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Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great(1956)

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The political blessing of his father, Philip of Macedonia (Frederic March), begins the spectacular reign of young Alexander (Richard Burton), a proud, golden-haired crusader who leads Greece against the Persians and soon aims to conquer the entirety of the known civilized world. His mission instigates numerous friendships and conflicts, with the god-complex proclamations of his mother (Danielle Darrieux) instilling even more confidence and power hunger.

Among the throng of Machiavellian participants are Peter Cushing, Harry Andrews (as King Darius), Claire Bloom, Stanley Baker, Niall MacGinnis, and The Innocents's Peter Wyngarde - quite a contrast from the Hollywood epics pouring out during the mid-1950s. Behind the camera, director Robert Rossen (All the King's Men, The Hustler) uses the striking Spanish locations as a convincing stand-in for ancient Greece, with the battles conveyed in a surprisingly naturalistic, understated fashion.

As with most period pieces, the film veers up and down in quality from scene to scene depending on the actors present; his distracting hair aside, Burton does a fine job as Alex (even if he can't quite pull off playing younger than his years) while the slew of character actors spout florid lines without looking too ridiculous. At the very least, it's far more consistent and easier to swallow than Oliver Stone's over-the-top 2004 version (ignorance of Alexander's purported bisexuality aside) and, though it can't hold a candle to Spartacus for sandal-filled spectacle, Rossen's effort still provides reasonable entertainment value. Packed with incident, the Oedipal story covers a fairly short lifespan in a reasonable amount of time, compressing numerous military maneuvers and regime changes without completely losing the story threads before the surprisingly subdued, non-powerhouse finale.

MGM's DVD offers a very impressive anamorphic transfer of this scope film, which takes full advantage of the wide frame even in the most minor dialogue sequences. The print looks clean and robust, a welcome change from the previous widescreen editions on laserdisc and import DVD.

This disc also represents the longest version available, clocking in at 136 minutes; in some territories the film lost as much as half an hour footage, pretty much wrecking the story by confining the focus to the action instead (a deadly mistake where this film is concerned). The two-channel Dolby soundtrack does a fine job showing off Mario Nascimbene's opulent score; one can only presume that Burton was impressed enough by the results here to recruit the composer for Burton's own stab at directing period drama, Doctor Faustus. The sole extra is the theatrical trailer, a typically overlong bit of grandstanding typical of studio public relations at the time.

For more information about Alexander the Great, visit MGM. To order Alexander the Great, go to TCM Shopping.

by Nathaniel Thompson