Saturday, December 15, 2007

Alexander the Not-So-Great

I finally watched my copy of "Alexander the Great," from 1956, starring Richard Burton this week. And I was disappointed. Robert Rossen, the man who directed "The Hustler," wrote, produced, and directed Alexander, and he has a lot to answer for. How did he turn Alexander the Great's life story into a boring hodge-podge? Why are there so many ludicrously short scenes? Why did he make Burton wear a ridiculous blond wig? (It's seriously bad, it's in kind of a pompadour-looking style, it looks like a squirrel crawled on his head and died.) Why are the battle scenes so amazingly unimpressive? Okay, the last battle scene was decent for a 50's spectacle, but the two others are so bad! All we see are about 50 guys on one side of a river charging towards 50 guys on the other side...boring!

The story makes the mistake of following Alexander literally from the cradle to the grave, all in 2 hours and 15 minutes. (Which will feel like 3 hours plus, trust me.) Alexander doesn't even gain power until halfway through the movie. And then in the last half hour, the pace picks up and we zoom through the rest of his life. (Some of this speeding up is achieved through a graceless voiceover and montage, kind of a like a Movie-Tone News for the B.C. era. "And then he conquered all of the known world!") So the beginning of the film is too slow, and the end is too fast. What Rossen really should have done was pick a key time in Alexander's life and focus on that, instead of trying to cram everything in. It feels like Rossen ran out of time and money and suddenly realized he still had 10 years of Alexander's life to cover.

Burton, one of my all-time favorite actors, gives a good performance, but he's not given much to work with. Alexander seems curiously friendless, no character follows him through the whole movie, which doesn't help the disjointed feeling. But Burton was a kind of loner on screen, an existentialist, if you will. In all of his films, Burton's characters are almost always on their own. They have very few male friends, and almost never have any family that appear on screen. (An exception is "The Robe," where Burton actually has a father.) He was always somewhat aloof, remote, in his own world, just as Claire Bloom tells Alexander in the movie. Burton is commanding as Alexander, and towards the end, when Alexander is convinced of his own Godliness, quite compelling.

Burton and Rossen seem to have gotten along well, Burton did tons of research for the role, and they spent many hours discussing the age of Alexander. (You'd think Burton would have talked him out of the wig...) Burton loved The Hustler, and apparently quoted liberally from it whilst playing pool. Now that would have been something to see! Another Burton moment I wish I could have witnessed was Burton regaling Ringo Starr with a dramatic delivery of "I Am the Walrus," when Starr visited Burton's yacht. Another good one was the poetry contest he got into with Bobby Kennedy. They started quoting Shakespeare at a party, and challenging the other with various soliloquies and sonnets. Kennedy matched Burton line for line, but Burton finally "won" by reciting a sonnet backwards! Can you imagine any politician now being able to quote Shakespeare line for line? Somehow I think that George W. Bush might lack this ability...

I forget how striking Burton's eyes were until I see him in a color film. Alexander was filmed in Spain, and as Burton stands against the brilliantly blue Spanish sky, I noticed that his eyes actually match the color of the sky! Wow.

Anyway, unless you're a Burton fanatic, like myself, Alexander the Great is really nothing special, unfortunately.

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