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ALEXANDER THE GREAT (director/writer: Robert Rossen; cinematographer: Robert Krasker; editor: Ralph Kemplen; music: Mario Nascimbene; 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).; Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Andre Andrejew/Robert Rossen; MGM; 1956)
It might be a literate epic, but it’s a long and heavy slog.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The sprawling overlong big-budget epic historical film is filled with spectacle, pageantry, colorful costumes, speechifying and Freudian Oedipal conflicts, and though intelligently rendered and well-acted is a great bore, inert and forgettable–following the downer path of most big-budget epics. Director/writer/producer Robert Rossen (“The Hustler”/”Lilith”/”Body and Soul”) never gets the biopic emotionally moving or can find ways to keep it dramatic, as he dutifully but inaccurately chronicles the life of the ambitious enigmatic short-lived Greek king/warrior/philosopher, Alexander (Richard Burton), dandified in a blond wig, who died at age 33 after conquering the known world at the time while only in his twenties, in his ten years of reign, in the fourth century BC. It might be a literate epic, but it’s a long and heavy slog.

Alexander is the prickly son of the lusty King Philip (Fredric March) of Macedonia, who is the pupil of the philosopher Aristotle (Barry Jones). While Philip is fighting faraway ongoing wars and becoming increasingly more powerful, Alexander’s long-suffering estranged mom Olympias (Danielle Darrieux) fears her jealous ruthless husband will not let her only son inherit his kingdom because hubby fears the people will perceive the son as greater than the father. During her child’s birth the king’s Egyptian soothsayer claimed the gods had determined that her son is a divine birth. While Alexander is inspired by his father’s fighting ability he has a conflicted hateful relationship with his cunning and drunken womanizing father, yet after appointed regent in Parra he will then lead his father’s army to victory over the Athenians at Cheronea. The victorious Philip desires to unite the unorganized Greek states into a national Greece and thereby conquer the world as a unified force, and hopes after the victory in the battlefield to include the cultured Athenians in his plan and be looked upon by them as not a barbarian who will destroy their city-state but as a unifier. While Alexander is more convincing to the Athenians as a unifier, as he seems to be divinely inspired by the Greek gods to act for all his countrymen.

After Philip is assassinated by a misguided friend of Alexander and immediately butchered by the new king, Alexander acts to unite the Greeks and persuades them to fight under his command. He thereby gains victories at Granicus and Miletus. The ambitious self-absorbed Alexander then fights the million-man army of Darius of Persia (Harry Andrews) at Guagamela. On his way to conquering the world the young ruler gets into a vexing romance with his beautiful young mistress Barsine (Claire Bloom), that questions his destiny. She’s the daughter the disloyal Athenian Memnon (Peter Cushing), who sides with Darius. That Alexander screws up his destiny by betraying his principles and own family, is viewed as a tragedy by Rossen in his mostly sympathetic portrayal of Alexander.

Filmed on the flatlands and the rocky scarps of Spain, with 6,000 members of Spain’s army employed as extras, and researched by Rossen for three years, the unfortunate spectacle film never comes to life and never amounts to more than an impassive watch and a weak attempt to teach a history lesson. At least it’s an honorable failure, one that tried to get it right but couldn’t.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”