REVIEW: Alexander the Great

  • Released through United Artists
  • Country of Origin: The United States of America
  • Duration: 135 minutes
  • Format: Technicolor (CinemaScope)
  • Released: February 1956
  • Certificate: PG (UK)

Character: Pausaunius

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 Before the likes of 300, Clash of the Titans, or Troy, or even Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander’, there was a 1956 film called ‘Alexander The Great’, that told the story of the ancient Greek king. Director Robert Rossen took on this project in his late career after a turbulent past. Rossen was a prominent filmmaker in Hollywood in the Golden Age of film in Los Angeles. Perhaps his most successful film was All the King’s Men, but his involvement and support of the Communist Party in this particular time in the United States had him blacklisted and set in front of a council to give up names of known communists.

It was this film ‘Alexander the Great’ that was supposed to be his name back on the map, but that wasn’t really the case here. It wasn’t until 1961, where Rossen gained praise again for The Hustler. There have have been a number of stories, books, and movie adaptations over the years that have tried to tackle ‘Alexander The Great’, and not one project or person has ever really made a successful attempt or effort. More recent was Oliver Stone, who made his version, which was about three hours in length, but is infamous for the number of times and releases that Stone has gone back and changed or added new scenes. Each change or addition has seen its own release.

Luckily, Rossen didn’t have the time nor the money to go back and fix his work, or maybe it was because he was an unknown genius and he knew back then that no matter how much money you throw at this story of ‘Alexander The Great’, you won’t be able to tell the full or needed story that encompasses every aspect of this historical figure’s life. It’s true, that Rossen wanted to make an epic of all epics up until that time with this film, but nothing quite transferred to film all that well. There are some great attention to the historical detail here with some excellent performances by Richard Burton (Alexander) and Olympias (Danielle Darrieux), but the way the film is shot, edited, and told is very stale.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story of ‘Alexander The Great’, the synopsis goes that a young teenage man named Alexander was a charming, very bright, and devoted young man. His father, Phillip II was a fierce and brutal King, while his mother Olympias poisoned the minds of those close to her, in order for her to seek more power. She was basically like the Cersei Lannister from ‘Game of Thrones’. After Phillip II was killed, Alexander took over power in his early 20s and at first was a noble king, but became blinded by his mother’s advice and became the conquerer he is known for today, because he was undefeated in battles and is one of the most successful military leaders in all of history.

This film tries to tell this story, but never quite gains any steam. There really isn’t any character development with Alexander himself, as far as his personal life goes, and his mother Olympias is mostly left on the back burner. There are some battles in the film, but most of them are in the form of short montage sequences, without any big choreographed fight scenes to really immerse yourself in the heat of battle or the film itself. Not only that, but there are many instances where there are throw away shots that last only a few seconds then fade to black as if to transition from scene to scene in a very odd way. It’s a strange and uneven way to segue into forwarding the story.

The final climax of the film just fizzles out as well and seems wholly rushed as if director Rossen was forced to cut his film short, which was the case, because Rossen indeed did want to make a three hour version of ‘Alexander the Great’, but the production company stopped him. There is some good here though. The set pieces and on location shooting looks great and the performances are all solid. The one or two fight sequences that are not in montage form are actually decent, but there is nothing that is completely satisfying here, but rather underwhelming from start to finish

THE MAKING OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT AND PETER’S ROLE

At the foot of a mountain outside Madrid, muscular Greek warriors were being taken to fight the Persians in luxury – motor coaches! General Alexander, alias Richard Burton, was dealing with the vanquished before the battle had even begun, and Claire Bloom, who was almost stripped to the waist, was a “spoil of war”.

Then a whistle blows for a break in filming. The armies fraternised; Burton eased his blond wig, and Ms Bloom slips into something less scanty than her hostage’s gown. Meanwhile, PETER arrives in Madrid airport, fresh from playing Dunois in St Joan, to play Alexander’s confidant, Pausaunius.

After settling in to his hotel, PETER is welcomed by writer, producer and Director, Robert Rossen. During his first visit to the make-up department, PETER’s hair is lightened from its natural dark brown to blond, and his beard trimmed to a more appropriate 356BC style.

According to well-documented history, Pasaunius – a 20-year-old commander in King Philip’s army, was the lover of both Queen Olypias AND her son, Alexander. Both PETER and Richard Burton feel that this fact is integral to the story, and that it would go some way to explaining the young Macedonian’s infatuation with Alexander and his eagerness to do the Queen’s bidding.

Although Rossen agrees with the two actors in theory, after further study courtesy of the British Museum, The Hellenic Society and the French Classical Dictionary of Great Antiquity, Rossen deem this pre-Christian love- triangle to be too risqué for 1950’s cinema audiences, and decides to leave some of the footage they’ve shot on the cutting room floor.

