Alexander The Great (1956)


The life and times of Macedonian military strategist Alexander The Great (Richard Burton, Becket), grandly filmed on location in Spain, and written, directed and produced by Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men and The Hustler).

Reaction & Thoughts:

“There were signs of greatness at his birth!”

Alexander The Great is the rare swords-and-sandals epic that focuses on character and dialogue, not pageantry. The film does have a few spectacular battle scenes, but its emphasis remains on characterizations and ideas. However, director Robert Rossen falls prey to his own high-minded ambitions, and the film alternates between “thought-provoking” and “boring.” In the end, I will call it a respectable failure.

As far as I can tell, Alexander The Great‘s main problem is its inconsistent script by director Rossen. There are sections of the movie that are truly compelling. Unfortunately, the story loses focus, especially during the film’s second half.

The enigmatic relationship between Alexander and his parents (played by Fredric March and Danielle Darrieux) has all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy, and therefore it is the most interesting aspect of the movie. Rossen is unable to sustain interest after those characters exit the narrative. The latter part of the film focuses on Alexander’s conquests, and it is just not as good as the rest of the film. It all ends on a flat note.

In all fairness to Rossen, some of the film’s inconsistencies aren’t his fault. Rossen’s official cut was over three hours long, but the producers, unhappy with the film’s extreme length, removed a substantial amount of footage.

Richard Burton is clearly miscast (it doesn’t help that the color of his wig keeps changing from scene to scene). He has the charisma, the voice, and yet he looks wrong somehow. Maybe it’s just me, but I swear he looks uncomfortable wearing togas and sandals. I got the same impression during The Robe (1953) and Cleopatra (1963), so perhaps he needed to stay away from these types of films.

March (The Best Years of Our Lives) and Darrieux (The Earrings of Madame De) give the movie a real energy kick. The large cast includes Peter Cushing (Horror of Dracula), Stanley Baker (The Guns of Navarone) and Harry Andrews (Ice Cold in Alex). Claire Bloom (Clash of the Titans) is wasted in a superfluous role. Horror icon Sir Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings) allegedly dubbed one of the actors.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Alexander The Great is not as good as other epics from the same time period — Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), etc. — but I appreciated the fact that it tried to do something different — it’s worth a look. Shot by Oscar-winning cameraman Robert Krasker (Carol Reed’s The Third Man). Remade in 2004. Color, 140 minutes, Not Rated.


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