Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (2004/2007)

alex1…except that it wasn’t really a Final Cut at all, because Oliver Stone followed up with another cut (‘The Ultimate Cut’) a few years later, which was actually little shorter. In all, I think there are four different cuts of this film and only one of them, the theatrical cut, is currently available on Blu-ray here in the UK (I imported this ‘Final Cut‘ several years ago since when its languished on the Shelf of Shame until now). I think the theatrical version was 175 minutes, the Directors Cut several minutes shorter, the Final Cut is the longest version some 45 minutes longer than the theatrical  and the Ultimate Cut several minutes shorter than that- the biggest difference between all the versions (other than additional violence and gore) seems to be the sequencing of scenes and how Stone juxtaposes those sequences within the internal chronology of the film. 

I’m sitting here reconsidering how I started this post and where I’m going with it. Maybe it would be especially apt to revisit this post and post alternate versions, reordering paragraphs, remarshalling my train of thought. Stone himself would possibly appreciate the irony of that. 

It would be especially interesting to sit down with Stone and discuss this film and his experience making it and re-making it. As a movie lover, I think there is something almost endearing about a film-maker’s fascination with a project driving him to rethink himself, and not quite let go of something. I think Oliver Stone didn’t quite succeed in making the Alexander he dreamed of, and his frustrations drove him to return to it, trying to perfect it. It is clearly a passion project, and such films are not always the best films but they can be the most interesting. Sometimes I’d rather watch passion-project failures than formulaic by-the-numbers successes. Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut is quite superior to the theatrical version I saw in the cinema- Stone was under immense pressure to trim the film down to a manageable length and he discusses this in the opening section of his commentary on this disc. Its indicative of the friction between the artist and the businessman, and clearly one of the boons of the home-video market of the past few decades on VHS/DVD and Blu-ray was the opportunity for film-makers to release longer cuts of the films, most of which are superior (but not always). Whether such opportunities will continue in the shift towards streaming is questionable.

I will say I really enjoyed this version of the film. How much of a success the film is, is probably a subject of some debate; there is always a sense of Oliver Stone reaching for something and not quite getting there- some sequences are breath-taking and others feel ill-judged, but you always feel an immense passion behind the film, for good or ill. I recall at the time the film came out in 2004, much criticism of Colin Farrell in the title role, but funnily enough, all these years later it doesn’t seem such a problem at all (how incongruous Kirk Douglas as Spartacus or Richard Burton in his own Alexander film? After awhile does it really matter?). I think Farrell does very well here and his Alexander lingers in the mind afterwards, so does Val Kilmer as his father, King Phillip- perhaps it is something to do with additional scenes or their sequencing in this version: its been so many years since I saw the theatrical cut that I cannot really vouch for any differences between the cuts. Maybe its just a case that Revisited works better, that Stone got the edit right. 

There’s some big names in this film (Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer, Rosario Dawson and Anthony Hopkins) and while its really a European film rather than an old-style Hollywood epic, it does seem something of a throwback to the big epics of the old days with such big names attached. It results in an odd tension within the film, of the old and the new: the incongruity of all those accents and Western actors of various nationalities appropriating Greek characters and the English language and text in scenes in ‘an enlightened, modern film’  feeling wrong: albeit inevitable, while attempting to visually be as authentic as it possibly can the film flounders on the edge of farce. While opening the film to criticism, I guess the old adage “its only a movie” holds so very true, and certainly, one could not expect someone like Oliver Stone to make some dry historical epic; this is Cinema.