Scenes ranging from Alexander’s army of 30,000 crossing the Hellespont, the mass wedding of 10,000 soldiers to Persian maidens, and the cutting of the Gordian Knot (which was soaked in acid to make it easier to break), take its toll on Rossen’s $5,000,000 budget, and as a result, many other scenes are cut – including some of PETER’s.

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PETER (foreground) as Pasaunius

One sequence that does survive, however, is the assassination of King Philip by Pausaunius, which was filmed mid-afternoon under the relentless Spanish sun. So enthusiastic was PETER at his work that veteran American actor, Fredric March, who played Philip, cries: “Suppress your talent, kid. There’s one more take!”

PETER was also required to ride bareback during one scene, which he’d never done before. The horse he was given had come directly from the set of Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III, which had also been shot in Madrid.

Each evening after filming, Robert Rossen returned to his hotel room to sit down with a tablet of yellow paper – it had to be yellow, as it was the only colour he could work on! – to edit the script. PETER and Richard Burton, meanwhile, stayed in the same hotel, and Burton would often learn PETER to sing old Welsh songs whilst they showered – songs which he remembers to this day.

In the mornings, with the sun blazing, PETER would often strip off his leather armour and took a swim in one of the rock streams which flowed down the mountain to cool off.

Prince Peter of Greece joined the crew on set on one occasion to check on the authenticity of each scene. Rossen wanted the finished film to be as historically accurate as possible, and his assistants were forever seen rushing back and forth with various heavy reference books just to be sure. Of course, there were some things, like the Spanish extras playing both Greeks and Persians- sometimes changing sides during a mornings work!

On the set, PETER drank chilled milk and mixed with such legendary stars of stage and screen as Peter Cushing, Stanley Baker, Barry Jones and Harry Andrews. In total, actors from 28 countries. Bottles of cold water were regularly handed out to 30,000 or so extras gathered to take part in the Battle of Chaeronea scene, which would end the supremacy of the Athenians and make King Philip of Macedonia leader of all the Greeks.

 For Robert Rossen, ‘Alexander the Great’ was the most ambitious film of his career –the result of a 5 year labour of love involving countless hours of painstaking research. Not usually given to lofty appraisals of his work, Rossen considered his performance in the Director’s Chair to be a serious one; “Everything Alexander said was beautifully, and constrained something worth saying. The utterances of Napoleon were those of a megalomaniac by comparison.”

PETER, who was the original choice to play Alexander, only lost out to Richard Burton at the eleventh hour, said: “At times when we were filming out there in Spain, I often felt very close to Alexander.”

‘Alexander the Great’ was much more than a big, bawling CinemaScope film. It was a symptom of film production in a n age of television.

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According to American producers at the time, there were only two types of film at the time with enough intrinsic drawing power in the Fifties to lure the constant viewer. On the right, the gigantic-spectacle-historical-panorama-five-thoundand-extras-and-sixteen-fires-in-colour-and-prefereably-CinemaScope epic. On the left, the so-called “off beat” picture, usually in black and white, grimly and “diametrically” analysing headline ‘problems’, like juvenile delinquency, Communism, trade unionism, drink/drug addiction, or political skulduggery.

To the producer, the new pattern made business sense. To his public, it offered size and shock, neither of which TV had yet learned to provide.

With $5,000,000 to spend (a fortune in those days), and a distribution contract in his pocket, the Hollywood producer of the 1950’s would try his hand at making the biggest, longest, most colourful film in the world. These cinema blockbusters were prepared with a ripe awareness of social and artistic responsibility and much scholarly devotion.

In Spain, Robert Rossen was joined by actors and technicians from 28 nations to work on ‘Alexander the Great’ – including Prince Peter of Greece who acted as a technical adviser, Andre Andrejew – the Russian-born Art Director, and Robert Krasker who photographed The Third Man and Romeo and Juliet.

With the enormous talent employed in its making, ‘Alexander the Great’ was much bigger than your average greatest-picture-ever-made. But its chief aim was to get the new TV generation way from their home screens and back into the cinema.

And to do that, it had to be GOOD as well as big!

PICTURE STORY:

ALEXANDER

King Philip (not pictured) has requested reconciliation with his estranged son, Alexander, who he wishes to lead his armies on a campaign into Europe. Philip, however, demands that four of his generals – including his most loyal companion, Pasaunius, must be sent into exile. The four men reluctantly agree, but upon their departure, Philip mocks Pasaunius, saying: “How will you live without your god, Alexander?”

The following evening, Queen Olypias invites Pasaunius to her bedchamber where she plies him with wine. He tells her of Philip’s insult, adding that the King had treated him no better than a stable boy.

Olypias divulges to him something her father once said: “He who wishes to hand his name down for prosperity should kill the person who has accomplished the greatest deeds. Whenever that person is spoken of, he too will be remembered.”

When Alexander arrives to ask his Mother what she has been filling Pasaunius’ head with, she replies: “Nothing that was not already there.”

The following morning, as Philip arrives in Pellas, Pasaunius darts from the cheering crowd and assassinates the King with his dagger.


 

 

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