• Alexander The Great



    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: March 15, 2016
    Directed by: Robert Rossen
    Cast: Richard Burton, Frederic March, Claire Bloom, Danielle Darrieux, Barry Jones, Harry Andrews, Stanley Baker, Neil MacGinnis, Peter Cushing, Peter Wyngarde
    Year: 1956
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    Alexander III was born in the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon in July, 356 B.C. to King Philip II. Tutored under the great philosopher Aristotle, Alexander succeeded his father to the throne in 336 and proceeded to subjugate much of the known world at the time, extending the boundaries of Greece’s rule into Asia, Africa, and northern Europe. He began his conquests in Persia before moving on to India. He had planned to rebuild the city of Babylon (which was ancient even in his time) and make it the center of his massive empire, but instead he died there in 323, after which wars and infighting tore his empire apart. Though there is no definitive proof, many scholars suspect that he may have been poisoned by enemies seeking his throne. So famous did Alexander become that the cities of Alexandroupoli, Greece and Alexandria, Egypt are named after him (in fact, he founded the latter—which is today the second-largest city in the nation—along with 20 other cities named after him).

    The first major film adaptation of the life of Alexander the Great (as he’s most commonly known in English-speaking nations today) came in 1956, a production of United Artists and writer/director/producer Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men, 1949), for whom the film was a labor of love, though one tempered by studio involvement. Forced to pare his picture down, he lost something in translation, making Alexander the Great something of a disappointment, not only to audiences at the time but to critics today as well. The film offers excellent performances from the likes of Frederic March and Peter Cushing, but Richard Burton simply can’t pull off the youthful conqueror, instead falling flat through much of the picture (though it doesn’t seem likely that Rossen’s first choice, Charlton Heston, would have been much better). It doesn’t help that he’s too old for the part, or that the film takes some creative liberties with the material (though there’s no way Alexander’s bisexuality could have been dealt with honestly at the time; it even caused a stir when Oliver Stone included it in his 2004 version). Ultimately, it simply isn’t all that dramatic or exciting. There’s a lot of talk, but talk is cheap, and a couple of battle scenes aren’t enough to save what is otherwise a vacuous affair.

    The plot goes something like this: Philip II apparently doesn’t have sex with his wife much, because when she bears him a child, Alexander, he refuses to believe it’s his, despite her claims that the boy is a god born of flesh. An advisor tells the king to keep the child, for one day he’ll grow up to be a mighty ruler. When he gets older, Alexander is sent to be tutored by none other than Aristotle before being given his own city over which to rule. He later goes out on military campaigns with his father, but when his father divorces his mother and remarries, Alexander’s future as king is called into question by his father’s advisors, who view him as a bastard. A friend then murders the king and is immediately dispatched by Alexander, earning him the loyalty of his father’s subjects. Alexander then begins his conquest of Persia and India, experiencing romance, court intrigue, and treachery along the way…

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release of Alexander the Great features an AVC encode in 1080p high definition in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.Given the film’s lengthy running time, TT has thankfully utilized a 50GB disc to avoid compression issues. Most of the time the image looks good if not great, with a moderate amount of detail; despite this, it’s definitely an improvement over the old DVD release. There are some instances of softness, but these seem inherent in the source material, with Robert Kraser’s camerawork sometimes appearing slightly out of focus. All that said, there are times when the detail rises from good to great, even if this isn’t the norm. The film was shot on location in various dusty and arid regions of Spain, so there are times when the colors appear brown and earthy, but when other colors are utilized—most often in the robes that characters wear or in architectural adornments—they are vivid and stunning. Grain is not generally a problem, and, other than during the opening credits, dirt and debris is largely missing. Transition fades vary in quality but are not usually problematic. All in all, it’s obvious that work was done to clean up the film, but the transfer is likely an older one nonetheless.

    There are two audio options to choose from: the film’s original soundtrack, and an isolated score and effects track. Both are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and both are more than serviceable. There are certainly no issues of hiss, dropout, or variable sound levels. And Mario Nascimbene’s gorgeous score is never allowed to drown out the dialogue. It’s terrific that Twilight Time has, per their standard, opted to include the score sans dialogue, though dropping the sound effects would have further benefited the special feature. This time around, the label does not include any audio commentaries, though there are English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired.

    Extras are relatively scarce. The film’s original theatrical trailer is included, running just shy of three minutes, along with an MGM 90th anniversary trailer. “Claire Bloom Talks About Alexander the Great” (the on-screen title of the only featurette) sounds exactly like what it is: the British actress discussing her time on the film, how she was hired to play her role, her working relationship/friendship with Richard Burton, and some of her other roles. It runs a little over 17 minutes.

    Rounding out the release is an 8-page booklet containing liner notes from film historian Julie Kirgo. The notes focus mostly on Rossen but are fascinating nonetheless and certainly well written.

    Alexander the Great is a limited edition of 3,000 units.

    The Final Word:

    Alexander the Great is a dull film, though sword and sandal fans may find it of some interest. Burton is miscast, but supporting cast members are actually quite good. The transfer is decent if not great, and the image and sound on the Blu-ray are certainly much better than MGM’s old DVD release. There aren’t a whole lot of extras, but what’s there are good.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Volume 2 of that series (covering the 1930s) is currently available from Midnight Marquee Press, Inc.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!