michael Wood's excellent historico-travelogue for the BBC, "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great". But I noted that the great English scholar and expert on all things Alexandrian (and more), Robin Lane Fox, was the historical consultant to the film.
The result of the restructuring is that, in effect, we have two films running at the same time - Alexander in Macedonia, and Alexander abroad. The (new) film opens on Alexander's deathbed, and then we move forward forty years to see and hear Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) dictating his memoirs in Egyptian Alexandria. Ptolemy's commentary is heard at various points throughout the film and binds the whole story together, summing him up in an extended passage at the very end.
The film swiftly moves to the epic battle of Gaugamela, where a full twenty minutes is spent on makeshift speeches and then the gore of war. I do not know if the words put into Alexander's mouth in the film are in any way true to history, but the constant references to Greek freedom as opposed to Persian tyranny made me uncomfortable, as if this was in some way Stone condoning the debacle of Iraq, Gaugamela being sited in the Kurdish part of that blighted state. But then we see the twelve-year old Alexander being taught by Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) in which he warns his young charge that, "The East has a way of swallowing young men and their dreams." (An "I told you so!" to Bush?)
The battle is portrayed on a truly massive scale with an unexpected focus on tactics, the screen bearing references to the "Macedonian left", the "Macedonian right", etc. The scenes of the two great battles portrayed (the other being that of Hydaspes on the Indian frontier) are true gorefests. Some battle scenes unfortunately suffer from undercranking (slowing the film when shooting and then speeding it back up for the screen) and there are some editing problems too throughout the film - at one point Angelina Jolie speaks without her lips moving (but, then, given her character, maybe this was intentional).
No review of this film can fail to mention the prevalence of Irish accents amongst the Macedonians. Even the young Alexander aged twelve has an Irish accent, so full marks for consistency. Maybe other reviewers know why Oliver Stone did this, and I know it has come in for some criticism, but for me, once it was noted, it was soon forgotten as the film progressed. And when all is said and done, would the film be better with American accents?
The more times I watched this movie, the more I appreciated its strengths. The death of Philip and the acclamation of Alexander are particularly well-handled. The cast as a whole give true and convincing performances. The fine music by Vangelis (who else?) provides complete support for the visuals of tension, romance, exoticism, and glory, so much so that I bought the CD. I could even appreciate Oliver Stone's own appearance for a couple of seconds on-screen.
In the end, I had to concede that this movie's epic scale, matched by its assured intimacy, its power to carry the viewer along and its power to move, could only mean that it had to have five stars.