Alexander the Great
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Robert Rossen's Alexander the Great (1956) is one of the more ambitious films of the 1950s, a labor of love for Rossen, who wrote, directed, and produced it. But something went askew between thought and expression, with Rossen turning out a picture of often stunning beauty that was, in many ways, a very dense and verbose history lesson played as historical melodrama. At the very least, the dialogue-heavy interludes afford you the opportunity to gaze upon a very young Richard Burton in the title role, and to wonder why Rossen couldn't have reduced the running time or maintained a more tightly paced narrative.
Rossen was clearly fascinated by his subject. "A man born before his time, a catalytic agent, he emerged from an era of warring nationalisms to try for the first time in history to get the peoples of Asia and Europe to live together," Rossen explained. "But he became a destructive force and in the process of destroying other people while attempting to unify them, he destroyed himself."
After researching and writing the screenplay for three years, it took him eight months to shoot the movie, mostly in locations spread throughout Spain. Alexander the Great was budgeted at a hefty $2-million, but Rossen managed to leave that figure in the dust as filming continued. Rossen, of course, attempted to illustrate Alexander's bid to take over the world and in the early sequences, the film deals with Alexander's hate-driven relationship with his father, King Philip of Macedonia (Fredric March), and his put-upon mother, Olympias (Danielle Darrieux). Eventually, Alexander ascends to the throne, and that's when the film lurches forward and then stalls, in a pattern that's repeated over and over for 143 minutes. Burton leads armies into the battle of Issus, wrestles Asia Minor into submission, and Invades India, all to a rousing score by Mario Nascimbene.
Despite Rossen's commitment to research, the most memorable thing about Alexander the Great was probably the Cinemascope battle sequences, which featured 350 cavalrymen and 6,000 foot soldiers...not to mention 5,000 bows and arrows, 1,000 shields, 5,000 spears, 500 hundred tents, 50 chariots, and 2,000 suits of armor. That still wasn't enough for the American public, a large segment of which was more inclined to stay at home and ponder I Love Lucy than pay good money for yet another historical epic. Alexander the Great was a box office bomb.
Rossen was one of the few big-time 1940s filmmakers to largely break free of studio constraints. Shortly after World War II, he set up his own production company, and was thus able to have more control over his pictures. Perhaps that degree of self-determination is behind the long-winded speechifying that usually enervates Alexander the Great after yet another wide-screen battle sequence has set it ablaze. In fact, Rossen originally wanted a much longer film. "You see Alexander originally was a three-hour picture," he said. "I wanted it done with an intermission. They got me very frightened at the length, and they finally wore me down. Actually, it's a much better picture in three hours than it is in two hours and twenty minutes, precisely for one reason. It unveils the various guilts Alexander felt toward his father much more deeply - for instance his chase of Darius. It is not just a simple chase to kill the Emperor of the Persian Empire. The chase for Darius is tied up with his tremendous feeling that as long as a father figure is alive in royalty, he has to kill him."
Unlike many of his peers (such as John Ford and Howard Hawks), Rossen was always willing to explain his goals as a director. In the process, he revealed himself to be a thoughtful man of passionate beliefs. "The element common to many of my films," he wrote in 1962, "is the desire for success, ambition, which is an important element in American life. It is an important element, and has become increasingly more important in what is known as Western Civilization."
A man who attempted to drive the world to its knees through warfare could certainly be described as possessing some ambition. So, in that sense, Alexander the Great is right in keeping with such Rossen films as Body and Soul (1947) and All the King's Men (1949). It's just five times as big and much, much longer.
Most critics at the time expressed the same sentiment. Variety reported that "It took Alexander, 'the Great,' some 10 years to conquer the known world back in the fourth century, B.C. It seems to take Robert Rossen almost as long to recreate on film this slice of history." Films and Filming chimed in with "So passionate is his admiration for Alexander, so sincere is his interpretation of Alexander's life and times, that the rambling narrative loses its dramatic momentum and the final result is to instruct more than to entertain." And The New Yorker offered this observation: "While the picture has plenty of interesting pageantry, it doesn't offer quite enough drama to hold one's attention for its full length..." The most dubious assessment came from The Harvard Lampoon who proclaimed it the worst film of 1956. Even Richard Burton added his two cents, saying "I know all 'epics' are awful, but I thought Alexander the Great might be the first good one. I was wrong. They cut it about - played down to the audience. I say if the audience doesn't understand, let 'em stay ignorant."
Still, the film had its defenders and A.H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote "Although this spectacle runs a lengthy two-and-a-half hours, its moments of boredom are rare.....Richard Burton contributes a serious and impassioned portrayal." The film also garnered a nomination for Rossen from the Directors Guild of America for "Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures." And, as if to counterbalance The Harvard Lampoon's "special award," Alexander the Great was selected by Seventeen magazine as the picture of the month and was awarded a medal of special merit by Parents magazine.
Producer/Director: Robert Rossen
Screenplay: Robert Rossen
Editor: Ralph Kemplen
Cinematographer: Robert Krasker Music: Mario Nascimbene
Special Effects: Cliff Richardson
Set Design: Andre Andrejew
Costume Designer: David Ffolkes
Cast: Richard Burton (Alexander the Great), Fredric March (Philip of Macedonia), Claire Bloom (Barsine), Danielle Darrieux (Olympias), Harry Andrews (Darius), Stanley Baker (Attalus), Niall MacGinnis (Parmenio), Peter Cushing (Memnon), Michael Hordern (Demosthenes), Barry Jones (Aristotle), Marisa De Leza (Eurydice).
by Paul Tatara
The Films of Robert Rossen by Alan Casty
Fredric March: Craftsman First, Star Second by Deborah C. Peterson
Richard Burton: A Bio-Bibliography by Tyrone Steverson
MaGill's Survey of Cinema, essay by Rob Edelman