To fully understand and ‘know’ such a complex character as Alexander and his achievements, you really need a time machine. In that sense, the real meaning of the film is in its tensions between West and East, in how Alexanders generals feared that Alexander had ‘gone native’ and forgotten his Greek origins, and how that makes Alexander seem to us, unconsciously in his part or not, a very modern individual. That might well be a Western, twentieth-century interpretation that gets it absolutely wrong, but Stone seems to paint a picture of Alexander of a man out of time. He’s us, in the Ancient World. Trying to bring modern sensibilities to it, trying to assimilate West and East. But there is also the sensation that’s just us appropriating Alexander, and one of the complexities of the film that nettles at Stone. Alexander and the Greeks were Pagans, who absolutely believed in their Gods and believed  that there was a limit to their world, physical as well as intellectual, that was a much smaller world than the world we know. We cannot really get into that mindset. Some things are human and universal, but other things are alien and unique: as I have written before, the distant past is as much science fiction as any story of the far-future.

Perhaps oddly, I think my favourite scenes of the film are those featuring Anthony Hopkins’ aged King Ptolemy that pretty much bookend it; Ptolemy’s reminisces of his old friend Alexander, trying to grasp who/what Alexander was or what his achievements meant, so likely mirror Oliver Stone’s struggles, and indeed those of historians for centuries. In some ways its trying to understand the human condition, our mortality and the impermanence of everything we create. Ptolemy in Alexandria of 285 BC, some forty years after Alexander died, is one of the last people to have lived in Alexander’s time and to have known him, so his thoughts would be the most definitive, but of course Alexandria itself would eventually fail, and the memoirs Ptolemy put down for posterity would themselves be eventually lost. In just the same way as Ptolemy’s effort failed, its impossible for Stone’s film to properly define who Alexander was;  all things fade, except Alexander himself, or certainly the myth of him that remains.

alex3Visually the film is quite amazing- I think the battles are gritty and brutal and give us a sense of what it must have been like, and the landscapes are wonderful: I have always been quite enchanted by the film’s representation of Babylon. What an astonishing place; one can understand how Alexander might have been so intoxicated by the East. Imagine a Greek, or anyone from the West, entering Babylon having conquered it and then himself becoming conquered by its unique beauty, its smells, its colours.

I love the Vangelis soundtrack. Like many of his scores, it lives differently within the film, his soundtrack album following his method of being a listening experience alternate to that music heard in the film. I think his music works better in the film; there is a romanticism brought to the film by Vangelis’ customary style that lifts the film up, and indeed makes some moments of the film quite transcendent. Its possibly why I enjoy the film so much, that I’m a huge fan of Vangelis for so many decades now that I cannot seperate my enjoyment of his music from the film itself, but certainly he brings a great deal to Alexander and it would be a much lesser film without this score. Being electronic it works against the pre-conceived notions of what a period film should sound like, in just the same way as his scores for Chariots of Fire and The Bounty do. Vangelis has a gift for keying into the ‘soul’ of a film- in Blade Runner it was the bluesy, electronic jazz of a future seen through the old, mirroring the films future noir sense of being caught in between two worlds . Here in Alexander he seems to capture the lyrical, almost classical romanticism of the story, the myth beneath the reality that has allowed the story of Alexander the Great to be so… ageless. Stone seems to have been frustrated by the episodic nature of film, trying to evoke some meaning or message in the sequencing of the it, feeling it lacking in a conventional chronological telling, hence all these different cuts, but Vangelis seems to have it at hand in his keyboard. Its the meshing of Western and Eastern and the ethnic music of each, while each transformed by his mostly electronic orchestration. I think the story of Alexander is too big for one film, or one film-maker (or classical historian for that matter) to really encompass but I think perhaps Vangelis comes closest to nailing it. Maybe Stone and Vangelis should have made Alexander as some great opera; in some ways, its almost there.

3 thoughts on “Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (2004/2007)

    1. Its certainly a contentious film, but I think you have to bear in mind Stone was deliberately not trying to make a straight-forward retelling of Alexander’s campaign of conquest. Its possibly more convoluted than it needs to be, and its changing time periods (at least in the Final Cut edit) remind me of the superior Once Upon A Time in America. But even if he failed I appreciate Stone reaching for something he couldn’t quite grasp.

  1. Pingback: The 2021 List: February – the ghost of 82

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s